Why Biodiesel May Not Be the Miracle Fuel You Think

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Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Nine years ago, U.S. President George W. Bush passed the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) with the goal of lessening America’s dependence on foreign oil supplies and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

The RFS mandated that a certain percentage of transportation fuel sold in the U.S. contain ethanol, which is mostly produced from corn. Two years later, the standard was expanded to include biodiesel, derived from vegetable oils such as rapeseed or palm oils.

With more retailers being incentivized to offer biodiesel, and regular diesel becoming nearly extinct for owners of diesel-fueled cars, it is important to ask whether biodiesel actually helps or harms diesel-fueled vehicles. Are the environmental benefits as great as we’re led to believe?

The U.S. and Europe have both implemented government programs to mandate the increased use of biofuels. In Europe, the Renewable Energy Directive requires that 10 percent of transportation fuels come from renewable sources by 2020. In the States, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sets a biofuel mandate each year that mandates the proportion of biofuel that must be blended with regular gasoline.

Several U.S. states have implemented laws to encourage the use of biodiesel. Illinois has one of the most generous incentive programs, exempting biodiesel blends of B10 or higher from the 6.25 percent state excise tax. President Barack Obama’s home state is the leading producer and consumer of biodiesel, with B20 biodiesel now the standard diesel fuel sold at pumps.

However, an article published by The Diesel Driver notes that, despite EPA mandates to create more biodiesel and state incentives to sell it, the inconsistency of biodiesel and the varying strength of its blends are causing problems. The article notes that most U.S. modern diesel cars are designed to use B5 biodiesel, and as a result, “using blends with as much as 20 percent biodiesel have caused problems ranging from check engine warnings to reduced fuel economy and outright engine failure.”

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