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World Reports

Make Fries, Not War!

As the world’s supply of oil diminishes, biodiesel is quickly becoming the most popular alternative vehicle fuel in the US. A vegetable-based fuel that runs in all diesel engines, biodiesel burns cleanly and biodegrades faster than sugar. Fleets of garbage trucks and school buses in many states use it and there are plans in Minnesota, Delaware, and South Dakota to open biodiesel plants in the near future. The market for the fuel is growing, and quickly.

The problem is, biodiesel isn’t really legal.

At least it’s not legal for consumers to go to a filling station and fill our gas tanks. Since biodiesel in its pure form isn’t classified as a fuel by the American Society of Testing and Measurement (ASTM), private consumers aren’t legally allowed to buy it. And businesses aren’t supposed to sell it to us. Fleets of municipal vehicles, like garbage trucks and school buses, are classified differently and are allowed to purchase and use pure biodiesel in bulk quantities. But for now, individual car-owners don’t fully have that option. We can make it at home, or form a co-op and produce it collectively, but we may not buy or sell 100 percent “neat” biodiesel (B100) for private use.

A group of California biodiesel enthusiasts, the fledgling Biodiesel Council of California (BCC), is hoping to change that.

Self-defined as an “alliance of consumers, distributors, and producers for sustainable B100,” the BCC was first announced in a press release dated February 2, 2004 as an advocacy group dedicated to creating a human-scale, sustainability-oriented biodiesel industry. Its members are committed to making neat biodiesel legally available to California’s consumers.

The first step in this process is to ensure that biodiesel retailers, members of the BCC already in business, are allowed to continue selling B100—which they’re now doing more or less outside the law. Officials within the Division of Measures and Standards (DMS), the California agency charged with enforcing standards for most petroleum products, are aware that businesses such as Biofuel Oasis of Berkeley, Yokayo Biofuels of Ukiah, and Biofuel Station of Laytonville are selling neat biodiesel to their customers. These officials have requested that the businesses work towards finding a fully legal method of sale.

Better for the planet

Biodiesel is superior to petroleum diesel (called “dino-diesel” by biodiesel advocates) in many areas, especially environmentally. Vehicles running on biodiesel can emit up to 45 percent less carbon monoxide, 80 percent less carbon dioxide, and 55 percent fewer particulates than their dino-diesel-fueled equivalents. And biodiesel contains no sulfur, so the use of B100 doesn’t contribute at all to acid rain. Biodiesel can produce from one to five percent more smog-forming nitrogen oxides (NOx) than dino-diesel, but that is its only known environmental drawback.

Many biodiesel fans also claim the fuel helps keep an engine running smoothly. Kumar Plocher, president of Yokayo Biofuels and founding member of the BCC, thinks that using biodiesel will ultimately help engine longevity. “It is the only ‘ultra low sulfur’ diesel that has a high lubricity, and lubricity is good for the engine—biodiesel will keep engines lasting longer.”

Fuel and red tape

The illegality of B100 came about almost accidentally in December 2001 when ASTM, the US standards organization for fuels and additives, issued a specification (D 6751) for biodiesel fuel. The specification, entitled “Biodiesel used as a blend-stock,” described biodiesel as a fuel additive only, for use blended with petroleum diesel. And D 6751 is the only ASTM standard for biodiesel. According to Scott Hughes of the National Biodiesel Board, ASTM intended from the outset to create a specification for neat biodiesel, but the creation of that specification was bogged down by disagreements with engine manufacturers.

The task that the Biodiesel Collective of California and other interested parties now face is to ensure than a new ASTM standard for B100 is created. When that happens, DMS will be satisfied that consumers are fully protected and B100 will be sanctioned as an alternative fuel in California. But the process of creating an ASTM specification is a long one, especially when the product in question has powerful adversaries, like the Western States Petroleum Alliance.

In order to assist ASTM and to help keep themselves in business, Yokayo Biofuels, Biofuel Oasis, and Biofuel Station are jointly applying for a variance: permission to sell biodiesel as a “developmental fuel” under a California law that allows the sale of new fuels in order to gather “real-world” data.

Operating under such a variance, these three businesses would be held accountable by DMS on two fronts. First, the businesses would have to ensure that every customer is educated about biodiesel’s benefits and drawbacks. Customers would be required to sign a waiver, a statement of comprehension, and a release of liability. All three businesses would collect data about their customers’ fuel use—what kind of vehicles are being run on B100, how many miles they’re being driven, and how the biodiesel performs under different conditions—and report directly to DMS, which would then pass the information on to ASTM.

Yokayo Biofuels, Biofuel Oasis, and Biofuel Station would thus collect data that would ultimately create an ASTM standard for B100. According to Jennifer Radtke, co-owner of Biofuel Oasis, DMS has been co-operative and helpful in the variance application process. “They want to work with us.”

Even though California is yet to fully embrace B100, biodiesel blends are gaining more official recognition. Blends of B20 (20 percent biodiesel to 80 percent dino-diesel) and lower are supported by currently proposed legislation, AB 2899, which aims to accelerate distribution of B20 blends in California. Introduced by Assemblymember Shirley Horton (R-San Diego) and mostly penned by the National Biodiesel Board, AB 2899 proposes “voluntary CO2 labeling programs” that would, in effect, provide environmental incentive for consumers to purchase the biodiesel blends. The labels would allow retailers and distributors to display the “recognized CO2 life-cycle of reductions and fuel efficiency” of all fuels for sale. The proposed bill would also provide more tangible, monetary incentives in the form of CO2 credits that could be banked or traded.

AB 2899 supports and promotes the sale of biodiesel blends and, if it passes, will negate a pending California regulation mandating all biodiesel blends to comply with the dino-diesel specification (ASTM D-975). By adjusting the regulation to allow a “10 degree Fahrenheit increase in distillation temperature,” AB 2899 effectively ensures that all blends of B20 and under will be legally sanctioned. And without the added allowance of a 10F degree rise in distillation temperature, only B5 blends would consistently pass the test.

If the regulation passes, and AB 2899 doesn’t, Plocher won’t be pleased. “The regulation pending approval regulates B20 and lower blends rather loosely, because they can meet ASTM D 975, which is the petroleum diesel standard,” he said. “DMS is ‘protecting the public’ by not allowing higher blends under the pretext that they do not have their own standard, which is a bogus argument based on a technically flawed reading of ASTM D 6751.”

So if AB 2899 comes into full effect, probably this fall, says Hughes, blends of B20 and under will be safeguarded. And blends of B20 and higher won’t be acceptable “alternative fuels.”

Beyond increased public and political recognition of biodiesel—which should not be underestimated—this legislation has little effect on the status of B100, as it is still relegated to the status of a fuel additive. But for the BCC and its members, legal sale and distribution of B100 is the end goal. But not just any B100: sustainably, locally produced B100. As Sara Hope Smith, co-owner of Biofuel Oasis, said, “With biodiesel we have an opportunity to re-weave the fabric of how we do business, to make it more tangible and homegrown, to create community.”

And one of the crucial ways to do this, agree Smith, Radtke, and Plocher, is to make biodiesel from waste oil. Whereas the National Biodiesel Board promotes using virgin soybean oil for biodiesel, the collective members of the BCC are committed to diversifying their sources and ensuring that they use recycled vegetable oil. They are working to make biodiesel a fully legal, fully sustainable alternative fuel made from local and renewable resources.

The pending regulation mentioned above is California Code of Regulations, Title 4, Division 9, Chapter 6, Article 5. Sara Knight is Earth Island Journal’s intern.


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