Biodiesel: What Is the Standard for Quality?

“Is there an authoritative statement at the federal or state level that defines what the quality standards are for biofuels? And if so, how are they enforced?” Sam H., Norfolk, VA

Unfortunately, it is a little more of a headache than one “authoritative statement” that defines the quality standards for biofuels. There are standards out there and more and more users, producers, and government agencies support and depend on them. Because biofuels are derived from a variety of sources and subject to multiple standards, let’s narrow it down and take a look at biodiesel, the nation’s fastest growing liquid alternative fuel. Diesel engines are designed to burn fuel that behaves in a consistent manner under a wide range of conditions. Fuel outside of this narrow range of specific properties can decrease performance and even damage engines. The feedstocks used to manufacture biodiesel range from used fryer grease, to virgin soybean oil, to rendered animal fat, to algae and beyond. From these diverse starting materials producers rely on standards to ensure their final product performs well in all manner of weather conditions and diesel engines. In December of 2001, the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) — an internationally recognized standards body made up of fuel producers, engine equipment manufacturers, and government and corporate groups — adopted the official standard for biodiesel known as ASTM D 6751. The standard took years of testing to develop and defines acceptable ranges for the flash point, viscosity, sulfur content, cetane number, etc. The National Biodiesel Board (NBB), a national coordinating entity for the biodiesel industry, developed the National Biodiesel Accreditation Commission (NBAC) to certify that biodiesel marketers adhere to the ASTM standard. Half of U.S. states have adopted the ASTM D 6751 specification as part of their fuel quality regulations, and additional states plan to adopt the specification. The highest quality assurance can be found from BQ-9000 accredited producers and certified marketers. BQ-9000 is a voluntary quality control program set up by the National Biodiesel Board in which producers undergo independent audits of their fuel quality. The majority of U.S. states regulate fuel quality for all types of fuels and have the authority to enforce compliance. Most routine enforcement measures are conducted by the state Weights and Measures bureaus. Nationally, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) has an active enforcement division for fuel compliance. Because there is a Biodiesel Tax Credit, companies that blend biodiesel with petroleum diesel must register with the IRS and be sure their biodiesel meets the requirements of ASTM D 6751. All motor fuel and motor fuel additives sold in the U.S. must be registered with the EPA under the Clean Air Act. To register with the EPA biodiesel again must meet ASTM D 6751. It has taken cooperation and a tremendous amount of research and effort to develop standards and regulations to keep up with the rapid growth of the biodiesel industry. So far these have proven effective, making consumers comfortable about trying this “new” fuel. Meghan Murphy is a founding member and now acting president of Ithaca Biodiesel, a worker-owned biodiesel cooperative in Ithaca, New York. Meghan is a graduate of Cornell University, and trained as a Solar Technician at Farmingdale State University in New York. She is an environmental educator, and was instrumental in researching and editing Biodiesel America by Josh Tickell, author of From the Fryer to the Fuel Tank.
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