LIANE HANSEN, host:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.
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HANSEN: The conversion of vegetable oil into diesel produces what's pretty close to the ultimate clean fuel - biodiesel. Although biodiesel does release a greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide, when it burns, the plants make their oil by taking that same carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. There's now a global rush for biodiesel fuel. So today, in our Climate Connection series with National Geographic, we examine the consequences. You're going to hear reports from three NPR reporters on three continents.
The first is NPR News Emily Harris in Berlin.
EMILY HARRIS: Before heading off on vacation this summer, Berliner Dieter Weigel filled up his station with 100 percent biodiesel.
Europe is the king of biodiesel. Last year, it made three-quarters of all the biodiesel produced worldwide. And Germany alone made half of that. Part of the secret to Germany's success has been a tax break at the pump. That's why Vygel buys bio.
Mr. DIETER WEIGEL (Biodiesel Fuel Buyer): (Through translator) Mainly because it's 10 cents cheaper. The environmental aspect is not so important. I think people should drive less for the environment and not fill up with biodiesel.
HARRIS: Biodiesel is made here in Germany with rapeseed oil, a seed similar to canola. In most diesel engines, it mixes easily with ordinary fuel. Its share of the market is expected to grow as Europe pushes for 10 percent of transport fuels and 20 percent of overall energy use to be renewable by 2020.
Walking into Bio-Olwerk Magdeburg is like entering a popcorn popper. It's hot in this biodiesel production plant and it smells like frying oil. The machines don't pop exactly, but they bang.
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HARRIS: Business has been good enough. The plant is extending. But managing director Rheinhard Kluge is not sure this will last. Germany is ending pure biofuel's tax break at the pump. Instead, the government will demand that every liter of diesel fuel sold contain a little bit of biofuel. Kluge says as a result, the big oil, gas and agricultural companies will be the winners in this business.
HARRIS: Kluge says as a result, the big oil, gas, and agricultural owe had three good years here in this plant was production and now we get - I think we get three hard years.
HARRIS: And then after that?
: After that we hope that we survive.
HARRIS: Other unintended consequences of the biodiesel boom are much bigger. In fact, they're global.
The rapeseed, the trucks dump off at the Magdeburg plant is grown nearby. Some farmers had expanded into the biofuel business by planting on land, once required by law to stay sallow. Others have put in rapeseed where wheat or barley used to grow. Critics say this pit's gwro.59 growing fuel against growing food.
And George Monbiot who wrote "Heat: How to Stop the Planet Burning," says agricultural land worldwide is already under stress from drought and urbanization.
Mr. GEORGE MONBIOT (Author, "Heat: How to Stop the Planet From Burning"): When you add the biofuel's market to this mix, you see what could be a recipe for catastrophe. Already with far less than 1 percent of the world's transport fuels coming from biofuel, we have seen a doubling in the price of corn and a near doubling in the price of wheat.
HARRIS: European Union Officials contest that saying just a small proportion of the cost of food is related to the cost of ingredients. But Monbiot and other critics your up to quit pushing biofuels until thy can be made commercially from corn stocks, straw or even sewage. That could happen in the next 15 years, according to some estimates, but there's another difficulty. Even then, Europe won't be able to produce enough biodiesel to satisfy the expected demand. So that means imports from places like palm oil plantations in Indonesia.
NPR's Michael Sullivan visited one of those plantations recently.
MICHAEL SULLIVAN: Indonesia and neighboring Malaysia account for about 80 percent of the world's palm oil production. The bright red fruit of the oil palm harvested by hand, then loaded into trucks on plantations like this one on the Island of Sumatra, not far from the provincial capital Medan.
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SULLIVAN: Palm oil is used not just for fuel, but for cooking and cosmetics too. And demand is increasing every day - putting pressure, environmentalists say, on the region's tropical forests - home to some of the world's most exotic and endangered species - orangutans, rhinos and tigers. Cutting down these forests also releases huge amounts of carbon from the soil. But palm oil producers complain they're getting a bad rap.
Pat Baskett is Principal Director of PT Socfin in Medan - a palm oil company that's been in business in Indonesia for about 100 years.
Mr. PAT BASKETT (Principal Director, PT Socfin): Basically, the destruction of the forest is from timber operations. And in many cases, there is a modus operandi of certain timber operations to say that they're setting up palm oil plantations as a means to getting confessions to log. Now obviously, there may be certain companies - smaller companies - who are actually felling jungle, virgin jungle, for oil palms. But basically the vast majority of plantation companies are establishing oil palms on already logged-out land.
SULLIVAN: Many conservationists in the region agree logging - legal or not - is a bigger threat to the environment than palm oil plantations, for now. But as worldwide appetite for palm oil grows, it's likely to put more pressure on Southeast Asia's forests.
Michael Sullivan, NPR News.
HARRIS: So here in Europe where much of that oil may end up, government officials are drafting new rules for European Union countries to use biofuel that is sustainable. And the industry is setting up its own sustainable certification program. Skeptics doubt such certificates can be trusted. But Arjen Brinkman of Biox, a Dutch company importing palm oil for power plants says sustainable production of palm oil will grow if consumers demand it.
