Some Cold Truth About Biodiesel In Minnesota — It’s Not the Biodiesel That’s Bad.

Editor’s note: Robert Moffitt is one of the newest additions to the Gas 2.0 writing team. Welcome aboard Robert!

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Last week, temperatures in my home state of Minnesota stayed below zero for nearly four consecutive days. Extreme cold is not particularly unusual in the Land of 10,000 Lakes, but it’s not much fun to commute to work or school with air temperatures at -20ºF. As I bundled up and drove to work in the middle of the cold snap, I heard a radio news story that one large suburban school system had closed, saying their school buses couldn’t run “because the biodiesel had turned to gel.”

When I checked my computer at work, I found that the story was already being covered heavily by local news outlets and had been picked up by the Associated Press. Soon, the Internet was humming with comments, blog posts, tweets and retweets about the story, many of them mocking the use of biodiesel, Minnesota’s mandated use of the fuel, or even global warming.

Some people, including myself, had questions about the story. Since Minnesota state law requires that virtually all diesel sold here contain two percent biodiesel (B2), and the cold wave covered the entire state (it was -40ºF in International Falls, MN that morning!), wouldn’t all the diesel-fueled vehicles be affected, and not just a small percentage of the buses in one school district? I saw many trucks and school buses on the road that morning, all running on the same B2 mix the Bloomington school buses use. I posted my doubts on a local blog and sent copies to local reporters. Soon, others began to have doubts, too.

Minnesota’s biodiesel mandate, the first of its kind in the nation, has not always run smoothly. There were problems at the start, which lead to some sweeping quality assurance efforts that rippled through the entire biodiesel industry in the United States. As a result, the quality of the biofuel blended with petroleum diesel here has never been better. As the state is on track to increase its required biodiesel blend from two percent to five percent (B5) this year, finding fast answers to this latest mystery was vital, before negative publicity could spur some state lawmakers to call for a delay — or even overturning the law.

In reaction, the National Biodiesel Board issued a statement to its members on the issue. It’s not available for links, but here’s an excerpt:

“Nothing is more important than getting kids to school safely, which is exactly why we worked proactively to get to the bottom of the district’s concerns,” said Ed Hegland, National Biodiesel Board Chairman. “A B2 blend, when properly handled, should perform just like diesel. These extremely cold temperatures provide operational challenges to diesel vehicles regardless of whether they use biodiesel blends or diesel fuel.”

The report issued Friday by Meg Corp. said, “We found that whatever was plugging the filters was not biodiesel, but a substance found in petroleum.”

Disappointingly many reporters did not do due diligence to investigate the errant claim that biodiesel caused the buses that serve the Bloomington School District to malfunction. Initial stories inaccurately assumed and reported that biodiesel was a causing factor, when the facts strongly dispute this claim.

Will Rogers once said, “I only know what I read in the newspapers.” Unfortunately, the newspapers — and other media — sometimes get it wrong, or don’t fact-check claims made by others.

Image Credit: alextakesphotos‘s Flickr photostream. Used under a Creative Commons License.

Robert Moffitt

I'm Just Plain Bob here at Gas 2.0. At work, I am the communications director of the Clean Fuel & Vehicle Technologies program of the American Lung Association of the Upper Midwest. I work in Saint Paul, Minn.