The Energy Collective Group

This group brings together the best thinkers on energy and climate. Join us for smart, insightful posts and conversations about where the energy industry is and where it is going.

9,751 Subscribers


Green Gold: A Documentary Filmmaker Unearths the Shocking Story Behind Biofuels

On 22 November, the impressive documentary “Green Gold” by veteran filmmaker Sergio Ghizzardi premieres at the Aventura cinema in Brussels. Over a period of nearly ten years Ghizzardi traveled to all corners of the globe, interviewing politicians, farmers, oil industry representatives, biofuel producers and NGOs to understand “a political project” that began in Brussels and kicked up a worldwide storm that is still getting bigger every day. Energy Post attended an advance screening for the press and interviewed the filmmaker. 

Sergio Ghizzardi had just finished a documentary about the French EU presidency for French-German TV channel Arte in 2008, when a friend came up to him at the film’s press conference in Berlin and suggested they make a film together about biofuels. “I reflected for maybe one minute and said ‘why not?’”the filmmaker told Energy Post in an interview on 17 November.

This was the start of an investigation that would end up taking nearly a decade. The final result, a documentary called “Green Gold”, premieres this Wednesday 22 November in Brussels. It will also be screened in The Netherlands, Austria and Finland, and probably elsewhere – there is interest from Portugal and Italy too, for example, Ghizzardi says.

Tracking the storm

Energy Post attended an advance screening of the film and was impressed: the filmmaker takes the viewer by the hand on a voyage of discovery. The film is beautifully shot, the images often poignant, the transitions from one location or argument to another smooth, and the narrative coherent. Together, you uncover the rise to political prominence of biofuels and see “how a political decision taken in Brussels can cause a tornado on the other side of the planet”.

Ghizzardi moves from Brussels to Rotterdam, “the European door for agro-fuels”. Next up, Indonesia, with dramatic images of forests burned to the ground to make way for palm oil plantations (a feedstock for biodiesel). One reason the film took nearly a decade to complete is that Ghizzardi tried – and failed – three times to get a permit to film in Indonesia. He was told it was too dangerous to travel there without it. In the end, after one-and-a-half years of trying, he subcontracted to a local cameraman.

From Indonesia to Argentina, where Ghizzardi meets local farmers who have been dispossessed of their land by big business wanting to grow soybeans (another biodiesel feedstock). Finally, back to Europe, this time Denmark and Finland, to visit two companies that face an uphill battle to create a market for advanced biofuels made not of crops but waste.

The filmmaker constructs an engaging narrative from complex, endlessly fought over studies and points of view. He speaks to an extensive array of stakeholders coming at the issue from all sides, from University of Princeton researcher Tim Searchinger, who first challenged the climate benefits of biofuels head on, to John Cooper, then at BP and today head of the refiners’ trade association in Brussels, FuelsEurope.

The agricultural lobby was complaining. The European Commission had to give them something. It said okay, we’re giving agriculture to emerging countries but we’re offering you something new: biofuels

Ghizzardi broaches a broader range of issues than biofuels debates in Brussels usually cover, including the health impact of pesticide use from intensive soy farming in Argentina and the social dimension of small farmers versus large corporates. Where he doesn’t go, is into the finer details of biodiesel versus bioethanol (apart from a simple distinction of the two at the beginning), or the biofuel industry’s argument that halting biodiesel production would actually increase Europe’s dependence on soybean imports for animal feed (“too complex”).

He captures iconic moments such as when MEP Corinne Lepage, who was in charge of negotiating a reform of EU biofuel policy in 2013, loses out on a mandate by one vote. But perhaps most admirable of all: he avoids introducing the term ‘indirect land-use change’ or ILUC until really quite far in. This, the net loss of forest as food production is displaced by biofuel production, is the jargon that dominates pretty much every single Brussels biofuel debate.

Setting the record straight

Biofuels are a notoriously controversial subject. For every advocate, there is an equally ardent skeptic. Why did Ghizzardi decide to plunge into this can of worms? One, the EU’s first climate and energy package was a big part of the French EU presidency. French president Nicolas Sarkozy made a deal on this one of his priorities. Two, Ghizzardi realised that biofuels are a microcosm for the cut-and-thrust of political power play. “You see how the lobbies function and you get access to the importance of energy and the core of the decision-making process [in Brussels],” he explains. “Through these small guys you get to see how the world functions.”

His Oxfam interviewee Marc-Olivier Herman tells the filmmaker that the biofuels lobby has as much firepower as the tobacco lobby in Brussels. He says they have spent millions to influence EU rules on biofuels. 

