By Tina Hesman
Of the Post-Dispatch

June 4,2001
Edited by Virginia Baldwin Gilbert

Bi-State buses will soon get gas from beans.

Sen. Christopher S. Bond, R-Mo., will announce today that 573 buses and 80 Call-A-Ride vans operated by the Bi-State Development Agency will begin using biodiesel in their tanks later this summer.

Biodiesel is made from soybean oil and can be blended with petroleum-derived diesel or burned alone. Most biodiesel is sold as a 20 percent biodiesel blend with petroleum diesel -- a fuel known as B20.

Buses and other vehicles that burn the soy diesel blend produce fewer toxic and air-fouling emissions than those powered with regular diesel. Vehicles using the bean-based fuel emit significantly less carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, hydrocarbon and sulfur.

The fumes also smell better -- more like French fries than oil refineries, said Tom Verry of the Missouri Soybean Association. That is a benefit that should be a boon to drivers stuck in traffic behind a Bi-State bus, he said.

"People hate buses with all the black smoke," Verry said. "That's no secret."

Soon the alternative soy diesel won't be a secret to American consumers either, said Jenna Higgins of the National Biodiesel Board, based in Jefferson City.

The soy fuel made headlines last month, as consumer pumps selling biodiesel opened in Nevada and California. Although most drivers aren't familiar with biodiesel, the fuel has quietly gained acceptance with diesel fleet operators pressed to cut fuel emissions.

Bi-State will be the latest diesel fleet in the St. Louis region to convert to biodiesel.

The Missouri Department of Transportation and the city of Kirkwood began using the soy fuel in their diesel-powered vehicles earlier this year.

Last month, Scott Air Force Base began a yearlong test of biodiesel for the Department of Defense. The fuel will be tested in 270 diesel-powered vehicles assigned to the 375th Airlift Wing and the 126th Air Refueling Wing, Air Force officials said.

The drawback to biodiesel is that it costs more than conventional diesel fuels - 7 cents to 14 cents a gallon more, said Lyle Howard, a product development manager for Bi-State. A program sponsored by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to encourage biodiesel production has helped bring the cost down to levels competitive with conventional diesel, he said. That's an important consideration for the financially strapped transportation agency.

If government funding for biofuels ends, Bi-State may not be able to continue filling its tanks with soy diesel, Howard said. He estimates that Bi-State could spend up to $1 million a year extra to buy biodiesel without government support.

"If we don't get help with this, we simply cannot do it," Howard said.

Not every fleet is worried about the costs. Kevin Herdler, Kirkwood's director of fleet services, paid about 5 cents a gallon more to fill the tanks of 79 city vehicles with the biodiesel blend. It was an easy sell in the environmentally conscious municipality, he said.

The cost of biodiesel is likely to go down as use increases, Higgins said. Government subsidies shouldn't be necessary as biodiesel becomes a standard fuel, she said.

"We see the bioenergy program as a jump-start, not something that will be needed permanently," Higgins said.

Supporters of alternative fuels are lobbying to allow transit systems to buy and sell fuel credits for using biodiesel, as government and utility company fleets can. Bi-State buses will use about 1.2 million gallons of biodiesel a year - equivalent to more than 2,600 fuel credits. At $1,000 to $3,000 per credit, biodiesel could become a revenue generator for the transit system, Howard said.

That could be a welcome development for taxpayers. "Everyone I've talked to is in favor of this," Howard said. "But when it comes time to pay for it, people get a little bit shy."