Biodiesel Enthusiasts Battle for Used Fry Oil

Biodiesel enthusiasts in Utah, who gather oil from restaurants to convert into fuel, are running into opposition from businesses that profit from collecting that grease. The corporate interests want backyard biodiesel makers to obey state regulations governing the industry, to ensure fairness and safety. The conflict has pushed some biodiesel hobbyists underground. Jennifer Brundin of member station KUER in Salt Lake City reports.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

And I'm Madeleine Brand.

Maybe you've seen them behind your favorite restaurant the biodiesel fanatics. Alex, was that you I saw behind…

CHADWICK: Not yet, not yet.

BRAND: Oh okay good. They collect used frying oil take it home and convert it into automobile fuel. But those barrels of used cooking oil in the back alley have ignited a grease war in Salt Lake County, Utah. From member station KUER in Salt Lake City, Jennifer Brundin reports.

JENNIFER BRUNDIN reporting:

Kevin Newman lowers a barrel down from his Chevy Duramax Diesel Truck outside a shopping mall in Salt Lake City. He pushes the empty barrel past clothing boutiques, candy stores and shoe shops into the kitchen of a high end Brazilian restaurant. The line chefs chopping up eggplant, give him a nod as he walks over to another blue barrel, only this one is half full with used cooking oil.

Mr. KEVIN NEWMAN (Biodiesel Home Brewer): Pure vegetable oil. That's it, there's nothing else in it, that's the good stuff.

BRUNDIN: Newman switches the barrels, and takes the good stuff back to his garage, where he uses a machine, and cheap pantyhose to filter out the bits of steak, tortilla shells and chicken bones. Then he adds methanol and lye to convert the kitchen waste into biodiesel. In a week Newman will have a finished product to fill up the six trucks he uses in his contracting business - all for about a buck a gallon.

Mr. NEWMAN: I got a $35,000 truck here, and I'm putting used garbage from the back of restaurant in it. I'm out of my mind. But you know what?

(Soundbite of Truck Starting)

Mr. NEWMAN: It works.

BRAND: His openness about his passion is unusual in Salt Lake County. That's because he's the only home brewer - that's what they call themselves - in the county with a legal permit to collect the grease.

Mr. NEWMAN: Most people in Utah that are making biodiesel are very secretive, they won't talk to you about it.

BRUNDIN: Home brewer Graden Blair(ph) estimates about 40 people in Salt Lake county were making biodiesel at home before a professional grease collecting company, Renegade Oil, began alerting the authorities. The oil that many home brewers were collecting from restaurants contractually belonged to Renegade.

Mr. GRADEN BLAIR : We didn't know that, and we had - technically were stealing oil. Well as soon as we learned that, we very quickly said, hey, don't do this anymore, we didn't know. It was kind of like dumpster diving. So, what a lot of these people did is they began to put their own barrels behind restaurants, and that also where it became an issue.

BRUNDIN: Renegade company president Jerry Peasley(ph) complains that home brewers aren't following proper regulations. And says, that's not fair.

Mr. JERRY PEASLEY (President of Rengade Company): If we didn't have to pay taxes and all the other things that we pay, we could really do well. Compete, but compete with us on a level playing ground.

BRUNDIN: Many home brewers never appreciated the high stakes nature of collecting used grease, it's a valuable commodity, bought and sold on international markets.

Renegades Peasley insists that his company isn't afraid of competition from home brewers. It's a matter of public safety.

Mr. PEASLEY: 50 guys do it, then a 100 guys do it, then 300 guys do it. And if it's not regulated, do you want to be next door to somebody using lye and stuff?

BRUNDIN: The county health department is enforcing a law requiring anyone who transports vegetable oil, to get a $125 permit and a $1 million insurance policy. But home brewers say insurance brokers won't sell to them, unless they already have insurance for a business. So, most have good underground. Blair is one of the lucky ones, he lives just North of Salt Lake, county.

He Just bought a fancy new processor for his home brewing operation.

Mr. BLAIR: I'm going to start collecting my oil again, which I can legally do in Davis County - thank you very much. And make my biodiesel, I'm thrilled to death.

BRUNDIN: Elsewhere in the country backyard biodieselers appear to be operating fairly freely, although there are exceptions. In 2005, California lawmakers passed legislation that requires everyone transporting vegetable oil to have a license and insurance. Competition there between home brewers and waste collectors for grease is fierce, and some fear as gas prices continue to rise, the scramble for the nation's kitchen waste will only intensify.

(Soundbite of machinery)

Salt Laker Kevin Newman(ph) says he'll be right there in the fray, collecting his 500-pound barrels of vegetable oil. He's come to like that faint smell of French fries as he drives from restaurant to restaurant.

Mr. KEVIN NEWMAN (Vegetable Oil Collector): On to the next one.

(Soundbite of truck starting)

BRUNDIN: For NPR News, I'm Jenny Brundin in Salt Lake City, Utah.

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