Going green could be golden for canola growers

Ottawa’s new ‘clean fuel’ rules could quadruple the amount of canola processed into biodiesel

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Ottawa’s new “clean fuel” rules aren’t in place yet — much less new biodiesel plants — but going green will be a big win for canola growers, say industry officials.

Brian Innes.
photo: Supplied

“We are excited about the opportunity because what drives the demand for feedstock is the ability of that feedstock to lower the carbon emissions of the fuel that is burned, otherwise known as carbon intensity,” said Brian Innes, vice-president of public affairs with the Canola Council of Canada.

“Canola has a very favourable carbon intensity. Canola is really good at lowering greenhouse gas emissions for fuel.”

The Clean Fuel Standard is a central part of the federal Liberals’ climate action plan and after four years of study and consultations, the government published the proposed regulations last month — with a plan to implement them in December 2022. The proposed regulations, which are now open for public comment, are lengthy and detailed but at their heart is reducing the amount of greenhouse gases produced by a unit of fuel (something that is measured in grams of carbon dioxide equivalent per megajoule — a.k.a. gCO2e/MJ).

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“It’s essentially about lowering the carbon intensity of the fuels we burn in our gas tanks here in Canada,” said Innes.

But it’s also complicated as it’s not just about the carbon released when you burn a litre of fuel, but the amount of greenhouse gases (GHG) produced in making it. So that could mean, for example, coming up with numbers for not only seeding and harvesting a canola crop but also in making inputs such as fertilizer.

“Petroleum fuels and petroleum alternatives produce different quantities of GHG emissions when the full life cycle of the fuel is considered, depending on the process used to produce the fuel, the actual composition of the fuel, and the way the fuel is used,” the government states in its intro to the proposed regulations. (Environment Canada is still developing its “fuel life cycle assessment model.”)

The canola council is one of a large number of groups that have been involved in consultations in how to create this life cycle assessment model, and still has questions about some of the specifics, Innes said.

But it’s looking very good, he added.

“We think, based on the government of Canada estimates, that we could see a market created the size of our current exports to Japan,” said Innes. “That’s a little more than two million tonnes of canola that farmers grow being turned into a biofuel and used in Canada.”

That’s quadruple the 500,000 tonnes of canola currently used to make Canadian biodiesel each year, according to a recent Canola Digest article written by Steve Pratte, manager of policy development for the Canadian Canola Growers Association.

It’s difficult to precisely forecast how much canola might be used for biodiesel as there are different ways that fuel suppliers could meet the requirements of the Clean Fuel Standard, Pratte wrote in the article. But he estimated it “could potentially require an additional one million to four million tonnes of canola seed annually” once the targets in the standard are fully in effect by 2030.

Even two million tonnes would mean “we would need to add at least two more processing plants in Canada, in addition to the ones we have now to turn canola seed into canola oil,” said Innes.

(According to Renewable Industries Canada, the biggest user of canola for biodiesel on the Prairies is Archer Daniels Midland facility in Lloydminster, which has a production capacity of 265 million litres a year.)

Creating more domestic demand for canola would not only be good in itself, Innes said, but also make growers less exposed to the volatility in global markets, such as when China abruptly curtailed canola seed imports.

“Producers tell us all the time that they really value having processing and crush facilities in their local areas because of the stable demand that creates from the crops they grow,” said Innes. “From a producer perspective, it’s driving local, stable demand and creating local value-added processing facilities that can buy their crops.”

Currently, diesel sold in Canada must contain, on average, a minimum of two per cent renewable content but government wants that to increase dramatically, he said.

“The government of Canada predicts that there could be 10 to 11 per cent of renewable content in diesel in 10 years,” he said.

That has raised concerns in some quarters.

On Jan. 1, the Manitoba government raised the amount of biodiesel blended with diesel to 3.5 per cent and will increase it further (to five per cent) next year — a move blasted by the Manitoba Trucking Association.

“We have explained time and again that our climate is too extreme for biodiesel at higher blends,” the association said in a release last month. “These higher blends are not reliable and lead to increased downtime and maintenance costs for our industry.”

But while it says “a broad range of options and alternatives” is needed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the Canadian Fuels Association backs the use of biofuels.

“We believe that biofuels are an important pathway to achieving our goals related to reducing emissions and creating a strong, resilient economy,” Jason Vaillant, the association’s VP of communications, said in an email.

About the author

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Alexis Kienlen lives in Edmonton and has been writing for Alberta Farmer since 2008. Originally from Saskatoon, Alexis is also the author of two collections of poetry, a biography, and a novel called "Mad Cow."

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