His presentation was friendly, smooth and chock-full of charts and statistics to support his story. Nik Weinberg-Lynn, Phillips 66 Renewable Energy Project Manager, was selling a zoom full of people on the benefits of what he calls ‘RodeoRenewed’. A climate activist friend had gotten me in the backdoor of the invitation-only virtual roundtable which featured Weinberg-Lynn as its guest speaker.
I didn’t get into trouble until midway through the Q&A portion of the meeting. I was muted by the moderator who accused me of hijacking the meeting. My goal was simply to separate fact from fiction. Perhaps I did get a bit too passionate in refuting Weinberg-Lynn’s half-truths about ‘renewable diesel.’
I had begun by saying how delighted I was that Phillips 66 would no longer refine petroleum, that RodeoRenewed would save 480 jobs and that the project will include a solar array and a possible venture into the production of clean energy hydrogen. Then I began challenging the veracity of his glowing presentation on ‘renewable diesel’ — the central thrust of RodeoRenewed.
Among his false claims, here are the top three:
- Renewable diesel is not a biofuel.
- Renewable diesel is made primarily from used cooking oils.
- Renewable diesel lowers CO2 emissions.
Before citing my research, clarifying the nature of these falsehoods, let me explain why renewable diesel (RD) has been, on the surface, such an easy sell and why it is being widely used by public transit here in the Bay Area and throughout California and the rest of the country.
RD is what’s called a ‘drop-in replacement’ for standard petroleum diesel. No engine modifications. No change in engine performance. Just fill the tank with RD and off you go. And, of course, what sounds better, or more ‘renewable’ than fuel made from used cooking oil.
But, not only are they making false claims about the product itself, Phillips 66’s plan to become the the world’s largest producer of RD is a major obstacle toward our goal of achieving zero-emissions transportation.
Here’s the Truth about Renewable Diesel:
- Renewable diesel is in fact a biofuel, as defined by the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT), the UN’s IPCC and the EU Climate Commission.
- The claim that it’s made up of used cooking oils is only partly true.
- Here are the feedstocks used to produce the renewable diesel that is approved for use in California:
- Just 26% Used Cooking Oils (UCO) and that percentage will drop significantly as more RD is made because there is a limited supply of UCO.
- 34% Tallow (rendered meat fats)
- 28% Distiller’s Corn Oil
- 12% from crops like soy and canola
So, that means the major components of RD are biomass – which is why it meets the definition of biofuel.
To understand the environmental impact of RD or any biofuel requires a Lifecycle Analysis or LCA. LCA assesses two types of fuel emissions: 1) downstream emissions, better known as the self-explanatory ‘tailpipe emissions’ and 2) upstream emissions which are the emissions generated by the fuels entire production process.
Phillips 66 and other producers claims that RD achieves a 50% reduction in CO2 emissions. This is absolutely not true.
The California Air Resource Board (CARB) approved RD because the research confirms that RD does significantly reduce nitrous oxide, and sulfur dioxide emissions. But the CARB manger I spoke with admitted that RD’s tailpipe CO2 emissions are nearly the same as petroleum diesel. And a U.S. Dept. of Energy study confirms the same, noting a possible 4.2% CO2 reduction with RD. That is a far cry from the 50% CO2 reduction that Phillips 66 claims.
Let’s look at the upstream emissions of RD (this is a chart showing ethanol’s LCA, but biofuel crops bear the same upstream CO2 footprint):
As you can see from the diagram, production of RD generates significant CO2 emissions at every phase:
- First, emissions from the agriculture chemistry industry –fertilizers, pesticides and such.
- Then, emissions from the tractors, harvesters and trucks used to plant and harvest corn, soy and canola.
- These feedstock crops are then transported to the refinery by semi-truck and rail – all of these at this point run on petroleum diesel.
- Then of course the refining of RD and its transport to customers also have a significant CO2 footprints.
- Another consideration is the amount of CO2 released into the atmosphere by the land itself during harvesting and re-plowing the fields.
The use of farmland to grow feedstocks for fuel is in itself a bad idea. The UN IPCC’s report that dismissed renewable diesel as a viable path to clean transportation said, “It was a mistake to view biofuels outside the energy-food-water-climate nexus.”
I don’t have the stats for other RD feedstocks, but this is startling enough: in the U.S. 36 million acres of farmland are being used to grow corn for ethanol*.
