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Who Killed the Biodiesel Car? [VIDEO]

by Rob Eshman

September 30, 2009 | 4:24 am

This past summer, the last two Westside gas stations offering 99 percent pure biodiesel closed down their pumps.

You can still buy regular gasoline at those stations, but the Great Green Hope of the Millenium, a powerful fuel made from sustainable organic matter, is nowhere to be found.

Well, not quite.

I drive a 2005 Volkswagen Passat TDI, a car whose diesel engine will gladly accept petroleum-based diesel or biodiesel. I only use biodiesel, because it’s better for the environment, and because I believe that Jews who oppose Arab terrorism and Iranian nukes but drive gas-guzzlers are, in a word, hypocrites.

Until this summer, I bought my biodiesel at regular gas stations, but not anymore. Now I drive to a narrow West L.A. alley. I pull up, turn off my engine and use a special key to open a secret wooden shed. Then, I siphon off some pure homemade biodiesel from what looks like a 200-gallon plastic milk jug inside. It’s the handiwork of an underground cooperative, operating in contravention of all sorts of federal and state laws prohibiting the unregulated manufacture and sale of biodiesel.

A friend of a friend got me on a list — I don’t know the name of the man who supplies the stuff; he doesn’t know mine. The phone calls back and forth to arrange our first meeting were coded enough to set off alarms for any number of NSA interceptors. Keep in mind that within a one-mile radius of that alley I can walk into a half-dozen stores and buy legal marijuana. Almost 10 years after our last president declared America’s commitment to ending our dependence on foreign oil, and just a few months since our new president declared — yawn — the same, I can get arrested for buying domestic fuel, but I am free to buy all the domestic weed I want.

That’s right: Los Angeles is now the traffic-choked, smog-ridden, alternative fuel-free weed capital of the United States. The bad news: The air you’re breathing is 50 percent smog. The good news: The smog is 20 percent ganja.

In the early 2000s, biodiesel was the rising star of the alternative fuel market. It can be made cheaply by thinning vegetable-based oil or animal fat with alcohol, a process that any high school chemistry student can master. The technology was ready to go — in fact, it was old: Rudolf Diesel ran his first engines on peanut oil. Even proponents of the electric car understood that for real power, you needed biodiesel.

“You’ll never run an 18-wheeler on electric; it doesn’t deliver enough torque,” former Tesla Motors CEO Martin Eberhard told me over lunch at the 2006 Milken Global Conference. “For that you need biodiesel.”

As gas prices rose, biodiesel took off. Even Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger blessed it, appearing on a 2007 episode of “Pimp My Ride” to marvel over a retrofitted 1965 Chevy Impala. Outfitted with an 800-horsepower biodiesel engine, the Impala challenged a brand new Lamborghini Gallardo to a drag race. The biodiesel won.

“Low carbon alternatives are going to be crucial to our fight against global warming,” the governor said, “and to move our country away from our oil addiction.”

Biodiesel outlets sprouted around the Southland; used diesel cars sold well above Blue Book; Willie Nelson and Darryl Hannah made it cool and sexy, and manufacturers looked for better and cheaper ways to produce the stuff. School districts, towns like Mammoth Lakes, and companies like Vons converted some or all of their fleets to run on biodiesel.

Then, poof, faster than you could say EV1, the biodiesel became the bogeyman.

The fuel went from challenging the throne of refined oil to being kicked out of the kingdom — a story that bore some of the hallmarks by which various self-interested forces aligned to kill General Motors’ all-electric car, the EV1, a decade earlier.

The biggest blow came from a study that determined that the manufacture of biodiesel from corn and palm soy, especially in developing countries, uses more fuel than it produces. The study said biodiesel led to global warming, because farmers plowed forests under to grow fuel crops, and it contributed to high food prices and world hunger, because food crops were being diverted to run cars and busses.

When a Feb. 11, 2008, Newsweek cover story reported on the study, biodiesel’s popular image went from Daryl Hannah to Jeffrey Dahmer. Biodiesel’s proponents tried to fight back. They countered the basic science of the study. But their strongest argument was this: As the market for biodiesel grows, technologies that allow for the cost-effective creation of biodiesel from decayed plant matter, non-food crops like hemp and jojoba, and even algae, could find a market.

If a semi-informed report in Newsweek dumped on biodiesel, bureaucratic slight-of-hand up in Sacramento flushed it away. Last June, the State Water Resources Control Board decided to begin enforcing laws against storing biodiesel underground. Since gas stations can’t afford costly above-ground storage, that simple stroke of the pen brought a screeching halt to an alternative fuel’s rapid challenge to gasoline.

The ruling defies logic. Studies show biodiesel degrades faster than sugar. You can safely breathe its exhaust, according to the EPA. Dangerous to ground water? They use the stuff to clean up oil spills.

It will take a state commission three years and who knows how much of your money to prove what European countries with equally strong, or even stricter, environmental standards already know: biodiesel is safe.

So what do I want? I want our green governor, and our green mayor, and our green representatives to work with the State Water Resources Control Board to allow the continued storage and sale of pure biodiesel while study results are pending. I want Jewish groups whose platform calls for an end to Middle East oil dependence to join in this fight. I want us, as a society, to get behind a local, sustainable and green product that can make the world a better place — and I don’t mean weed.

 

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