Editor's choice: 'The Best Of 2014' biodiesel blog

A reposting of my favorite blog entry from the past year: A big year at ASTM for biodiesel
By Ron Kotrba | December 31, 2014

Happy New year from Biodiesel Magazine. After a highly uncertain 2014, we can only hope 2015 brings with it policy and market stability. There’s a lot of things to look forward to in 2015, including the release of EPA’s long-awaited RFS volumes (anticipated through 2016); the possibility of a tax extenders package reinstating the biodiesel credit, or tax reform that restructures the credit and provides long-term surety; and a new heating oil spec allowing for 6 to 20 percent blends of biodiesel. Speaking of ASTM, to close out this year, I’m doing my own version of “The Best Of 2014” by reposting one of my favorite blog entries from this past year. The article was originally published Sept. 10, 2014, in Biodiesel Magazine’s FAME Forum. A big thanks to Steve Howell for his help in this piece. Happy New Year everyone!

A big year at ASTM for biodiesel

Biodiesel Magazine talks with industry expert Steve Howell about the busiest six months in biodiesel's history at ASTM.

Getting an ASTM specification through its consensus balloting process isn’t easy—especially in the fuels business. One negative vote is enough to kill a ballot. And every major petroleum company (ExxonMobil, Chevron, BP, Shell, Conoco, etc.) and every major OEM (Cummins, Caterpillar, John Deere, Ford, GM, Chrysler, etc.) send the very best engineers and scientists money can buy to represent their own parochial interests.  ASTM is not for the faint at heart, but when an ASTM specification is obtained, it really means something. This is why the ASTM specifications currently approved for biodiesel are such a big deal.

Biodiesel efforts at ASTM began in 1993. After eight years of testing and in-field demonstration, mostly with B20 in bus fleets—the major customer at the time—the first ASTM specification for B100 (ASTM D6751) passed final ASTM D02 Main Committee vote in 2001. After seven more research-chocked years and more in-field use with B20 blends in a variety of on- and off-road equipment and B5 blends in home heating oil, ASTM specifications for finished blends of up to 5 percent biodiesel were approved as just part of the normal ASTM fuel specifications for on- and off-road diesel fuel (ASTM D975) and home heating oil (ASTM D396), and finished blends of B6-B20 were approved for on- and off-road applications (D7467). 

While this is all very impressive, it’s not new, so I asked industry expert Steve Howell of MARC-IV Consulting, who chairs the ASTM Biodiesel Task Force, to fill in our Biodiesel Magazine readers on the latest biodiesel happenings at ASTM. Howell, a 20-year ASTM veteran, was recently given ASTM’s highest award—the Award of Merit—and he is now one of a select few who have the distinction of being an ASTM Fellow. He has chaired the ASTM Biodiesel Task Force since 1994.  

According to Howell, the last six months were the busiest ever for biodiesel at ASTM with more than 10 separate biodiesel-related ballots voted on at ASTM at the June 2014 semi-annual meeting. In a typical semester, one or two ballots is a lot—so 10 ballots at the same time for biodiesel is unprecedented.

The ballot initiatives, their results, and next steps are covered below:

ASTM Ballot Activity for 1st Semester (January-June) 2014:

Passed with no negatives at Subcommittee E Level, will move to D2 main next semester:

-Cold flow footnote change to D6751

-Add D7094 flash point to D6751  

Passed with negatives adjudicated by super majority, will move to D2 main next semester:

-New informative appendix on future Water and Sediment needs in D975, D7467

-Add new cetane test, D7668, as option for B100 (D6751)

-Add new cetane test, D7668, as option for B20 (D7467)

Failed at Subcommittee E Level, changes to be made and concurrent Sub/D2 main next semester:

-Allow up to B20 in heating oil, D396  

-Modify the D396 non mandatory appendix for B20, linked to allowance of B20 ballot

-Increase biodiesel allowed in jet fuel from 5 ppm to 100 ppm maximum in D1655 jet fuel specification. 

Failed at Subcommittee E Level, changes to be made and reballoted in the future:

-Update D6751 stability appendix to incorporate positive NREL data on long term stability

I asked Howell which of these ballot initiatives were going to have the most impact on the biodiesel industry moving forward, as some appear to be fairly routine changes.

“By far, the ballots to get an official B20 heating oil ASTM standard and the ballot to secure a higher level of biodiesel in the D1655 jet fuel standard are the most important moving forward,” Howell said. “But the changes to the stability appendix provide some positive news that will have market impacts, and we will need to keep an eye on what ends up happening with water and sediment specifications for conventional D975 diesel fuel over time.”

