Making the case for biodiesel to school board
July 6, 2006
The July 11 meeting of the Santa Barbara Board of Education will include a potentially pivotal five minutes. Abe Powell, president of Get Oil Out (GOO), the organization that debuted in 1969 after the disastrous oil spill here, will lobby the district to switch its school buses to biodiesel.
Powell, 37, the Montecito owner of a solar installation company, and his environmental compatriots have spent the past few years promoting the use of biodiesel in Santa Barbara. They played a large role in bringing it to McCormix gas station, for instance, on Calle Cèsar Chávez.
Last week, Powell told me switching to biodiesel would improve the air schoolchildren breathe.
“According to an NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council) study from two years ago, they’re saying that in some school buses, especially when idling, children were being exposed to up to 46 times the acceptable limit of carcinogens in the ambient air,” he explained.
Changing to biodiesel would significantly cut air toxics and has “been totally vetted,” said Powell.
“It’s biodegradable, it’s nontoxic, they use it on oil spills to break up the oil and make it biodegrade faster. You can pour it in the creek, and if you don’t saturate it to the point where the fish can’t breathe, it will biodegrade quickly.”
It isn’t just the children who stand to benefit, he pointed out, but also bus drivers, mechanics and teachers, who spend significant amounts of time breathing in fumes.
One of the drawbacks to biodiesel is that it emits slightly more nitrous oxide, which contributes to acid rain, than regular diesel does.
GOO is pushing for initially using 20 percent biodiesel (and 80 percent regular) in school buses, which would increase bus nitrous oxide emissions by 1.2 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.
If they were to use 100 percent biodiesel, nitrous oxide emissions would increase by 5.8 percent.
Powell argued, however, that switching fuels is worth it, considering biodiesel greatly reduces greenhouse gas emissions and airborne toxins.
Moreover, using the fuel reduces our petroleum consumption, which resonates with people across the political spectrum.
In the short term, GOO hopes the school district will use 20 percent “virgin” biodiesel, which is created from soybeans and is available commercially.
As soon as possible, GOO wants the district to switch to 100 percent “recycled” biodiesel, which is made from used vegetable oil.
Santa Barbara, with its many hotels and restaurants catering to fried-food-eating tourists, is a good place for such a venture.
For local businesses, GOO’s plan has obvious appeal, for they’d no longer have to pay for used oil removal, which is a regulated toxic waste.
And although it saddens me to think of visitors killing themselves slowly on chicken fried steak and onion rings, the pain is mitigated by the idea they would be improving our schools’ environments.
What the plan reflects, too, is that Powell’s environmental group is no longer your dad’s GOO. They understand the need for viable and marketable alternatives to petroleum products.
While the details of who would collect the vegetable oil and convert it to biodiesel would still have to be worked out if the school board signed on, the plan would involve the private sector, which means local jobs and profits.
Converting waste to a more environmentally friendly fuel (albeit not a perfect one) that will help our kids and local businesses is probably worth at least five minutes of our consideration.
The school board meeting is open to the public and is held at 720 Santa Barbara St., in the boardroom, starting at 7 p.m.