Wednesday, November 1
As I head east from Colorado, Nebraska and Iowa disappoint in my search for biodiesel.
Route 34 in Illinois is more promising, though the prices for both biodiesel and diesel are steeper. I stop at a BP/Amoco station in Monmouth, Illinois that offers B11 – and another ethanol pamphlet, again from the National Ethanol Vehicle Coalition (“The American Fuel, Fuel from the Midwest NOT the Mideast.”) I fill up ($2.759), and pass the night at an RV spot in East Galesburg, preparing for the predicted snow that never arrives. A large male pheasant with a collar wide of deep green flutters into the grass. Thus far on this trip, it has rained or gusted prairie winds every day.
The next day, at Kickapoo, Illinois, I yell BINGO! (I really do.) A road sign pictures a gas pump with the word, BIODIESEL, below it. (Jubilee Café’s homemade pies also lure me off the road.) What a selection (of biodiesel as well as of pies)! The Shell station in Kickapoo offers B100 ($2.899), B75 ($2.849), B50 ($2.799) B25 ($2.749) and B0 ($2.749).
I have found B100 at a gas pump! The B0 button has been pressed into non-recognition. Inside, the station displays yet another pamphlet, “Soy Biodiesel, The Best Choice for the Long Haul,” published by the Soy BioDiesel organization, and co-branded by Illinois Soybean Association. Billboards in the area support Illinois soy: “From Illinois Soybean Fields to America’s Roads…”
A billboard on Route 34 declares: “Iroquois County. The buckle in the corn belt.” Very cute. I catch sight of a series of three hand-made roadside signs along Route 34: “It’s good for America.” “Use diesel made from” “SOYBEANS”. Down the road is another series. The second reads, “keep it here” and the third, “ethanol.” I miss the first sign, because I am staring off into the miles and miles of farm fields. I fear they will fail to entertain and boredom will settle in. I grow grumpy in the rain and the wind, rumbling through the endless prairie.
“Go Illinois for Soy” has an alliterative ring to it, but I can’t help but wonder, what’s going on in Illinois with soy biodiesel that’s different from Iowa and Nebraska? I read an editorial in the New York Times (“A Farm Race in Iowa”) that sheds some light:
“The candidates capture a real split in the farm world – in Iowa and the nation as a whole. Mr. Northey proudly represents the industrial vision of farming that has turned Iowa into the land of the two-crop, corn-soybean rotation, a place where the chance to produce corn-based ethanol looks like diversity. Ms. O’Brien [who raises poultry, apples and strawberries…farms organically….uses a biodiesel school bus for a campaign vehicle] has been unfairly accused of belonging to “fringe” groups, and she is clearly not the Farm Bureau candidate.”
What’s the usefulness in promoting these biofuels to end-users within the farmbelt if you can’t find the darn stuff? Why not promote it to the more progressive areas of the country where markets are already primed to buy such products, or to rig owners and fleet managers (as Blue Sun Biodiesel in Colorado has done)? Can patriotism, the environment and improved engine performance trump the almighty price with truckers running rigs through the farmbelt and farmbelt residents?
And, will the new federal law mandating cleaner burning diesel (low-sulfur diesel fuel) turn truckers and rig owners on to biodiesel? The New York Times says the low-sulfur diesel law is “the biggest revolution in highway fuels since lead was removed from gasoline.” Sulfur reductions come from “changes in the refining process.” The low-sulfur law notices start to annoy me. (“Low sulfur highway diesel fuel (500ppm sulfur maximum): WARNING: federal law prohibits use in model 2007 and later highway vehicles and engines. Its use may damage these vehicles and engines.”) Where’s the less-polluting biodiesel?
I haul through the rest of Illinois stopping in Gilman to find B11 and more soy biodiesel literature: “The Best Choice for the Long Haul.” The contact is the Illinois Soybean Association. I continue through Indiana, still on Route 24, and miss a fill up with biodiesel in Logansport whose unusual hilly topography is a welcome change. By Decatur, the bus needs fuel. Decatur is an unfortunate town. A deadbeat kid opens his car door at the gas pump and dents the bus, then roars off. It’s time to open the on-board stash of B100 and get out of town…quickly.
I pick up Route 30 to cross Ohio, pass the night at Hickory Lake RV park in Ashland (a farm converted for trailers and RVs some of which look permanent, next to a soybean field). I have Internet and phone coverage – and a warm shower in 40 degrees. On the National Biodiesel Board website, only one vendor in Ohio listed carries B100.
The next day, like a hummingbird to nectar, I bump along Routes 71 to 76 to 183 to 62 to 14 to my destination, 445 Prospect Street and the Salem Oil Company. I am on the phone with owner Matt Weingart three times for directions, grateful he will stay open for me as I navigate Ohio’s back roads. Matt and his father, Craig, carry petroleum products and got into biodiesel because truckers requested it. The truckers haul soybeans.
The Weingart’s supplier for the product I purchase this day is United Oil Company out of Pittsburgh, PA. It’s a blend of soy and animal fats, but mostly animal fats. With his old supplier, says Matt, the product was mostly soy, the price of which tracks crude, not “beans,” whereas animal fat mostly tracks its own market. The “bean” was costing $.40 more per gallon than the animal fat. The old supplier, who had invested in the soy biodiesel refinery, reasoned that charging a price that tracked crude, would minimize his investment risk should the bean market fall out. I think of Kickapoo, Illinois where the price of B100 soy is $.15 higher than B0 – and the truckers choose the B0. It may be tracking “the bean” – but it’s priced at the pump at a premium over B0.
The grump returns: If you have a premium product that does not garner any meaningful market at the pump, what have you gained?
I say to Matt that on my trip, the price of biodiesel has been all over the map. He agrees; it’s all over the map.
Next week: Pennsylvania to the mid-point destination, Ithaca, New York.