Putting the brakes on biodiesel
Come December 31st, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) is set to effectively ban biodiesel in the state’s largest markets. The problem, they say, lies with the fuel’s nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions and their contribution to the formation of ground-level ozone in Texas’ eastern counties. According to the TCEQ, biodiesel does not meet the stricter NOx standards recently imposed on diesel and alternative diesel fuels under new regulations.
Efforts to clean up the air, led the TCEQ in November 2005 to adopt Texas low emission diesel (TxLED) standards in an effort to reduce pollutants in the state’s smoggiest 110 counties. Texas’ biodiesel industry - the largest in the country - suddenly found itself essentially outlawed after the standards went into effect. Industry officials banded together to form the Biodiesel Coalition of Texas (BCOT) and convinced the TCEQ to give them a one year reprieve to resolve the NOx issues.
The end of that period is fast approaching and despite the best efforts of BCOT and results from a recent study conducted by the Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Lab showing biodiesel to have negligible NOx emissions, the TCEQ seems ready to enact the ban come 2007.
The ban is not iron-clad. Producers of biodiesel and biodiesel additives can have their products approved for use at any time after the start of the year, if independent testing shows that their NOx emissions are low enough to meet the TxLED standards.
Still many in the Texas’ biodiesel industry are confused and irked by the TCEQ’s approach to the issue. They say, at a time when other state environmental agencies are increasingly promoting biodiesel as a clean, non-toxic, renewable and home-grown alternative to petroleum diesel, the TCEQ’s transfixion on the NOx issue will smother Texas’ burgeoning biodiesel industry.
The TCEQ’s stance on biodiesel is predicated, in large part, on a 2002 EPA study that found that B20 blends (20 percent biodiesel, 80 percent petro diesel) on average, emit two percent more NOx emissions than TxLED. The Biodiesel Coalition of Texas has serious doubts about the test’s findings, and maintains that the fuel’s emissions of nitrogen oxides are no higher than those of TxLED.
Recent testing by the National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL) seems to validate BCOT’s position. The study finds fault with the testing methods used in the 2002 EPA study. Lead author, Robert McCormick explains, “About 45 percent of the data in their data set were for one engine model…an engine model that happens to show a small NOx increase.” Results can vary widely based on the feedstock, engine type and testing methods being used. McCormick, who is the NREL’s Principal Engineer for non-petroleum based fuels research, notes that in analyzing test data it’s important not to weigh any one engine too heavily, which, in the case of the EPA study, may have skewed its results.
In addition to pointing out problems with the EPA’s testing methods, the NREL study conducted NOx tests of its own while also performing a comprehensive review of recent studies on the subject. In its study, 8 heavy duty vehicles were assessed using B20 fuel. Some vehicles emitted a slightly higher percentage of NOx, while others yielded lower NOx. Taken together, “Biodiesel, appears to cause no change in NOx emissions,” reports McCormick. In other words, NOx emissions were neither higher nor lower than those of TxLED. “For B20,” the review of recent studies revealed, “substantial reductions in emissions in particulate matter, carbon monoxide and hydrocarbons and on average, no change in emissions of NOx.”
When asked about the recent NREL study, the TCEQ said that it was evaluating the findings but had not made a decision as to whether the study would alter their position. They did however note that, “The type of test procedures used for these recent NREL tests are not used by the EPA or the TCEQ for heavy-duty diesel engine emissions testing.” The TCEQ will only accept tests conducted in a laboratory on stand-alone engines. McCormick contends that the NREL, “can do engine testing too but we chose to test vehicles because,” it reflects real-world conditions and, “we feel like that’s a lot more realistic.” He goes on to remark, 'I don't think the EPA folks would say that vehicle-testing data is of a lower quality than the engine-testing data.”
Rudy Smaling, program director of the New Technology Research and Development (NTRD) project, says the EPA has even made some statements in the past suggesting that the ozone forming potential of biodiesel is less than it is for petro diesel. The NTRD is a state-wide project that helps to identify, test and evaluate new technologies that can reduce emissions. Both Smaling and McCormick believe more studies need to be conducted.
As much scientific debate as there is over biodiesel’s NOx emissions, there may actually be more over NOx emissions from ethanol. Like biodiesel, the official verdict is out as to whether low levels of ethanol blended with gasoline emits more NOx than without it. Ethanol makes up a substantially larger portion of the fuel supply (almost all of our gasoline contains 10 percent ethanol), forcing some to wonder why the TCEQ has not looked at ethanol as closely as it has biodiesel. According to Smaling, it soon might. “If states are going to consider outlawing biodiesel because of the NOx increase,” Smaling warns, “then they’ll definitely want to consider doing the same thing with ethanol.”
While the biodiesel industry hopes and waits for the TCEQ to withdraw its impending restrictions, some additive companies are rushing to have their product certified by the state to provide a means for the fuel producers to continue conducting business after the end of the year. Emissions testing is not cheap, with costs in some cases running over $100,000 per product. The TCEQ, by way of its New Technology Research and Development (NTRD) program, has provided funding for 15 biodiesel related projects to be tested. Two of the projects have completed their testing. GTAT California’s Viscon additive received approval in September of 2005, only to have it rescinded some months later after it failed under different testing protocols. Another additive produced by Clean Diesel Technologies narrowly missed being approved according to the TCEQ’s Morris Brown. More than half of the projects never made it to the final testing phase because grantees did not meet certain obligations. Another six proposals are currently under review according to the TCEQ. Seemingly all of the proposals involve the use of an additive, which according to the BCOT are not effective at reducing NOx and only add to the cost of the fuel.
If the TCEQ goes ahead with its ban, to stay in business producers will have to either ship their fuel out of state or use an as of yet uncertified additive to lower their fuel’s NOx emissions. Speaking for the industry, BCOT president, Jim Karlak says, “For us to transport biodiesel from where we are located, to outside of the 110 counties, which essentially means outside of the state of Texas, would be a dramatic margin hit to all the producers and I’m not certain we could afford that hit.” Karlak is also CEO of SMS Envirofuels, a biodiesel production company located in San Antonio. The ban would force him to dramatically reduce production and ship his fuel out of state, placing SMS Envirofuels at a competitive disadvantage to producers located outside of Texas.
Here in Houston, Chris Powers of Houston Biodiesel has had to put off plans of expanding his business. Powers says he wants to put in 12 more biodiesel pumps around the city, but is awaiting TCEQ’s decision before moving forward. If the ban is enacted, he will scrap the expansion plans. As for the single pump at Houston Biodiesel, Powers say he will have to transition from selling a B99 blend to B100. The TCEQ does not recognize B100 as a transportation fuel and has no authority over its use. By switching, he says he will lose the 99 cent per gallon blending credit that has helped keep his prices competitive with petro diesel. Loss of the credit would mean a severe loss to his customer base. “I’d be priced out of business,” says Powers.