Ribbon cuttings are normally fairly dull events which mean a lot more to the people who cut the ribbons than to the community which hosts the project. Wednesday, California Air Resources Board Chair Mary Nichols cut the ribbon from a diesel fuel pump at a stations in suburban Sacramento. Despite the humble nature of both the venue and the structure being inaugurated, this particular ribbon cutting carried a great importance for the future of climate policy, in California and beyond.
The green pump in the picture above is operated by Propel Fuels and dispenses (among other things) a fuel called Diesel HPR™ made by Neste Oil. While the bulk of Neste’s business has been in the petroleum sector, they have been one of the first major commercial-scale developers of renewable petroleum substitutes, called “drop-in” fuels because you can drop them into an existing car’s tank without having to modify its engine or fuel system. Neste’s Diesel HPR, like biodiesel, is made from a natural renewable oil like waste vegetable oil from restaurants or food processing, or animal fats from meat processing plants. Unlike biodiesel, it meets or exceeds every federal quality requirement for diesel fuel without blending in petroleum fuels. The waste oils are processed by a method called “hydrotreatment”, or exposing the oil to hydrogen gas, often at high temperature and in the presence of a catalyst. Hydrotreatment tends to break organic oils, which are complex molecules with many bends or branches into simple, straight-chain hydrocarbon molecules, like what are found in petroleum based diesel.
Hydrotreated renewable diesel has several advantages as compared to petroleum based diesel or even biodiesel, which is more well known in California. The vegetable oil feedstocks have much less sulfur than petroleum, which reduces emissions of particulate air pollution (smoke or soot) and compounds which contribute to acid rain. Compared to standard petroleum fuel or common blends of biodiesel, such as a 20% biodiesel/80% conventional diesel mixture (B20), renewable diesel emits significant fewer nitrogen oxides (NOx), which contribute to ozone and smog pollution.
As good as renewable diesel is for reducing toxic air pollutants, it’s even better at reducing carbon pollution. Neste’s life cycle analysis indicates carbon reductions of around 60-70% compared to conventional petroleum diesel, depending on which source of waste oil in under consideration. While this number has yet to be officially approved by state regulators, this number generally agrees with what researchers predict for this kind of fuel.
Perhaps the most attention-grabbing part of this whole story was not what came out of the nozzle, but what was on the small, generic LED display attached to each pump: $2.89 per gallon. A few yards away on several nearly identical pumps was the price of conventional diesel: $3.09. The renewable alternative was cheaper than conventional diesel, in a time of near-historic low prices at the pump.
The Bigger Picture
While local media dutifully covered the event, the presence of Mary Nichols and the availability of the fuel at many other locations, the first news articles may have buried the lede.
What Neste Oil and Propel Fuels have provided is just short of revolutionary: They produced a renewable fuel, which reduces GHG emissions by up to 70% when substituted for diesel and which is cheaper than the petroleum alternative. The cost difference is hardly an illusion of opening-day special prices; Neste does not yet get the full benefit for this fuel under California’s Low Carbon Fuel Standard since its official review, which will determine how many carbon credits the fuel will receive per gallon, has not been completed, though some state alternative fuel incentives funding helped deploy the pumps. Diesel prices are likely to go up, as oil prices recover back to historical averages. While every new technology comes with risks, there are plenty of reasons to believe that this cheap, environmentally friendly alternative is here to stay.
This clearly illuminates the falsehoods that oil companies have been telling for years. They claimed that clean alternative fuels would be too expensive for everyday consumers. They claimed that alternative fuels couldn’t be used in un-modified engines or that the technology to produce these fuels wouldn’t perform at commercial scale. For years oil companies claimed sustainable fuels couldn’t be done at all. Then they claimed they couldn’t be done at commercial scale. Then they claimed that they couldn’t be done at commercial scale and low cost. They were either lying, or they don’t understand their own markets.
The proof is in the shiny green pump at a station in Sacramento, and at 17 other California locations, with more to come.
 Image Sources: Header Photo: Rene C Byer – Sacramento Bee.
 Mention of a company or trademarked product does not imply endorsement by NextGen Climate America.
 Diesel HPR includes 2% conventional diesel, but this is for regulatory reasons rather than technical ones.