Veggie Tales

It was expected to be one of the largest protests since the Vietnam War, and a radical cadre of young Houstonians was all set to join in outside the Republican National Convention in New York City. Only one thing stood in the way: They didn't have a ride. Operating as the Houston Global Awareness Network, they'd raised $2,000 to rent a couple of cars to shuttle a crew of 15 across the country, but the two or three who were old enough to, like, actually rent a car were wary about giving their real names to the companies. Then there was the matter of credit ratings, insurance and restrictions about crossing state lines.

Things seemed to be falling apart before they ever got started. That is, until Esteban Camilo Tovar had the good fortune to bump into a man with a school bus who offered to take the troupe cross-country. Christo Corsaut, a third-year psych major at Texas A&M in Corpus Christi, offered a flat-rate service; there would be no fuel costs involved.

"The guy said, 'Yeah, we got a bus that runs on vegetable oil.' And I just wasn't sure I could believe it," Tovar says. In fact, no one in his group had heard of such a thing. They weren't convinced they had scored a ride until the day before their planned departure, when Corsaut picked up Tovar and made a preparatory fuel stop at Crescent City Beignets' grease trap.


Gasoline alternative

The marching, the chanting, Tovar's arrest -- that was all cool. As were the lessons he received pilfering grease traps along the interstates. But Tovar's civil disobedience may have peaked along with the world oil supply after he returned to Houston last September. He immediately donated his Jeep Cherokee to PBS and hunted down an old Mercedes on eBay for $2,500, putting about $800 into a veggie-oil conversion kit that removes him and his engine from the entire "No Blood for Oil" rallying point of the demonstrations. Within two months he was leading workshops on how to make the diesel-to-veggie conversion, estimating that, to date, he has saved about $2,000 on fuel.

Veggie oil and its fumier cousin, biodiesel -- vegetable oil blended with diesel in various ratios, which prevents the need for any engine conversion -- have been used on the fringes of petro-society for years. In fact, veggie oil (or in advocate's parlance, straight vegetable oil) was used when Rudolf Diesel first demonstrated his engine at the World Exhibition in Paris in 1900. While petroleum won the battle for the fuel of choice based on cost analyses of the period, an interest in turning back to crop-powered engines has been steered in recent decades mainly by environmental concerns about acid rain, air pollution and global warming.

Recently the debate has been elevated by oil-supply jitters and escalating prices at the pump. Even oilman-turned-water prospector T. Boone Pickens suggested recently that the world has entered the era of the end of cheap oil -- that prices like those experienced post-Katrina are only a shadow of what lies around the corner.

The recent $3-per-gallon shock had a vitalizing effect on Chris Powers and Eloy Benitez, partners in a fledgling biodiesel operation in north Houston. The pair's warehouse pumps offer the only location in Energy City where biodiesel drivers who aren't mixing their own blends can fill their tanks without the threat of stains. After Katrina shut down refineries across the Gulf and pump prices spiked, it came as no surprise that the phones at Houston Biodiesel began to ring off the hook. When the operation opened in February, they would pump an average of 500 gallons per month; these days they're doing that almost per diem. "We thought it would be a club where enthusiasts could get together, drink beer and make biodiesel," Benitez says. "Then we realized the need for a stable, good-quality fuel."

Danny Bynum, who has been buying fuel from the pair for his 2001 diesel Volkswagen Beetle for six months, says the change has quieted his engine -- and improved its smell. "My wife doesn't even mind me backing my car into the garage anymore," he says. "Even though I'm in oil-field services, I'm still concerned about the air quality. To me that's the biggest benefit." He still clocks around 50 miles per gallon on the highway.

While diesel pump costs have vacillated between $2 and $3.30 per gallon over the last six months, the fuel served up at Houston Biodiesel has stayed between the $2.50 and $2.75 mark, Benitez says.

Theirs isn't the only alternative to oil-based fuel, of course. For instance, German inventor Christian Koch recently patented his own auto fuel formula derived from industrial and household trash. The German newspaper Bild earlier this year accused Koch of using dead cats to perfect his formula. "For a tank he needs 20 pussies," the paper read. Koch held fast to his denials: No cats in this vat, got it? However, he finally conceded, a toad or two might have slipped in, accidental-like.

Back stateside, Powers admits that such a conversion (cat to grease to fuel) is possible. It could be done there, in his north Houston warehouse, but that's not an avenue he's interested in pursuing. Powers and Benitez serve up a high-grade biodiesel, called B99, meaning it contains only 1 percent diesel.

While the blend seriously reduces most emissions, increases of nitrogen oxide of up to 10 percent may be the deal-breaker. Powers and Benitez have been notified by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality that they may have to shut down in a couple of months because of stricter ozone-reducing measures being undertaken by the state. Nitrogen oxide is one of the main ingredients in ground-level ozone.

Powers complains that it is diesel's high sulfur content -- a component of acid rain -- that should be targeted, rather than the slight burp of nitrogen oxide found in biodiesel.

Tovar, a 24-year-old biochemistry major at the University of Houston, is pulling on surgical gloves behind a strip mall in west Houston. He pops out his car battery and carries it to the trunk, where a golden sheen coats the interior, and hooks it to a pump. He slips a hose into the black vat behind Pepper Tree on Richmond and inserts the handle. The grease from this vegan restaurant is so clear it slips easily through the filters en route to the tank. In less than ten minutes, Tovar has topped off, pulled off his gloves -- tossing them into a Dumpster -- replaced the battery and pulled away, the odor of soggy egg rolls wafting behind him.

This isn't a guerrilla maneuver, though. He's checked with the restaurant owners many times about raiding the grease trap. "Ninety percent of the time [restaurant owners] are gonna say yes, so it's just good to tell them something," he says.

Despite the extra effort the switch has meant to him and the few converts he's made, he's happy with the change. He's reduced his car's emissions and is saving cash in the process. According to his most recent emissions test, Tovar's old Mercedes -- normally an infamous in-town smoker -- ranked far below the Honda Civic in several categories and virtually eliminated nitrogen oxide emissions. The change backs up his politics and distances him from the global fickleness of the oil market.

It's also creating a new breed of entrepreneur. Since his radical New York run, veggie oil enthusiast Corsaut has formed his own company, NatureWorks. Along with fiancée Danielle Stinson, he has assembled a team of welders who are busily producing a line of specialty tanks and "veggie fuel adaptation kits," which they plan to start marketing within the next few months.

"We're throwing away energy every day, because we've always had this abundance of oil," Tovar says. "We're just taking energy for granted."

So, do his friends complain about the smell when they hop a ride? On the contrary, he says. "They say it smells sweeter."

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