Industry Issues: Biodiesel and the Experience of the Volkswagen Beetle

by David Bradley

By now, most people in the trucking industry are familiar with the issues associated with the new regulations for emissions from truck engines and diesel fuel.

While concerns have been raised over the price tag for these measures – costs which can’t and shouldn’t be borne by the truckers alone – there is no denying the fact that these regulations are spawning new technologies that hold the promise of reducing and in the not too distant future, eliminating smog causing emissions from heavy trucks. That is a story worth telling.

However, not all government proposals designed to reduce emissions from diesel fuel have satisfied scientific or operational scrutiny. Case in point is the federal and Ontario governments’ fixation on biodiesel.

Last year, both levels of government jumped on the biodiesel bandwagon and eliminated taxes on biodiesel as an encouragement for people to use it. (Even with the tax breaks biodiesel is still more expense than conventional petrodiesel.)

Vegetable oils and animal fats are the primary substances that, when blended with diesel fuel, create what is now known as biodiesel. It has been touted as a way to reduce GHG emissions (reducing global warming) and improve air quality (reducing smog). The most common blend in the U.S. has been 20 per cent of biodiesel and 80 per cent conventional petrodiesel (B20).

However, the science is far from conclusive. Is it really a viable environmental solution or a new market for farmers?

A 2002 U.S. EPA study found that most smog-causing pollutants can be reduced through biodiesel use – except for perhaps the most critical smog emission, nitrogen oxides (NOx). Biodiesel actually increases emissions of NOx. The trucking industry is spending millions of dollars buying new truck engines designed to decrease NOx emissions. Asking the industry to use a fuel that increases these emissions makes no sense. This same study questioned the claim that global warming emissions can be reduced by using biodiesel. And, a 2001 study conducted for the Commission of the European Communities (CEC) concluded “biofuels will offer in theory little, if any emission advantages over gasoline and diesel in the future.”

There are other issues that must be considered. Although the most popular North American biodiesel blend is B20, a recent technical statement from the Engine Manufacturers Association declared that only blends of five per cent biodiesel (B5) would not cause engine or fuel system problems. Where would that leave your warranties? Higher blends of biodiesel have been found to cause a variety of engine performance problems. And biodiesel, it is argued, contains less energy than regular diesel meaning it has a negative impact on fuel efficiency.

Recently a study out of Saskatchewan claimed that diesel users can gain a 13 per cent increase in fuel efficiency by switching from conventional diesel to biodiesel.

Upon further review CTA discovered that the “truck” used in obtaining this result was a VW Beetle and it was running on diesel fuel not of current Class 8 standards.

As governments seek ways to be seen to be doing something about the environment, we must ensure that all the facts are considered before investing in solutions that may not be all they are promoted to be.

– David Bradley is president of the Ontario Trucking Association and chief executive officer of the Canadian Trucking Alliance.

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