Friday, September 01, 2006


And now, from the same people willing to think "outside the box" with famously disasterous results (see: $chuylkill Valley rail service), SEPTA apparently thinks that the trendy new fuel du jour among the enviro-set - biodiesel - is, to be kind, half-baked. Of course, when you consider the source is the Philadelphia City Paper (a paper so far to the left, it makes the Daily News look neo-conservative), well, then it has to be taken with a grain of salt.

Despite a small dip in crude oil costs since the cease-fire in Lebanon, rising demand in India and China and ongoing violence in the Middle East have pushed per barrel costs to $70 and above, meaning biodiesel — a mixture of vegetable oil or grease and diesel — is now no more expensive than regular diesel. So earlier this month, the state started accepting applications from transit authorities, government agencies and nonprofits for Alternative Fuels Incentive Grants (AFIGs), which would offset extra costs associated with switching to biodiesel. Since 1992, the program has allocated nearly $30 million for the production and use of clean-burning fuels; there is no cap on individual grants.

So, SEPTA, why not give biodiesel a try?

SEPTA spokesman Richard Maloney hadn't heard of the grant until a reporter told him, but even after reviewing the specifics, he declared that no one can provide the five-county agency the 15 million gallons of diesel fuel a year it needs.

Sounds like it took our beloved Minister of Mis-Information and Shadow GM about 10 minutes to review the specifics, naturally with very little research.

But a few calls to providers proved the opposite is true. Massachusetts-based World Energy sends more biofuel to Philadelphia by rail car than anywhere else in the country. An official at a biodiesel company in Pennsylvania (who asked to remain anonymous in case the company applies for a city contract) says it could easily fill an order SEPTA's size. In fact, within a year, Pennsylvania could be the nation's leading producer of biodiesel, according to the state Department of Environmental Protection.

Still, since SEPTA gets its fuel via pipeline directly from the Sunoco refinery in South Philly, Maloney says, it has no place to mix the "bio" parts with the diesel.

"We will not be applying for the fundamental reason that it is at the moment logistically impossible for us to mix the fuels at the capacity we need," he says.

That may be the case now, but Sunoco spokesperson Gerald Davis said the company would consider carrying biodiesel if customers like SEPTA requested it. (SEPTA says it hasn't asked for it because Sunoco doesn't offer it.)

While buses could run on biodiesel with no equipment changes, a preliminary report released last week by the state Transportation Funding and Reform Commission confirms Maloney's assertion that the cash-strapped agency couldn't ask taxpayers to pay for upgrades needed for fuel mixing.

"For us to retool a huge infrastructure for 1,300 buses is something we can't turn on a dime," he says, adding that SEPTA would be open to a biodiesel plan that is "economically and environmentally practical."

Considering that SEPTA has already phased in a different type of diesel fuel (Ultra Low Sulfer Diesel) aleady at Southern Depot with plans to convert all depots to that type in the near future, there's no reason why one of the depots - possibly Allegheny or Frankford, which have relatively small fleets compared to the rest of the system - couldn't be the test depots for biodiesel.

But the real problem isn't biodiesel, says Lance Haver, the city's director of consumer affairs. It's SEPTA.

Although SEPTA's service planning and purchasing departments are supposed to research the best fueling options, Haver would like to see an environmental officer dedicated to these solutions.

"There is no one at SEPTA who is in charge of greening SEPTA and that is an indication of how little they care," he says. "If they were really concerned about these issues, you wouldn't have to talk to the same person who tells you why the trains are late."

You'd probably also have to talk to the same person in charge of everything else at SEPTA, from lying about crime stats to whining about a lack of support for dedicated funding from Harrisburg. That, of course, would be Maloney.

SEPTA has made some attempts to go green. Of its 1,300 buses, 32 are diesel-electric hybrids, which use less fuel than traditional diesel buses. Maloney, however, cautions that the hybrids are not as fuel efficient as expected, cost about twice as much as conventional buses and, because they are in high demand, take time to procure.

Cost and availability are some of the reasons public transit authorities, large and small, have embraced biodiesel.

In Seattle, King County Metro, which runs as many buses as SEPTA, put half its fleet, or 675 buses, on B20 (a blend of 20 percent biodiesel and 80 percent regular diesel fuel). While maintenance manager Jim Boon wasn't quick to make the change, he says the fuel has proved reliable.

Small systems such as RabbitTransit, York County's public transit authority, which runs just 74 vehicles, have phased in biodiesel concentrations. In February, executive director Richard Farr put the whole fleet on B5. Six months later, 20 vehicles were running on B20, and by year's end, he wants to upgrade all vehicles to B20 to reduce diesel usage.

Farr noted that the alternative fuel lubricates engines, making them more efficient, which could help SEPTA use its buses beyond their typical 12-year life.

The switchover has also given RabbitTransit a shot of positive PR. (Think SEPTA's "Genuine Philly" marketing campaign minus the cheese factor.) "The more cars we can get off the road and the cleaner our vehicles run," says Farr, "the better it is for everyone."

Cheese factor? How about the "pointless" factor? Or the "irrelevant" factor? Or the "what specific services do we offer" factor?

The Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission and Valley Forge Park use biodiesel, too, proving that the fuel is available locally. SEPTA riders already save on fuel by leaving their cars at home, but Bob Grey, a World Energy vice president of business development, says environmentalists need not feel twinges of fuel guilt when buses run on biodiesel.

Well, since the Turnpike is using biodiesel, perhaps Maloney and Don Pasquale - who last time I checked was a Turnpike Commissioner - should have a little chat before SEPTA closes it's doors to biodiesel.

"You can't deny that putting the farmer back in the field is a good thing," he says, "or that reducing foreign dependency on oil is a good thing."

SEPTA's Maloney remains skeptical.

"Many, many times when these proposals are really studied through," he says, "their benefits do not meet their initial promise."

Yeah, like the way you thoroughly studied this proposal?

But if a local company succeeds, SEPTA could one day run on grease discarded from city eateries. Philadelphia Fry-o-Diesel plans to make fuel from trap grease, which, unlike used fryer oil, is the slime leftover when restaurants wash dishes. Having just garnered the mayor's support for a state grant, the company expects to produce the fuel in 2008.

For now, the city plans to apply for the AFIG grant SEPTA rejected. Fleet manager James Muller says the biodiesel would fuel the 3,000 diesel vehicles used by the city, the School District, the Parking Authority and the Housing Authority.

"Anything that comes down the pike, we're interested," he says. "We need to start doing something, with the condition of the world today."

What does it tell you that the City of Philadelphia, which is not known for it's ability to think ahead of the curve, is actually light years ahead of SEPTA on anything? And how does SEPTA, which whines about a lack of money to do anything while at the same time pushes a $2 billion boondoggle down the collective throats of this region pass up an opportunity to investigate alternative fuels?

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