Give Grease A Chance

Recycling isn’t just about cans and bottles; across California, used cooking oil from restaurants is getting a second life in the form of an alternative fuel called biodiesel. Cooperatives are buying it in bulk or brewing it in their backyards, and the city of Berkeley uses it to run its heavy vehicles. Public pumps are opening in Mendocino County, and Coachella-based Imperial Western Products (IWP) has more than doubled its sales in the past year. But despite its popularity, biodiesel is an outlaw fuel in California, where state officials have yet to approve it.
Biodiesel can be used in diesel engines with little or no engine modification, and it’s better for the air: biodiesel-run engines produce less greenhouse gases, carbon monoxide, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and cancer-causing particulates than fossil fuels. “Every state in the union is embracing biodiesel,” says IWP’s Bob Clark, “while California is writing regulatory rules to exclude it.”
Case in point: The California Air Resources Board (CARB) is currently setting new standards for fleet emissions—including particulates, VOCs, and nitrogen oxides (NOx). Focusing on trash and recycling trucks, CARB is reviewing fuel and technology choices that may help cut down on disease-causing emissions. But CARB has steadfastly rejected biodiesel while embracing costlier nonrenewables such as compressed natural gas (CNG). Why the reluctance?
CARB says NOx (nitrogen oxide, a precursor to smog) is the culprit. Biodiesel produces significantly lower levels of particulates and VOCs, which have been implicated in a host of respiratory ills, but doesn’t offer reductions in ozone-related NOx emissions. “After-treatment devices,” which can be affixed to any exhaust system, would fix that problem. But it’s not enough, says CARB’s Nancy Steele: “Biodiesel has not been verified as an alternative fuel by our verification procedure, and equipment manufacturers must cover the fuel in their warranties, which they don’t.”
Dave Williamson, who runs Berkeley’s recycling fleet on 100 percent biodiesel (B100), says warranties are a red herring: “Most of the vehicles on the road aren’t even under engine warranty—especially the smokers.” IWP’s Bob Clark adds, “Engine companies do not warranty fuel—whether it’s biodiesel or petrodiesel.”
Clark also questions CARB’s verification stipulation, since biodiesel has already been subject to the federal EPA’s strict testing required by the Clean Air Act. He adds that CNG did not have to undergo the CARB’s verification procedure. Rather, “It was ‘grandfathered’ in.” The cost of the testing and certification process is steep, but the National Biodiesel Board (NBB)—its only high-profile lobbying group—is picking up the tab to test B20, a blend of 20 percent biodiesel and 80 percent petrodiesel. So far, no one has stepped up to fund verification for B100, which has far less emissions than B20.
Missouri-based NBB campaigns for biodiesel made from virgin vegetable oil, as a means to open new markets to Midwestern farmers. But because California grows little in the way of oilseed crops, the state’s biodiesel producers make their product from recycled cooking oil, which Fred Wellons of Baker Commodities calls “a California solution to a California problem.”
Biodiesel from cooking oil is nearly identical to that made from virgin soybean oil. Dr. Randall Von Wedell of Point Richmond’s CytoCulture says, “The ideal scenario for producing an alternative fuel or additive would be to have a local plant process local waste oil for use in a local market.” California biodiesel producers, distributors, and co-ops are doing just that, but for biodiesel to have a broader impact, it will need the state’s seal of approval.
California’s landmark AB 1493, passed in 2002, orders CARB to propose ways to cut emissions of carbon dioxide and other gases suspected of causing global warming, starting with 2009 car models. The bill could give biodiesel yet another chance to shine, since over the course of its lifecycle, the fuel adds no net increase in carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.
Biodiesel costs half again as much as petrodiesel, and even though the biofuel is not subject to the same price fluctuations as fossil fuels, the differential remains daunting to many industrial fleets. Yet divided among Berkeley households, the cost of running the city’s fleets seems like a good deal. “It’s not that much money if you think about it,” says Von Wedell. “It costs approximately four dollars per household per year—the cost of a cup of coffee and a scone.”

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