Biodiesel fuel is the current rage in Washington state, with Gov. Christine Gregoire and a number of prominent state legislators lending...

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Biodiesel fuel is the current rage in Washington state, with Gov. Christine Gregoire and a number of prominent state legislators lending their weight to bills to finance its use and production.

Rep. Janéa Holmquist is sponsoring a bill requiring all diesel fuel sold in the state be a biodiesel blend. State Reps. Hans Dunshee and Jeff Morris plan to introduce legislation mandating biodiesel in state and local government vehicles. Other bills are being drafted to provide financial incentives to business for crushers and other equipment to extract the oil from canola seeds.

What could possibly be wrong with all this? Well, perhaps a few things.

There is actually a downside to the environmental benefits of biodiesel. While there are fewer particulates (soot), lower unburned hydrocarbons and less carbon monoxide, there are more oxides of nitrogen, which cause smog. This is a major concern in those remaining areas of the U.S. with significant air-quality problems, such as Los Angeles. Using biofuel in an engine certified for regular fuel could make it more difficult for the engine to meet the stringent new Environmental Protection Agency nitrogen oxide emission standards.

And, despite conventional wisdom, the U.S. economy is actually becoming less dependent on foreign oil. Authors Peter Huber and David Mills point out that in the early 1970s, roughly 60 percent of the energy-related gross domestic product of the United States came from the direct combustion of oil and gas; 40 percent came from the direct use of electricity. But today, 60 percent comes from electricity, and 40 percent from oil and gas — and this trend is continuing. Since almost all the electricity is produced with non-petroleum energy, the recent spike in oil prices had much less impact on our nation’s economic indicators than in years past.

Biodiesel is more expensive. One recent article noted that unrefined canola oil would need to be priced at more than $3 per gallon to be profitable to Washington farmers — which is likely to keep the 20-percent biodiesel blends typically found in the Seattle area priced well above No. 2 diesel. The price would be even higher without the current federal tax-credit subsidies that give blenders a penny a gallon for every 1 percent of pure biodiesel added to No. 2 diesel.

There is also the problem of being able to produce enough biodiesel. Federal estimates say that, at most, there is enough cropland to supply no more than 10 percent of the country’s diesel consumption.

Is biodiesel safe to use in your engine? The answer, according to at least one engine manufacturer, is: “It depends.” While Cummins touts its diesel engines’ ability to run on a 5-percent blend, it issues stern warnings about using higher-ratio blends. Cummins’ test data indicate that typically smoke, power and fuel economy are all reduced when using biodiesel. Further, Cummins says that concentrations beyond 5 percent by volume could have an adverse effect on the engine’s performance and the fuel system integrity/durability.

There appears to be a bright future for efficient diesel automotive power (over 40 percent of cars in Europe are now diesels). And there is a regulatory-driven program to develop cleaner diesel fuels and engines. EPA is reducing allowable sulfur content in diesel fuel from 500 parts per million to 15 parts per million. This is accompanied by a mandated 90-percent reduction in particulate and nitrogen oxide engine emissions from 1994 levels. Thus, diesel engines will become far less polluting — with or without biodiesel.

Ask yourself: Are you willing to support legislation that makes you pay more to get lower mileage and lower power, with potential risks to the integrity of your engine — legislation that may or may not benefit the environment? Or would it perhaps make more sense to support laws that prevent the marketing of fuel that does not conform to engine manufacturers’ requirements — requirements that are based on meeting EPA’s environmental standards and protecting engine reliability.

Bob Benze is an environmental engineer with 28 years in Navy civil service. He lives in Silverdale, and owns a Dodge-Cummins turbodiesel truck.