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"The year in which we were supposed to send U.S. and Russian astronauts to Jupiter began with two death blows to the biodiesel industry."--Tyson Gustus, broken-hearted Jezebel admirer/owner


By Tyson Gustus


I love my car. I even named her. Jezebel. Jezebel and I go back a long time. (In today's disposable society, seven years is a long time.) The story of Jezebel is a simple one. Back in late 2002, I decided to trade in my Jeep Wrangler for something more fuel-efficient, comfortable, and overall better-to-commute in. I was also in a long distance relationship at the time, so that only amplified all of the above needs.


I bought Jezebel in January of '03. She was tough to find... mostly because I had very stringent requirements. Blue, heated seats, sunroof, manual transmission, and diesel... yes, diesel. Or, to be exact, a turbo direct-injection diesel (TDI). They don't sell a lot of them here in California -- they constituted only about 3% of the total Volkswagen Jetta fleet sold in 2003. But, I found her nonetheless and worked some magic to make sure she was mine. The key selling point? 49 miles per gallon EPA estimated highway mileage. And, although California is hilly and the EPA estimates have since been drastically revised, I still get a solid 42 miles per gallon, including both my city and highway driving... even up and down all those hills.


My coworkers told me not to get a diesel. Certainly there are fewer filling stations to choose from. Of course, it turns out I can go 600 miles on a single tank of fuel, so that's not exactly a problem. And, of course, everybody knows by now that this isn't your father's diesel. There's no nasty black smoke and soot coming out of my Jezebel. As a matter of fact, a lot of people call this newer generation "clean diesels".


But, there was still a problem. In '03, the smog-related emissions were still above the California EPA limit, and Volkswagen paid a penalty for every TDI they sold in California. As a matter of fact, right afterward Volkswagen stopped selling them for several years in California until the ultra-low-sulfur diesel came on the market and the newest TDI's could pass smog.


The upshot? I got a smog exemption. I never have to get Jezebel smogged because she'd never pass. That is... unless you put biodiesel in her.

In around 2004, I discovered "biodiesel". They were selling it at a local place for just a little more than the fossil fuel "dino" diesel (dino for dinosaur). Being an environmentalist, this was a huge win for me. I would reduce my carbon footprint AND virtually eliminate the smog pollution -- because there's essentially no sulfur in biodiesel, the sulfur dioxide pollution is drastically reduced. That made me feel a lot better about driving a diesel, now that she's a super-cool ultra-clean diesel.


Fast forward a few years to when I first moved to San Diego in 2006. At the time, there was only one place in town that sold biodiesel -- Pearson Fuels on El Cajon Blvd. And, at the time they only sold what's known as "B20" -- it's 20% biodiesel and 80% fossil fuel ("dino") diesel. That wasn't good enough for me. And, not just because it wasn't 99.9% biodiesel... because switching back and forth between the two fuels has its perils. It tends to clog the fuel filter and can do things like degrade the seals on the fuel pump.


So, there was an awkward period where I switch between B20 and BZERO on and off, and ultimately Jezebel developed a seal problem on her high-pressure fuel injection pump. Now, this is no cheap problem to fix. The part is expensive, and they have to take apart most of the engine to get to it. Fortunately, by the time the seal issue reared its ugly head, Pearson had long since begun selling B100. (Or, technically, B99.9.) They were taking advantage of a mixed fuel tax credit passed by the Feds to award a $1 per gallon credit to the seller of "mixed fuels" -- thereby requiring them to put at least 0.1% dino diesel in the fuel to qualify for the tax credit.


That was good enough for me. I was putting B99.9 in my Jezebel, and I put off the expensive repair, knowing that any fuel leaking out of my injection pump was totally biodegradable and non-toxic. (Not to mention non-flammable! It only burns under high pressure inside the engine.) So, I monitored my fuel mileage and I never saw a significant change, so everything was hunkey-dorey. I got a biodiesel bumper sticker, went to go see Josh Tickell's movie "FUEL"... I even ended up moving to a place a mile away from the filling station. (Ok, that part wasn't intentional, but you get the idea.)


It was a veritable love affair. And, it just kept getting better. After a couple of years, Pearson switched their biodiesel supplier to a local outfit called New Leaf Biofuel. New Leaf makes their biodiesel from recycled used vegetable oil collected from local restaurants. That reduces the total carbon footprint of the fuel by 86%. 86%! I was in heaven. And, I noticed as soon as I started using the fuel sourced from New Leaf, my fuel filter never got clogged again.


