Severe consequences of biofuels for people in colder rural areas – including school children who are left standing outside in freezing temperatures waiting for buses with plugged fuel filters
by Sen. Doug Whitsett
Much has been made over the years regarding Oregon’s urban-rural divide, and for good reason.
Nearly 75 percent of the state’s population lives in the Willamette Valley. The people there are often unaware of the struggles facing residents in the state’s more sparsely populated areas. The elected officials in the Portland metropolitan region dominate Oregon politically and sometimes create public policies that can adversely affect people in the more rural areas. They tend to think in terms of city blocks travelled, whereas we think in terms of hours travelled.
A clear example of this disconnect took place recently.
Oregon’s largely urban policymakers have been eager to adopt legislation mandating the use of biofuels in the name of reducing emissions and saving the environment. These aspirational policies have not been without unintended outcomes. In the case of biofuels, those consequences are already proving quite severe for people in rural areas.
The Cascade Mountains serve as a physical and metaphoric dividing line between the urban and most rural parts of Oregon. Subzero temperatures are much more common in the high country east of the Cascade summit. Under those conditions, biodiesel fuel used to power essential vehicles and equipment gels, and even coagulates. The certain result is plugged fuel filters that impair engine performance and cause diesel engines to stop running properly, or at all.
This reality prompted me to draft two pieces of legislation to address the problem.
Senate Bill 163 would eliminate biodiesel blending requirements from off-road diesel that is exempt from excise tax sold in counties east of the Cascade summit from October 1 through February 28. SB 164 provides for the sale of biodiesel-free fuel by stipulating that the sale of diesel fuel that contains a specified percentage of biodiesel or other renewable diesel does not apply to sales in counties east of the Cascade summit from November 1 through February 28.
A public hearing on these bills took place in the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee on Monday, April 13. I joined representatives from the Oregon Farm Bureau and Oregon Trucking Association in giving testimony in support of the bills.
However, the bills were not without opposition.
A representative from the National Biodiesel Board provided written testimony against the bills, and also spoke out in opposition to them during the public hearing.
In the written testimony, the representative stated that “we are not aware of any cold weather operability issues that have occurred since biodiesel’s ASTM specification was optimized for cold weather performance in 2011.” It was also claimed that “the difference in cold flow between a 5% biodiesel blend and 100% petroleum are now less than half of one degree Fahrenheit.”
Information that my office has received from school officials from Senate District 28 completely and conclusively contradicts that testimony.
The community of Lakeview is located at an altitude of 4800 feet. The average route time for school buses in that area is around one hour each way, and other bus trips can vary between one and a half and seven hours.
Gelling biodiesel causes the fuel lines, including the fuel filter, to become plugged, preventing fuel from flowing to the engine. Once the engine has stopped running, it is not possible to heat the passenger area of the busses where the children are seated. This creates a very cold and potentially unsafe environment for those students.
If this happens, a bus would have to be towed and heated to a higher temperature to allow the biodiesel to flow again. The nearest equipment capable of towing a school bus is located 90 miles away in Klamath Falls. The cost of towing, as well as cleaning and replacing damaged parts, can cost more than $6,000 per bus! The school district owns eleven diesel-powered buses. Those costs must be paid and serve to divert funds from the classroom, and from paying teachers to educate our children.
The Bend-LaPine School District reports that it has had school closures and delayed start days caused by biodiesel fuel gelling and coagulation during winter months. Officials responsible for managing the district’s bus fleet sent along a photograph as a visual demonstration of biodiesel’s failure in subzero temperatures during the winter of 2013-14.
Along with that photograph, those officials sent us an e-mail describing the difficulties they face when temperatures drop below zero.
Officials can’t always decide if school is going to be canceled or start-delayed because of inclement weather, until after the buses have been successfully started and begin their routes. Even then, the biodiesel fuel may gel or coagulate, causing the buses to stop in mid-route.
Local news outlets may have already announced that school was scheduled to be in session before it is determined that the buses will not start. Students are at the bus stops and parents are on their way to work, with the understanding that there would be school that day.
In the meantime, the biodiesel fuel has gelled, the filters have solidified and the buses have stopped running. Students are left stranded on the buses or standing outside in freezing temperatures, not knowing if their buses are late or not coming at all. Since their parents have already left for work, they are left home alone and parents may have to scramble to make last-minute daycare arrangements.
All of this needlessly jeopardizes children’s safety, as well as their instruction time and their parents’ livelihoods.
The conflict of these real-life examples with the substance of testimony offered by opponents of these common sense measures is startling at best.
Written testimony submitted by the biofuels industry representative states that “investments in biodiesel production and distribution have been based on the current policy landscape, which includes a year-round market for the product.” It is unfortunate that anyone would hope to put corporate profits above the safety of our children.
It was also said that passing SBs 163 and 164 would tell the investment community that “Oregon state government is not serious about developing a homegrown advanced biofuels industry.” This is tantamount to choosing environmental policy over school safety.
Another outrageous claim is that “advanced biofuels growth and development is based on the level of confidence investors have in government policies.” What about consumer confidence in the actual biodiesel product itself?
Written testimony submitted by the Oregon Environmental Council states that “these bills are unnecessary and undermine in-state and regional production and use of safety and reliable renewable fuels.” Their lobbyist testified in committee that these bills “would chip away at the recently passed clean fuels program that we worked very hard to pass, and that sets us up for reducing climate pollution.”
This testimony references the controversial Low Carbon Fuel Standards program that was directly and specifically mentioned in the sweeping federal grand jury subpoena that was issued against disgraced former governor John Kitzhaber and his fiancée, Cylvia Hayes, as part of the ongoing investigation into influence peddling, crony capitalism and other very serious allegations.
Throughout my ten years in the Oregon Senate, I have seen countless examples of well-intended policies developed by people in urban areas that cause great harm to those of us in rural areas. This debate over biodiesel is simply the latest in a long line of these instances. Failure to pass these bills will do nothing more than deepen the rift between those in the urban and rural parts of the state.
Senator Doug Whitsett is the Republican state senator representing Senate District 28 – Klamath Falls
[UPDATE 5/5/2015] Bend Bulletin Editorial: Give Eastern Oregon schools biodiesel exemption