Red tape, costs entangle fans of 'green' fuel

Using waste oils for fuel is the most eco-friendly way to drive, according to enthusiasts, who complain that high costs and state regulations are hampering their efforts.

It's not uncommon on California roadways to spot diesel cars with bumper stickers that boast of biofuels in the engine, using slogans such as "Fuel for the revolution."

"This is the largest underground movement in the United States since the Civil War and the underground railroad," said Michael Wittman, an environmental activist and biodiesel user in Los Angeles.

But many drivers who began using biofuels to reduce their carbon emissions and save money fear that little-known government regulations are nipping the adoption of homegrown, "green" fuels in the bud.

In California, it's illegal to collect vegetable oil from a restaurant for fuel without paying a $300 license upfront as well as hefty road use taxes per gallon. And along with rising costs for commodities, rules regulating how to sell non-standard fuels are driving some biofuel suppliers out of business.

Fans of homegrown fuels are finding it more costly and time-consuming to keep filling up with biodiesel or vegetable oil.
Fans of homegrown fuels are finding it more costly and time-consuming to keep filling up with biodiesel or vegetable oil. Sienna Wildwind/Green Means Go Cars

"There are so many people doing this underground, not putting stickers on their cars to advertise," Wittman said. "Restaurant owners are not aware it's illegal so when a customer asks for oil they say, 'Sure.' People don't know the rules."

Apparently the only way that people have been getting away with filling up their diesel tanks with home-filtered vegetable oil has been due to regulators looking the other way.

Biofuel users who want to collect vegetable oil have to apply for a license from the meat and poultry inspection branch of the California Department of Food and Agriculture. The price in the last year or so has gone to $300 from $75, not counting mandatory insurance.

In April, an Illinois man was arrested in Santa Clara County for trying to take grease from a Burger King.

And many people running home-brewed fuel aren't aware that they owe road maintenance taxes, which are built into the price of gasoline or diesel at the pump.

Even Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger was surprised to learn that he owed taxes of 18 cents for every gallon of straight cooking oil that was powering his converted Hummer, according to the Los Angeles Times.

After drivers including a state senator faced fines in North Carolina last year, it became one of five states to stop imposing road use taxes on biofuel users. Drivers are also exempt in Illinois as well as Rhode Island, Texas, and Indiana.

In a well-publicized 2007 Illinois case, state tax authorities accused a retired couple of breaking the law by running a converted 1986 Volkswagen Golf on waste vegetable oil at 46 miles per gallon.

The tax remains in California, in addition to an 18 cent per gallon federal tax.

Biofuel advocates wonder why they aren't getting the same breaks as hybrid cars, which aren't subject to motor fuel taxes for the time they cruise on roads under electrical power. Some feel they are being punished for their efforts to drive "greener," and blame Big Oil for influencing lawmakers.

And many worry that the food-versus-fuels concern has led the public to "blame the hippies" for the rising prices for staple crops.

Fans of "green" fuel note, however, that biodiesel can be made without using food crops and other commodities. On the West Coast, biodiesel cooperatives have switched from using virgin soy shipped from the Midwest to recycling feedstock from local sources. Potentially even more sustainable, algae remains on the horizon.

The general public often confuses the various types of biofuels. Biodiesel and veggie oil get lumped in with ethanol, made from corn largely grown by large corporations and backed by government subsidies. But biodiesel can be pumped into in any car that accepts petroleum-based diesel.

Cars that run on grease from french fries or other food, by contrast, must be converted first, which can cost several thousand dollars. Those vehicles can hum along on waste oil from restaurants or, say, on canola oil from Costco.

Colette Brooks, co-founder of the L.A. Biodiesel Co-op, sits inside a mobile fueling station.
Colette Brooks, co-founder of the L.A. Biodiesel Co-op, sits inside a mobile fueling station. Colette Brooks

As with gasoline, prices are climbing for biofuels across the board. Biodiesel costs around $5 per gallon, still more than petroleum-based diesel at the pump. Pure vegetable oil from a store shelf that was less than $4 per gallon last year costs above $4.50.

