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Amtrak's Biodiesel Experiment Looks Like Greenwashing

Amtrak used a $274,000 federal grant to start a year-long biofuel experiment this month using beef by-products to power the Heartland Flyer, a route that travels from Oklahoma City to Fort Worth, Texas in an attempt to reduce emissions and find alternative fuels. So far, however, the experiment doesn't look like a sustainable alternative.

First, beef byproducts are more expensive than diesel (the biofuel only supplies 20 percent of the fuel for the engine). Secondly, beef products aren't very green - the carbon footprint to raise cattle is huge. And thirdly, livestock like cattle are actually blamed for producing carbon dioxide and methane, both greenhouse gases that cause global warming more quickly than using cars. There's also debate that a rise in beef biodiesel will cause more deforestation in South America. In essence, Amtrak couldn't have picked a less environmentally-friendly fuel.

If it seems like I'm harshing on Amtrak's Earth Week announcement, I guess I am. While it's probably true that any biodiesel will be more expensive than traditional petroleum fuel, it does come from plants as well as animals. In fact, a great majority of it comes from waste vegetable oils such as the oil diners throw out from the fryer. Wouldn't that have been a much more sustainable alternative than beef? (The cattle did come from Texas, so I'm willing to give them a thumb's up for being buying local.)

Despite their mistakes in using beef fat, the biodiesel fuel will reduce emissions:

The fuel, a blend of 80% diesel and 20% beef byâ€"product (if the train industry is shunning Texas oilmen, at least they're tossing a shank bone to region's cattle industry), performed well in lab test. Carbon monoxide and hydrocarbon emissions were reduced by 10%, particulates by 15%, and sulfates by 20%, so hopes are high for the track test.
Amtrak is also offering reduced companion fares on the route until May 28, encouraging people to use the train rather than commute by car.

While I won't call this whole experiment greenwashing for Earth Day, it does show how agencies or companies can be quickly swayed by presentations that offer lower emissions without understanding or reading the fine print.

Photo: Heartland Flyer

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