Picture five million barrels of oil.
Environmental devastation is only one reason why many social change activists are protesting what they see as America’s dependency on fossil fuels.
In the developing world, oil is often a catalyst for political corruption. In Nigeria, for example, a profitable but foreign-owned oil industry has been linked to rising socioeconomic inequality and widespread government corruption, while providing few, if any, local benefits.
And as anyone who’s filled up a tank recently will know, a more immediate problem is that petroleum is simply expensive. And prices don’t seem to be going down. When an oil market as tiny as Libya’s opens up, there’s a scramble to control the goods – because oil is a scarce commodity, and much of the world runs on it.
But it doesn’t have to be that way.
The biofuel industry has been gaining popularity and attracting significant investor and media attention all across the United States. A report released this month by independent research organization Worldwatch reveals that global biofuel production increased by 17 percent in 2010.
The brother-and-sister Journey of Action duo were enthralled to stumble upon one of the gas stations run by biofuel marketing and retail company SeQuential, in conjunction with their production wing SeQuential Pacific Northwest.
Founded in 2002 as a C-corp, SeQuential’s collection service goes around to local businesses throughout Oregon and Washington, purchasing waste cooking oil that would otherwise be shipped overseas by corporations or simply thrown out. SeQuential Pacific Northwest then converts the oil into biodiesel, and SeQuential distributes it through its statewide gas stations.
Biodiesel is the only fuel to meet the EPA’s “rigorous emissions and health effect study,” as outlined by the 1990 Clean Air Act, according to the website biodiesel.com. Although biofuel does release carbon emissions into the atmosphere when burned, its production process has a lower environmental impact than petroleum.
A joint study conducted by the US Department of Agriculture and the US Department of Energy, cited on biodiesel.com, showed that biodiesel reduces net carbon dioxide emissions to the atmosphere by 78.5 percent compared with petroleum diesel fuel.
However, not all biofuel is green or sustainable. To ensure that their product is sustainably produced, SeQuential uses a community-based model that relies on locally sourced materials to limit the carbon footprint of transportation. In addition to waste oil, SeQuential uses Oregon-grown canola as feedstock.
So why don’t all of the nation’s gas stations go green?
Ian Hill, SeQuential’s CEO and co-founder, shared with Dowser some of the challenges faced by the biofuel industry.
“We’re struggling against Big Oil,” he said.
Mr. Hill said that the oil industry is a monopoly. As a result, he said, there are limited avenues to getting new fuel products on the market.
Nevertheless the company is managing to sell its product by developing relationships with local or regional consumers of liquid fuel, Hill explained, “and going direct to them as much as possible – so we bypass the petroleum infrastructure entirely. That allows us to have a higher margin, and our customers save money using biodiesel, so it’s a competitive advantage for them.”
“As far as technology,” Hill said, one main limitation exists: “We have a ceiling set by the availability of cooking oil, because that’s our feedstock. But if had better access to the market, we could deal with this problem.”
Another barrier to the market has to do with vehicle incompatibility, Hill said.
"There is essentially no cooperation with manufacturers when it comes to biodiesel. It’s a real problem. The engineering challenge for those manufacturers, in order to run vehicles on biodiesel, is minor. It’s a question of a change in attitude." he said.
The problem has legal risks, too, because manufacturers say that they didn't design engines to run on biodiesel, and thereby avoid responsibility. "Our fuel has to meet top standards, and if it doesn’t, we’re liable," Hill said.
On the other hand, there is no shortage of investor interest in biofuel, including musician Willie Nelson, who is one of SeQuential’s investors.
“We’ve been really lucky in getting the investors we’ve needed,” Hill said. “Our investors are lined up with a full-spectrum value investment – it’s not just, how fast am I getting a return on my investment. In our opinion, this attitude is a problem in our current economy."
"Our investors are looking for a triple bottom line return,” said Hill, meaning environmental and social benefits, in addition to financial ones.
Noting the importance of the triple bottom line, Hill explained that transparency is important for SeQuential. In addition to financial reports, the company keeps reports on jobs created and the wages for those jobs, carbon reduced or offset, and petroleum offset.
Perhaps one day, all gas stations will be the greenest gas stations ever. But it might be an uphill battle.
• This story originally appeared on Dowser.org.
• Sign-up to receive a weekly selection of practical and inspiring Change Agent articles by clicking here.