Biodiesel BINGO (Part II): Nebraska to Iowa

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Heading east, Route 76 connects with I-80 at the Nebraska border where BP/Amoco stations begin to appear frequently. Since BP postures its leadership in clean energy in just about every venue except knicker labels, I stop at their stations or peer at their signage looking for signs of biodiesel. The BP clerk in Lexington, Nebraska sends me across the street to the Ampride Cenex station. It sells B2 soy biodiesel. It is too early in the game; B2 is not on my game card. “Is this all you have?” It is. (A banner at the old Denver Biodiesel shop reads: “B20 is for wimps.” For whom, then, is B2?) I drive on, ever hopeful.

In Kearney, Nebraska, after the BP diesel attendant says he doesn’t know where I can find biodiesel, I ask a middle-aged man standing at the pumps beside his seed truck. He says he knows someone “up north” who makes his own biodiesel, and “you won’t find it on the Interstate.” Yet, all along the Interstate, there are plenty of E-85 signs and gas stations with ethanol flex-fuel pumps. Perplexed by my fixation on biodiesel, I offer, “I write for a blog about clean energy.” “A what?” “It’s writing on the Internet.” “I don’t read any of that crap.” I nod; the response is unsurprising, so I venture further down the path of rejection: “It pollutes less, so I’d like to get some.” “This isn’t pollution,” he chuckles pointing to the diesel pump. “It’s all from the earth!” “That’s ridiculous; that’s retarded,” I say and turn heel.

Normally, I rue my moments of rudeness; this time I search for remorse that does not exist.

A few miles up the road, the Crane Meadows Nature Center offers a peaceful rest from the road. Most of the birds have flown off. It is getting cold. There are newspaper articles plastered in the entryway. The director of the Center had selected a hybrid car in 2005 – but switched to a flex-fuel, E-85 vehicle in 2006 – for birding tours. Literature at the Center includes publications on E-85: a four-color, four-page “newspaper” from the Nebraska Ethanol Board, titled, “Ethanol Now, Fueling the Future; and a four-color, tabbed guide to purchasing flex-fuel vehicles from the National Ethanol Vehicle Coalition, titled, “The American Fuel, Better for your car, better for the environment, better for America.”

At the Center, I log on to “that crap” (the Internet) to check the National Biodiesel Board website. It lists Sapp Brothers in Columbus as a biodiesel retailer. (The National Biodiesel Board has an 800 number to call when searching for biodiesel in a given locale, too.)

Columbus is east, so I detour off of I-80 and follow Route 30 through Grand Island and Central City. The staff at the Center tells me an ethanol plant is under construction in Central City. Yes, I think, of course it has an ethanol plant. I discover that the area also has a man in a cowboy hat who drives a big new GMC SUV with the license plate: ETHANOL. Creeping along the outer city sprawl of Columbus, I find Sapp Brothers on Route 81. The attendant doesn’t know the percentage of the biodiesel in the “soy biodiesel” pump, but she hands me a pamphlet published by the National Biodiesel Board from a drawer beneath the counter: “Soy BioDiesel. Pump Up Your Bottom Line. Another innovation fueled by the soybean checkoff.” The Nebraska Soybean Board is the contact (the pamphlet is even printed with soy ink, something that make my marketing communications heart sing.) I top up ($2.599), pass the night at an RV park near corn silos, and head for Route 34 in Iowa the next day.

East of Omaha, Route 34 follows the undulating hills of corn fields and flattens out approaching Illinois. In the overcast morning light, the October patterns of corn fields in various stages of tilling and harvest – with all I’ve read and written about the unsustainability of industrial agricultural – resonate beauty with the structure fiend within me, the part that longs for simplicity and patterns, however imaginary. I scuttle the plan to visit Storm Lake, Iowa to the north where my Scottish relatives farmed and continue east. In Emerson, I ask a friendly attendant at an old two-pump gas station upon a hill, a quasi-restaurant heavy of grease and meeting place for farmers, about biodiesel. She has no idea who might have it. I fill up ten gallons ($2.599). The receipt says: “S Diesel.” I have no idea what that is.

Close to the eastern Iowa border, I pass a large ethanol processing plant whose sign boasts, “#1 in ethanol production.” The B100 on my Biodiesel BINGO card is still open. Around Emerson, I give up on BP…and Iowa. B0 and B-mystery-blend aren’t on my card but are all Iowa has to offer along my route.

Next week: Illinois, Indiana and Ohio prove more promising for biodiesel.

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