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Green Fuels That Aren’t

— February 27, 2023

When are “green fuels” not really green? When they have hidden – or not so hidden – environmental costs that aren’t counted in the sustainability equation.

Fossil fuel energy is on the way out. It’s old, dead and busted. Renewable, clean, green fuels are the new hotness, leading the way into a sustainable future! Everybody knows it – but is it true?

Not as much as you might think.

To start with, new energy sources don’t usually replace older, dirtier sources when they are deployed. For the most part, those new sources of energy are merely added to the available mix, providing for increased consumption rather than greening up the energy supply as a whole. Increasing consumption, no matter what energy sources underwrite it, still chews through other resources as more goods are manufactured to fill the demand. This, in turn, requires more mining, transport, and overall pollution. This is never going to be a green path, going forward.

Still, people need the basics of survival, and, one hopes, some of the trappings of a good life. If we can find ways to provide for these essentials, improving the quality of life for all while reducing (or, preferably, eliminating) harm to the world around us and to each other, that’s the sweet spot we should be striving to reach.

Green fuels are a part of that effort. Much innovation and thought have been poured into the pursuit of green fuels and energy sources to power a more sustainable future. Unfortunately, not all of those products are as ecologically friendly as they’ve been made out to be.

There’s no more intuitively climate-friendly eco-fuel than what can be gained by burning waste. Turning a liability into an asset was the inspiration behind the EPA’s recent approval allowing a Chevron refinery to create alternative fuel from waste plastic.

Beyond the obvious profit motive, Chevron’s stated goals for creating a plastic-based fuel appear pure. They claim that they want to close the waste loop while preventing discarded plastic from polluting the environment. It’s intuitively appealing, but the reality is a nightmare.

Plastic is, after all, created from fossil fuel derivatives. In the United States, that is usually ethane, lately a product of fracking. In recent years the fracking boom has extracted more ethane than the domestic industry can handle, causing the U.S. to become the largest exporter of ethane, helping grow the plastic industry in places like Europe, India and China. Fracking sites have been identified as sources of air and water pollution and a threat to public health.

Stacked bales of crushed waste plastic.
Plastic waste is not a green fuel source either. Public Domain photo by Maggie Jones, via Flickr.

After the plastic has been manufactured into consumer products like water bottles and pallet wrap, it enters the waste stream where it continues to cause harm. Some enters the “green fuels” pipeline to be turned into an oil-like substance via pyrolysis (using more energy to break down waste plastic at about 500°C in the absence of oxygen), which also yields by-products like waxes and char, which must be disposed of somehow. Chevron’s facility then obtains the plastic-based oil and refines it further, into other products like jet fuel.

While the pyrolysis step makes it more energy intensive than simply making fuel from extracted hydrocarbons, the more immediate problem from a health perspective comes out of the smokestacks at refineries like Chevron’s. Making fuel from waste feedstocks is so intuitively appealing that approved processes bypass standards that other, more renewable fuels (such as those made from plants) must meet. According to EPA records obtained by media outlets, the production of plastic-based “green fuels” emits such dangerous pollution that 1 in 4 people exposed to it over their lifetimes have a significantly greater risk of getting cancer – a risk 250,000 times greater than what the EPA usually considers acceptable. Naturally, that risk falls most heavily on those who live in neighborhoods around the refineries, which are the poor and marginalized populations in whose backyards the NIMBYs prefer those refineries to be built.

(In Chevron’s defense, their spokesperson Ross Allen told ProPublica that they would prefer that the “1 in 4” cancer risk not be phrased as such. Perhaps they would prefer the phrasing in the EPA consent order, which states that the lifetime cancer risk is “2.5 cancers in 10 people” who breathe the smokestack pollution.)

“Green fuels” derived from plastic waste are not green. However, what about a more natural feedstock, like wood?

The European Union is kilometers ahead of the U.S. when it comes to pursuing renewable energy. Since the EU’s Renewable Energy Directive was introduced in 2009, setting targets and rules for the uptake of renewable energy, more has been brought online every year, reaching 22% of the mix in 2020. As laudable that sounds at first, however, the devil is always in the details.

At first, burning waste wood for energy was meant to be a quick way to green up Europe’s fuel mix as they tried to transition away from coal and natural gas. Wood pellets, manufactured from industrial scraps, were one of the first “green fuels” subsidized by the EU. That made it so cheap and easy, though, that wood consumption skyrocketed, handily making it the go-to source of ostensibly green energy to this day, even more since the Ukraine war limited Europe’s access to cheap Russian gas.

Unfortunately, not only has burning all that wood resulted in more carbon in the atmosphere than if they had burned fossil fuels, not all the sources of that wood have been responsible or sustainable.

Some of the wood is imported from the United States, where the forests of the southeast are being pelletized for export. Somehow, it’s seen as better for the climate to chop the forests than to leave them standing, where they can grab carbon from the air, naturally. Sure, trees are part of the carbon cycle, and burning them puts carbon back in the air that had been sequestered for, say, 20 years, rather than the 200 million years that coal may have spent buried underground.

Any sensible carbon measurement would count both the loss of trees as a carbon sink on one side of the balance sheet, as it counts the carbon offset on the other side. To consider wood a carbon neutral fuel, however, the European policy counts the pellets as coming from wood that would have decomposed anyway, such as dead trees on the forest floor, or waste wood from industries like furniture-making that would have been thrown away. European energy policy didn’t consider that the wood would come from clear-cut forests, as the American pellets do. Under the Kyoto Protocol, the lost forest carbon is to be counted at the time of cutting, not by the end user of the wood pellets. And because George W. Bush, responding to fossil fuel lobbyists, did not join the Kyoto agreement, our lost forests aren’t counted as carbon emissions here, either.

Besides gobbling up North America’s forests, Europe is cannibalizing its own as well. By logging whole trees in protected, old-growth areas to grind into sawdust for pellets, EU countries are losing not just one of the easiest and most hands-off way to sequester carbon, but their biodiversity and wild areas, too. The obvious answer is to stop subsidizing the burning of all wood, while incentivizing the use of waste wood only. That’s easier said than done, though, in the middle of an energy crunch, in an economy desperate for jobs.

In truth, it’s not going to be possible to grow all economies everywhere forever, and especially not while reducing energy use, limiting use to renewables and green fuels, and during climatic crises. Eventually, something – many somethings – will have to give way, and our incredibly complex societies will simplify dramatically. Whether that is in ways of our own choosing, or imposed upon us by less merciful natural systems when we fail to do it on our own, remains to be seen, but if I were a gambler, I’d put money on the latter. Hard limits exist in reality, and they don’t care about tricksy carbon accounting technicalities, greenwash marketing, or lobbyists.

Related: Net Zero Promises May Be Worth Zero Too


When are fossil fuels displaced? An exploratory inquiry into the role of nuclear electricity production in the displacement of fossil fuels
This “Climate-Friendly” Fuel Comes With an Astronomical Cancer Risk
The U.S. Natural Gas Boom Is Fueling A Global Plastics Boom
Reduce Fracking Health Hazards
Amid controversy, industry goes all in on plastics pyrolysis
Renewable energy directive
Europe Is Sacrificing Its Ancient Forests for Energy
Europe’s renewable energy policy is built on burning American trees
‘Sustainability is wishful thinking’: get ready for the energy downshift

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