A person holds a cannabis leaf up to a sunset. Image: David Gabric/Unsplash

As thousands of activists, lobbyists, and representatives finalize their plans to attend COP26 in Glasgow from Oct. 31 to Nov. 12, some representatives are planning a very special event called “Beyond the Green” on the sidelines of the huge conference.

The Health and Environmental Management Project (H.E.M.P.) is planning to draw attention to the many environmental benefits of industrial hemp. A collaboration among mainly UK hemp associations and businesses, H.E.M.P.’s members come from England, Scotland, Ireland, Wales, the Channel Islands, and the Isle of Mann.

H.E.M.P.’s positive focus is just one of the many endorsements that industrial hemp — which contains less than 0.3 per cent THC (the psychoactive chemical in cannabis) — has been receiving lately. Even Forbes magazine — not known to be a radical publication — published an op-ed praising industrial hemp as “the answer to petrochemical dependency.”

The op-ed notes:

“The crop can be used to make everything from biodegradable plastic to construction materials like flooring, siding, drywall and insulation to paper to clothing to soap to biofuels made from hemp seeds and stalks. Porsche is even using hemp-based material in the body of its 718 Cayman GT4 Clubsport track car to reduce the weight while maintaining rigidity and safety.”

Replacing electric vehicles

Some are touting hemp as a viable alternative to electric vehicles (EVs), which have some significant drawbacks, including an increase in mining for the precious metals needed to make the batteries and other components. Other problems with EVs include the high cost of the vehicles themselves, and the fact that widespread use could lead to an overburdened electricity grid.

Then there’s the current problem of slow charging times.

Most charging stations operate on alternating current, meaning that fully charging an EV can take many hours. Fast-charging stations operate on direct current, but the cost of building just one such charger is about $100,000. The price-tag for implementing fast-chargers along every highway would be extraordinary.

Rather than replace the hundreds of millions of cars that utilize internal combustion engines to burn fossil fuel, some people are arguing that the engine can easily be altered (by your local mechanic) to burn 100 per cent ethanol — including hemp biofuel. Already, most gasoline sold is mixed with 10 per cent ethanol.

People could keep their current car (rather than send it to the junkyard), while independent biofuel distributors and sellers set up local fueling stations over the next few years. Car engines could be altered to become “flex-fuel” vehicles (switching back and forth from gasoline to biofuel), and then ethanol-only in later years.

That case was made recently by economist Ellen Brown, who wrote:

“Hemp fuel and other forms of bioethanol are renewable energy sources that can be produced anywhere, contributing to energy independence not just for families but for local communities and even for the country. And it doesn’t place the burden of addressing climate change on the middle or working classes.”

Brown also touched on the century-old history of the blatant suppression of biofuels by none other than oil baron John D. Rockefeller.

A history of suppression

While Henry Ford was working on his idea for a “horseless carriage,” Rockefeller was busy consolidating his oil empire, and by 1875 he had bought up or bankrupted most of his rivals in the kerosene industry.

At that time, oil refining for kerosene created a number of byproducts thought to be unusable — one of which was gasoline.

The common practice was for oil refiners to dump these byproducts into rivers and streams. In Ohio, for example, there were some 20 oil refineries in the Cleveland area by the late 1800s, and refiners commonly dumped their unwanted gasoline byproduct into the Cuyahoga River – one of the reasons why that river has caught fire more than a dozen times over the past century.

Rockefeller’s Standard Oil of Ohio, for example, followed that dumping practice. Rockefeller himself reported that “thousands and hundreds of thousands of barrels of it [gasoline byproduct] floated down the creeks and rivers, and the ground was saturated with it, in the constant effort to get rid of it.”

Meanwhile, Henry Ford built his first car in 1896 and it was designed to run completely on alcohol fuel (including hemp biofuel) produced by farmers, who at that time had their own stills to turn excess starchy crops into alcohol (ethanol). Ford envisioned his car owner fueling up at roadside fueling stations run by independent farmers.

But alcohol was burdened with a liquor tax. Teddy Roosevelt, elected president in 1904, was in favour of independent farmers selling biofuel, and he attempted to get that alcohol fuel tax dropped. But he had strong opposition from Rockefeller, who had extensive power and influence at the state and federal level.

By then, Rockefeller’s team had figured out that gasoline could run cars and Standard Oil became determined to stop alcohol fuels and prevent them from having any share in the emerging market.

As Ellen Brown wrote:

“In 1908, Ford accommodated Rockefeller’s gasoline fuel by building America’s first ‘flex-fuel’ car, the Model T or ‘Tin Lizzie.’ It could be made to run on either gasoline or ethanol by adjusting the ignition timing and air fuel mixture.”

But Rockefeller wanted it all.

Even though Roosevelt backed congressional attempts to lift the tax on industrial alcohol, Rockefeller’s Standard Oil was more powerful and the tax remained in place.

By 1911, when Standard Oil was broken up into what were called “the Seven Sisters,” Rockefeller had monopolized the automobile fuel market and gasoline sales were well on their way to becoming the top moneymaker for the oil industry.

Later, Rockefeller used his formidable power to help pass Prohibition — which banned the sale and transport of any form of alcohol, including ethanol. That legislation effectively killed hemp biofuel at the time.

Now, however, things are shifting rapidly in favour of hemp.

An astonishing plant

One of the most amazing characteristics of industrial hemp is that the plants can be used for bioremediation — a process that pulls toxic pollution out of soil and restores it for agricultural use. Hemp was even used to remove radioactive agents from the ground after the Chernobyl disaster.

One cannabis tech website notes: “Astonishingly, hemp can clean up a broad range of toxins in the soil, including metals, pesticides, crude oil and toxins in landfills.” The website adds that “creating a green, environmentally-friendly hemp biofuel from the harvested toxic plants almost seems poetic.”

Hemp grows very fast, needs less water than most plants, and ingests CO2 faster than trees, while returning nutrients back into the soil. Depending on location, hemp needs 85 to 120 days to reach maturity, so in some areas two or three crops per year can be grown. As the weather heats up because of climate change, hemp fares even better. The crop could be used by farmers who rotate their crops to keep soil viable.

Hemp seed oil can be used to make hemp biodiesel, which can be used in any conventional diesel engine. The cannabis tech website asks readers to “imagine a fleet of transport trucks powered by fuel made by a plant which left the soil in better condition than it found it.” Meanwhile, the rest of the plant can be turned into ethanol.

Components for the future

In August 2021, the Comox Valley Regional District on Vancouver Island in B.C. passed a resolution to consider a rewrite of the district’s zoning rules in order to shift the focus of service stations from fossil fuels, to hydrogen fuel and EV charging.

Perhaps Comox should consider adding hemp biofuel to the list of desired replacements for gasoline.

ABC News predicts that it will take “more than 17 years” to make the change-over to EVs. That seems time enough to rethink transportation needs and potentially refocus on public transit and hemp biofuel as crucial components for the future.

Canadian freelance writer Joyce Nelson is the author of seven books. She can be reached via www.joycenelson.ca.

Image: David Gabric/Unsplash

Joyce Nelson

Canadian freelance writer Joyce Nelson is the author of seven books and many hundreds of articles and essays published by a variety of magazines and websites. During more than 30 years as a full-time writer,...