Mr. ARJEN BRINKMAN (Sustainability Manager, Biox): The larger the demand will be, the higher the price will be for sustainable produced palm oil. So the larger the incentive will be for producers to change from, let's say, non-certified unsustainable practices to sustainable certified practices.
HARRIS: Given the technological, environmental, and political constraints, Peter Jensen(ph) with the European Environment Agency says it's just hard to replace fossil fuel.
Mr. PETER JENSEN (Member, European Environment Agency): We are looking for alternatives to a solution that has actually worked quite well for 100 years.
HARRIS: Biofuels are still seen here as the most immediately available way to reduce carbon emissions. But in the search for a green fuel, a bit of the bloom is off rapeseed or palm.
Emily Harris, NPR News.
HANSEN: Okay. Maybe oil from rapeseed and palm notches in the panacea, but other plants yield oil and biotechnology can make them yield even more. Genetically modified crops hold great promise.
And as NPR's Martin Kaste reports, they also raise concerns.
MARTIN KASTE: Camelina sativa is a traditional oilseed crop. It's a little bit like canola. You might mistake it for a common ditch weed, but it's not as boring as it looks. In fact, it has some pretty weird traits.
Mr. FERNANDO GUILLEN (Plant Breeded, Bozeman, Montana): Okay, I have some camelina seeds in here. As you can see they're very small.
KASTE: Fernando Guillen is a plant breeder working with camelina in Bozeman, Montana. And he loves doing this little demonstration with the seeds.
Mr. GUILLEN: And what I just wanted to show you now is that I'm going to pour some water on this container.
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KASTE: The seeds react to the water by coating themselves with a clear jelly. In minutes, they're swimming in the goop. Guillen says this helps the seeds to survive drought.
Mr. GUILLEN: Even though the soil is dry, you know, at night there might have a little bit of moisture, and that tiny amount of moisture is captured by the seed.
KASTE: It sort of soak into this gel.
Mr. GUILLEN: Yes.
KASTE: It's formed on the other side.
Mr. GUILLEN: And the seed is going to develop that gel and that gel is going to be the resource to start the process of germination.
KASTE: Not only is camelina drought-resistant, it also needs less fertilizer than other crops. Its promoters think it has great promise for western states, where farmers could grow it on poor land to produce oil for the biodiesel industry. But geneticists think they can make camelina even better.
Jay DeRocher, for instance, he's scientific director of Targeted Growth, a Seattle company that uses genetic engineering to increase crop yields.
Dr. JAY DeROCHER (Scientific Director, Targeted Growth): We are standing by at one of our growth chambers - plant growth chambers.
KASTE: In this lab, DeRocher is altering camelina's genetic code -specifically, a gene that tells cells when to stop dividing. The same gene exists in animals, and when it works correctly, it blocks the kind of uncontrolled cell division that leads to cancer. But in camelina, DeRocher is tweaking the gene to do the opposite - to allow the plant's cells to divide a little more.
Dr. DeROCHER: The idea is, if you want to increase growth, you can remove that blocking function, then you will get more cell division and more growth.
KASTE: The, sort of, like you're inducing a spread of cancer.
Dr. DeROCHER: You know in plants, their developmental process is entirely different than animals. So you don't have that effect.
KASTE: So you can't think of pieces like cancer plants or something?
Dr. DeROCHER: No. No. Not at all.
KASTE: DeRoche says modifying the gene could increase camelina's production of oil seeds by as much as 30 percent per acre, which means 30 percent more home-grown, eco-friendly biodiesel. But some environmentalists are not impressed
Dr. NEIL CARMAN (Botanist, Sierra Club's Genetic Engineering Committee): There's many questions that need to be answered about it.
KASTE: Neil Carman is a botanist who serves on the Sierra Club's Genetic Engineering Committee. He points out that camelina is sometimes classified as a weed, and he wonders what this plant might do once it's been genetically modified to produce more seeds than normal.
Dr. CARMAN: We don't want to find 10 years from now that, you know, we've released another massive weed on the environment and now we're having to spend money to address that problem.
KASTE: Targeted Growth says it's monitoring test plantings of camelina and it hasn't seen any sign that it spreads to neighboring fields, or that it might cross-pollinate with related plants nearby.
CEO Tom Todaro says the risks are minimal compared to the benefits.
Mr. TOM TODARO (CEO, Targeted Growth): I would much rather allow good genetic engineering of crops for fuel than I would allow non-double-hulled tanker-full of oil running through the Alaskan coastline. I think one is almost more certainly likely to lead to problems than the other.
KASTE: The company is ramping up production of conventional camelina seed first. Next year, it hopes to plant 100,000 acres. The genetically engineered version is still a way(ph) off. Government approval is going to take at least another eight years, and millions of dollars in testing.
But Jay DeRocher says it will be worth it. The company is betting that rising oil prices and growing worries about global warming will soon make the market more tolerant of a little genetic engineering.
Martin Kaste, NPR News, Seattle.
HANSEN: You can read more about the international dust stop over biodiesel's splash and dashers, and hear all of our Climate Connections coverage at npr.org/climate.