San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Gov Push-Starts Bio-Fuels Program

Service stations across the country could be serving up a slightly less polluting fuel within months, say officials with the Environment, Energy and Telecommunications Ministry (MINAET).

An executive decree signed by President Oscar Arias and Environment Minister Roberto Dobles that lays the groundwork for a national biofuels industry was set to be published this week. MINAET spokesman Mario Zaragoza said service stations could be ready to pump ethanol-laced gasoline as early as April.

However, the program has already been delayed from its original start date in October 2008, and it appears that Costa Rican farmers have a long way to go before they can produce enough biofuel additives to meet national demand.

“At the beginning, the biofuels would be imported,” Zaragoza said this week, adding that it would take at least a year to get the nation’s agricultural sector up to speed producing the sugar cane, African palm and other crops used in biofuel production The biofuel program would allow private producers to make biofuel additives and sell them to the National Oil Refinery (RECOPE), which supplies gas and diesel to service stations in Costa Rica.

Conventional gasoline would be mixed with up to 8% ethanol – an alcohol made in Costa Rica from sugarcane – while diesel would be mixed with up to 5% biodiesel – a mixture made from plant oils, most commonly African palm oil.

Zaragoza said the government would gradually increase those mixtures to as high as 10% by the end of the year.

According to a fact sheet titled “Truths about Biofuels” available on MINAET’s Web site, a 10% reduction imported fossil fuels would mean a savings of $300 million per year.

At a press conference in January, Environment Minister Roberto Dobles said the price of ethanol would depend on international markets.

It currently hovers close to the price of petroleum. Dobles acknowledged that Costa Ricans are unlikely to see a drop in prices at the pump, at least initially, with the biofuels program, but he insisted that the principal benefit would be a reduction in Costa Rica’s greenhouse gas emissions.

President Oscar Arias has repeatedly said he hopes to make Costa Rica the planet’s first carbon-neutral nation by 2021.

Federico Castillo, who teaches natural resource economics at the University of California Berkeley, in the United States, says he’s still not convinced the program will provide significant economic or environmental benefits.

“The country needs to look at the tradeoffs of these programs, and have a clear idea of what exactly we are giving up in order to obtain a particular goal,” said Castillo, a Costa Rican by birth who has been studying the potential for a biofuel industry here.

Castillo warned that using imported ethanol can often have an environmental impact equal to or worse than using fossil fuels.

“The challenge is where the stuff is going to be produced, what is the net energy gain, what are the logistics of this,” he said.

Though biofuel-mixed gas and diesel burned in Costa Rica might produce fewer emissions than standard fossil fuels, the total emissions could be close to that of petroleum when the entire chain of production – from the fields, through the factories to transportation to Costa Rica – is considered.

“You look at the net energy use from moment you start growing the crop to the moment that you use it in a vehicle,” Castillo said.

Castillo and another researcher are preparing a report on how Costa Rica’s agricultural sector might produce the materials needed for these biofuels.

You want to expand sugar cane production to produce ethanol? Then you have to take away land from something already being used. We have nowhere to go. Everything is accounted for,” he said.

 “Therefore you’re going to have to do it at expense of something else. And something else is going to pay more.”

Sugarcane is produced on low, humid flatlands where where pineapple, watermelon, cantaloupe and ornamental plants – all valuable export crops – also grow.

“Then you have the biodiesel situation. Biodiesel comes from palm oil. The problem with this is that right now, according to the prices I have seen, which are probably three months old, palm oil for cooking goes for about $1000 a ton. For bioiesel, the market is about $600,” he said. “Now you tell me, where you are going to put your oil?”

Internationally, large-scale biofuel production has also been criticized for displacing vital food crops, or diverting basic food products, and contributing to a global food crisis.

The Tico Times attempted to reach officials at the Environment Ministry and the Ministry of Agriculture to talk about the details of the program, but did not receive a comment by late this week.

According to MINAET’s “Truths about Biofuels” fact sheet, however, the Environment Ministry is counting on a “diverse” assortment of alternative crops, including waste from sugarcane production, bitter manioc, the castor oil plant (the source of castor oil), and others, which officials say could be grown in areas where traditional crops don’t do as well.

“They say the castor oil plant grows on marginal land, and that means it doesn’t compete with food crops, so it has a net gain to society. On the face of it, it’s good,” Castillo said. “The problem is that marginal land means marginal production levels, so you are going to need a lot of marginal land to produce the same energy.”

Castillo said he doubted that, at the current costs, local production of biofuels is likely to expand.

“Biofuels is not the answer. It should be used as a component of the portfolio of energy sources the country uses, that include electricity, wind, solar, and yes, oil,” he said. “Oil is going to be with us for at least another 20 years.”n


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