San Francisco falling short on use of biodiesel for public vehicles 

In late 2007, Mayor Gavin Newsom announced that every diesel-powered vehicle owned by The City — 1,500 in all — had been converted to run on a 20 percent biodiesel blend.

When it came to environmental protection, Newsom said, “San Francisco is demonstrating leadership and commitment on every front.”

But while Muni buses and Department of Public Works trucks still sport biodiesel stickers like little feathers in San Francisco’s green cap, they are not all using the fuel.

Roughly half of Muni’s 507 diesel and hybrid buses currently run on B20, a blend that includes 80 percent regular diesel and 20 percent biodiesel — fuel made from plant oils and grease.

But for at least a year, the rest have been running on a blend of less than 1 percent biodiesel, according to a memo sent to Newsom in early December from San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency Executive Director Nathaniel Ford. He said about half of those will be converted back to B20 in January after an underground fuel tank upgrade, but the rest will remain at the lower level for the foreseeable future.

The rest of The City’s diesel-engine fleet — owned by the Department of Public Works, the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, the Fire Department and other agencies — are doing even worse at complying with the biodiesel mandate. Only 40 percent of those vehicles are using B20, while the rest have been using a 5 percent blend, according to data compiled by Bob Hayden, manager of the Department of the Environment’s clean-transportation programs, at the request of The San Francisco Examiner.

Ford’s memo said the percent of biodiesel was reduced because the State Water Resources Control Board imposed stricter regulations on biodiesel in underground storage tanks, which led the Department of Public Health to require the SFMTA to reduce the biodiesel at two of its three diesel tanks.

But water board spokesman William Rukeyser said B20 is allowed in any tank — though either The City or the manufacturer of the tank must provide the state with assurances that it will not leak.

Public Health Department spokeswoman Eileen Shields could not explain why the other tanks were not used for biodiesel, but said the agency would look into it.

“In the new year, we’ll take a look at whatever the regulations are and work with the other agencies to make sure we can be as environmentally responsible as possible,” she said.

Running out of gas

Mayor Gavin Newsom promised to convert The City’s fleet to run on a biodiesel blend as one of his many environmental initiatives. However, the goals established have yet to be met.

What is biodiesel?

The fuel is an alternate to petroleum diesel that can be used in compression-ignition engines. It is made from plant oils and grease. While some vehicles can run on 100 percent biodiesel, various biodiesel blends are much more common:

B1: A blend of just 1 percent biodiesel and 99 percent standard diesel

B5: A blend of 5 percent biodiesel and 95 percent standard diesel

B20: A blend of 20 percent biodiesel and 80 percent standard diesel

Timeline of failure

May 2006

Mayor Gavin Newsom issues an executive directive to convert The City’s diesel-powered fleet to be able to handle B20 — a blend of 20 percent biodiesel and 80 percent standard diesel — by December 2007.

November 2007

Newsom announces that all of The City’s 1,500 diesel vehicles have been converted to run on B20, a month earlier than the goal.

December 2010

Less than half the fleet is running on B20.

Sources: Department of the Environment, SFMTA, Mayor’s Office, National Biodiesel Board

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Katie Worth

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