THE BLOG
09/26/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Eco Etiquette: Where Has All The Biodiesel Gone?

I live in Los Angeles, and have a friend who runs his cars on biodiesel. He told me last week that LA County has ruled it a threat to the water table to store biodiesel in underground tanks, thereby effectively eliminating its sale. Is this true? How can biodiesel (99 percent plant oil) be more of a threat than gas or regular diesel? Could you research this? If it is as big of a scam as it sounds, what do I do next?

-George

I first started looking into this issue when my husband and I rolled up to our friendly neighborhood biodiesel station in West LA to refuel our 1985 Mercedes 300D (a beast of a car, I might add - those things run forever), only to discover that alas! -- a pump for dirty diesel fuel now stood in the place of our former veggie oil vendor. How could this be? Would we be forced to revert to collecting fast food French fry oil?

As it turns out, yes -- unless we felt like driving 25 miles round-trip to one of the last remaining bio stations or could drum up $250 to join the LA Biodiesel Coop (a worthy investment, but still pricey).

Your friend is correct about the decision regarding the underground storage of biodiesel, but the ruling is not exclusive to LA County; that green fuels are now near impossible to find is the result of a recent verdict by the State Water Resources Control Board.

The answer to how this could have happened is as murky as a bucket of crude oil. Here's the play-by-play: In May of this year, the water board expanded the approval of underground biodiesel storage from B5 to B20 blends; previously, only B5 had been tested for safety, and California law requires that underground storage tanks containing any chemical must be certified as leak-proof. (The "B" designation, by the way, stands for the percentage of eco-friendly oil that the blend contains, so B5 means that a blend is 5 percent biofuel, while B100 is made of 100 percent plant-based materials.)

This ruling permits up to a 20 percent bio blend to now be stored underground. Sounds good, right? Well unfortunately, because the board did not include a provision for higher blend fuels, such as the B99 sold at my local station, it effectively shut down the sale of high-grade biodiesels on a technicality. Most service stations do not have the capacity to store fuel above ground.

I understand that California policymakers are being cautious in the wake of past environmental disasters involving underground storage tanks releasing hazardous chemicals into the land and water. Blends lower than B100 do contain petroleum and the EPA has found biodiesel to have a significant solvent effect -- so theoretically, biodiesel not secured in leak-proof tanks could leach petroleum and other chemical additives into the water table. But why not make an exemption for pure (B100) biodiesel, which is completely biodegradable and nontoxic?

To add insult to injury, testing to approve underground storage of a new fuel can take up to three years. Granted, I don't know much about this process, but it seems preposterous that Gov. Schwarzenegger, if he's really serious about California's green energy future, can't speed this up - especially since this ban is responsible for shutting down small businesses in the midst of a deep recession and is thwarting the growth of jobs connected to the expansion of the green fuels market. I don't know if I smell Big Oil, but there's something suspect about the whole thing.

Now I know, dear readers, that I'm going to receive a barrage of comments to the following effect: We're better off without biodiesel anyway; the farming of biodiesel is clearing the rainforests and raising our food prices; biofuels are contributing to world hunger, etc., etc... But the fact remains that the market and technology for sustainable and non-food based biofuels (biofuels, the next generation) are rapidly progressing, and this recent move by the water board is a major backslide from our clean energy, independent-from-foreign-oil future.

As for what to do in the meantime: The Southern California Biodiesel Users Group has an extensive list of policymakers you can contact to help keep biodiesel stations open in the state, as well as sample letters to send. And don't forget, there's always the leftover fry grease from your local fast food joint (probably the only time I'll ever advise you to pay one a visit).

Send all your eco-inquiries to Jennifer Grayson at eco.etiquette@gmail.com. Questions may be edited for length and clarity.