“Why do people use biodiesel? Because they love it, that’s why,” Carl Cornelius barks at me over the phone. “Heck, even Wal-Mart fuels here.”

Cornelius is the owner of Carl’s Corner Truck Stop in central Texas, and when we spoke he was in the process of tearing down and rebuilding his entire truck stop, ordering workers around between sentences. “We just finished building a biofuel plant out back that converts Texas-grown cottonseed into biodiesel,” Cornelius continued, before launching into a laundry list of biodiesel’s advantages over petroleum diesel. “It cools and lubricates the engine, reduces vibrations, cleans the motor. You gettin’ all this?”

Demographically, Cornelius may seem like an unlikely member of the green movement, but running trucks on fuel made from plants is a concept that’s close to the heartland. In fact, due to its abundance of soy farms, the Midwest has more filling stations that sell biofuel than anywhere else in the country. Minnesota has even legislated that all diesel sold in the state must be blended with biodiesel.

In Texas, musician Willie Nelson has thrown his celebrity — and money — behind a new brand of biodiesel called BioWillie, which is what Cornelius sells. Expanding on his work with Farm Aid, the concert series and nonprofit organization he co-founded in 1985, Nelson had the good sense to focus his biodiesel sales on truckers. Diesel passenger cars only make up a tiny percent of the market, but there are millions of truckers on America’s highways, and they each drive several thousand miles per week at six miles to the gallon. That means U.S. truckers buy up to a billion gallons of diesel fuel or more per week.

Right now, less than one percent of U.S. diesel sales are biodiesel. But Nelson is convinced that if enough truckers buy American-made biofuel, the U.S. could generate much-needed income for farmers while reducing dependence on foreign oil. “There is really no need to go around starting wars over oil. We have it here at home. We have the necessary product, the farmers can grow it,” Nelson said in a release.

BioWillie is just one of hundreds of brands of biofuel that companies sell at about 890 retail outlets nationwide, according to the National Biodiesel Board. Earth Biofuels (which owns the BioWillie brand) has its main production facility in Durant, Oklahoma, and primarily makes its biodiesel from American-grown soybeans. It currently sells BioWillie at a total of 22 truck stops in Texas, Oklahoma, California, South Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee and Mississippi. BioWille sells B-20 biodiesel, not the cleaner-burning B-100 (100 percent biofuel), but it’s still considerably better than the industry norm, which is closer to B-5.  The blend gets pretty close to the same mileage per gallon as standard diesel; some fans say it does even better.

Of course, trading biodiesel for petroleum is not a perfect solution to the troubles caused by oil consumption. With current technology, if every car in the U.S. switched to ethanol or biodiesel, we’d have to increase our dependence on fossil fuels to come close to producing enough soy and corn. But the potential exists for these fuels to be produced in a more eco-efficient manner. If farmers took eco-friendly steps to preserve topsoil while ramping up production, methods like crop rotation, companion planting and using organic pesticides and fertilizers could offset some negative effects of overplanting. At some point, this “green” biofuel could be put to use on farms, and the system would be self-propagating. Regardless, biofuels are currently a much cleaner burning option. Switching to B-20 biodiesel reduces hydrocarbon and sulfur emissions by 20 percent, and carbon monoxide and particulate emissions by 12 percent.

When I spoke with a trucker who exclusively uses biodiesel, Ray “Critter” Iddings, 63, surprised me with his fervor. “If every truck in the U.S. switched to biodiesel, we could reduce consumption of foreign oil by 30 percent!” he told me from his ’97 Freightliner truck as he drove across Missouri. When Iddings started driving trucks in 1965, diesel cost 19 cents per gallon, but he’s not one to pine for the past. He heard about biodiesel for the first time on satellite radio, where Willie Nelson frequently sings its praises, and made the switch immediately. “Forget the environmental and political reasons — which are convincing. Just look it from the pocketbook. I used to get six miles to the gallon. With biofuel, I get seven. So I’m taking home more money at the end of the week.”

In November, BioWille biodiesel cost about $2.50 a gallon, only a few cents more than regular diesel. Strangely, most truckers don’t buy it. The companies with huge fleets of trucks have deals with the larger truck-stop chains and don’t allow their drivers to fuel anywhere else.

“We’re working on that,” say Rob Reed, director of communications for Earth Biofuels. “By the way, did I tell you that Julia Roberts is working with us?” Reed can be excused for shilling, because he’s struggling to educate consumers about the common-sense advantages of his product. To tug at people’s consciences, Reed enlisted the actress to endorse a campaign aimed at convincing school boards to run the nation’s school buses on biodiesel.  

You’ve got to shuck and jive to muscle your way into any market, especially one as entrenched as petroleum. But momentum is building for biodiesel. This year, the EPA will be mandating the use of ultra-low sulfur diesel, which can be made by mixing biodiesel into petroleum diesel. Sulfur is a critical lubricant, but it causes the putrid, black smoke everyone associates with diesel cars. Cutting petroleum diesel with biofuel provides the necessary lubrication without the particulate emissions, the smoke or the smell.

Back on the road, Iddings was hopeful about his future with biofuel. “Look, Old Blue has 1,410,000 miles on her engine,” he says, referring to his truck. “And with biofuel, she could get another 500,000.”

Glossary

  • Flashpoint: The lowest temperature at which a substance will form an ignitable mixture with air. The lower the flashpoint, the more flammable the substance. With a flashpoint of 306 degrees, biodiesel is so safe that it’s not even recognized as a flammable substance, plus it tends to burn better when mixed with petroleum diesel. (Gasoline, for instance, is much more volatile.) In cold temperatures, though, biodiesel can require heating, since gelling can be a problem when temperatures drop below 20 degrees.
  • B-rating and E-rating: Designations used to indicate the percentage of the fuel is biodiesel or ethanol, respectively. (e.g., B-20 contains 20 percent biodiesel and 80 percent petroleum diesel; E-20 contains 20 percent ethanol and 80 percent gasoline.)

Story by Philip Armour. This article originally appeared in Plenty in July 2007.

Copyright Environ Press 2007