Shell Builds Drop-In Biofuels Plant In Texas, While Revving Up Arctic Drilling Plans

Lee Jordan/CC BY-SA 2.0

Two bits of news about Shell today: 1) In Texas they've built a new plant to make drop-in biofuels, that is ones which are chemically identical to petroleum-based liquid fuels, unlike ethanol and biodiesel; 2) Attempting to head off challenges to plans to drill in the Arctic Ocean for oil, they've asked a federal court to review their plans for cleaning up any spills which happen (it's not if, but when).

Shell Wants To Head Off Lawsuits Over Arctic Oil Spills
New York Times reports:

“This pre-emptive action is an attempt to avoid a legal challenge on the eve of operations,” said Bill Tanner, a Shell spokesman. “We are anticipating that they were going to sue us.” In a statement, Shell said it was filing the request for a declaratory judgment against 13 environmental groups, including Greenpeace and the Sierra Club, which have been resisting Shell’s drilling plans for five years.

As for Shell's response plan, even if it passes the letter of the law, let's remember that the head of the US Coast Guard has essentially said that there is no effective way to clean up an oil spill in icy waters, we just don't have the technology.

Suffice it to say that Shell can cross every T and dot every I here, but drilling in the Arctic is 1) a disaster waiting to happen, and 2) won't lower oil prices one bit, but will increase profits.

Drop-In Biofuels Let Oil Companies Use Existing Infrastructure
About the drop-in biofuels plant: Renewable Energy World reports:

On Friday, Royal Dutch Shell announced that it has built a next generation biofuels pilot plant at Shell’s Westhollow Technology Center in Houston, USA, to produce drop-in biofuels rather than ethanol. It uses a thermo-catalytic process technology licensed from its commercial partner Virent, which is similar to the process being used at the Virent pilot plant in Madison, Wisconsin, USA.

Shell touted the benefits of drop-in biofuels:

Drop-in biofuels produced by this process have the same propertires as conventional fuels. This eliminates the need for additional blending and storage infrastructure as well as engine modifications that are required for the use of ethanol in blends with conventional fuels. The Westhollow plant will explore the use of a range of feedstocks, starting with sugars and with the completion of an expansion currently under way, non-food cellulosic alternatives, leading to the production of a range of products, including gasoline, diesel and jet fuel.

The benefits of drop-in biofuels from the perspective of being able to use existing fuel infrastructure without modification should not be overlooked. There's a lot of sunk costs there financially as well as in terms of "carbon debt" in that it's already built and the emissions associated with doing so are already emitted and being paid off (for lack of better phrasing).

The big question, which is the same for all biofuels alike, is whether enough can be produced to actually replace fossil fuels in transportation. Though the waves of technological enthusiasm for a particular feedstock rise and fall, so far all have been pretty mushy things, fizzling out before actually breaking. Which is to say that it is by no means assured that any significant portion of our current liquid fuel demand will ever be able to be satisfied by biofuels without serious environmental consequences from their production simply replacing the damage caused by the fossil fuels themselves.

Substitution of fossil fuel to biofuel alone is largely a fantasy. Some other combination of conservation (a biggie), civic planning changes away from car-centric communities, economic changes towards manufacturing heavy goods closer to point of consumption, and a more nuanced approach to powering transport is needed (biofuels for some applications, electricity for others, human-powered for others).

Tags: Arctic | Biofuels | Oil