(CN) — Like most cities in southeast Los Angeles County, Paramount is small — less than five square miles — and heavily industrial. The Zamboni company is headquartered in Paramount, and makes its eponymous ice resurfacing vehicles here. Surrounded on all sides by three freeways and a state highway, and bisected by two sets of intersecting heavy rail tracks, hundreds of trucks and trains barrel through the square-shaped city every day.
There used to be an oil refinery here too, only it shut down in 2011. Just three years later, it was reborn as a biodiesel refinery, processing thousands of barrels of vegetable oils and beef tallow — leftover beef fat — into biodiesel and jet fuel. When, in 2016, United Airlines announced, to great acclaim, that it was running the world's first "100% sustainable" passenger flight, the jets were powered with fuel from the AltAir refinery in Paramount.
Now, World Energy, which purchased AltAir in 2018, wants to expand the Paramount refinery. Whereas now the plant processes 3,500 barrels of material, the new permit would allow it to process 25,000 barrels of feedstock, a seven-fold increase.
One would think this would be cause for celebration among environmentalists. Biodiesel is, after all, considered to be "carbon neutral" by the federal government. Even though burning biodiesel releases the same amount of carbons into the air as burning regular old petroleum-based gasoline, the government considers biofuel to be less carbon intensive because while the feedstock is growing, the plants are taking out carbon dioxide from the air. Champions of biofuel liken it to a closed loop: the plants suck in carbon dioxide as they grow, then spit carbon dioxide out when they are burned to make cars go. Hence, carbon neutral.
But the AltAir refinery's expansion is being fought against on two fronts. First, there are environmental justice advocates, who say that the refinery will make the air in the heavily industrial, low-income city even more polluted. Some of those groups have sued the city of Paramount in order to block the refinery's expansion.
And then there's the idea that biofuels reduce greenhouse gasses, which has been challenged by a growing number of environmentalists and academics who say that the benefit of biofuels may be minuscule or even non-existent.
"It’s very difficult, scientifically, to give a simple, unambiguous answer as to whether or not biofuels are good for the environment," says John DeCicco, a research professor at the University of Michigan. "It depends on many factors."
Firstly, it depends on the source of the biofuel, or the feedstock. Some refineries, including the Paramount AltAir plant, use leftover material, like beef tallow (fat) and vegetable oil. Those materials would otherwise sit in a landfill and decay, releasing carbon. And so one could argue that turning that leftover organic matter into biofuel lowers greenhouse gas emissions. But what if you threw the beef tallow and vegetable oil into sealed drums and buried the canisters underground? Then there is no difference in emissions; you've essentially swapped petroleum underground for beef fat underground.
It gets even more complicated. Different types of land have different amounts of carbon buried underneath.
A majority of biofuel produced in the United States comes from crops — mostly corn and soybeans. Roughly 40% of all corn grown in the U.S. is turned into ethanol, a biofuel that is mixed with gasoline to comply with the country's Renewable Fuel Standard. Some of the leftover byproduct of that corn is used for other purposes as well, like cattle feed.
In 2005, a flailing President George W. Bush signed the Energy Policy Act of 2005, which, along with subsequent bills signed into law the following two years, created the Renewable Fuel Standard, which mandates a certain level of renewable fuel to be blended in with the nation's gasoline supply. The law was passed at a time of low corn prices and high gas prices, a trend which would soon reverse itself.