Member profile: Sprague evolves from whale oil to sustainable fuel

By | June 21, 2007
The port city of Portsmouth, N.H., was one of the first permanent settlements in the United States. Established in 1623, the city is known for its maritime industries of fishing and ship building. Calling Portsmouth home is a company that once relied heavily on those maritime industries by distributing whale oil to light the city's streets. Now Sprague Energy is meeting area fuel needs with an environmentally friendly fuel-biodiesel.

Within the area's rich history, Sprague, founded in 1873, seems to be creating a history of its own in the oil business. The company is also a pioneer in the petroleum side of the biodiesel business.

Tim Keaveney, Sprague's marketing manager for premium fuels, joined the company just before it started carrying biodiesel three years ago. He was on the original committee that introduced the fuel, which Sprague supplies for transportation use and Bioheat home heating oil.

Out of Portsmouth's rich history came a new corporate philosophy that has led Sprague's decision to be a leader in petroleum companies "going green." Lead it has. Not only was it one of the first companies to sell ultra low sulfur diesel (ULSD) fuel six years ago, it offers rack-injected biodiesel at four of its terminals in key growth markets. Sprague was the first northeastern terminal to implement biodiesel, doing so at its Albany, N.Y., terminal more than one year ago. Sprague was also the first petroleum company in the nation to earn the status of "certified marketer" in the BQ-9000 voluntary quality assurance program.

Sprague's footprint spans 22 terminals and 1,000 petroleum distributors, so its commitment to biodiesel doesn't go unnoticed.

Keaveney credits Sprague's biodiesel involvement largely to the leadership of its parent company, Stockholm, Sweden-based Axel Johnson Inc. He said its owner, Antonia Johnson, feels that energy companies have a responsibility to try to be more environmentally friendly. "[Antonia Johnson's] friends are environmentalists so they tease her about owning an oil company," Keaveney said. "She answers back with, 'Who better to own an oil company than an environmentalist?' It is that corporate philosophy that has formed Sprague into a biodiesel advocate."

Despite Sprague's great leaps as a petroleum distributor offering renewable fuel, public education is necessary. According to Keaveney, "Customers are reluctant to change because they may fear the new. We work on educating them until they are comfortable. Not a day goes by without me talking about our BQ-9000 status with customers with great pride. We also make prevalent the BQ-9000 logo whenever we can. We've had companies call us because they were searching for BQ-9000 certified marketers."

Sprague earned the BQ-9000 seal of approval one year ago. "As a BQ-9000 certified marketer, we will only deliver ASTM D 6751 biodiesel to our customers," Keaveney said. "Our suppliers include the accredited producers Renewable Energy Group, Cargill and Organic Fuels." Keaveney is a commissioner on the National Biodiesel Accreditation Commission, which oversees the BQ-9000 program.

Due to its progressive biodiesel achievements, Sprague Energy took home the honor of the annual Eye on Biodiesel "Impact" award at the 2007 National Biodiesel Conference. Keaveney doesn't see Sprague's biodiesel operations slowing down anytime soon. "In 10 years, we feel 10 percent of our fuel will contain biodiesel," he said. "It's here to stay."

Port cities such as Portsmouth used to be the lifeblood for their regions. Now the energy company out of Portsmouth may take that title. "Terminals are the lifeblood of an area, for fuel, for heat," Keaveney said. "Serving those needs, and doing it in just a little bit better way, is what Sprague is all about."
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