When I started the research for this blog post I was certain I was going to prove that biofuels were what we should be using to replace the natural gas that is produced by fracking. It is renewable and far safer for people and the environment.
The research does not substantiate my theory. I will have to change my belief to include other renewable energy producers like solar, wind and hydropower. However, there is a problem with each of these to a much lesser extent than hydraulic fracturing (fracking) to reach the gold that is beneath the surface in natural gas pockets.
This is particularly important to residents in Pennsylvania because our state is the number one producer of the gold these companies are drilling for. It is called the Marcellus Shale line that runs from Ohio to New York to Virginia, encompassing nearly all of Pennsylvania. It is in shale lines like this that the gas is found.
The problem those of us who see biofuel as a solution are facing is selling the idea of switching to these when we have become a nation that is so dependent on oil and natural gas. I will go into this in more detail as I continue.
We have also grown into a nation that looks at the bottom line when we see opportunity to increase that bottom line. I remember when fracking was a fairly new concept to most people in PA. Many land-owners were sold on the idea of making a lot of money selling their mineral rights to the big gas companies who were looking for the gold beneath their land.
Others were rightfully more skeptical, and holdouts breathed a sigh of relief that the gas mining was on someone else’s land. Unfortunately, the sigh of relief was short-lived for too many as they realized while many of their neighbors were reaping the benefits of the money paid them, they were sharing in the negativity gas drilling created. While they didn’t share in the monetary benefits they did share in the health and environmental hazards.
In a paper by medical and other concerned professionals recently presented to PA Governor Wolf many of those issues were broken down in great detail. You can find this paper here, however, I must warn you what was said to me when I received my copy, it is good reading if you can’t sleep!
I will do my best to condense and simplify the details found in that paper.
Although I have oversimplified the statements in the paper, this can give you an overview of what is found in more detail in the paper. Another good source, though not as current as the above mentioned paper, is one by the Natural Resource Defense Council. That can be found here.
As I stated at the beginning, my original intent was to show how fracking wasn’t needed. Much depends on the people of this country and their dependence on oil and natural gas.
I am old enough to remember a time when families had one car and that car was shared by all drivers in the home. Only the wealthy had a car for each family member. Of course, back then gasoline prices were so cheap it would be a welcome expense if the prices were that modest today. Even for a family that has four or five cars.
Another example of change is how many communities are switching from oil as a means of heating their homes to gas. Gas is cleaner and less costly. When we purchased our home we were told we had to convert to gas due to local ordinances.
This is understandable when you not only consider cost, but the environment. During my newspaper days I interviewed a man who could not sell his home because an oil tank had leaked and contaminated his soil. Excavation to remove the contaminated soil was not an option, and since the amount of time it would take for the contaminate to dissipate was next to never in his lifetime, he was stuck.
Electric heating was at one time thought to be the best and cleanest method for home heating. Unfortunately, there are two problems presented by this theory. One, most people can’t afford the heating bill for electric heat. An example is that we pay roughly $140 a month for gas to heat our home and use for cooking. A neighbor with an equivalent home pays an average of $400 a month to heat and cook with electricity. Yes, it is less during the summer, but it still is not even close to the little we pay.
One must also consider that much of the electric generated is produced by fossil fuel generating plants, which again adds to our dependency on dirty, unhealthy energy.
Now for the biofuel part of this. It has taken us a very long time to go full circle when you consider when Henry Ford created his Model T Ford, it was fueled with peanut oil. Only later was that changed to gasoline because gas was a more economical choice.
Biofuel can today be used to replace diesel and home heating fuel. However it is important to remember that the source of this “renewable” fuel is important. If we want to consider the environment, destruction of the natural rainforests should not be considered for this purpose. These are too important to destroy. You can find out more about this here.
However, with farmers concerned about recent trade tariffs reducing their ability to sell their products like corn or soybean, there is the opportunity for those commodities to be used in the production of biofuel. In fact, many other crops can be used not only to create biomass, the term for the plant based products used in the production of not only oil but also other products like pellets that can be used to heat homes much like wood pellets.
The Catch-22 is that it takes energy to create these products, making it unrealistic to think we could convert to them in an instant. Also, there are not many production sites for that purpose. In a comparison to fracking sites which have produced 5 trillion cubic feet per year over the last two years from their nearly 8,000 wells in PA, there are only a few plants that manufacture biomass products. You can see the comparison on Biofuel Atlas that will also map out other fuel sources.
The solution may be a combined use of fuels such as is used in what is called co-firing, where coal and biomass are both used. It takes much more biomass to produce the same amount of energy as coal, so this combination may be a good solution until such a time as we can make a complete transition. If you want to know more about co-firing you can read about it here.
Still, I am certain there will be a growth in the use of biofuels in the future. The pros far outweigh the cons.
Biofuels in the form of oils and other lubricants can be made from a large variety of plant life. For the purpose of this article I will use soybeans as an example. One bushel of soybeans (60 pounds) yields about 1.4 - 1.5 gallons of crude oil which can be processed into about 1.2 - 1.4 gallons of B100 biodiesel. However, it can be a way of recycling otherwise useless products like used restaurant oils and fallow from animal sources. It can even be made from used coffee grounds. More things are being tested every day.
Biomass used for the production of pellets and briquettes can also come from a variety natural and recycled sources. Wood Crest Farm in Wapwallopen, PA has been a case study for Penn State Extension Services. Planting switchgrass they produce about 3 tons of cut grass per acre. With several things factored in, they end up with a total production of 2.7 tons of pellets per acre. You can read more a more detailed account on this here.
When producing biofuels or biomass there is little waste. What is not used can provide feed and/or bedding for farm animals. A huge pro is, of course, biofuel is not only renewable, but it is cleaner than traditional oil and fossil fuels.
Perhaps the biggest pro of all is that it is healthier to produce and use for both people and the environment. In fact, the plants grown help change the carbon dioxide in the environment to healthy oxygen, making breathing easier and being kind to our fragile ozone
Rainforests should not be used in the production of biofuels in that it is removing vital sources of carbon dioxide converting plants and further destroying our ozone.
There are many who say we are better off using many of these oil producing sources, such as corn and soybeans, for food than for fuel.
The use of fertilizers and pesticides can create hazards of their own.
It may seem to be a frustrating time with a President and head of the EPA who do not believe in climate change, but the fact is, whether you believe or not, it is an exciting time in the field of energy and renewable energy is the hot topic among those of us who are climate change believers.
Renewable is a very broad term in that it can include solar, wind, hydro and biomass energy. These are forms of energy that are growing at an amazing rate, not the least of which is biomass. Even some of the most well known petroleum companies are jumping on the bandwagon. Exon-Mobil is working to develop biofuels from algae, and companies like Sheetz are willing to make biofuel available to PA drivers.
A huge drawback to the use of biofuels and other renewable energy sources may actually have a lot to do with the people we elect to look out for our best interests. In my next blog I will cover more on the way legislators may be impeding the renewable energy progress.
I want to offer my sincere gratitude to the following people for their assistance in this blog post by responding to my many questions and providing pertinent articles for my research:
Karen Feridun, Founding member of Pennsylvanians Against Fracking & Founder of Berks Gas Truth
Susan L. Brantley, Distinguished Professor of Geosciences, Director, Earth and Environmental Systems Institute
Kelly Mumford, Membership and Public Education Intern, Natural Resources Defense Council
David Yoxtheimer, P.G., Extension Associate, Penn State Marcellus Center for Outreach and Research
posted by Pam Garlick