Some veggie oil users who used to be paid by restaurants for offloading waste grease are finding that they now have to pay the restaurants as much as 10 cents per gallon.

VegRev, a small shop that converts old diesel Mercedes to accept a mix of diesel, biofuel and waste oil, scrapped its plans from last year to sell waste oil-based fuel for $1.50 per gallon in San Francisco. Co-founder William Hibbitts, who has since moved operations to Oakland,Calif., said legal red tape wasn't the issue.

But vegetable oil appears to be caught in a Catch-22. The EPA requires all fuel and additives to be tested, but while biodiesel can meet ASTM standards, vegetable oil isn't eligible.

"People who want to sell straight vegetable oil are complaining about the diesel tax," said Kent Bullard, co-founder and president of the L.A. Biodiesel Cooperative. "The bigger issue is it's not legal as a road fuel in California. It's a chicken and egg situation. You're not going to get the standard through."

Collective efforts to legitimize vegetable oil appear to be aborted, at least for now. The Web site of the National VegOil Board is no longer being maintained.

"It still boggles my mind to have such a simple alternative out there yet to have regulators create obstacles and hurdles to that process when all we want to do is provide clean easy solutions to live sustainably."
--Colette Brooks, co-founder of the L.A. Biodiesel Cooperative
"It still boggles my mind to have such a simple alternative out there yet to have regulators create obstacles and hurdles to that process when all we want to do is provide clean easy solutions to live sustainably," said Brooks, who also sells biodiesel-ready used Mercedes.

As opposed to vegetable oil, biodiesel can involve toxic chemicals to brew but is classified as a developmental fuel. Biodiesel sellers form co-operatives because by law, experimental fuel can only be sold to a controlled group of users. They must comply with the same laws governing gas stations, which deal with vast quantities and far greater toxic chemicals.

"Maybe for some of the real small guys it's a big problem, but it's kind of a serious business selling fuel," said Will Noel, general manager of Santa Cruz-based biodiesel station Pacific Biofuel, which pays up to $9,000 per year on permits. "If someone breaks down it can be very dangerous."

Byzantine laws

Colette Brooks, a co-founder of the L.A. Biodiesel Cooperative, recently received a confusing visit from the California Department of Weights and Measures. Brooks said she doesn't oppose moves to ensure the safety of the fuel, but wishes the rules, similar to those regulating regular gas stations, weren't so byzantine.

"It still boggles my mind to have such a simple alternative out there yet to have regulators create obstacles and hurdles to that process when all we want to do is provide clean easy solutions to live sustainably," said Brooks, who also sells biodiesel-ready used Mercedes.

Wesley Caddell, co-owner of the People's Fuel Cooperative in San Francisco, finds it ridiculous that California is the only state to classify biodiesel as an experimental fuel. In San Francisco he has worked for five years to install biodiesel pumps. Adding air quality permits to the growing pile of regulations, he said he'd have to come up with $60,000 for a fueling station, which would take a decade to recover given the tiny profit margins.

"I haven't felt the love from above," he said. "We're busting our tail to make this happen, but you can't buy it at the pump. It's a joke because the fuel's been in use for many years all over Midwest. Truckers have been running biodiesel with no problem."

Biofuel activists want authorities to relax the web of fines, licenses, and taxes. Even if they could succeed, however, other barriers to widespread adoption of biofuels would remain.

Although more diesel vehicles with boosted fuel economy have come to the U.S. market, car makers don't advertise biofuel compatibility. Instead, running a new Volkswagen on alternative fuels would void a warranty.

Someone who modifies a car to run on an alternative fuel is supposed to get the car re-certified with the EPA or face a $3,500 fine, explained Bullard of the L.A. Biodiesel Coop, who also audits biodiesel manufacturing plants for the National Biodiesel Accreditation Commission.

And car manufacturers would have to recall an entire line if tests by the Environmental Protection Agency found used vehicles that fail emissions standards and ran fuel that doesn't meet government standards.

 

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