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Advocates try to fuel change

Supporters push cleaner-burning biodiesel, but hurdles remain

By Theresa Hogue
Gazette-Times reporter

PHILOMATH ? Marc Barnes is frustrated. Wearing a red-and-black-checked flannel shirt and black suspenders speckled with wood dust, he sits back in his chair at Integrated Resource Management Inc., looking fresh from the forest. Barnes is dedicated to living green ? that is, making the right ecological choices, both personally and for his company, which works both with national forest management and restoration ecology projects around the state.

Part of Barnes' personal commitment is his use of biodiesel, an organically based fuel, in all his motorized equipment, including trucks and brush-cutting machinery. He also insists that any logging operation he hires to cut timber on the forest lands he manages use biodiesel in its rigs as well. Although some have grumbled, he said all the companies he hires have agreed to the rules.

His dilemma is that biodiesel isn't easy to get, at least not in the Corvallis and Philomath areas. Operations that decide to use biodiesel in the area must travel to Eugene or Portland and fill storage tanks with the "green" fuel. There's no filling station anywhere in the mid-Willamette Valley where a big rig, let alone a small car, can fill up with either pure biodiesel, known as B100, or the popular biodiesel mix B20, which is one-fifth biodiesel and four-fifths regular diesel fuel.

"I've talked to every (fuel) facility in Philomath," Barnes said. "No one is interested in doing it."

The problem, Barnes said, is that gas stations have a limited number of pumps available, and those are dedicated to regular petroleum products. Without evidence that selling biodiesel is a profitable option, gas stations won't risk filling even one pump with something customers might be afraid to try.

"A lot of people are worried about losing their market share," he said.

Marc Barnes, a restoration ecologist from Philomath, helped Corvallis Parks and Recreation department clear underbrush from the west face of Bald Hill last year with the help of his Lightfoot machine that he runs exclusively on biodiesel fuel.

Biodiesel, which is derived from vegetable oils or animal fats, can be used to fuel vehicles and machinery or as an alternative to heating oil. It is manufactured mostly in the Midwest, and is usually made from soybeans, although canola and palm oil can also be used.

"That's the beauty of it," Barnes said. "It's made in America. It keeps people employed."

In its pure form, biodiesel is biodegradable and nontoxic. It is made from renewable organic resources and is approved for use in the United States. In fact, many city governments in the Pacific Northwest, including Corvallis, Eugene, Portland and Seattle, use B20 in their diesel-fueled municipal fleets.

Barnes said many people are scared of using biodiesel because it is relatively new and sounds too New Age-y. In fact, he thinks its creators should have come up on another name.

"They should have named it ?Freedom Fuel,'" he joked, to get away from being slapped with a progressive or liberal label.

Another problem is that many people think they have to modify diesel engines to use biodiesel. Actually, Barnes said, any diesel-powered vehicle will run on B20. Newer engines can handle pure B100 biodiesel just fine, but those more than 10 years old have some rubber parts that could be dissolved by all-vegetable fuel, so those parts must be replaced.

At first, motorists who switch to pure biodiesel may experience clogged fuel filters as carbon deposits in diesel tanks are suddenly freed by the cleansing effects of the biodiesel. But after one filter change, the carbon is gone and so is the clogging.

The only time drivers running B100 need to worry is when the temperature dips into the 30s or below. That's when the fuel can become sluggish and needs to be mixed with diesel, usually a 50-50 blend. That can be achieved by filling the tank halfway with biodiesel, then pulling up to the regular diesel pump and topping it off.

The incentives for using biodiesel have recently increased. In October, President Bush signed into law the JOBS Creation Act of 2004, which includes a tax incentive on B20 biodiesel. The incentive lasts for two years, and lowers the blended fuel's cost to approximately the same as regular diesel.

Pure biodiesel remains above $3 a gallon, which is prohibitive for some. But there are others, like Barnes, who are willing to pay more for less pollution.

"We run on biodiesel because we think it's a good thing to do," he said.

Barnes gets his fuel from a station in Eugene that's supplied by SeQuential Biofuels, a company started by Eugene natives Tomas Endicott and Ian Hill. Endicott moved to Portland to expand the company's biodiesel offerings in the metro area.

Endicott and Hill began working with biodiesel about four years ago. At first they tried making their own, but they decided that distributing fuel from other sources was a better plan. In 2002 they began distributing biodiesel in partnership with a fuel company in Eugene called Tyree Oil, and they opened their first B20 pump that August.

"We didn't have the intent to provide pure biodiesel," Endicott said, because they believed there would be no demand for it. "We were wrong."

In 2003, the partners began making B100 available at the same Eugene location. That fall, Endicott expanded the company's operations into Portland, working with Star Oil Co. They now operate two B100 pumps and two B20 pumps, and continue to expand through deliveries and by increasing the number of outlets.

Interest in biodiesel is growing, but Endicott said he and his partner still have to overcome a lot of misconceptions about the fuel. Potential customers always ask if they have to change their engines.

"All you have to do," Endicott tells them, "is to change your mind."

In Corvallis, biodiesel junkie Justin Soares and his organization, formerly known as Grease Works! but now renamed Corvallis Biodiesel Cooperative, offer biodiesel on a limited basis to local customers. They used to make their own biodiesel, but the process was time-consuming and they weren't able to make enough to keep up with local interest.

"We had a lot more people wanting it than we could provide for," Soares said.

Their fuel also didn't meet industry standards, so Soares decided to begin bringing down fuel from SeQuential Biofuels and concentrate on converting older diesel engines to handle pure biodiesel.

Right now, Soares said, about 40 local families are fueling 50 to 60 vehicles with biodiesel from his shop. He's not sure if that number will increase in the near future.

He'd like to get out of the distribution business altogether and focus on engine work, but he doesn't want to do that until a local service station starts offering biodiesel, and that may not happen anytime soon.

"It's all about space and the pumps available," he said.

Most service stations are getting their tanks filled once or twice a week and moving a lot of petroleum-based fuel. There isn't a big enough customer base to move that much biodiesel in a week.

"It's a money game," Soares said. "It's so insignificant compared to current volumes (of regular diesel)."

ON THE NET: For more information on biodiesel, check out these Web sites:





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