If you’re looking to power your car with biofuels — be it ethanol or biodiesel — the future has never looked more promising. Farmers from the Corn Belt to the Brazilian heartland are planting more crops for biofuels each year, and with the push to reduce dependence on oil, domestic demand is only going to increase. Yet, two basic consumer problems remain: it’s still hard to find stations that carry renewable fuels, and there’s no system for differentiating between biofuels that reduce climate change and those that fan its fires.

Attempting to meet that first demand are companies like Seattle-based Propel, which plans to open 40 biodiesel stations in Washington, Oregon and Northern California in 2008. Propel already operates three small stations in the Seattle area, and will open a larger one in the South Lake Union neighborhood this May. The company’s current stations only carry one of its two blends — either B20 (20 percent biodiesel mixed with 80 percent petrodiesel) or B99 (less than one percent petrodiesel) — but the larger station, and the others opening this year, will offer both.

When Rob Elam and Michael Kudriavtseff founded Propel in 2004, they were both using biodiesel in their cars. At the time the only places to fuel up were a few backyard pumps in the area. Indeed, access is a common problem around the country; ethanol stations are only widely located in the Midwest, and biodiesel stations are scarce coast to coast. Elam, now Propel’s CEO, says he and Kudriavtseff saw an untapped market of consumers beginning to want better access to alternative fuels. Demand for the company’s stations now looks even more promising with passage of the Energy Independence and Security Act last December, which requires that U.S. production of renewable fuels expand from 9 billion gallons in 2008 to 36 billion gallons in 2022.

For anyone interested in reducing this country’s dependence on petroleum, the spread of biofuel stations would seem an added boon for the environment. But the ecological and CO2 savings of biofuels on the whole have been getting a second look lately. Particular scrutiny came last month with the publication of two papers in the journal Science that argue the conversion of land to grow feedstock — such as corn and soybeans — for biofuels could release more CO2 into the atmosphere than these alternative fuels save when compared to petroleum.

The issue comes down to converting native habitats and other carbon-rich lands into croplands. “These natural areas store a lot of carbon, so converting them to croplands results in tons of carbon emitted into the atmosphere,” says Joe Fargione, a biologist specializing in biofuels for The Nature Conservancy, and a lead author of one of the papers.

Scientists use lifecycle analysis — which includes every aspect of a fuel’s lifecycle, from planting crops to tailpipe emissions — to gauge the environmental impacts of a biofuel. Land conversion fits into this lifecycle analysis. Direct conversion usually happens when native habitats (such as grasslands, rainforests, or peatlands) are plowed to create cropland. Because these native habitats contain almost three times more carbon than the atmosphere, scientists can get a pretty good idea of how much carbon is released by direct land conversion.

Indirect conversion, on the other hand, is trickier to analyze. A recent example is the indirect impact of corn ethanol. Over the past few years, many U.S. farmers have planted more corn for ethanol, and stopped the practice of rotating their crops with soybeans; to meet demand for food — mostly for livestock — Brazilian farmers are planting more soybeans, but cut down rainforest and clear Cerrado grasslands in the process. Measuring corn ethanol’s indirect impact is difficult; for the most part the corn was grown on preexisting cropland — in that respect, it’s not contributing significantly to added carbon emissions—but scientists grapple with how to measure the ethanol’s ripple effect of deforestation in Brazil.

Land conversion is becoming one of the hottest debated elements of biofuel lifecycle analysis and, according to Jeremy Martin, a fuel expert at the Union of Concerned Scientists, the debate on just how it contributes to greenhouse gas emissions is only beginning. As Martin says, no one denies that indirect land conversion has an impact; it’s just unclear how much. On the other hand, most biofuel experts agree that fuels made from agricultural and forest waste, or grasses planted on fallow croplands, would ultimately release the least amount of carbon into the atmosphere.

With these concerns in mind Propel’s fuel uses canola oil made from rapeseed grown for the most part in Washington’s Yakima Valley (although some comes from Saskatchewan) on existing farm land and has very little — if any — direct land conversion impacts. As for its indirect impacts, scientists around the country are currently researching how to measure this sort of land conversion. “By the end of the year there will be several different studies, and we should have a much firmer picture,” says Martin. “The story will continue to evolve, but that will be a starting point."

Propel says, however, that it takes its commitment to local and environmentally friendly practices very seriously. The company fertilizes its cropland with municipal waste from a sewage plant that butts up against the Puget Sound in Seattle’s Discovery Park. The trucks used to haul the sewage sludge to the farmlands are also powered by biodiesel.

The company plans to continue locally sourcing feedstock as it moves into Oregon and California. How closely it will be able to follow this ethos largely depends on the cost and quality of locally grown feedstock. Elam says that Propel can’t sacrifice the quality of its biodiesel if local stocks aren’t up to par. “Our commitment is the most local and sustainable fuel that meets our needs,” he says. “The quality control needs to be there, or else people’s cars will break down and they’ll be back to petroleum."

As for the current controversy, Elam believes biofuels are still better than petroleum. “If you look at what our alternative are you have to look at hard choices,” he says. “There is no silver bullet, each of these fuels have demons."

Yet picking between these demons at the pump could understandably frustrate green-minded consumers. Some scientists have talked of creating a certification for biofuels — similar to the EnergyStar rating for appliances or LEED for buildings — but the system for measuring the full lifecycles of biofuels isn’t advanced enough at this time, according to Nathanael Greene, a senior analyst and expert on fuel technology at the Natural Resource Defense Council.

“The short answer is there probably won’t be a certification any time soon,” says Greene. “There’s certainly no way for a consumer today to know the environmental quality they’re getting for any type of fuel — biofuel or petro fuel.” Greene believes that the only viable paths for a green certification would be if consumers demand one (and are willing to pay extra for it), or if manufactures start offering one first. “It’s sort of a chicken and egg problem,” he says.

Story by Christine Cyr. This article originally appeared in Plenty in March 2008.

Copyright Environ Press 2008.

What you need to know about biofuels
Biologist: Converting croplands results in carbon emission into atmosphere.