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“The biggest truth to face now – what is probably making me unfunny
for the remainder of my life – is that I don‘t think people give a damn whether the planet goes on or not…I know of very few people
who are dreaming of a world for their grandchildren.“
~Kurt Vonnegut, A Man Without a Country (2005)
Each time I’ve driven along a nearby national route, I’ve passed by this sign and have been wanting to look further into the subject. The sign has been there for several months now. Here’s a translation of what it says, “I grow rapeseed for Diester here, and I fight against the greenhouse effect. Diester with diesel is greener.” The logo with FDSEA represents the national union for rural agriculture. I did some further digging into Diester.
What is Diester? (In France, pronounced DEE-eh-stair)
Originally, diester, also known as colza methyl ester, comes from the contraction of the words “diesel” and “ester” and in a generic sense, pure diester is made up of 90% vegetable oil extracted usually from rapeseed (colza) which is the predominant source in France, but flaxseed, sunflower seed or peanuts can be used. The remaining 10% of diester is composed of methanol. Methanol is a type of alcohol and is said to be (sometimes) necessary to break up the viscosity of the colza oil, important particularly during colder weather where the fuel without methanol is vulnerable to freezing. These two compounds then go through a process called “esterification” that essentially creates the final liquid product of biodiesel.
However, today in France, “Diester” is a registered and trademarked product by the company Sofiproteol (Prolea is their parent company). It is made up of the compounds as is described above, but is only used as an additive to diesel in France.
For the purposes of this post, I am making a distinction between biodiesel and Diester, the branded product.
Diester vs. Biodiesel
Diester should not be confused with biodiesel but I’m afraid that the words “Biodiesel” and “Diester” are now used interchangeably in France. Diester, the branded product, is currently not sold as pure biofuel in France. It is mixed with diesel in a tiny amount. In addition, the methanol used within Diester is of petrochemical origin, whereby, other biodiesel sellers can opt to use methanol from a more clean source like wood, for example. Some biodiesel makers also do not use any methanol whatsoever, and simply provide filtered extracted oil, which apparently works on older model diesel engines without the necessity of modification, or very insignificant modification(1). The practice of independently selling pure biodiesel is illegal in France, however, it is nevertheless sold “unofficially” to consumers.
Biodiesel is a renewable energy source and a clean burning fuel that does not use any petroleum-based or fossil fuel products and emits less CO2 emissions, sulfur, aromatics and particulate matter into the environment than diesel and other petroleum-based fuels. Diester, on the other hand, is only used as an additive to diesel, so, in effect, still pollutes because of the diesel content.
How much Diester is Mixed with Diesel in France?
Although cars with diesel engines do not need major modifications in order to run on 100% Diester fuel, in France, Diester is sadly only available as an additive to regular diesel fuel in the following proportions: For captive fleets (buses, waste collection trucks and utility vehicles) 30%(2) Diester is added to diesel, and a mere 1.5%(3) of diester on average is mixed with the consumer diesel. By comparison, Germany is already using 100% biodiesel like Diester in their car engines and it is readily available at pumps. Additionally, no blends are admitted in Germany. Why is France still using just a miniscule amount of Diester in their blend?
Subsidies for oilseed farmers cultivating crops for human consumption were drastically cut in a reform by the EU in 1992. This began a downward decline in French oilseed production, however, because it mandated that farmers set aside some of their land as fallow and because the land could be used to grow crops not meant for consumption, the industry for oilseed fuel gradually increased.
It was the French farmers that pioneered biodiesel with their own fabrication of vegetable oil mixed with ethanol (derived from potato alcohol). They used this biodiesel to fuel their tractors and other farming vehicles. Though, an illegal practice, the farmers did this nonetheless, and since this year, 2006, it has been made legal but just for the agricultural industry.
It is clear that cars are, in fact, able to run on 100% Diester but it is still not available to consumers in this form. There are, however, people unofficially selling filtered rapeseed and sunflower seed oil to consumers as fuel for their cars. When the price per barrel of (petroleum) oil began to rise just a few years ago, consumers in France started to use regular (human grade) rapeseed oil (canola oil) in their cars, adding it to their diesel engines from the bottles. They would simply buy cases of it at the supermarkets. Or, they would find one of these “unofficial” sellers. (usually at a farm) It was cheaper than diesel and it had no ill effects on their engines, plus it polluted less.
Why isn’t 100% Diester available to consumers in France?
Biodiesel has been around for decades in France and even the registered “Diester” was established in 1992; Diester is 14 years old yet it is still not sold in a pure form. Biodiesel in a 100% biofuel form, whether it is filtered colza oil or as an oil mixed with methanol is illegal to sell in France. While other countries are already using 100% diester (the unbranded version) in their car engines, this concept is unknown in France. Why?
There are several barriers to entry for biodiesel and Diester in France:
1) The (petroleum) oil companies’ unwillingness to share the industry with alternative fuels certainly is a big barrier. As a result, they’ve “collaborated” with biodiesel groups falsely promoting clean fuel but at the same time, preventing the biodiesel to go 100% – by powerful lobbying and misleading marketing. For example, “Diester” (the brand) will proudly say that “1 out of 2 cars run on Diester in France and the drivers don’t even know it!” That implies that half the cars in France are running on Diester but the truth is: half the cars run on DIESEL mixed with 1.5% of diester. Is that really something to be proud of, seeing that it IS possible to run a clean burning vehicle at 100%? It really irks me when they emphasize that they are working against the greenhouse effect. They’ll even boldly say they are “fighting against global warming!” If that were true, there’d be a higher percentage of Diester mixed with diesel, or better yet, they’d find a way to sell it pure. They were also promoting “Diester inside” (sort of attempting to cutely mimic the “Intel inside” on computers) but that is also grossly misleading. Please. The “Diester” initiative does have support from petroleum companies, so they of course are going to push hard to preserve their own petroleum industry.
