Fish kills

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Monday, March 17, 2014


NOT a long time ago, biofuels held great promise as the environment friendly alternative to fossil fuels blamed for carbon emissions that worsen climate change.

The P3-billion San Cárlos Bioenergy Inc. (SCBI) facility, Southeast Asia’s first sugarcane-based ethanol and co-generation plant, promised to help wean the Philippines away from dependence on fossil fuels.

Then Energy Secretary Angelo Reyes waxed euphoric when he described SCBI as a major milestone in the government’s effort to reduce dependency on imported sources of energy, and to have energy security coupled with social equity and environmental sustainability.

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“We should have 20 more replications of this plant all over the Philippines,” Reyes crowed.

Five years afterward, he would have been eating crow. The promise of biofuels is becoming to sound hollow like that of traditional politicians.

In 2014, SCBI is promising government officials that they will stop further discharge of their waste water into the sea that has been blamed for fish kills in San Cárlos City.

Biofuels, it turned, can have damaging effect on the environment. And Negrenses realized that we celebrated much too earlier on our “renewable” energy source.

A significant amount of fish recently exposed to SCBI’s malodorous waste water in the coastal areas of barangays 1, 3, and 6 in San Cárlos City died. Affected was also other marine life like crabs and shells.

SCBI’s Environmental Compliance Certificate requires that it should have zero waste discharge.

Two years ago, I wrote that I hate to throw a monkey wrench on these developments, but we need to face reality checks. The grass is not as green on the other side of the fossil fuel-biofuel fence divide.

Some environmentalists insist the product is not as green as some people make it. For one thing, ethanol supporters gloss over the huge amount of energy to produce ethanol, as well as the diesel fuel used to transport it from plants to markets.

The large-scale use of biofuels carries significant agricultural and ecological risks. Growing conventional sugarcane requires heavy use of nitrogen fertilizers, which are petroleum-based. To enhance efficiency, it will require extensive use of farm machinery, which burns fuel refined from crude oil.

The increased demand for the biofuel could also mean the retention, even expansion of sugar monoculture. That in itself is an ecological downside, since it would mean biodiversity losses.

Now we can add the danger of faulty waste water disposal. What’s poison for marine life can be toxic for humans as well.

However, I’m willing to give biofuels some slack. The problem might be SCBI, not biofuels in general.

To a certain extent, the global demand to reduce carbon emissions in the developed and developing world requires that bioenergy – in some form – becomes part of the renewable energy mix.

But the alternative might turn out to be a case of jumping out of the frying pan into the fire.

*****

(bqsanc@yahoo.com)

Published in the Sun.Star Bacolod newspaper on March 17, 2014.

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