Cooking up alternatives

Editorial Notebook

June 28, 2008|By Michael Cross-Barnet

If the planet runs out of oil just a smidgen later than it otherwise would have, Mark Nagurney will deserve some of the thanks. The Laurel physicist isn't waiting for auto companies or the government to act when it comes to alternative fuels. As The Sun's Tom Pelton reported, Mr. Nagurney has taken matters into his own hands, converting his diesel car so it can run on used vegetable oil. It's seemingly a triple win: Mr. Nagurney avoids pain at the pump, a local restaurant is rid of its waste oil, and the environment is a bit cleaner (most scientists believe that vegetable oil is less polluting than petroleum-based fuels).

But Mr. Nagurney and thousands like him around the nation are running afoul of federal law. Cooking oil, it seems, is not approved for use as a motor fuel. As for the state of Maryland, it allows such activity but simultaneously deters it with an obstacle course of regulations and expenses: a "special fuel" license, a $1,000 bond, the filing of monthly forms, and payment of 24 cents per gallon of fuel consumed - the rate applied to diesel.

True, diesel cars are a tiny slice of the vehicle market, and the number of drivers interested in such conversions is smaller still. But should the government actively discourage creative solutions during an energy crisis?

A ban on the use of unapproved fuels is certainly understandable, and the Environmental Protection Agency cannot be blamed for following the letter of the Clean Air Act. What's harder to understand is why the federal government has not gotten around to testing vegetable oil as fuel. After all, the inventor of the diesel engine studied this possibility a century ago, and even predicted it might be a substitute for fossil fuels someday. Biodiesel, a similar material, has been on the market for years.

This week, Sen. John McCain proposed a $300 million prize to anyone who develops a much-improved electric car battery; he also called for automakers to build more flexible-fuel vehicles. Such sentiments offer hope that a President McCain would encourage and even assist self-starters like Mr. Nagurney.

America will need foresight like Rudolf Diesel's and motivation like Mark Nagurney's - plenty of both - if it is to achieve what Mr. McCain calls "a swift conversion of American vehicles away from oil" without wrenching disruptions to the U.S. economy and way of life.

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