Keep Edible Oils for People, and Non-edible Oils for Industry

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.

Island Independence

Island Independence

For some time now, islands have ben romanticized in human culture, placed at the apex of potential vacation destinations, often with good reason.


Islands present the opportunity to disconnect oneself from the familiar, culturally, geographically or otherwise. Those lucky enough to visit an island while on holiday will likely be impressed by any number of environmental, culinary or adventurous delights. But what of the machinery and infrastructure that maintain such idyllic locales, and the people who live there? With this blog post I will pull back the curtain, and provide a glimpse of what it takes to keep an island paradise running from an energy standpoint, using Hawai’i as a case study.

HIFirst, some quick, pertinent facts about Hawai’i. As of 2012, census data indicate there are a little less than 1.4 million people living in the state; with ~70% residing in the city of Honolulu on the Island of Oahu. All told, Hawai’i contains 6,422 square miles of land – the Island of Hawai’i makes up over half, at 4,028 mi2 – spread out over an archipelago of 130 islands that stretches over 1,500 miles. At ~2,400 miles from North America, the closest continent, Hawai’i is the most isolated population center on Earth.

Powering a population of this scale and geography is a serious undertaking, and requires substantial energy supplies and infrastructure. There is no appreciable production of fossil fuel energy in Hawai’i, thus 94% of all Hawai’i’s energy is imported. The Hawai’i Electric Company and its subsidiaries provide 95% of the electricity used by the state’s residents; a little over 73% of this electricity is generated from burning oil. This pie chart provides further information on energy consumption based upon the sector of the end-user:

HI Chart

Needless to say, if there was an interruption in this supply, the effects on the Hawai’ian economy could be devastating. In the interest of brevity, and not depressing readers of this post, I won’t use space here to catalog the potential for catastrophic environmental impacts associated with transporting oil.

In recognition of this dependence on imported energy and environmental hazard, Hawai’i has passed legislation mandating that 40% of all electricity and natural gas shall be generated from renewable sources that can be produced on the Islands (Hawai’i Revised Statutes §269-92 Renewable portfolio standards (a)(4)). This action sets the state on a path toward a future where the Islands of Hawai’i could become energy independent.

The transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy supplies is already underway. Hawai’i currently produces ~11% of its electricity from renewable sources, including biofuels, geothermal, solar, and wind among others. This percentage is primed to increase substantially, as entrepreneurs and established companies alike recognize the market opportunity. HAWAI’IGAS, which supplies synthetic natural gas and propane to varied customers throughout Hawai’i, operates a pilot plant that converts up to 1 million gallons of renewable feedstocks such as used cooking oil into natural gas; this pilot plant is slated for expansion. Pacific Biodiesel got started producing biodiesel so early that they were able to buy the domain name BdslPacific Biodiesel was conceived in 1995 with a single facility that converted used cooking oil into biodiesel. Since then they have successfully built 12 production facilities on the mainland US and Japan, and continue to grow: the company’s newest venture is Big Island Biodiesel, a plant able to produce 5.5 million gallons of biodiesel per year.

Significant progress has been made incorporating increasing quantities of renewable energy and fuels into the portfolio of Hawai’i, but there is more to be done: the State’s energy plan aims to have an agriculture industry that will be able to provide 350 million gallons of biofuels by 2025. TerViva, the company that I work for, is currently planning for the deployment of its first commercial pongamia orchard in Hawai’i. Pongamia trees produce a bountiful seed crop; when crushed, the seeds yield oil that is well suited for conversion to biodiesel and natural gas, among other products. By producing a robust biofuel feedstock, TerViva and other industry leaders like Pacific Biodiesel and HAWAI’IGAS will help Hawai’i make progress down the road to an independent future, free from the constraints of imported oil.