Laws send 'greasers' into a spin

Tracy Larkin of Los Angeles fills the tank of her converted 1984 Mercedes Benz 300 Turbo Diesel with new, store-bought cooking oil

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Tess Vigeland: One increasingly popular solution to the energy problem is using vegetable oils to fuel cars. In fact, the first diesel engine was actually designed to run on peanut oil — until folks realized petroleum was cheaper.

Today, a small but growing number of drivers are starting to convert their diesel cars to run on vegetable oil. Fueling your car with vegetable oil is different from using biodiesel, which is federally-approved and regulated. So many states are cracking down on these gasoline refuseniks.

From North Carolina Public Radio, Jessica Jones reports.


Jessica Jones: When Bob Texiera wants to fill up his 1981 diesel Mercedes, he just loads up his cart at Costco.

Bob Texiera: Soybean oil is the cheapest. There it is, aisle 324. And I can already see that we're in business. See the green cartons there? There's my fuel.

Last fall, Texiera converted his Mercedes to run on vegetable oil for 500 bucks. The price, compared to buying a new Prius, was a deal, even though Costco's soybean oil costs more than gas, he said.

The melting icecaps in Al Gore's "An Inconvenient Truth" pushed the lanky musician over the edge. He slapped a sticker on his car that reads "Powered by 100 percent vegetable oil." But then the police saw it too, at a routine traffic stop.

Texiera: They asked if they could examine the fuel in my tank. Actually they said the diesel in my tank. And my response was, "Well, you won't find any in there." And then it went sort of downhill from there.

Taxiera was breaking a number of obscure laws. First, he owed the state a $2,500 bond to run his car on vegetable oil. And he owed a thousand dollars for neglecting to pay monthly state road taxes normally levied on gasoline. Federal penalties were involved, too.

Texiera: Had I known, I wouldn't have gone through with the conversion.

Most states don't know what to do with these so-called greasers. Some impose strict fines and confusing regulations. In Illinois, regulations were just relaxed. Lawmakers in North Carolina are thinking of doing the same.

Stan Bingham: This is just not a direction that we need to go in with our dependency on petroleum products, you know. Gollee.

Stan Bingham is a North Carolina state senator. He drives a converted Volkswagen Beetle powered by used cooking oil from the legislature's cafeteria.

Bingham didn't even know that he could be liable for taxes. He's working on measures to eliminate penalties on greasers that he says, like him, are innovators.

Bingham: I guess if you heard in 1904 that somebody was flying around in an airplane, you'd say, "Oh, [bleep]." But then all of a sudden, here comes one over, you know. Or here I drive by in my little bug, and it's sitting there running, and somebody smells the exhaust pipe — "God, it does smell like french fries." You know, it's true. I mean, we need to promote that and show that it can be done. Not curb it.

But energy experts like Jerry Taylor with Washington's Cato Institute say the marketplace will be the final judge.

Jerry Taylor: It's not as if we need to see some tie-dyed-looking Volkswagen bug driving veggie oil to get somebody interested in spending some time and energy in trying to research this. We got plenty of that! What the bottom line is, is the economics don't look very good for it right now.

Bob Texiera isn't deterred. He says the state is willing to reduce his penalties. And that means he's going to keep driving his converted Mercedes — until they invent a plug-in hybrid.

In Durham, North Carolina, I'm Jessica Jones for Marketplace.

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