Fuel Advantage: An Oily Issue

“This is a great country, but it’s in a bad relationship.” That’s how Annie Nelson, co-chair of the Sustainable Biodiesel Alliance (SBA), describes the Unites States’ reliance on foreign oil. Nelson, wife of country music icon Willie Nelson, thinks that Americans need to “file for divorce” from petroleum fuels, but before we can, we need to understand where biodiesel comes from, and how it affects our environment and economy.

The question of where biodiesel comes from is key to its being embraced by fleets as a viable alternative to diesel fuel, as fleet managers tend to worry—a lot—about what’s going into their trucks’ fuel tanks. How can you be assured of a fuel’s quality when you don’t know where that fuel came from or how it was produced?

“We’ve done such a good job of selling people on biodiesel that now we have to go back and educate people on the difference between sustainable and non-sustainable biodiesel,” Nelson says.

“Sustainable biodiesel is biodiesel that is community-based,” she explains, while non-sustainable biodiesel is produced by corporate giants from feedstock that may be imported from Brazil or Indonesia.

“We’ve been watching biodiesel become co-opted by corporate industrial players who want to be producers,” Nelson says. “Corporations like Cargill and ADM were trying to do to our fuel what they’ve done to our food, and I started asking people, ‘What’s the difference between a Middle-eastern oil energy cartel and an American energy cartel if the victims are the same?’ They control our food and now they want to control our fuel.”


The mission of the Sustainable Biodiesel Aliance is to create a better world through sustainable, community-based biodiesel. “It just makes sense,” says Nelson. “Why shouldn’t we produce our own energy, and let other countries produce theirs?”

In SBA’s model, every community or region would have its own biodiesel production capabilities using locally-grown or produced feedstock, and the biodiesel that is produced in that community or region would be distributed and consumed locally. In Texas, for example, biodiesel can be produced from locally-grown cottonseed. Local farmers have a new outlet for their product, and local trucking fleets know exactly where their fuel came from—the fleet manager buying biodiesel may even be neighbors with the farmer who grew it!

“Those communties can thrive,” says Nelson, “and since those communities are the foundation of this country, the nation can thrive.”

“The biofuels bandwagon has become huge in the past five years, and it’s gone in basically two directions,” says SBA executive director Kelly King. “You’ve got the folks who really want to make biodiesel because it’s a cleaner, better fuel, and it’s something that can be developed in their own community, and then you’ve got folks who just want to make a bunch of money off of this thing, fast.”

King, co-owner of Kahului, HI-based Pacific Biodiesel, knows what she’s talking about. Her company has been a pioneer in the development of community-based biodiesel production, with facilities from Hawaii to Maryland making biodiesel from local feedstocks such as cooking oil, yellow grease, soybean oil, cottonseed oil, canola oil, and tallow.

Strangely, local feedstocks tend to produce biodiesel that is best suited to your fuel tank. Do you operate your fleet in a cold northern area? Your local sustainable biodiesel would likely be made from canola, a crop that thrives in cooler northern climates. According to King, biodiesel made from canola oil has better cold flow properties than biodiesel made from crops that are grown in warmer locales.

The local angle affects price as well. “In Texas, biodiesel is priced in accordance with the price of diesel, not the actual production costs,” she says. “While one of the huge benefits of producing your own energy locally is that it should be able to be costed out according to how much it cost to make, with a fair profit margin. That’s one of the biggest complaints about the petroleum industry, is that the cost of the fuel has nothing to do with the cost of production.

“It doesn’t have to be that way,” King says.


King and Nelson feel that American consumers (and, by extension, American fleets) are unaware of the way biodiesel is often produced and sold. Domestic producers, they explain, will often import biodiesel produced in other countries, blend it with diesel fuel here in the U.S. (to take advantage of the U.S. government’s “blender’s credit”), then export it to another market in another country. This type of scheme, called “Splash ‘n’ Dash,” does nothing to benefit American farmers or American fleets, but because it’s subsidized by a tax credit, it’s costing us all money.

“This is not sustainable,” King says, “and it’s ironic that the subsidies are based on the need for energy security, and yet we’re shipping half of our biodiesel production out of the country. So, we’re not addressing energy security, we’re just addressing huge profit margins.”

Sustainable biodiesel, by contrast, does enhance energy security, but not enough people are aware of that.

To address that lack of awareness, the Sustainable Biodiesel Alliance is currently establishing “best practices” standards for the definition of sustainability in the biodiesel industry, King says. These standards will address feedstock quality as well as production processes, waste stream and distribution.

“The word ‘sustainable’ is overused these days,” King admits. “Everybody says they’re sustainable, but there needs to be a very strong basis for this. There is a group trying to define ‘sustainable’ palm-oil biodiesel from Indonesia, even though palm oil production displaces a lot of rain forest. Well, if you ship it out of Indonesia to the U.S., it’s not a sustainable source for us. The only way it would be a sustainable source is if you grow it in Indonesia, blend it with diesel fuel in Indonesia, and distribute it in Indonesia.”


Little wonder that fleet managers worry about where biodiesel comes from, what it’s made of, and how they can be sure of its quality.

SBA’s best practices standards may be the industry’s best hope of settling those issues once and for all. In fact, you yourself may be able to gain a competitive edge by joining SBA’s new end-users’ group and helping to establish those standards.

“We’re looking for managers of fleets that are interested in converting to biodiesel, but have concerns about biodiesel’s impact on the environment,” King says. “These people will be a key part of the biodiesel industry’s ability to address these concerns.”

We encourage Fleet Maintenance/Fuel Advantage readers to be part of the solution. To join the sustainable biodiesel end-users’ group, contact Jeff Plowman at the Sustainable Biodiesel Alliance at (808) 214-0968 or jeff@fuelresponsibly.org, or visit


Rob Tripp, CEO of Benefuel, Inc., (www.benefuel.net) says that it’s a mistake to squeeze biodiesel production into the centralized petroleum model. “It’s a flawed model that doesn’t lend itself to consistent quality,” he says.

Instead, Benefuel plans to follow the community-based biodiesel model proposed by SBA when it opens its first production facility in Seymour, IN.

“We can take any feedstock, or run a combination of feedstocks—whatever regional feedstock we can get our hands on—and turn that into high-quality biodiesel in a single step,” he says. “We’ve also developed an inline testing process, which has never existed before.”

The company plans to develop a regional distribution system that will give users “direct accountability for the quality of the fuel.” Ultimately Benefuel will duplicate that regional model across the country.