I wish they’d realize that biodiesel is here to stay and the world will have to make adjustments to combat the terrible consequences of global warming.
2) French Legislation is not permitting the sale of pure biodiesel because they want a piece of the tax action, so-to-speak, and for the moment, they can’t collect on the sales of biodiesel (see #4 below) like they can with gas – so, what they’ve done is simply forbid it.
In France, for fuel bought at the pumps, the government receives 70.83% in taxes for diesel (42.84 % which is the TIPP (interior tax)(4) plus the VAT of 19.6% calculated toward the total sale). Think that’s insane? For regular unleaded gasoline, they collect 92% taxes at the pump. That’s partly why the gas in France is this expensive.
Will they ever allow the sale of pure biodiesel or even Diester at the pumps? Hopefully, in the near future, they will iron out this huge wrinkle. In the meantime, the government has found some of the independent sellers of biodiesel, and is threatening to impose legal action against them for breaking the law. They are claiming that these sellers aren’t paying their taxes on their bioidiesel sales, but those taxes, by law, only apply to petroleum products, which they aren’t selling. In effect, the government cannot do much against these sellers because they aren’t breaking the law.
They should just pass a law, already, that allows the sale of biodiesel!
3) French Legislation takes a long, long, long time to adopt new laws and change old laws. Well, it’s a bit more complicated than simply adopting and enforcing new laws here. There are the lobbyists that “get to” French politicians to
grease them up persuade them so the legislation favors their perspective, and the whole process takes some time and is probably a wicked web of activity.
4) In 2004, the EU approved a new directive that establishes pan-EU rules for the “detaxation” of biodiesel. This called for tax exemptions or reduced tax rate on the sales of biodiesel and other biofuels. Coupled with #2 above, this obviously creates a huge kink.
5) French production and supply are reportedly insufficient to meet demand. This reasoning baffled me but looking deeper, I’ve found that if raw materials necessary to process biodiesel are imported from outside of the European Union (the U.S., for example), the preferential tax system benefiting biofuels may need to be revised.
6) Automobile manufacturers – will favor petroleum fueled cars in order to avoid having to make alterations to their existing engines, but mask this by asserting they support the fight against global warming and gladly accept biodiesel blends (but small amount of biodiesel) Sadly, they should realize the potential market size for greener cars.
7) Does Diester, the company, even want its product to be in pure form? They, themselves might be the biggest barrier.
The subject of biodiesel and Diester is obviously a highly debated issue in France, which is the probable reason why the general public doesn’t have access to it. The best thing to do as a consumer is to find out more about biodiesels and try to help it move to the mainstream public in a pure form. You can be an active environmentally compassionate citizen by trying to get positive legislation enacted. If you’re in France and want to support a cleaner fuel, here are some suggestions to improve the final decisions made for biodiesel in France, to get advocacy from politicians and to urge them to discuss the reasons behind why biodiesel is not readily available, yet France is one of the biggest producers of it.
1. Contact members of the National Assembly and voice your opinions about the subject of Biodiesel and/or of Diester. Suggested question: Why can’t pure biodiesel be sold in France to the general public?
2. Contact the Minister of Ecology and Sustainable Development in France. Suggested question: What can you do to help get 100% biodiesel to pumps for consumers? Her info: Madame Nelly Olin, Ministre de l’Ecologie et du Développement durable, 20, avenue de Ségur, 75302 Paris 07 SP, Tel: 01.42.19.20.21
3. Contact the EU Environmental Commissioner and discuss your support of 100% biodiesels in France (Ask why it can be done in Germany and not France). Here’s his contact information: Commissioner for the Environment Stavros Dimas, European Commission, B-1049 Brussels, Belgium, Tel: +32 2 29.82.000, Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
4. Form or join a group working toward getting biodiesel to France.
5. Learn more about it.
6. Share your information with others.
(1) Biodiesel, if used in a pure form, has a tendency to corrode rubber joints, so the modification to change these is minimal.
(2) A result of “Partenaires Diester,” (launched in 1994) a grouping of 30 French cities that run their public transport on Diester. Partenaires Diester is supported by car manufacturers, petroleum companies and agricultural associations.
(3) From Sofiproteol’s, parent company site: Prolea: “Le Diester, le biocarburant issu des huiles végétales Aujourd’hui présent à hauteur de 1,5% dans le gazole, le Diester va bénéficier du plan national de développement des biocarburants. Objectif français : atteindre 7% de la valeur énergétique du gazole mis sur le marché en 2010.” (The biocarburant Diester, derived from vegetable oils, today has a total value of 1.5% in diesel fuel. Diester will profit from the national development plan for biocarburants. French Objective: to have 7% (of Diester) in diesel fuel on the market by 2010.)
(4) TIPP – Taxe intérieure sur les produits pétroliers (interior tax for petroleum products) is a government imposed tax in France. See tax breakdown here.
[Sources: Biodiesel in the news, Biodiesel, Germany, Biodiesel Magazine, Biofuels, Biodiesel European Overview (pdf), Diester, European Biodiesel Board, European Commission Environment, European Techwire, Foreign Agricultural Service U.S. Mission to the European Union, Green Car Congress, L’intérêt des biocarburants pour l’environnement, Margot Wallström, Ministere de l’ecologie et du developpment durable, Prolea, Roule ma fleur, Promethee 2006 Archives, When will traffic be clean?]