March 8, 2007
Click the BIG ARROW to see Rob Eshman's new
bio diesel VW and watch him drink a bio diesel Martini
Last week I bemoaned the fact that former Gov. Tom Vilsack, the only presidential candidate with the ideas and track record to wean America off foreign oil, dropped out of the race.
This week I decided I wasn't going to just sit there and moan, I was going to do something about it.
So I bought a car.
And not a Prius. At 40 miles per gallon, the hybrid car to the stars is a gas-guzzler compared to my new baby: a 2005 Volkswagen Passat TDI, a diesel car that gets 30 to 40 miles per gallon ... of corn oil.
I'd been writing and speaking and boring my family for some time now on how absolutely stupid it is for Americans to be dependent on foreign oil. Our petroleum economy lines the pockets of Middle East potentates and other facilitators of extremism and terror. It directly endangers the state of Israel by strengthening its enemy's regimes. And, whether the oil we burn is from Texas or Saudi Arabia, it contributes to global warming.
The enormity of our stupidity is dwarfed by an even bigger stupidity: We have the technology, now, to solve this problem.
Take my new car, for instance.
Two days after I bought it, I took my car to the appropriately named USA gas station at Glencoe Avenue and Mindanao Way in Marina del Rey and pulled up to a pump marked, "BioDiesel." I filled up my tank, and I drove away.
The fuel now powering my car is made in America from canola, corn, soy or other new and recycled food oils. Almost any off-the-assembly line diesel engine can run just fine on it.
"Aren't you afraid of enriching those Midwest corn oil shieks?" a friend of mine said as we tooled around.
Oh, what a world it would be: Saudi princes actually out looking for real jobs while Kansas corn farmers blow wads of cash in Macao.
Biodiesel itself has the consistency, smell and, yes, taste of Mazola. Made from food oils and alcohol, it disintegrates into harmless organic matter when spilled. It's as toxic as table salt.
And biodiesel is virtually carbon neutral -- whatever carbon dioxide it releases when burned is offset by the carbon dioxide the plants absorb when they grow.
At first, when I walked into the gas station kiosk to pay for my biodiesel, I was crestfallen. I don't know what I expected -- maybe a recycled bamboo floor and exposed beams, a pretty hostess offering me an organic mimosa and a free 10 minute Reiki treatment from Al Gore.
Instead, the only decorations were racks of Slim Jims and a fridge full of Throttle. The station's cashier sat behind thick bulletproof glass. I paid $3.29 a gallon for 12 gallons and walked out.
And, in retrospect, that was the beauty of the whole experience. There's nothing unusual or alternative about running America's transport system on native, non-petroleum fuel. You can drive a great car, fill up as usual (though without the noxious odor), and be on your way.
Unfortunately, the biodiesel movement still has a certain crunchiness associated with it. Diesels are common in Europe, and, prompted by the creation of a new low-sulpher diesel, a new generation of these cars will soon hit American shores. But for now, partisans tend to drive pre-1985 Mercedes with iron engines that are said to run for a million miles. These behemoths chug along well enough and can be had for as little as $3,000, but I was looking for something with airbags and zip.
A small group converts these diesel engines to run on waste vegetable oil. Several companies do this for around $800. Jeremy Mittman, a lawyer with Proskauer Rose LLP in Century City, has a deal with Pat's kosher restaurant on Pico to pick up its used fry oil. He filters it and funnels it into the tank of his 1982 Mercedes. His total fuel cost: about 0.
The biodiesel I use is labeled B100 -- 100 percent biodiesel, not blended with regular diesel. It is more expensive than our government subsidized gasoline for now, and there's only a handful of retail outlets locally, but a biodiesel facility is opening near Oxnard, which will allow the price to Southern Californians to drop. In the meantime, 15 cents per gallon more than regular unleaded strikes me as a small price to pay.
After all, if you drive a gas-powered car and donate to organizations that fight global warming or defend Israel, you're contributing to the solution and the problem. Rabbi David Wolpe understood this when he delivered a sermon last January at Sinai Temple urging congregants to drive hybrid vehicles. After his talk, some 50 families traded in their Lexuses and Mercedes guzzlers for Priuses.
The American Jewish Committee understood this when it began offering incentives for employees to switch to hybrid vehicles. The organization has rightly made energy independence a cornerstone of its advocacy work.
Is biodiesel "The Answer?" No -- but like hybrids, fuel-cell vehicles, higher Federal fuel mileage standards and public transportation, it's an important step along the way.
And the only dangers?
Getting struck by a hybrid owner for sporting my new bumper sticker: "Biodiesel: Cleaner Than Your Prius."
"Hybrid v. Diesel": http://www.homepower.com/files/featured/HybridsVsDiesels.pdf
What Is Biodiesel? http://www.biodieselnow.com/default.aspx
American Jewish Committee's Stand on Energy Independence http://www.ajc.org/site/c.ijITI2PHKoG/b.838461/k.C502/Energy.htm
"Cleaner Greener Cars" from E Magazine: http://www.emagazine.com/view/?3623