The new threat from big oil in biofuels

Laura Buffet — December 15, 2021

What lies behind oil companies' production of new 'renewable' fuels?

I joined T&E in 2013 to work on preventing really bad, unconventional, sources of oil like Canadian tar sands from entering the EU, through a piece of law called the Fuel Quality Directive.The oil industry was mobilising heavily, not only in the EU but also in the US and Canada, to simply kill this law. Despite NGOs’ powerful campaigning, many years of fierce lobbying managed to empty the law’s substance. This was my first encounter with Big Oil’s power in Brussels. 

We’re now at the end of 2021 and it’s obvious that the oil industry’s strategy has shifted, at least on the surface. We’ve all seen their commitments to reach net zero emissions. We’ve all seen cosmetic changes in some of the oil majors’s brands, from Statoil to Equinor, for example. But a less visible shift has also been taking place. 

European oil companies are turning more and more to the production of new ‘renewable’ fuels, especially so called ‘biofuels’. The biofuels business used to be dominated by companies linked with agricultural interests. It’s not the case anymore.  

The trend started a few years back, with companies like ENI, Neste or Total shifting to biorefineries and betting on unsustainable vegetable oils like palm to replace crude oil. It is now getting worse. 2021 saw further major announcements for biofuels plants, including from Shell – whose new mega facility in Rotterdam will be one of the biggest biofuels plants in Europe. The public story is not about palm oil anymore, it has become too toxic in the public debate. These days, all corporate PR is about using ‘sustainable waste’ like used cooking oil. But the reality is quite different. 

Most of the announced projects like the Shell one still rely heavily on vegetable oils. And in the case of waste, the quantities of true waste are just too small to provide a sustainable production pathway without driving negative environmental impacts and increasing our imports’ dependence. Take animal fat – another ‘waste product’ eyed at by Shell. This ‘waste’ is tied to industrial animal farming linked to deforestation for feed and massive methane emissions from cattle. Just looking at used cooking oil, each passenger would have to eat hundreds of kilos of french fries to produce the used cooking oil needed to fly only a plane. This isn’t realistic, nor sustainable.

Behind that ‘green’ shift lies the industry’s inherent need to continue producing liquid fuels and provide a longer lifetime to the combustion engine (biofuels will usually be blended with the same oil products companies are still investing in). It is a distraction from the necessary radical shift to truly zero-emissions technology like battery electric for cars and trucks or green ammonia for shipping. The oil companies are bringing us, again, on a dangerous path in the opposite direction of climate neutrality.  

The EU’s green fuels law (RED) has unfortunately enabled this to happen since its introduction in 2010. The good news is that it’s up for another review. It needs to shift its focus to support further renewable electricity, phase-out all crop biofuels and fix the sustainability rules for advanced biofuels. Now, it’s time to prevent oil companies from playing the same game as the biofuels industry and locking the RED into false solutions that won’t solve our climate crisis. It’s time to end the negative influence of Big Oil in the EU decision-making process. It’s time to go beyond burning. 

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