*This is the product the petroleum companies like Phillips 66 are trying to distance themselves from by using the misleading term ‘renewable diesel’ and claiming that it is not a biofuel.
Farmland use is a major worldwide concern. The EU Climate Commission was hot on the use of RD until 2008 when the famous Searchinger Report came out. After extensive research Tim Searchinger, Princeton’s clean guru, projected that if biofuels continue to gain popularity, the feedstocks for them would account for 20% of all crops grown in the world.
And, let’s talk about palm oil.
I’m sure you’ve heard the startling news that jungles and forests in Indonesia, Malaysia and Brazil are being clear-cut in order to meet the increasing demand for palm oil – which is expected to be, globally, a $92 billion crop in just a few years. Why? Because of it’s a widely used primary feedstock for biofuels in most of the U.S. and in other countries around the globe.
While CARB was smart enough to prohibit the use of palm oil in RD used here in California, we are still part of the impact. When we use up feedstocks like corn, soy and canola, we’re increasing the demand for palm oil in the other states where it is allowed. And, Phillips RodeoRenewed project plans to produce 800 million gallons of RD per year — that alone represents a 100s of 1000s of acres of crops.
Finally, growing popularity of RD means that we are simply slowing down the process of arriving at clean energy transportation. And the kicker is that we already have the technology for electric cars, electric semi-trucks, electric trains and busses, electric garbage trucks and electric ferries. With the addition of clean hydrogen, we could achieve clean energy transportation in just ten years.
Phillips 66 could actually help achieve clean transportation goals if they were to focus on hydrogen – that is clean hydrogen or ‘green hydrogen’ as it’s often called. In the past hydrogen fuel was derived from natural gas – methane – but the new clean hydrogen fuel comes from splitting water molecules. The EU, which, country-by-country is turning its back on biofuels, is investing billions into its development. Clean hydrogen could power ships, freight tankers, locomotives and may even be able to replace jet fuel.
Phillips 66 RodeoRenewed project is not all bad. It is good for jobs. Their solar array is positive clean energy plan, though we don’t yet know what the scope of it will be. And if Phillips 66 is working on clean hydrogen fuels, great!
But renewable diesel is a dead end environmentally — rejected as a clean energy solution by the UN IPCC, ICCT, NREL and the EU Climate Commission.
Stephanie Searle, PhD, the chief biofuel researcher at the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT) recently confirmed that RD is actually worse for the environment than petroleum diesel.
The good news is that there is still time to act – to stop or alter Phillips 66 RodeoRenewed plan:
- Their renewable diesel production will not be operational until 2024 at the earliest.
- The project requires a host of permits needed from Contra Costa County, C.A.R.B., the Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD) & CalEPA and others.
- Contra Costa County residents might want to focus their appeal on their county board of supervisors. Some of them have already come out in support of the project based it being a positive for jobs and the economy. But they have undoubtedly been sold on ‘renewable diesel’ as a clean energy solution. Educating them is the first step.
Footnote on ‘clean hydrogen’: Michael Barnard, a climate solution strategist at CleanTechnica https://cleantechnica.com whom I follow, feels that Big Oil is planning to take over hydrogen development in the EU, using petroleum as its base and greenwashing it much the same way they are here in the U.S. with ‘renewable diesel.’ https://cleantechnica.com/2020/12/18/big-oil-is-fueling-the-hydrogen-rush/
Research Lab for the US Dept of Energy (NREL) did a lab and road test study of UPS diesel trucks showing: renewable diesel reduces carbon dioxide emissions by 4.2% compared to petroleum diesel. https://www.nrel.gov/transportation/fleettest-fuels-diesel.html
Overview of the Problems with Biofuels, including renewable Diesel, by ICCT Biofuel researcher, Stephanie Searle: https://theicct.org/blog/staff/will-someone-please-tell-me-if-biofuels-are-good-or-bad-environment
In depth study of biofuels used by EU conducted by Stephanie Searle ICCT): “The lesson here is that very few materials are truly available emissions free. “
Tim Searchinger, Research Scholar, Princeton Center for Policy Research on Energy and the Environment: https://scholar.princeton.edu/tsearchi/publications-0
‘Oil Refineries See Profit in Turning Kitchen Grease Into Diesel’ – NYTimes: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/12/03/business/energy-environment/oil-refineries-renewable-diesel.html