Taking a Stand on Gas Prices, with Vegetable Oil

A Los Angeles-area couple has converted their car into a vegetable-oil-driven machine. They say that compared with current prices at the pump, the cost of vegetable oil is a bargain.

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From NPR News, this is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Ed Gordon.

Gas prices continue to rise. The average price of gas in the United States is nearly $3 a gallon. But what's behind the price hikes? Unrest in the Middle East and worries about oil exporting countries Iran and Nigeria are a couple of the reasons. Whatever the cause, they add up to real pain at the pump. NPR's Farai Chideya has the story.

FARAI CHIDEYA reporting:

In Los Angeles's Ladera Heights, customers would rejoice to get gas for $3 a gallon. No nearby stations sell it for less than $3.37. At the local Mobil, regular unleaded was $3.41 a gallon. And Charles Smith filled his Dodge Durango with $65 worth.

Mr. CHARLES SMITH: I have a smaller car, but I have a larger family so sometimes I just have to bite the bullet and get the gas.

CHIDEYA: While consumers are paying record prices, oil companies are making record profits. In 2005, ExxonMobil had the most profitable year for any company in US history. Customers like Smith wish the government would step in and regulate the gas.

Mr. SMITH: There should be a, you know, a limit as how much they're going to charge you for a gallon of gas. I mean, God, when is it going to stop?

CHIDEYA: What if it doesn't stop? What if gas is $4, $4.50 a gallon?

Mr. SMITH: Then maybe we need a new president.

CHIDEYA: But not everyone is worried about gas prices. Susan Malian(ph) is just a couple pumps away from Charles Smith, but her views are completely different.

Ms. SUSAN MALIAN: I think they're ridiculous, but if you think about in ratios, it's not that much more money. It's just a few cents. Even if it's a dollar, and you have a, you know, 10, 15 gallon tank - it's only $15, which isn't going to kill anybody.

CHIDEYA: For Malian, it's all about choice. If prices are high, don't buy.

Ms. MALIAN: Things go up. Life goes up. Everybody's buying these $2 million homes, two bedrooms. What difference does it make? You spend your money where you want to spend your money, or you ride the bus. That's the way I feel.

CHIDEYA: Independent gas station owners know that most customers are looking for a deal.

Unidentified Man: (Unintelligible) already in here.

CHIDEYA: At the 24-hour Gas Market, regular is just $3.35 a gallon. And employee Henry Collins says what they charge depends on what other stations nearby are asking.

Mr. HENRY COLLINS (24 Hour Gas Market employee): Because sometimes, like, if our gas station's empty, we know there's a problem. Somebody else is getting all the, you know, the competition, the money, and the customers, you know.

CHIDEYA: So the 24-hour Gas Market lowers their prices up to twice a day. As a customer, you could hang out at a busy corner and wait for gas stations to lower their prices. Or you could look for other options like cooking oil. That's right, cooking oil. Husband and wife Shaheed Sheyen(ph) Alsa Solton Ramadi(ph) live near a community center by the beach. There, they've begun a biodiesel co-op, which has attracted people from throughout California. The concept is simple, says Sheyen.

Mr. SHAHEED SHEYEN (Alternative Oil Advocate): In the United States alone, over 650 million gallons of waste vegetable oil are produced.

CHIDEYA: When the couple heard you could convert a standard diesel engine to run on say, the used oil from your local KFC, they decided to give it a try. Ramadi.

Ms. ALSA SOLTON RAMADI (Alternative Oil Advocate): Yeah, I have a, you know, Mercedes diesel, 1985 - a gold one - which we converted recently. And it's amazing. When I drive, it smells like Chinese food, basically. So I'm craving Chinese food every day. It's soybean oil, you know, and it's amazing.

CHIDEYA: Older diesel cars are available used for as little as $500. The conversion costs another $500. But for some people, says Sheyen, the price isn't the problem.

Mr. SHEYEN: If you go to your local mechanic and you say, hey, guess what? I'm running my, my 1985 Mercedes Benz on tempura oil that the local sushi restaurant threw away, he might think you're crazy.

CHIDEYA: Fans of biodiesel say cost cutting isn't the only reason to convert. Vegetable oil burns 95 percent cleaner than gasoline and reduces America's dependence on foreign oil. The co-op, named V-99, is still in development, but they aim to sell a recycled vegetable oil for just 99 cents a gallon to their members. Until then, you can either wait for gas prices to go down, or you can head to your local grocery store where fresh vegetable oil is still a bargain.

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