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And just because it's a biodiesel station doesn't mean that people don't drive off with the nozzle still in their car

By Novella Carpenter

I find myself uttering the words "Want a fill-up?" Then I sling a greasy rag over my shoulder, pull the pump nozzle around to the side of the car and begin fueling. The customers mill about, buy healthy snacks like raw vegan cookies, consider bumper stickers and chat with each other. "What year is your car?" "How's the mileage on that one?"

This is not a gas station, this is a biodiesel fueling station. It's my new place of work! Last year, Biofuel Oasis in Berkeley opened up shop about two miles from my house. It was one of the first biodiesel fueling stations in the country, and that number is growing. According to the National Biodiesel Board, high-quality biodiesel is now available in all 50 states. Last year, the number of outlets reached 200 and is growing every day. To find your local biodiesel source, go to the National Biodiesel Board's website--www.nbb.org--and look at its map of biodiesel outlets.

Though I know it's a bit of a conflict of interest for me to write about my experiences at this station, I simply can't contain my excitement about the project. Does it make it OK that I would jump at the chance to work at one of the first hydrogen fueling stations or a CNG pump just so I could inform my readers about the behind the scenes action that goes on?

OK, now for the dirt. I've found that working at the station is very similar to working at a regular gas station. Cars drive up, I pump their fuel--or they pump their fuel--and then they pay me. My hands get really dirty. I daydream about getting to wear a cool retro gas-station-attendant outfit. I blare bad classic rock or R&B on the radio. And just because it's a biodiesel station doesn't mean that people don't drive off with the nozzle still in their car--tragically, that has happened.

The differences at the biodiesel station are subtle, cultural. The rattle of diesel engines lures me from behind the counter. The bumper stickers are all political or trumpet the use of vegetable-based fuels. BIO--to look like those country codes--is my personal favorite sticker, but there's "Biodiesel: No War Required" and "Our Fries, Our Fuel" (a nod to making biodiesel from used french fry oil). The fuel is a heck of a lot more expensive than petroleum--right now we're charging $3.50 a gallon but we're hoping that the biodiesel tax incentive will reduce the cost by a dollar in the next few months.

Another difference is that people are really interested in their fuel, how it smells, how it looks. Because it's nontoxic, we offer people the choice of buying the biodiesel in 5-gallon plastic containers to take along with them on long trips and to better monitor the quality. The virgin soybean-oil-based biodiesel is much lighter and yellow in color, while the waste vegetable oil is dark, the color of maple syrup. It seems some customers prefer the virgin over the waste and vice versa. There's also a sense of doing something better for the environment, an excitement about getting to fill up on a renewable fuel source. Who gets excited while at a gas station?

At night, when I finally roll down the metal door on the garage, I'm heartened to see Willie Nelson's signature on the wall by the door. I grew up listening to Willie; "Mama, Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys" was practically the theme song at our ranch in Idaho. Nelson has gotten into the biodiesel business himself, and he stopped by to chat with the owners of the Biofuel Oasis and signed our wall (with my bad luck, it wasn't my night to work). BioWillie, as they call him now, has devised a way to sell his brand of biodiesel fuel and storage tanks to existing truck stops. The fuel is a blend--only 20 percent biodiesel--but it comes from a farmer-friendly source. And the first BioWillie truck stop opened early this year on I-35 in Texas: at Carl's Corner Truck Stop. Go Willie! Check him out at www.wnbiodiesel.com.

Novella is waiting for your email! [email protected]

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From the March 2-9, 2005 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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