Shining Examples

Until federal regulations are established, the burden of ensuring biodiesel quality rests at the state level. Individual states have to meet the growing use of the fuel with their own regulations, which has led to inconsistent standards and testing methods across the nation. Although 27 states have accepted the ASTM D 6751 standard for B100 and 14 have applied ASTM D 975 specifications to blended biodiesel, only 12 states proactively test biodiesel samples for quality before the fuel goes to market.
By Michael Shirek | April 06, 2007
The one issue that could keep biodiesel from becoming more widely accepted is inconsistent fuel quality. The situation is exacerbated by the lack of federal regulations. That requires each state to decide for itself how to handle fuel quality concerns. Randy Jennings, regulatory services administrative manager for the Tennessee Department of Agriculture (DOA), was one of the speakers at the National Biodiesel Conference & Expo in February and later talked to Biodiesel Magazine about how his state is tackling the task of delivering high-quality fuel to consumers.

The Tennessee DOA has been in charge of regulating the state's fuel quality for nearly 17 years and has seen refined petroleum fuel quality violation rates drop from 10 percent in fiscal year 1990 to between 2 percent and 3 percent during fiscal years 1992 through 2006. While petroleum fuel quality seems to have found its baseline in Tennessee, biodiesel has settled into a range of its own-a 40 percent failure rate.

The Tennessee DOA began testing and regulating biodiesel in December 2005. In the past 14 months, it has found that while the failure rate remains relatively steady, the actual quality of the fuel is getting more consistent, Jennings says. "When you look at this number of 40 percent of the blend stock samples that have failed, you have to understand that many of those samples are coming from the same source," he says.Oftentimes, they're repeat samples from the same facility, so it's not like 40 percent of all the fuel out there at one time is bad. Most of the violations are coming from smaller producers in the state that might not have the advantage of technical expertise or may be limited by the start-up costs of the latest technologies, he says. A failed sample results in a stop sale order, and subsequent tests are administered until fuel quality is up to specifications for sale to the public.

The DOA and biodiesel producers in the state of Tennessee have made big strides in the past 14 months, Jennings says. "The department is moving from more of a monitoring mode to a full regulatory mode at the moment," he says. "When we first started testing biodiesel we were moving into a new area, as well. We were running tests that we weren't familiar with. Even though we were using a contract laboratory, we were working with data with some very low limits, and some of the methods were new enough that they didn't even have precision statements in there." Consequently, as biodiesel producers honed their craft so did the DOA. Rather than acting upon its authority to impose civil fines for loads of biodiesel in violation of state standards, which are based on ASTM D 6751 specifications, the DOA simply issued stop sales on off-spec biodiesel and worked with producers to bring production in line with regulations. This was the key to getting the industry off the ground, and also one of the reasons for the high percentage of failed samples, Jennings says.

"We were trying to give the industry a chance to get their act together and to get a better hold on what they were doing at the production level," he says. "At this point, we are moving into more of a regulatory mode."

Although the DOA can and occasionally does impose fines for off-spec fuel, the department's major role is keeping the off-spec fuel out of consumers' fuel tanks, Jennings says. The quickest way to stunt a burgeoning biodiesel market is to erode the consumers' trust in the product. In that sense, Jennings considers Tennessee's program a success.

"The anecdotal testimony I'm hearing is that a lot of the marketers that are interested in blending are requesting documentation," Jennings says. They want biodiesel that has been sampled and tested by the state of Tennessee and is found to be in compliance. "I think they have a lot of confidence when they see that we've put our seal of approval on a batch of fuel from this marketer," he says.

Figure 1

Crunching the Numbers
According to the National Biodiesel Board, Tennessee is one of 12 states proactively testing biodiesel samples for quality. In fact, only 27 states apply ASTM D 6751 standards to B100, and 14 have incorporated ASTM D 975 (the standard petroleum diesel specification) to blended biodiesel. Some states take measures to address out-of-spec fuel after they receive a complaint, while others have no testing and regulatory authority at all. Each state deals with out-of-spec fuel differently because there are no federal fuel regulations. Federal biodiesel regulations aren't anticipated anytime soon, and there doesn't seem to be any consensus regarding who, when and how states test biodiesel. In Tennessee, for instance, the DOA tests B100 samples randomly before the product is blended and moved to market. The state contracts with an outside laboratory to test the biodiesel. If a violation turns up, the DOA is also the entity in charge of applying penalties. Across the border in Virginia, however, the Department of Product and Industry Standards regulates biodiesel and only tests the blended product when a complaint is filed. Virginia tests the product in a state laboratory.

Biodiesel specifications also vary from state to state. In North Carolina, blended biodiesel is tested in B1 to B5 and B6 to B19 categories, and must meet ASTM D 975 specifications. The state hasn't adopted the ASTM D 6751 specification for B100, however. In Wisconsin, the Department of Commerce enforces ASTM D 975 for B1 to B5 and ASTM D 6751 for B100, but the state has no specification for biodiesel blends from 6 percent to 20 percent. Then there's Ohio, where biodiesel is not currently considered a fuel.

The lack of a national standard has raised concerns that biodiesel could become a "boutique fuel," with a wide variety of standards that would keep the price of the fuel high and its market penetration low. Jennings says this shouldn't be the case. "From a B100 blend stock perspective, I don't think that the different methods that states have adopted to regulate the product will cause the material to be a boutique fuel, because all states that are involved are using [ASTM] D 6751 as the standard, even if they are not performing full specification testing," he says. "That means that all producers in states that regulate biodiesel, or that ship to states that regulate, must work to produce an ASTM-compliant product."

The tangle of regulations and jurisdictions can be confusing, but as more and more states start utilizing biodiesel, a more standardized approach could emerge. Tennessee's approach would make a good model for other states with emerging biodiesel markets, Jennings says.

"I think that if the regulatory agency wants to establish good will with this new emerging industry-if they want to see biodiesel production grow and flourish-they need to reach out to the industry and regulate it in a manner that will not allow off-spec material to move," Jennings says. "But [the state] has to do it in a proactive way, establishing a good working relationship with the industry to encourage those plants to work out their problems and continue to produce biodiesel and alternative fuels in their states."

Now that the National Biodiesel Board has set its goal that 5 percent of the on-road diesel market be biodiesel by 2015 (approximately 2 billion gallons per year), ironing out fuel quality issues won't just be something that's done in a laboratory. It will also need to be addressed in capitols across the country.

Michael Shirek is a Biodiesel Magazine staff writer. Reach him at [email protected] or (701) 746-8385.
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