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Portland's Five Percent Biodiesel Solution Set To Begin

Wednesday every single retail diesel gas pump in the city of Portland will be selling 5 percent biodiesel.  The alterative fuel mandate passed by the city last year is the first such mandate — not just in the state — but in the country.

The idea is to reduce Portland's reliance on fossil fuels and to clear the air, by replacing at least five percent of diesel fuel with the vegetable-based additive. As Rob Manning reports, the supply lines in Northwest Portland are actually ready to go a whole lot further than that.

The largest biodiesel wholesale operation in Oregon can be found here on Highway 30 west of Portland. Pacific Biofuels is a Carson Oil subsidiary. 

Bill Dungan manages the 43-acre NuStar terminal where Pacific Biofuels has its tank. Like a harried homeowner, Dungan is apologetic about the appearance of the new infrastructure.

Bill Dungan: “We were on a really tight timeframe, I think we had two months to put this system in. We haven't got all the painting done yet. We don't have all the insulation in, yet. You're going to be seeing 'in progress' is what I'm telling you.”

It may not look great, but it's functioning.

Here's how it works: raw biodiesel comes into NuStar by rail from crop producers east of Portland. That's different from regular gas, which arrives by pipeline, or barge. First, it's tested.

Jeff Rouse is the alternative fuels manager with Pacific Biofuels. He says state agriculture officials just did a quarterly inspection. But he says they can visit, whenever.

Jeff Rouse: “The state has an open-door policy, they can contact the terminal any time and say 'we'd like to have a sample of the product' from the rack, from the tank, from the cars. We don't really care where they want a sample from, the procedures we put in place make sure we're always in compliance.”

Terminal operators have to worry about another factor with the vegetable-based fuel: temperature.

Jeff Rouse: “Our product has a temperature range down to just below freezing, about 28 to 30 degrees, is about where it would start to cloud up. Um, by keeping it above 45 degrees, 45 to 60 degrees, it allows us to keep uniformality throughout the product.”

Rouse says heating elements were part of the more than $2 million it cost to prepare for biodiesel. The bio gets stored in a huge, heated fuel tank. It used to store fossil fuel. The pipes that carry the biodiesel to the pump are recycled as well.

Jeff Rouse: “This used to be actually a jet fuel terminal, so we took the jet piping and scrubbed it and scraped it, and recertified it for the use of biofuels.”

At the pump, or the rack, as it's called, trucks can fill up with anything from B5 — the five percent Portland blend — to B99, or nearly pure biodiesel.

Jeff Rouse: “And as it turns out, we have absolutely perfect timing. We have a truck that's going to be loading biofuel.”

Terminal manager Bill Dungan says one unique quality of his terminal is its ability to mix whatever blend a customer wants before it goes inside the truck's tank. He says like cake batter, blended is better.

Bill Dungan: “If you put all the flour in, and all the chocolate on top, you get layers. And if you do that in the tank, you could have layers of biodiesel and diesel.”

That may true, but for some truckers, price is more important. This trucker is getting nearly pure B99 and will likely buy regular diesel at another station where its cheaper.  Price is a big deal.

In fact, Portland made an exception to its biodiesel mandate to allow one truck stop to continue selling straight diesel to its commercial customers. That was after the truck stop complained its customers would just buy the regular diesel they wanted outside the city.

Pacific Biofuels' Jeff Rouse says his company pays extra to use a B20 blend in its trucks.

Jeff Rouse: “We pay more, but you know, we feel strongly about the product, we sell the product and therefore we need to use the product. There's some days when biodiesel is cheaper than diesel, other days it's more expensive. But when you average it out over a year, I think it's a three to five cent premium, some years it's less.”

Rouse points out, the loopholes will likely close when the statewide standard of two percent biodiesel comes along. Ultimately though, even a five percent standard still allows more than 95 percent of fuel to come from burning petroleum. Nonetheless, Rouse says it's a start.  

Jeff Rouse: “It's removing five percent of everything we hate about the petroleum industry. Take five percent of all those pollutants out of the air, that's very large progress that we've made. There are people who will go beyond that, we look at that as a minimum standard.”

Rouse says the biggest limit on biodiesel  expansion — at this point — is demand. He estimates the city's mandate will create a three or four million gallon demand over the next 12 months.  Rouse says his Northwest Portland terminal alone could handle that and that's not even taking into account the smaller wholesalers in the area.

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