Slogging through the biodiesel bog
So many requirements make you wonder whether this eco-fuel is even worth it
Converting your car or truck to run on biodiesel instead of petroleum cuts emissions and minimizes our reliance on oil. Plus, it’s cheap, right? Picking up used grease at local restaurants, running it through a machine and making your own fuel can’t cost nearly as much as the $4.50 or so gas stations are now charging per gallon.
Or so we thought.
“You have to get a grease-hauling license,” said Carl Schultz, a Chico auto body repairman and former host of the now-defunct Chico Biodiesel Collective. He’s right. In order to collect used kitchen grease and transport it, you must first register through the California Department of Food and Agriculture.
“You also have to get registered as a fuel supplier through the Board of Equalization, so they can tax you on the oil you bring in to your business,” said Ecocab founder Bryan Gabbard. “It’s not really just convert-your-vehicle-and-go.”
Both Schultz and Gabbard are well-versed in the state requirements for legally hauling used kitchen grease from restaurants, turning it into a fuel and then using it in the gas tank. But they’re among the few.
Steve Bash, who runs the Sacramento Biodiesel Network, knows dozens of people who run their cars on biodiesel and used vegetable oil. When asked if he thought most of them knew about all the regulations, he answered with an emphatic “No.”
“Even if they do know, they just want to deny it anyway,” Bash said. “To have to pay the taxes and the transporter’s license—on top of the fact that it’s already risky and you’re already doing the right thing—is hard for the average individual to justify.”
Not too long ago, the only trucks picking up kitchen grease discarded by restaurants were owned by large companies, like renderers. Since biodiesel has become more popular—approximately 250,000 people in the United States, the largest portion of whom live in California, are driving biodiesel-run vehicles—more and more individuals find themselves expected to adhere to laws meant for big companies.
A recent story in the Los Angeles Times poked a little fun at the issue, noting that even Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger wasn’t paying the road tax for his biodiesel Hummer.
To be completely legal, there are a few agencies one must go to for permits and/or registrations.
1. California Department of Food and Agriculture, specifically the Meat and Poultry Inspection Branch. For individuals (and businesses) who pick up used kitchen grease from area restaurants, a grease-hauling license is required. The registration costs $100, plus $300 per vehicle used to haul the stuff. Before you even apply, though, you must be insured on that vehicle for at least $1 million in liability in case of a spill. Only seven people in Butte County and 14 in Sacramento County are registered grease-haulers.
2. State Board of Equalization, in order to pay an 18-cent-per-gallon road tax. The diesel fuel tax applies here to biodiesel, and anyone who processes it, even for their own use. Once registered, a diesel fuel supplier’s license is issued. The LA Times reported 70 people in the state who carry such a license.
“I understand people don’t want to be regulated,” Gabbard said, “but at the same time, if somebody starts using vegetable oil instead of gas, they’re no longer paying the road tax and aren’t contributing to our state and our roads.”
3. The California Air Resources Board, which issues permits for anyone creating air pollution. And yep, that means the people who burn fryer grease to create a clean fuel.
“It’s really difficult for a person who wants to do the right thing on the bigger-picture level,” said Bash. “Even if they just want to save money, this is a good thing. What’s not good is if they make a big mess behind the restaurant, or start stealing grease.”
Theft, in fact, has become a huge problem, as evidenced by increased fees and annoyed renderers. The per-car registration for hauling grease used to cost $75. At the beginning of this year, it was hiked up to $300.
“There was a problem with theft of the kitchen grease,” said Steve Lyle, director of Public Affairs for CDFA. “The registration was created to help solve that problem—to be able to investigate thefts.”
Chris Ottone, who owns North State Rendering Co., which picks up all animal byproducts, including kitchen grease, from Sacramento to Fort Bragg, agreed that stealing has been a problem for the past two years, since the price of gas started to rise.
“It’s become an epidemic,” Ottone said by phone from his Oroville facility. “And it’s not just me; it’s every renderer. In L.A. they’re having wars almost.”
As far as North State Rendering is concerned, about 10 percent of its kitchen grease goes toward biodiesel, which Ottone said he sells to individuals and companies (call ahead to make sure he has the supply).
Buying premade biodiesel eliminates many of the hurdles people must jump through in the process. A grease-hauler’s license isn’t needed because you’re picking up a fuel rather than used kitchen grease. And the road tax is taken care of—it’s built into the price of the fuel. One downside to commercial biodiesel is the cost: it’s a commodity, so it follows the basic rules of supply-and-demand, and, as Bash pointed out, it usually follows the petroleum prices.
As far as Gabbard is concerned, biodiesel is out and hybrid is in. He recently replaced his biodiesel taxi cab with a brand-new Prius. “The future is electric vehicles run on solar on your house,” he said.
There is hope on the horizon for the DIY biodiesel folks, though. A bill going through the State Assembly (AB 2240) would make biodiesel exempt from the diesel road tax. Another piece of legislation, an amendment to the Food and Agricultural Code (AB 1846), would waive the $300 per-vehicle hauling-registration charge for individuals carrying not more than 50 gallons of used kitchen grease at a time for their own use.
“That’s a step,” Bash said of AB 1846. “It keeps everybody licensed. The law is just written mostly for the industrialist because a new way hasn’t been shown yet. It doesn’t really account for or support the grassroots movement.”