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Beef Tallow Power: Amtrak Train Bound for … Gory?

by Rick on May 6, 2010

Amtrak Beef-powered locomotiveAmtrak has thrown us enviros an eco-curveball. The rail operator recently announced the nation’s first biofuel-powered locomotive on its line from Oklahoma City, Oklahoma to Fort Worth, Texas. Awesome! The catch? The biodiesel feedstock is beef tallow.

Of course we want to support biodiesel efforts that have real benefits in reduced emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2), but making a “renewable” fuel from the notoriously unsustainable and inhumane beef industry? Amtrak, I wanna love you for trying biofuel, but why cow?

High Cholesterol Heartland

According to Amtrak spokesperson Marc Magliari, the company didn’t set out to use beef-based biodiesel, but they discovered that was the biofuel feedstock that was at hand. At the request of the Oklahoma Department of Transportation, who proposed the project and applied for the federal funding, Amtrak decided to implement biofuels on their Heartland Flyer line.

“We began the process with the assumption that the feedstock would be soy or corn,” said Magliari, “but the available biomass happened to be beef.”

Amtrak’s nationwide fuel supplier, QuickFuels, turned to Euless, Texas-based biodiesel supplier Direct Fuels, a petroleum producer located just a stone’s throw from the “end of the line” in Fort Worth.

In 2008, Direct Fuels opened both ethanol and biodiesel production facilities to Beef Tallow (image courtesy beeftallow.com)complement their existing petroleum business. The company is one of only two biodiesel producers in North Texas and “the only one located at a fuel terminal so biodiesel can be blended directly into petroleum diesel.” In their biodiesel operation their feedstock of choice is beef tallow.

Where’s the Beef?

So where does Direct Fuels get their beef tallow? From large-scale cattle operations in the panhandle of Texas. That’s right, concentrated animal feeding operations, or, the foulest four-letter word of conscientious eaters and environmentalists: CAFOs.

The environmental concerns of CAFOs are well known. But, hey, if the CAFOs are operating anyway, isn’t it valid to use the byproducts to create a fossil fuel replacement? Let’s look at the environmental balance.

Ignoring for now the myriad water quality, air quality, health and animal welfare concerns associated with CAFOs, let’s look solely at the carbon costs to produce that beef tallow: petroleum-based fertilizers; fuel to plant, harvest and ship the corn feed to the CAFO; methane emissions from the cattle; energy to heat and render the beef tallow from ; and the fuel to ship the beef tallow to Fort Worth. Already we’ve got a massive footprint.

Now factor in that the beef tallow must be kept warm, so it’s shipped in tanker trucks kept at 160 degrees, and once it arrives at Direct Fuels it’s kept in insulated heated tanks, using even more fossil fuel. Finally, after being mixed with regular diesel to create B20 (80% regular diesel, 20% biofuel), the biodiesel is trucked to the train.

Bottom line? Creating the biofuel uses more carbon than it saves in emissions. The question becomes: how much bigger is the carbon footprint of the “biofuel” than that of the diesel it’s replacing?

If CO2 reduction is the goal, Amtrak would be better off bypassing the cows and going straight for the corn. I hear they grow that in Oklahoma. Even better? Use a more renewable biofuel feedstock like switchgrass.

Reducing Waste? Not So Much

But wait: isn’t this creating a valuable commodity from a waste product that would otherwise end up in a landfill? Well, actually, no. Unfortunately, this biodiesel isn’t being made from garbage. There are already numerous uses for beef tallow, from cosmetics to candles to lubricants.

“One misconception people have is that all animal fats are waste products,” says Mark Farrer, Director of Biodiesel Operations at Direct Fuels. “They’re not – they’re co-products. They have other uses. Making biodiesel out of them is just one additional use. We’re not taking this stuff out of a landfill. But what we use is a real high-grade animal fat that does have other uses.”

Not Enough Tallow to Go Around

Beef tallow as a feedstock for biofuel has other problems as well. While “fuel produced by tallow has a higher cetane number compared to produced from plant oils,” a quality that makes diesel engines work more effectively, beef tallow biofuel has serious drawbacks, even according to tallow cheerleader beeftallow.com:

  • Unlike plant-based oils, tallow fuel tends to crystallize at higher temperatures, making it less suitable for winter use;
  • Tallow only meets required fuel standards when blended with regular diesel;
  • And finally, there’s simply not enough available tallow to support both a biodiesel industry and the existing “industrial and cosmetic applications” of tallow. In other words, we’d need even more cows – and environmentally damaging CAFOs – to make this a viable fuel supply.

Clearly, experimenting with beef tallow biofuels is a waste of time at best, and an insidious distraction at worst. And creating a “green” justification for proliferating the dirty beef industry is greenwashing at its most heinous.

Let’s not pretend that a beef-powered locomotive is helping the environment. It’s helping the images of the Oklahoma Department of Transportation and Amtrak, and it’s boosting the bottom line of Direct Fuels. But it does nothing at all for the planet.

Amtrak, you and the rail industry have an opportunity to move toward a fast, efficient electric high-speed rail network that, when eventually fueled by renewable energy sources, will be far more sustainable than burning biodiesel. Please stay focused on true sustainability.

If you must transition to a greener future with biofuels, stick with plants – don’t saddle up with the cows.

Image of Heartland Flyer courtesy of Amtrak.

Image of liquid beef tallow from beeftallow.com.

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