Sustainable Biodiesel Alliance hammers out industry guidelines

By Jerry W. Kram | October 14, 2008
The Sustainable Biodiesel Alliance discussed its guidelines for the sustainable production of biodiesel at its Sustainable Biodiesel Stakeholders Summit in Austin, Texas, in mid-September. At press time, a final version of the document was scheduled to be released Oct. 9.

The draft version of the guidelines laid out a vision for the sustainable production and use of biodiesel. Starting with a statement of principles, the document addressed sustainability issues of feedstocks, water use, carbon release, working conditions, air emissions, waste handling, community benefit and quality. It also discussed sustainable practices for biodiesel distributors and end users. "We want to concentrate on what we can do today to make plants more efficient, look at feedstocks and relate them to proximity to markets, and things of that nature," said Jeff Plowman, the alliance's executive director. "There are little things we can do and big things we are still working on."

The alliance published its draft guidelines on its Web site, and created a forum where people and organizations could comment on the rules. Plowman said the group also received many other comments via e-mail, telephone and fax. At the summit, one order of business was to incorporate the public comments into the draft document. Plowman said the most significant changes involved policy and scientific issues. "Much of it was related to direct and indirect land uses changes, and things of that nature," he said. "We discussed that quite a bit. We didn't do too much changing of things there, but those issues are constantly evolving. We're committed to continue following the changes in science and policy, but we want to put things into practice today."

One of the thornier issues at the summit was the use of genetically modified organisms (GMO) in crops used for biodiesel production. Many in the sustainability movement are deeply suspicious of the long-term safety of GMO crops, but the ubiquity of GMO oilseeds may make excluding them in the guidelines next to impossible. "Our basic principle is that GMO feedstocks should not be used, but we know they are being used, so we should be transparent about the issue," Plowman said. "There was a question about why we put a GMO policy in the guidelines, and that is because we were following sustainable farming practices. Sustainable farming is fundamentally against GMO crops."

The guidelines are meant to be a baseline for biodiesel producers who want to follow sustainable practices, Plowman said. "It is a foundation to show people where sustainability begins," he explained. "We will use the guidelines for our pilot programs. The pilot programs will be field-testing these practices, and that will let us know what works and what doesn't. So the guidelines are just Phase One of our organization's mission. We needed a place to start, and that's what the guidelines are all about."

The Sustainable Biodiesel Alliance was formed in December 2006. Its mission was to create a vision for the sustainable production of biodiesel and the means to certify sustainable biodiesel producers. Plowman said the group wants to move biodiesel beyond being an alternative to petroleum. "Biodiesel for biodiesel's sake isn't enough anymore," he said. "We've got to make sure it is part of the solution. When we started, sustainability wasn't a part of the conversation. Now, sustainability has become something of a meaningless buzzword, but it means something very specific for us. We have defined sustainable biodiesel in our document and hope to achieve that through these practices."
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