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YellowStone NP biodiesel pickup
US National Park Service Dodge Ram pickup at Yellowstone is fueled by B20 biodiesel as part of NPS effort to 'green' America's over-burdened, under-funded park system. The question is, will this effort make a difference in reducing air pollution?

SVO Underground: America's Un-Natural National Parks

Conclusion of series on the Straight Vegetable Oil biodiesel underground

By Novella Carpenter

I was just offered a job driving vans filled with Europeans and other trail-mix toting types on tours into the National Parks; I would stop at all the pretty spots, tell my charges wacky stories about California, take an hour hike and call it a day. It pays well, I'd probably meet people named Weilhelm and Vonda and get invited to finish my summer in Switzerland, and I'd fulfill my thus far unacknowledged desire to be one of those insane, sweating bus drivers who shouts Homer aloud during traffic jams.

Despite these perks, I don't think I'm going to take the job. I'm having that extremist-dye my hair midnight black or platinum white-sentiment where I believe that if we love nature, maybe we should leave it completely alone. I might still be scarred from a lecture I attended where a big-brained writer talked about how National Parks have become epitaphs of nature. That there are official looking signs that trumpet "nature" but there's nothing natural about a National Park.

Think about it: millions of visitors and their cars flock to nature (I'm not using any more quote marks, "okay?"), creating human waste, traffic, and pollution. It's like Disneyland-watch the bear from the car, then see the 2:05 old faithful geyser, and laser light show in the Grand Canyon.

It's not just big brainy intellectuals who recognize this disconnect. Even rangers at the fireside slideshow admit that we're loving our parks to death. The National Park website reports that the smog levels in the major parks-Yosemite, Yellowstone, and the Grand Canyon-during the summer are worse than the levels in some major cities. The parks are taking some action to alleviate these problems -- though one wonders how affective waterless urinals and alternative building materials will be.

One thing that the Parks are doing that I laud and see as a real solution is running many of their vehicles on my best friend: biodiesel.

I discovered through their Green Energy Parks program that over nineteen Parks, starting with Yellowstone in 1995 are using biodiesel in some of their vehicles. The NPS puts out a database that lists their vehicles and what powers them. They've got all kinds of crazy sounding contraptions-a 1978 ambulance, the Piston Bully, the Honey Wagon and the Leach Packer-that are running on B20.

For those of you who haven't been reading this column (ahem!), biodiesel is the hottest alternative fuel to come along since pedal power. It is made out of veggie oil mixed with lye and methanol in a process called transesterfication which yields biodiesel and glycerin. The biodiesel mix called B20 is 20% biodiesel and 80% petro-diesel and seems to be the biodiesel blend of choice. Sure, B20 is better than straight diesel -- it's said to reduce 40% of greenhouse gases -- but why not go B100 for the gipper?

The short answer is an agency called GSA, or the US General Services Administration. Ah, the smell of bureaucracy! This is the agency that provides many governmental agencies with vehicles, the NP included.(Why did I think Ranger Rick was out test driving 1/2 ton pick-up trucks on his day off?)

According to the GSA's official website, they require that their vehicles, if running biodiesel, use B20 blend only and the oil must derive from virgin soybeans or rapeseed. Virgin. With that clause, blasted are the biodiesel fantasies that are widely celebrated by the press-that is, your tailpipe won't smell like french fries or Indian food because it isn't recycled oil from the fryer.

I called the biodiesel distributor for the Redwood National Parks called Renner Petroleum located up in Eureka, CA and talked to a man named Rex Rohn.

This isn't the usual biodiesel distributor, full of idealism and anti-petroleum sentiment, in fact, biodiesel almost appears to be an afterthought for Renner. Rex tells me they get the soybean oil from Iowa farmers who are glad to have something that people will buy. And the meal goes into feeding cattle.

Happy circle, right? Probably not.

My guess is these folksie farmers aren't cute, overall wearing salt of the earth types. They're probably suit wearing businessmen who own huge monoculture farms. When I ask Rex if the soybeans are genetically modified, he pauses-he is talking to the alternative media-before saying no, he doesn't think so, but they should be, those beans need to grow faster to meet the demand! Yikes.

Suddenly, it all makes sense. The big National Parks need cars from the big governmental car leasing agency that only allows biodiesel to come from big companies that support big farms. Typical. I'm staying out of it.

Times Article Viewed: 2948
Published: 01-Nov-2003

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