story Sunday about the people who use waste cooking oil to produce
biodiesel fuel or livestock feed supplements incorrectly characterized
Archer Daniels Midland Co. as “big oil.” The company is one of the
world's largest agricultural processors, now building a 50 million
gallon biodiesel plant in North Dakota.
Blair displays a sample of biodiesel one of his clients made from waste
vegetable oil. Blair, who is trying to mediate the escalating grease
war, sells biodiesel-brewing equipment from a shop at his home.
(Melinda Hom-Williams/The Salt Lake Tribune) |
The number of backyard biodiesel refiners is
growing in Utah as word spreads about how easy it is to make this
alternative fuel from used frying oil that restaurants are glad to give
But the biodieselers, as they call themselves, are making enemies in Salt Lake County.
Big collection and rendering companies are
turning to the health department to challenge the hobbyists who make
the fuel solely for their own use. They claim biodieselers shouldn't be
allowed to reap the "yellow grease" - so valuable it is traded on the
commodities markets - unless they play by the rules.
The Salt Lake Valley Health Department is listening.
That means the little guys who make their own
biodiesel who introduced the biodegradable, low-pollution, sustainable
fuel to Utah long before anyone sold it commercially - already are the
losers in this grease war, said Graydon Blair, a member of a 100-member
grassroots group called the Utah Biodiesel Cooperative.
"It doesn't matter if you're doing it for
yourself, you're pretty much screwed," he said. "This has pretty much
killed [home-made] biodiesel in Salt Lake County."
The conflict began about six months ago, when
Salt Lake Valley company Renegade Oil began complaining to the health
department about grease thefts and the unequal treatment of biodiesel
hobbyists who tend to ignore environmental protection laws that the big
companies have to observe.
Rendering companies like Renegade process the
grease for use in animal feed. Commercial biodiesel is manufactured
with unused "virgin" oil from sources such as soybeans and canola.
Their products have to pass rigorous U.S. Environmental Protection
Agency quality tests.
But hobbyists make biodiesel for themselves or
others who don't care that the grease-based product isn't regulated.
In December, big renderers including Renegade,
John KuhÂni Sons of Juab County and Bonneville Livestock in Lehi met
with Blair and Andre Shoumatoff, also a Utah Biodiesel Cooperative
member, to argue their case.
The upshot was a directive Shoumatoff posted on
the Web telling biodieselers not to steal from renderers' barrels or
collect grease on their own without a permit from Salt Lake County.
Shoumatoff also suggested working with health department officials to
create a "reasonable" price for purchasing refined grease from
renderers that already have agreements with restaurants.
But the co-op is a small group with no control
over the state's backyard biodiesel producers, and the renderers aren't
willing to sell their product to biodieselers because of possible
Mary Pat Buckman, the county environmental
health official who is mediating the dispute while maintaining vigilant
rules of enforcement, said it's "quite easy" to get a permit to haul
The permit costs $125 and covers up to five trucks. Individual cities also would issue business licenses.
The insurance is the snag, Blair said. It would
be impossible for backyard refiners to pay for $1 million in insurance
even if a broker agreed to sell them policies, which so far they
haven't, he said.
Buckman said she's trying to figure out how
much time and money they want to spend on enforcing the rules, or even
whether they ought to apply to hobbyists.
"Do we say if you're picking up more than three
[grease] barrels a month, you have to do this? We've had a guy who
carried it across the street in a bucket," she said. "We're really
grappling with this. At what point does [enforcement] make sense?"
Blair and Buckman said they knew of only one
biodieseler who has managed to satisfy all the regulations: Magna
resident Kevin Newman, a drywall contractor who uses homemade fuel to
power the six trucks owned by his company, Detail Builders.
Newman has service agreements with six
restaurants. After six months of brewing fuel, he says he's just
reaching the break-even point for his $5,000 upfront investment in
biodiesel-making equipment he bought from Blair, who sells his gear
mostly on the Internet. Soon, Newman said, he will start seeing real
Some of Newman's restaurants allow him to put
his barrel next to Renegade's barrel. Restaurant workers don't care in
which barrel their waste oil gets dumped, he said.
But they ought to, said Randy Tietjen, spokesman for Bonneville Livestock.
"The liability doesn't end at the restaurant
where you pick up," he said. He uses that point as a selling tool for
his services with restaurateurs who allow biodieselers to gather grease
without proper permits and insurance.
Tietjen also cautions that backyard brewing
involves the use of methanol and lye, with a glycerin byproduct that is
difficult to dispose of legally.
Dennis Brunetti of Renegade Oil said his
company's service agreements with restaurants include a flat fee for
cleaning the grease traps that catch oil from drains, a promise to pick
up the grease in a timely manner and keep clean the Dumpster area where
the 55-gallon barrels sit.
Brunetti said the biodieselers have as much right as the big companies to strike agreements with restaurants.
"But we would expect them to have the same
credentials we do," he said, and receive equal treatment from the
health department's regulators.
Beverley Miller, who runs Salt Lake City's
Clean Cities program, which promotes the use of alternative fuels, said
backyard biodieselers ought to be supported.
"They raised interest in biodiesel long before
it appeared here commercially," she said. "If we hadn't had the
biodieselers brewing, talking about it, it would have inched forward
much more slowly."
Making biodiesel is like brewing your own beer,
Miller said. But the comparison unravels because beermakers buy their
feedstock while biodieselers want it for free.
"Maybe they should turn into more of a
business," like a food co-op, Miller said. "They're not ready for
* Biodiesel is a clean-burning vehicle fuel
produced from renewable plant resources. It is biodegradable, non-toxic
and virtually free of sulfur and aroma. Biodiesel contains no petroleum
but can be blended with conventional diesel.
* Biodiesel made from used fry oil is not the
same as commercial biodiesel, which is made from virgin oil from
sources such as soybeans and canola and must pass rigorous U.S.
Environmental Protection Agency testing.
* The National Biodiesel Board, an industry
group, reports that biodiesel sales have increased from 500,000 gallons
in 1999 to 75 million gallons in 2005. Board spokeswoman Amber
Thurlo-Pearson said the industry is on track to sell 150 million
gallons this year.
* Biodiesel is sold in 5 percent and 20 percent
blends with conventional diesel. At least two Utah stations sell 100
percent biodiesel, which can't be used in winter because it becomes too
thick in cold temperatures.
* This past week, the American Automobile
Association reported conventional diesel in Utah was selling for an
average of $3.21. By comparison, DalSoglio, a station in Salt Lake
County, was selling 20 percent biodiesel for $3.07 per gallon and 100
percent for $2.94 per gallon.
* Utah's first biodiesel manufacturing plant, BioUSA, started operations this spring.
* Any diesel-fueled vehicle can run on biodiesel
with minimum modifications to the engine such as replacing rubber
* Biodiesel emissions are far below those coming
from petroleum diesel. Sulfur oxides and sulfates, major components of
acid rain, are almost completely eliminated.
* Big agriculture is into biodiesel. Archer
Daniels Midland Co., for example, announced last fall it will construct
a new 50 million gallon biodiesel plant adjacent to the company's
canola crushing plant in Velva, N.D.