By Tom Schenk
In 2012, actor Matt Damon starred in a movie “Promised Land”. The story was about a rural community whose water was being contaminated from chemicals used in the injection fluids from a petroleum company’s nearby oil and natural gas fracking operation. While the movie was a box office flop for Damon, it did raise the public’s awareness about the toxic cocktail of chemicals (benzene, toluene, xylene, and ethylbenzene, and methanol, to name a few) that are combined with the large quantities of water (up to 7 million gallons) and sand that are injected deep underground at high pressures to fracture and open up rock formations so oil and gas can flow to a well. These chemicals help to reduce corrosion of the well, lubricate the extraction process, and prevent clogs and bacterial growth.
Many studies have claimed that these chemicals were used in such small quantities that they posed little risk to aquifers and other groundwater sources. Nevertheless, the movie, numerous articles, and academic studies raised the public’s awareness about some of the potential dangers created by this new drilling technology. And no doubt it also raised alarms in the oil and gas companies’ legal and risk management departments that contaminating the water supply of one or more cities would wipe the company off the map.
Guar gum has been used in the food industry for many decades. It has also been one of the favorite products drillers used to hold that sand in suspension and deliver it to its destination. The greatest source for guar gum historically has been India. The boom in fracking has created monumental price spikes and shortages for drillers in obtaining this product and has created havoc on their P&L’s.
In recent years, ExxonMobil, Halliburton, and a myriad of other oil-related companies have been developing suitable alternatives – often from plant-based oils – for developing greener, more environmentally-friendly lubricants for their drilling activities. They would also like to see a more dependable domestic supply for the ingredients in their fracking recipes for biodegradable polymers.
However, in the fast developing world of biodegradable polymers, drilling fluids are almost a rounding error by comparison to all the other wonderful consumer and industrial products that technology that is developing from plant-based oils such as marine oils, auto and aviation lubricants (often with superior wear and heat properties), surfactants, detergents, shopping bags, food containers and countless other products where petroleum-based products and plastics have historically dominated. This technology is in a profound growth phase as almost anything we currently know as plastic can be reproduced in a more sustainable manner with plant-based oils rather than petroleum. And it sells because the consumer wants it.
Soy is the most dominant feedstock for many of these renewable products, as well as corn, canola, flax, palm, cottonseed, peanut, and others that are cultivated in large quantities worldwide. Couple the growth in biofuels with the growth in this new technology for industrial applications, and all it will take is one or two bad years of crop production for there to be be a collision between food security for people and feedstock supply for factories and refineries.
Only the most arable lands – which are in diminishing supply – should logically be devoted exclusively to food. Champions of these earth-friendly fuels and industrial products made from renewable feedstocks are missing the full picture. They should be calling for the development of high-yielding non-edible oilseed crops that can thrive on the marginal land!
This is Terviva’s mission. One of the most promising crops in this space is the wild tree called pongamia that our company is commercializing. These oilseed trees can produce up to 10x the amount of oil per acre that the best soybean land in Iowa can produce. Carbon is sequestered, and vast fallow acreage in Florida and Hawaii is on its way to becoming annually renewable – and profitable -“oilfields”. Hardy, high-yielding crops on marginal lands are the optimum way to achieve peak biodiversity. Leave the good lands to make food for people.