Alternative fuels are cheap, but there's a hitch

Regulations on vegetable fuel stymie plans for greener travel

June 22, 2008|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,Sun reporter

With fuel prices soaring, Mark Nagurney thought he had figured out a clever way to drive free - and save the Earth at the same time. The 49-year-old Laurel physicist is one of thousands nationally who have converted their diesel cars and trucks to run on straight vegetable oil.

But in burning a cleaner fuel than diesel, Nagurney never imagined he'd end up on the wrong side of federal environmental laws. Or break Maryland's fuel tax regulations, which require even folks driving on grease thrown away by fast-food restaurants to get a "special fuel" license, obtain a $1,000 bond from an insurance company, file monthly forms and pay the same 24 cents per gallon tax as drivers using diesel.

Nagurney finds the tax rules misguided. "Let's get renewable energy going," he said.

After hearing about vehicle conversion from some co-workers, the strait-laced Republican defense contractor paid a mechanic $2,500 last October to convert his gray 1996 Volkswagon Passat so it can run on either vegetable oil or diesel. Nagurney gets waste oil free from a Chinese restaurant in his neighborhood and thinks it's a great way to recycle and save money at the same time.

He's part of a small but growing number of people nationally who have embraced straight vegetable oil fuel - or "SVO" - as an alternative energy source that helps to free America from foreign petroleum.

The numbers are uncertain, but advocates estimate that thousands of people are converting their vehicles, with mechanic shops springing up that specialize in the conversions. One company, Golden Fuel of Springfield, Mo., has seen a 400 percent increase in sales of kits to convert diesel vehicles to run on SVO, with 200 sold so far this year and 150 orders pending.

But these motorists are running afoul of federal and state government agencies whose jobs are to collect taxes from drivers to pay for road maintenance and make sure that fuels don't pollute the air.

Maryland drivers face a $1,000 fine for driving on vegetable fuel if they don't first register with the state and file monthly reports and payments, according to Chuck Ulm, assistant director of motor vehicle taxes in the state comptroller's office.

"They would be operating without paying the motor vehicle tax as required by law," Ulm said. "It would be illegal."

A spokesman for Comptroller Peter Franchot said Franchot generally supports the use of alternative fuels as a way to help end the nation's dependence on foreign oil and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

But, said spokesman Warren Hansen, "at this point, the legislature has not changed the way this fuel is taxed or regulated, so we are just enforcing the laws that are currently on the books."

He said Franchot would support a change in the law to encourage the use of vegetable oil fuel, perhaps through the creation of a tax credit, although the drivers would still have to pay taxes and register.

But a tax credit in Maryland would have little effect if driving while green is illegal at the federal level. Catherine C. Milbourn, spokeswoman for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, said federal laws prohibit running vehicles on used vegetable oil.

"All fuels have to be tested before they can be used in a vehicle, because when something goes into the engine and is burned up, something comes out of the tailpipe. And we want to make sure it doesn't harm the environment in any way," Milbourn said. "Vegetable fuel has not been registered as a motor vehicle fuel."

Garages or companies that convert vehicles to run on vegetable oil can be subject to federal fines of $32,500 per violation, she said. People who convert their cars to run on it face fines of up to $2,750.

The EPA has not fined anyone for this, but the federal agency is inspecting and investigating people for not following these rules, said Roxanne Smith, another EPA spokeswoman.

Scientists have concluded that burning vegetable oil releases less soot, carbon monoxide and other air pollutants than petroleum fuel - but about 5 percent more nitrogen oxide, which contributes to smog. SVO produces about the same amount of carbon dioxide as diesel.

Still, Forrest Gregg, an author who recently published a book called SVO: Powering Your Vehicle with Straight Vegetable Oil, said that vegetable oil is considered better than diesel fuel from a global-warming perspective. This is because the plants recently drew the same carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, he said, so returning it is part of a natural cycle.

A regional Golden Fuel franchise, Massa Green Enterprises of Sterling, Va., installs the SVO conversion kits at a cost of $3,500 for a car to $10,000 for a large truck. "Our business has gone through the roof with the increase in price of diesel at the pump," said Dan Cozart, general manager of Massa Green.

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