Putting Poppies in the Gas Tank

One man’s quest to tap Afghanistan’s taboo biofuel

Back in the fall of 2008, Michael Bester and a business partner, both Army veterans doing contract work in Afghanistan, hit on the equivalent of the counterinsurgency’s trifecta: a way to improve the lives of ordinary Afghans, eliminate the illegal opium trade, and take the Taliban’s money. “We had been in villages where children were dying because they didn’t have proper medicine, because they didn’t have refrigerators,” Bester told me. Light up the villages, and perhaps you could empower Afghans to resist the Taliban. And the fuel? Most any feedstock would work, but one compelling option was the ubiquitous poppies that stoke the Taliban’s lucrative drug trade. Why not turn them into biodiesel instead?

Rudolf Diesel’s first engine ran on peanut oil; Bester wanted to be sure that poppies would function as well. So he and his partner consulted with experts, including an Australian plant geneticist named Philip Larkin, who had recently drafted a funding proposal titled “Biodiesel From Afghanistan Poppies.” Larkin knew that tractors in Tasmania, the site of the world’s largest legal opium industry, ran on poppy biodiesel. If it worked in Tasmania, it could work in Afghanistan: poppy seeds have an exceptionally high oil content (45 to 50 percent, compared with 40 percent in canola seeds), the oil has good “cold flow” properties (resistance to viscosity in cold weather), and, oh yeah, Afghanistan’s poppy crop could produce 100,000 tons of oil a year, or about 2.5 percent of annual global biodiesel consumption. Even the Pentagon’s budget-minders could benefit. The United States was paying perhaps as much as $400 to protect and deliver a single gallon of fuel to forward operating bases in rural Afghanistan, when a gallon of locally made biodiesel would have cost less than $10.

Under the banner of his company, Afghan Eco-Fuels, Bester shopped his idea around Kabul, albeit carefully. The U.S. ambassador at the time, William Wood, had served in Colombia previously and was committed to the Bush administration’s policy of aerial spraying and eradication of the poppy crop. Condoleezza Rice “got really huffy,” said one former senior official, whenever alternatives to eradication were suggested; earlier proposals to regulate the opium industry for pharmaceutical use had been shot down.

Then there were the Afghan politicians reportedly cashing in on the drug trade. “We didn’t specifically discuss poppy for biodiesel. That’s how people get killed by drug lords,” Bester said. He and his partner took a more tactful approach. “We said, ‘You find people to get us feedstock, and we’ll process it into biodiesel.’” But they had few takers. When they approached USAID about the idea, its bureaucrats were hesitant to back something so revolutionary. As Bester explained, “They wanted small things they could call a success: ‘Can you make ceramic pots?’” Dave Warner, a doctor, neuroscientist, and proponent of exploring poppy-to-biodiesel technology (“It’s just too fucking cool not to try!”) who has done extensive humanitarian work in eastern Afghanistan, ascribed even more significance to Bester’s string of rejections and characterized the idea as “opening up a micro Pandora’s box. We don’t have the intellectual robustness to deal with the war in Afghanistan,” he said. Eventually, Bester grew frustrated and more or less gave up.

But by early 2009, rhetorical, if not strategic, shifts were under way in Afghanistan. Upon taking office, the Obama administration quickly ended the poppy-eradication program. Then attacks on NATO diesel and supply convoys in Pakistan became a regular event. Other fuel options began to look more attractive. That spring, the CIA’s Office of the Chief Scientist began seriously exploring poppy-to-biodiesel technology. By the summer of 2009, it had put together a colorful, 12-slide PowerPoint that outlined the creation of a “biofuel industry that [would] replace opium as the principal agricultural product.” (The CIA declined my request to interview the lead scientist for the project.) Poppy fuel, according to the presentation, offered “excellent” value, “excellent” quantity and quality, and “positive” environmental impact.

Good ideas require funding, and for biodiesel to work, it needed a sponsor with a big budget. So Bester’s ears pricked up that summer when he heard that General James Conway, commandant of the Marine Corps, had pledged to “improve energy efficiency” for the Marines. Conway created the Expeditionary Energy Office, headed by a former fighter pilot named Colonel Bob “Brutus” Charette, to explore, test, screen, and deliver reusable energy sources to marines in Afghanistan. “Necessity is the mother of invention,” Charette told me, “and Afghanistan is the moon.” Charette staged multiple experimental forward operating bases, in Northern Virginia and California, where engineers pitched their newest solar, wind, and water-filtration technologies.

Alternative fuels were a bit more complicated. Every military engine, whether in a jet, helicopter, tank, or generator, is designed, for purposes of standardization, to run on jet fuel, or JP-8. Filling the tank with anything else would entail some refiguring and greater maintenance. Biodiesel options were quickly dismissed because of several complex factors. (The most common way to make biodiesel involves methanol, which is also used to make improvised explosive devices.) Pure poppy-seed oil mixed with JP-8 remained an option, though. As Charette told me, “It was the quickest way to get there”—there being renewable, green energy—“because the amount of oil you can get out of poppy is pretty good. It’s easy to get and readily available.”

But even for Charette, poppy’s political problems loomed too large. “It just doesn’t sound good, the United States using poppy oil,” Charette told me. He eventually found a compromise: cottonseed oil. In late 2010, marines in Afghanistan’s Helmand province purchased their first batch of cottonseed oil from the newly opened gin in Lashkar Gah. They paid $1,200 for 168 gallons. The cottonseed oil, mixed in a 20/80 blend with JP-8, is currently powering air- conditioning units and other equipment for marines at Helmand’s Camp Leatherneck. Although the biological properties are less ideal than those of poppy, admitted Charette, “cotton oil achieves the effect we’re looking for strategically.”

I spoke with Michael Bester shortly after the Marines got started with the pilot project in Helmand. He had been tracking the news closely. If the Marines could prove that biofuels work on military bases, he figured that his poppy- to-biodiesel concept, which is more tailored to helping Afghans, might still stand a chance. “I’d love if we could go back over to Afghanistan and if people would understand our idea better,” he said. “I’d love to hear someone say, ‘Hey, this is viable. Those two guys who were here two years ago weren’t crazy.’”