“What I discovered is that we are in a transition period and the masters of the former system don’t want to let others into their market. What I discovered is that it’s a big fight”

The narrative behind the biofuels story has always been climate change. In 2008, transport was the only sector whose emissions were still increasing. Biofuels were sold by EU officials as a solution to this. In biofuel debates today, European Commission representatives argue that they no longer believe conventional biofuels can deliver a net cut in greenhouse gas emissions, hence there is no justification to further support them. (The reason is ILUC.) When European farmers counter that biofuels are an indispensable source of income to help keep them afloat, the Commission responds that its biofuels policy is a climate policy not an agricultural support policy.

Ghizzardi says things were quite different at the start. Biofuels were born at the end of the 1990s when US President George W. Bush was “obsessed” with energy sovereignty after the Iraq War and Europeans accepted the globalisation of agriculture. “Agriculture was at the core of the EU,” Ghizzardi explains. “And the agricultural lobby was complaining. The European Commission had to give them something. It said okay, we’re giving agriculture to emerging countries but we’re offering you something new: biofuels. You’ll get a new market, subsidies and incomes. That’s how it started.” Climate change was the blanket narrative for this rescue operation.

GREEN GOLD-L’OR VERT TRAILER/B-A from sergio ghizzardi on Vimeo.

The new oil

Biofuel producers were ready to take on the big boys. “People thought they would replace oil. They wanted to find the new raw material that would make them rich,” Ghizzardi says. “I called the film ‘Green Gold’ because I wanted to discover the Rockefeller of the 21st century.” Did he? “No, not really,” the filmmaker says. “What I discovered is that we are in a transition period and the masters of the former system don’t want to let others into their market. What I discovered is that it’s a big fight.”

The problem is that every biofuel has to compete with oil. And today, at around $60 a barrel, oil is not very expensive. “So you have to find the cheapest raw material,” says Ghizzardi. “That’s why they choose soy and palm oil.” Much of his film is about the consequences of this choice for forests and people in Indonesia (palm oil) and Argentina (soy). Striking images of land laid to waste and stories of intimidation going as far as murder make the case against the unfettered expansion of these crops.

“Advanced biofuels are suffering the most in a way, although they are the ones that can really decrease greenhouse gas emissions. I’m quite pessimistic [about their prospects]”

At the same time however, we hear complaints from Argentine biofuel producers of how Europe is using anti-dumping legislation to shut out imports in favour of European-based alternatives. This is primarily rapeseed. EU policymakers want to phase out all crop-based biofuels, but face stiff opposition from farmers to doing so. In his interview with Energy Post, Ghizzardi reports that French and German farmers’ latest attempt to thwart Brussels is to redefine rapeseed as a special kind of raw material that is not exactly an agricultural crop.

Bitter truths

For EU policymakers, the future of biofuels clearly lies in so-called advanced or second generation biofuels that are made from waste and residues, not crops. But Ghizzardi is skeptical. He sees them fighting both the oil lobby and first generation biofuel producers and farmers, for political attention and ultimately, a market. “Advanced biofuels are suffering the most in a way, although they are the ones that can really decrease greenhouse gas emissions,” he says. “I’m quite pessimistic [about their prospects].”

In his film, he highlights a number of problems. First up, advanced biofuels simply cannot compete on price. Second, there is intense competition for the raw materials that underpin them. Ghizzardi recounts the case of UPM, the Finnish paper company that discovered biofuels on a hunt for new products to make up for falling paper sales. It started making biodiesel from crude tall oil (CTO), a by-product of pulping pine trees. The result? A furious chemicals sector coming out with guns blazing to protect what it regards as one of its own raw materials. The problem is that when any raw material is diverted to biofuel use, its price is suddenly linked to the oil price and its traditional supply chain disrupted.

For Ghizzardi, the message is clear: the future of ‘bio’ is in chemistry, not fuel. There is much more added value in chemistry than in transport

A third problem is that companies that could go down the second generation biofuels route, can probably make a better business case with biochemicals. Ghizzardi recalls two oil companies discussing not a biofuel but a biochemicals project together at the World Bio Markets congress in Amsterdam in 2016. This congress has shifted its focus away from biofuels towards biochemicals in recent years. For Ghizzardi, the message is clear: the future of ‘bio’ is in chemistry, not fuel. There is much more added value in chemistry than in transport.

European lawmakers are considering an EU target for advanced biofuels for 2030 of around 4%. In the film, Bas Eickhout, the Dutch Green MEP who is leading the current reform of EU biofuels rules as part of a new renewable energy directive, explains why: “[We’re talking about] 1% of the total energy demand in the transport sector, but… that all being provided by crop types means a lot of land. Each per cent is a huge volume of hectares.”