Securing the official B20 ASTM standard for heating oil will provide the needed approvals and confidence for the heating oil industry to adopt blends higher than the current 5 percent biodiesel that was approved in D396 in 2008. According to Howell, there just wasn’t enough bench type technical data or in-field use data on blends over B5 in home heating oil to do a B6-B20 standard in 2008, like was done with on- and off-road fuel under D7467. The traditional heating oil industry has been taking a beating from cleaner burning and now cheaper natural gas, and considers higher blends of biodiesel as their leading option to compete in the future. A B20 blend in heating oil has a lower carbon score than natural gas, and the politicians in the Northeast have policy goals in place to encourage an 80 percent reduction in carbon emissions for heating and cooling buildings by 2050.  B100 used in home heating gets the industry to an 80 percent carbon reduction now

In fact, the following organizations—which represent the vast majority of the traditional heating oil market in the U.S.—have gone on record to encourage immediate approval of the ASTM B20 standard and to consider higher blends in the future:

-Fuel Merchants of New Jersey

-Delaware Valley Fuel Dealers Association

-Oil Heat Institute of Long Island

-Massachusetts Energy Marketers Association

-Maine Energy Marketers Association

-Vermont Fuel Dealer Association

-Oil & Energy Service Professionals

-New York Oil Heating Association

-National Oilheat Research Alliance

-Empire State Petroleum Association

-New England Fuel Institute

Every customer that switches to natural gas is a customer that an existing oil dealer will never get back. And utility companies are subsidizing natural gas installations, which makes it even tougher for existing heating oil dealers. B20—and even higher blends—can be used in existing burners, and they can be transported and delivered with existing trucks/terminals, so adopting biodiesel as a way to compete with natural gas could be life or death for some in the industry.

“The ASTM B20 heating oil standard is a clearly a big deal for the home heating oil industry,” Howell said.        

On the jet fuel ballot, one might ask what is so important about increasing the allowable biodiesel in jet fuel from 5 ppm to 100 ppm? That isn’t much of a blend inclusion rate…but that’s not the point. The effort isn’t about increasing the volume of biodiesel used in jet fuel—it’s about allowing a higher level of biodiesel in jet fuel allowing pipeline companies have more wiggle room than the current 5 ppm maximum limit so they can safely and confidently carry biodiesel blends on pipelines that also carry jet fuel. 

Early in 2014 major multiyear, multimillion dollar initiatives to secure the technical data for higher biodiesel blends in heating oil than the current B5 and secure higher levels of biodiesel than 5 ppm in jet fuel came to fruition. Some of the jet engine makers wanted to take a more conservative approach than moving directly to 100 ppm and voted negative in favor of moving to 50 ppm now and then to 100 ppm after two years. The majority of the jet fuel subcommittee committee agreed, so a new proposal to move to 50 ppm now and then look at 100 ppm in two years is being planned for next semester at ASTM.

Development of the technical data to support a ballot change is what takes the most time to get an ASTM standard, according to Howell. If someone votes negative and has a valid technical reason, then research needs to be designed, funded and executed that address the concern and the proposed ballot modified to reflect that research and reballoted. 

“It is typically a one- to two-year process to complete the research needed to address a valid concern, and at least another year to get the vote through, although for contentious issues it has taken as many as eight to 10 years,” he said. “This was the case when ASTM finally passed a lubricity specification in D975 after EPA lowered the sulfur levels in diesel and lubricity became a new concern.”

Howell continued, saying, “In the case for B20 in D396 heating oil, as well as increasing the level of biodiesel in jet fuel above 5 ppm, we tried really hard to understand the technical issues and needs up front and to put technical research in place to address the concernbefore the ballot was put out for vote. While it’s extremely rare for an ASTM ballot to pass on the first try (both ballots were the first attempt…), we are hopeful all the technical effort put into both these ballots will significantly shorten the normal time required to get a ballot passed.” 

Neither ballot passed at the June 2014 ASTM meeting, but agreement to an expedited concurrent subcommittee/main committee ballot was agreed to for both since so much technical work had already gone into the ballots. Both could pass as early as December 2014, and Howell is guardedly optimistic about their chances. 

“Things are looking good,” he said, “but at ASTM, you never know until the last vote is counted and any appeals are fully addressed.”