It may be a filling station, but Biofuel Oasis, the East Bay's very first biodiesel outlet, screams yoga studio. The walls of its groovy communal hang space are streaked with columns of muted orange wheat-paste paint or coated with a yellowish clay, sand, and wheat-paste combination -- all entirely nontoxic, thanks. And while the place sells more than just fuel, you'll have to shop elsewhere for your Big Gulps and Pringles. Here it's strictly biodiesel chic: piles of green disposable nitrile gloves, glassware for would-be home brewers, and red-and-white biodiesel hand pumps that resemble giant plastic candy canes. It's all pretty much what you'd expect from purveyors of a fuel that, at least for now, is as much a lifestyle as something to put in your gas tank.
Behind the '70s-style wet bar that serves as the Berkeley establishment's counter, co-owners Jennifer Radtke and Sarah Hope Smith tend to the phone and chat with customers who congregate to banter about alternative fuels and browse informational pamphlets. The precious elixir is kept in a large adjoining space in two hulking green plastic tanks that lurk near the back.
On a recent evening, trucks from the north entrance of Bayer Pharmaceuticals roar past the station's open doors, momentarily blanking out conversation and filling the small shop with heartburn-inducing conventional diesel fumes -- a far cry from the french-fry aroma Radtke's own car puts out. "We need to get those guys running biodiesel," she says with a laugh.
Radtke is in her thirties, and prone to the girlish nervous laugh of a shy person suddenly morphing into an extrovert. Before she got hooked on refined-vegetable fuel two years ago, she drove a purple one-seater electric car that, with her dark-brown hair swooping out, made her look like a Jetsons character. "I felt passionate about having a biodiesel station that wasn't at a gas station," she says during an impromptu tour, "because obviously it would then be owned or associated with a petroleum company."
Although Biofuel Oasis currently lacks the metered pumps most drivers associate with a fill-up, its owners hope to have one installed prior to their planned grand opening on February 29. For now, the fuel is sold in carboys, sturdy plastic five-gallon containers, which customers empty directly into the tanks of their conventional diesel vehicles. Radtke, despite her slight build, handily hefts a carboy filled with the amber liquid out to a customer's car. "I want to change the whole way people relate to fuel," she professes. "I mean, if you have a few carboys in your trunk and the tank is getting low, you can stop and fill up your car under the shade of a tree. Adding fuel to your car can be a beautiful, nontoxic experience."
Outside, Sarah Hope Smith is fussing with her prodigious light-brown hair, which tumbles past her waistline. Smith is in her late thirties, with wide, expressive eyes. A bit of a Jewish mystic, she explains the Hebrew concept of tikkun olam and how it relates to her business. She unbraids and rebraids, never pausing in her tale of a man who, long ago, sold coal he unloaded from a train that would stop by Pacific Coast Chemicals, just across the street. "Anyway, he died very young, probably from lung cancer related to bagging up and breathing coal fumes," she says. "Tikkun olam is the belief that as time goes on, old wrongs are righted. And I'm certain that Biofuel Oasis being here, right where that happened fifty years ago, is part of tikkun olam -- to heal the world."
Throughout the evening, customers show up one by one, the rattle of diesel engines signaling their arrivals. A woman swaddled in a multicolored knit shawl. A hipster girl wearing all black and cat-eye glasses. A solar-panel installer who lives on his sailboat.
A sheepish-looking father type, sporting Levis and polar fleece, comes in and inquires about the source of the fuel. Biofuel Oasis buys from Ukiah distributor Yokayo, which gets biodiesel from a variety of sources, but favors plants that refine waste vegetable oil. After buying ten gallons for his brand-new Volkswagen TDI, Mr. Dad looks like a kid at Christmastime. "People, when they first hear about biodiesel, think they've discovered fire," explains Maria "Girl Mark" Alovert, who brews her own fuel. "And they rush out to get a diesel car."
That's a good choice, environmentally at least. The most recent study, completed in 2002 by the US Environmental Protection Agency, found that biodiesel cars spew 48 percent less carbon monoxide and 70 percent fewer hydrocarbons than conventional diesel vehicles. Emissions of lung-clogging particulates are cut in half, and sulfur emissions -- which cause acid rain -- are eliminated. Carbon dioxide -- a key contributor to global warming -- is reduced by 78 percent if you count the CO2 absorbed by the vegetation used to make the fuel. Biodiesel's environmental downsides include a drop of 4 to 10 mpg in fuel efficiency, and a 10 percent increase in smoggy nitrogen oxides.
But any would-be environmental crusader would be smart to consider the realities of this gateway alternative fuel before rushing out to buy a diesel car. First, it's expensive. Converting vegetable oil to fuel requires a chemical reaction called transesterification, in which lye and methanol are mixed with hot vegetable oil to make biodiesel and its waste product, glycerin. Making biodiesel in quantity involves costly equipment, and that, plus limited supplies of the stuff, translates into high prices. The only other station in the greater Bay Area, Western States Oil in San Jose, charges $2.92 per gallon. Biofuel Oasis charges $3, plus a refundable deposit of $7.50 per carboy.
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