The EU, and Ireland, gets it wrong on biofuels

The road to hell is paved with good intentions they say. There is a fine example of the law of unintended consequences in the recent history of biofuels in Europe.

Cast your mind back eight or nine years. Given all that has happened since, it really does seem like a different world. Global economies were booming, none more than Ireland’s, and the European Commission had not the slightest worry about banks or currencies. Instead it worried about biofuels.

The world, then and now, runs on oil. There are two distinct problems with this. Firstly it is not going to last forever. It took nature about 350 million years to make all the world’s crude oil. Mankind has been using it for about 150 years and half of it is gone.

Secondly, burning oil releases large amounts of CO2 that had been in storage back into the atmosphere which is not good for the global climate.

Biofuels seemed a very neat answer. A blend called E85 (which is 15 per cent ‘normal’ petrol ) is the standard along with its cousin biodiesel. It is perfectly possible to manufacture a product like ethanol or to make ‘diesel’ from animal fat or vegetable oil. With just a little tweaking cars can run on them very happily.

Ethanol can be farmed; you can make it from corn or from waste or from fast-growing non-food crops. Biofuels were believed to be carbon neutral because the plants used in their manufacture absorbed CO2 as they grew.

The EU was convinced and in 2003 adopted a Directive that said that 5.75 per cent of all fuel used in private transport would be biofuel by 2010. Car manufacturers responded with flexi-fuel versions of popular models.

The plan backfired badly. It rapidly transpired that the large scale production of biofuels was causing all sorts of problems. Corn and maize stocks were being diverted from food to fuel, pushing up the cost of basic foodstuffs.

Global deforestation increased as areas of rainforest were cleared in order to grow plants to make biofuel – an own goal if there ever was one. The EU pulled back from its biofuel targets and so did Ireland.

In our case though I think that it was a mistake. E85 was sold here through the Maxol network and it was all being produced by Carbury Milk Products in Cork. The Government eliminated the tax privilege granted to E85 which at a stroke made it much more expensive than petrol. Maxol had no choice but to stop selling it. It was withdrawn from sale at the end of 2010.

Every litre of fuel that we manufacture here in Ireland is a litre that we do not have to import. If I must buy oil, I would far rather give the money to a Cork farmer than an Arab sheik. I think it would be well worth re-visiting that policy.

Ford, Saab, Volvo, and some others put a lot of work into flexi-fuel vehicles. More than 8,000 of them were sold to Irish drivers. Those cars are still on the road. While they can run just as well on ordinary fuel, it really does seem like a waste.

This is a country that does not have any oil of its own. In fact we use an extraordinary amount of the stuff per capita, much more than Britain for example.

The problems of climate change and the finite supply of oil are not going to go away. While I understand the global consequences of using up agricultural productive capacity, I still think that Ireland effectively making some of its own oil locally is very worthwhile.

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