January 6, 2006

Do Oil Executives Support Cellulosic Ethanol?

Lord Ron Oxburg, former chairman of Shell Trading and Transport demonstrates a growing awareness among oil executives of the importance that biofuels will have on liquid energy resources of the future. From their vantage point, cellulosic ethanol made from biomass waste has obvious economic advantages over ethanol made from crops. Iogen's enzymatic hydrolysis process is not as flexible as syngas fermentation processes but indications are that future contractual relationships betwen petroleum and emerging biofuel companies are not far off.


Former Shell Exec Recommends Waste, not Crops as Biofuel Feedstock
5 January 2006

Speaking to reporters at the Oxford Farming Conference, Lord Ron Oxburgh, former chairman of Shell Trading and Transport, said that biomass waste should be a preferred feedstock for biofuels rather than crops such as rapeseed and grain.

While using biomass waste also addresses the problem of waste disposal, the fertilizer and energy input required for growing crops reduces if not negates the benefits of a biofuel, he said.

“You really have got to think very hard about the amount the energy that goes into producing your biofuel,” he said.

“I think if they [British farmers] grow the same crops in the same way, it probably won’t work,” he told reporters.

Lord Oxburgh used Iogen’s production of cellulosic ethanol from waste straw in Canada (earlier post) as an example of an approach to biofuel production that is energy efficient and environmentally beneficial.

By contrast, he noted, the US uses the most energy-intensive method based on corn.

“You put in nearly as much energy into producing energy than you get out of it. It doesn’t actually make a lot of sense,” he said.

He also noted that importing palm-oil biodiesel in recently cleared rainforests in southeast Asia could cause adverse environmental impacts.

Lord Oxburgh was at the Oxford Conference to present a talk on “Farming’s role in the global energy crisis.”

Lord Oxburgh, who recently retired from Shell, has been outspoken about the dangers of climate change, the need for carbon sequestration and the need to move off of a fossil fuel platform. (Earlier post.)

At the UK’s Hay Festival in 2005, referring to the urgent need to develop alternatives to fossil fuels, he stated:

The boat is sinking, and we have to use everything that we possibly can.

Britain announced late last year plans to increase use of biofuels over the next few years and British farmers hope that domestic rapeseed oil will be used to produce biodiesel and surplus wheat to make bioethanol.

Lord Oxburgh said if Britain imported biofuels from palm oil produced in recently cleared rainforests in southeast Asia there could be adverse environmental impacts.

"There isn't one solution for the whole world," he said.

Trained as a geologist, he was head of the Department of Earth Sciences and President of Queens’ College, Cambridge. (As an interesting coincidence, Oxburgh was a graduate school classmate of Princeton Prof. Ken Deffeyes, author of Hubbert’s Peak.) He is a Fellow of the Royal Society, an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering and a Foreign of the U.S. Academy of Sciences.

He is also a crossbench life peer who sits on the House of Lords select committee on science and technology.

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