That all came to a screeching halt in January 2010. I showed up at Pearson to fill up and chat a bit with my buddy "Z" (one of the managers at Pearson). Needless to say I was shocked and appalled when I found they didn't have B99 anymore. I left without filling up. But, I was back again soon when I really needed more fuel. Within a few days Jezebel's fuel filter had clogged up, and the ordeal ended up costing me $250. Luckily the tow was free with AAA and I happened to not need the car at the time. But, now I'm consulting again and driving up to L.A. once a week, leaking a little B20 all the way up there and back. No bueno.


So, what happened? After getting the scoop from Z, talking to Jennifer at New Leaf, and doing a little research of my own, the picture was painted as follows: The year in which we were supposed to send U.S. and Russian astronauts to Jupiter began with two death blows to the biodiesel industry. First, Congress let the $1 a gallon tax credit lapse as of January 1. The House passed an extension, and the Senate left it on the table in December. That means all biodiesel manufacturers are operating at a loss now, and their collective deaths are imminent if the Senate doesn't get their act together.


To make matters worse, another regulation was passed to prohibit storage of biodiesel in underground tanks in the state of California. This latter bill is much more insidious. The premise is simple -- if your fuel isn't certified, standardized, approved and legitimized by the all-knowing bureaucrats that be, then you can't store your fuel at a gas station. Well, unfortunately biodiesel is made using dozens of different processes from dozens of different feedstocks, so there isn't a universal standard yet, contributing to the fact that this approval is already difficult and very expensive to get.


The net result? It is literally illegal to store slightly-modified vegetable oil in underground storage tanks in California now. Never mind that this slightly-modified vegetable oil is biodegradable, non-toxic, and made from plants. It might get into the water supply (or some such nonsense). So, now it's illegal to put biodiesel in the underground tanks at gas stations -- essentially assuring we can never take advantage of the existing fuel distribution infrastructure, unless the law is repealed or amended. (An above-ground storage tank, by the way, costs some $80,000 and no filling station is about to buy one with biodiesel's future so uncertain.)


Meanwhile, Volkswagen is moving to make its newest diesel vehicles incompatible with biodiesel. Why is this all happening? Is this just a big set of very unfortunate coincidences? Or is there collusion to cripple the biodiesel industry -- weaken it to the point where the petroleum industry can buy it up for pennies on the dollar. Whatever it is, it's got to stop. We're facing the destruction of an entire green technology industry, at a time when it couldn't possibly be more needed. And, Jezebel is getting really sick of it. She's a one-fuel girl.

Tyson Gustus has a Master's Degree in Mechanical Engineering from the University of California at Berkeley and is an environmental activist.  


The views in this editorial reflect the views of its author and do not necessarily reflect the views of East County Magazine.  If you wish to submit an editorial for consideration, contact editor@eastcountymagazine.org.

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Running on Peanuts

Awesome article Tyson,

People's perception of the diesel motor is way wrong. Thanks for helping to set the record straight.

Designed originally to run on peanut oil the diesel is a technically advanced internal combustion motor that runs clean and requires very little maintenance.

I had an Isuzu diesel pickup truck that had absolutely no work done to it in over 300K miles. It took a minute or two to warm up in the morning and it wasn't going to win the Indy 500 but you could eat off the motor it was so clean. No spark-plugs, wires or carburetors and it had a six-speed manual gearbox. I loved it.

Is there a shop in San Diego that converts diesel from petroleum to vegetable oil? Are there DMV registration hassles as a result?
Is there a diesel club in East County?

Thanks again.


Hey, thanks for your kind and informative comments. There used to be a place up in L.A. that did conversions, but they closed up shop about a year ago. I think they had a bad reputation among some biodieselers. I don't know of anyone in SD county that does conversions, but I'd love to hear about one if you find a place. Definitely do your own research, as there are a couple different ways to do the conversion, e.g. with a separate fuel tank and without, etc. And, you really have to filter your used vegetable oil well and let it settle out all the water and particulates before using it. Your best bet, in my opinion, would be to contact New Leaf Biofuel and see if they'll let you come by with fuel tanks in your trunk and fill up there. They're on the web.

Oh, and also worth noting: As of March 11, 2010, the U.S. Senate has approved an extension of the biodiesel tax credit, which should reinvigorate production again. Now we just need to figure out how to repeal this ridiculous underground storage ban.