Biodiesel, Before and After

Ideas and Issues

December 7, 2020

New Orleans      Over a decade ago, ACORN stumbled into an offer that seemed exciting as a progressive experiment. Friends and relatives of friends and comrades had been bitten by the enviro-bug and had built a mobile biodiesel machine with a 20,000-gallon monthly capacity in Santa Barbara, California. A beautiful stainless-steel contraption, we were offered the machine at half the price of its value and a tax-deduction, as a contribution to the New Orleans recovery.

We thought of it as an investment in the future as well. It ran on kitchen grease, and New Orleans was swimming in restaurants, which meant kitchens, which meant grease galore. My son and my nephew drove out to pick up the machine and haul it back. We showed it off at the coffeehouse and at a book launch. We visited an AmeriCorps volunteer who had made a go of it in Jefferson Parish. Chaco took a course on biodiesel from the LSU Agricultural Extension Service. We agreed to rent space to house it in an artist’s warehouse near our offices. All we had to do was get the grease and convince people to spend a small amount of money to convert their cars to be able to run on this kind of biodiesel fuel. We were all in!

And, then we hit bumps on the road. One restaurant after another told us that, “yeah, we used to have to pay to clean out the grease, but now we’re getting paid by collectors.” Suddenly, or at least, it felt like suddenly to us, grease had become a commodity. There were a couple of small refiners in Louisiana willing to pay suppliers, meaning restaurants. Our sustainability model, if I could call it that, depended on getting grease for free.  We had no budget to compete with for-profit procurers. Surely, the market would change, we hoped. We got out of the lease, wrapped the machinery back in black plastic, and paid a storage yard to let us park the biodiesel machine there. My nephew became a bartender. My son hunkered down at Fair Grinds. We would wait it out.  Eventually, we stored it in our own building in our own warehouse, but still it sat there until 2020.

We found a partner who was building an alternative recycling operation who had four or five diesel trucks that did the collection. They were willing and able to pickup the torch and make this work, or at the worst, use it to fuel their own trucks, so it would breakeven. We gritted out teeth, and wished them well.

That’s not the end of this story, because part of this is a tale not of how nonprofits try to survive at the cutting edge of change, but how deep pockets eventually benefit. The New York Times ran a story with the headline, “Oil Companies Smell Profit in Restaurant Grease.” My jaw dropped while reading. It seems that now oil companies think they can cash in on this because of increased demands for pollution emissions controls, the problem of retrofits to use biodiesel in trucks and cars has been solved. “Phillips 66, Marathon, Holly Frontier and several other refineries are spending roughly $2 billion to retool refineries to produce the fuel over the next four years.” Other refineries are being shut down given plummeting demand decreases in the pandemic. These folks are stepping in with canyon deep pockets.

We – and many others – may have been ahead of our time, but, once again, we are behind on the dime.