Advanced biofuels don’t need the same kind of space. But who will supply them? When Ghizzardi visited the Biochemtex second generation bioethanol plant – the world’s first – in Crescentino, Italy, for his film, it was running at 20% capacity, he says. Today, it has stopped completely. There are reports that parent company Mossi Ghisolfi (M&G), Italy’s second largest chemicals business after Eni, will sell its Italian biofuels business off, after a series of setbacks in its US bioplastics arm. Ghizzardi doesn’t see many alternative sources of advanced biofuels.

When I ask the filmmaker about his next project, his answer says it all: “Maybe oil versus electric vehicles.”

Practical details:

Sneak preview at the Bozar cinema on Monday 20th November, 8pm, in Brussels in the presence of the director and partner associations. Screening followed by debate.

Premiere at the Aventure cinema on Wednesday 22nd November, 8pm, also in the presence of the director and partner associations.

Other screenings due in the Netherlands, Austria and Finland. Plus possibly more countries to follow. See Domino Production website for details.

Watch the trailer.

Original Post

Content Discussion

Darius Bentvels's picture
Darius Bentvels on November 21, 2017

Subsidizing bio-fuels or bio-chemistry should not be a subject for the EU. Because it doesn’t deliver progress, only costs money to EU citizens while having a dubious ‘smell’ .
It alienates citizens from the EU, while the EU already has an huge popularity problem.
Moreover individual countries can do it just as good, if they feel the need.

If anything, that subsidy money would be better spent to the development of advanced methods regarding Power-to-Gas (PtG), producing real renewable gas.

Because in that field major improvements are open, such as:
– efficiency improvements of the process. From present ~70% towards >90%.
– plant design improvements such that they don’ t need maintenance (unmanned), become cheap in mass production and last many decades.
The Germans deliver substantial development efforts, but there is still a lot open.

Also because the ‘fuel’ for PtG, renewable electricity, will:
– become cheaper and cheaper thanks to the cost decreases of PV solar (lowest now <1.8cent$/KWh in Mexico, <1cnt expected before 2025) and wind (onshore and offshore).

– becomes available in enormous amounts.
With the coming of cheap offshore wind (<1.5cnt/KWh) and the enlargement of its production fields to rather deep seas (until 800m deep), offshore alone can deliver many times more than needed.
Then we also have very cheap PV-solar in deserts, which can deliver too.

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on November 21, 2017

We must remember that the last time humanity relied on biomass as a large source of energy (i.e. before the discovery of fossil fuel), we nearly depleted the forests of the most developed nations. Biomass is simply too dilute an energy source for our modern lifestyle and large human populations; the environmental footprint is too great. The amount of energy available from waste is likely too small.

Biomass is however, likely to remain the “best” source of feedstock for sustainable hydrocarbon fuel. It is therefore important that we not allow the exaggerated biofuel hope to create end-use complacency; we must transition most current hydrocarbon fuel applications to other (carbon-free) energy sources and energy carriers. With a suitable price on carbon emissions, many hydrocarbon fuel applications can easily switch to grid electricity. Plug-in batteries can replace fuel in some applications; district heat networks are suitable for carbon-free heat delivery in many locations.

In many applications, a storable liquid or pipeline gaseous fuel will continue to be the best solutions. Hydrocarbon fuels are the most energy dense, but carbon-free fuel (i.e. hydrogen and ammonia) are adequate for most applications (with inter-continental jet travel as the primary exception).

We know how to make carbon-free synthetic fuel from sustainable electricity, water, and air; these fuels therefore can be burned without harming the environment, and their production can be scaling to serve arbitrarily large populations with energy-rich lifestyles.

Syn-fuels made in that way have much larger energy yield per acre than biofuels: annual fuel yield is 5x greater using windpower, and 30x greater using solar PV (see David MacKay’s book on-line here). Of course nuclear plants have energy yields which are much higher still.

It should be said that methane (the primary component of fossil gas) can also be synthesized from sustainable electricity and water (i.e. in the “power-to-gas” variation on “power-to-fuel”), however a CO2 source is also required. Extracting CO2 from the air is difficult (i.e. expensive and takes a lot of land area), therefore this another CC&S technology which only makes sense as part of a fossil fuel energy system. Thus this should be seen as yet another phony solution, intended to promote end-user complacency; we should accept that fuel-switching is a crucial part of transitioning off fossil fuel.