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How to kick the fossil fuel habit

Green Voice, Winter 2003

In the land of plenty?plenty of Big Macs, plenty of SUV?s, plenty of strip malls?lies a thirsty, insatiable beast that drinks refined petroleum lattes and eats motor oil porridge for breakfast. This unsightly creature, crude analogy as it may be, is each and every one of us that owns and drives an automobile, and, though your mind may be in direct protest to the thought, we all contribute (to greater and lesser degrees) to this unsightly, unsustainable appetite.

In 1999, the US economy consumed 97 quads, or 97,000,000,000,000, 000 BTU?s. Petroleum accounts for 39% of this total, or 37.6 quads. In the US, per capita petroleum consumption equals 150 lbs/week, and includes the plastic we buy, the electricity we use (from natural-gas fired plants), and the fuel we put in our vehicles. With 281 million people (as of the 2000 census), consuming 150 lbs of petroleum per week, our prospects for sustainability look bleak at best, condemned at worst.

At the very cornerstone of the US economy is petroleum, diesel fuel to be more precise. Diesel fuel is used in nearly every commercial shipping boat, every commercial shipping truck, all commercial farming equipment, and nearly all commercial jets (jets use a high-powered blend of kerosene, or diesel #1). If you consider the internal-combustion engine to be the heart-beat of our economy, than diesel fuel is most assuredly the life-blood, and without it our great economy would quickly grind to a halt?the shelves of Wal-Mart barren, Home Depot a dust-bowl, Safeway fluorescently bright, but empty. It is by diesel we live, and, as we are quickly learning, by diesel we die.

According to a recent EPA study, more than 75% of all cancer risk associated with outdoor air contaminants relates directly to diesel exhaust. In addition, on February 13, 2001, CNN reported that schoolchildren who ride diesel school buses are exposed to emissions up to ?46 times the level the EPA says poses a significant cancer risk under the Clean Air Act?. Diesel exhaust contains benzene, formaldehyde, and ultra-fine particulate matter that by-passes lung defenses and enters into the circulation system. Recently, the EPA, as well as the state of California, identified diesel exhaust as a ?probable human carcinogen?.

Despite this litany of darkness, there is hope on the horizon. Currently available for use in any diesel engine is a vegetable oil-based alternative fuel called ?biodiesel? that reduces the toxicity of diesel exhaust by 90%. Because of its inherent clean burning properties, and its compatibility with diesel fuel (biodiesel can be blended with diesel fuel in any ratio), biodiesel is currently being used across the US, in school buses, farm tractors, city buses, even US army equipment. Biodiesel use in the US is currently at 6 million gallons/year and is quickly gaining broad acceptance as a clean burning, reliable alternative to petroleum diesel. Analysts of biodiesel use in the US project a 40-fold increase over the next 4 years: from 6 million gallons/year at present to 250 million gallons/year in 2006.

Several states have recently made progressive leaps in promoting this alternative fuel. In March of 2001, the state of Minnesota passed legislation into law that mandates all diesel fuel sold in the state be blended with 2% biodiesel by the year 2005. Commercial biodiesel proponents in the west are leading the charge in this movement with stations in Nevada, California, Oregon and Washington now offering biodiesel at the pump, making it available to all.

Despite the overwhelming facts of our petroleum way of life, we can facilitate change, we can make a difference. We can start by driving less, buying things with minimal packaging/plastic, supporting biodiesel and other alternative fuels, and breathing deeper, more confidently, the cleaner air around us. In the immortal words of Mother Theresa, ?Do not wait for leaders; do it alone, person to person."


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