Our Town: Coalition Launches East Side Biodiesel Campaign
By Megan Finnegan
Published March 4, 2010
At the end of 2009, a study by the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene found that the Upper East Side had some of the dirtiest air in the five boroughs. In an attempt to address this problem, Council Member Jessica Lappin, along with the company Tri-State Biodiesel, is working on a new initiative to improve Upper East Side air quality.
The instructional initiative, also supported by Council Member Dan Garodnick, the organization Upper Green Side and representatives of buildings currently using biofuel, will instruct building owners how to switch to biodiesel for their heating systems.
Lappin said that the Health Department study was a real wake-up call for her and other community leaders.
“The goal of this coalition that we’re going to bring together is to educate people, because there are very concrete things we can do to improve our air quality,” she said.
Lappin added that she doesn’t expect much resistance from local building owners.
“I just think a lot of co-op boards don’t know that this is an option,” she said. “This is something they can do tomorrow, to make our air cleaner.”
The Health Department study measured levels of four main pollutants—particulate matter,elemental carbon, nitrogen dioxide and sulfur dioxide, all of which showed the highest levels of concentration in the Upper East Side—and attributed oil-burning units in a given area as a main cause of each.
Some older boilers on the Upper East Side burn No. 4 or No. 6 heating oil, what are known as heavy oils. No. 2 heating oil produces the least amount of pollution, and when blended with biodiesel, this becomes the most environmentally friendly choice, according to Kevin Rooney, CEO of Oil Heat Institute Long Island.
“Our industry says, okay, we want to do something that’s good for the environment, public health,” Rooney said. “We’re very pro-biofuels.”
Isabella Silverman, an attorney with the Environmental Defense Fund, said that one of her group’s main initiatives has been to completely phase out the use of No. 4 and 6 heating oil.
“No. 6 oils have 15 times the pollution that No. 2 oils have,” she said, adding that the city burns about 300 million gallons of No. 4 and 6 oils annually. “That releases more soot pollution than all the other cars and trucks in the city combined.”
Silverman also said that out of the approximately 900,000 buildings in New York City, about 10,000 burn No. 6 oil, but that small fraction is responsible for 85 percent of the city’s soot pollution.
The downside to using No. 2 heating oil is that it’s more expensive—anywhere from 10 to 30 percent more than No. 6 oil, according to Silverman.
John Huber, president of the National Oil Heat Research Alliance (NORA), said that No. 2 oil also has a slightly lower BTU value, which indicates the rate at which fuel is burned, making it a bit less efficient. But the lower pollution levels and the lack of harmful heavy metals make it the better heating oil. He added that the alliance supports the use of biodiesel.
“We have a domestically sourced material that has a very low greenhouse gas turnaround, [which] turns it into a very green fuel,” Huber said.
Brent Baker, CEO and founder of Tri-State Biodiesel, said that this Upper East Side initiative isn’t just to promote his company, but all biodiesel providers.
“We have a product that can make a massive reduction in emissions overnight,” Baker said.
Biofuel simply means fuel made from plants, as opposed to fossil fuels like oil and coal. It can be made from some fruits, nuts and, most commonly, corn. The biofuel from Tri-State Biodiesel comes from recycled vegetable oil, which is collected from restaurants, mostly in New York City with some in New Jersey and Connecticut. Laws require restaurants to dispose of their used oil in special containers, and Tri-State collects these waste products for free from most establishments. Many of those involved with the coalition stress this local, renewable aspect of biodiesel, and Baker emphasizes that his company’s biodiesel isn’t made by cutting down crops or rainforests.
Baker thinks that many buildings haven’t made the switch because they don’t know that boilers using No. 2 and No. 4 heating oil don’t need any modifications to use biodiesel, and that a New York State tax rebate makes the fuel affordable. The credit allots one cent for each percentage of biodiesel used, up to 20 percent.
He supports a bill that Queens Council Member James Gennaro plans to reintroduce in coming months, which would require all buildings to convert to biodiesel for heating.
Baker also wants to dispel common myths about biodiesel, namely that it’s too costly and doesn’t work as well as pure oil. He said that theoretically, a normal boiler could run on 100 percent biodiesel, but for now he’d just like to see buildings using the 20 percent mixture that’s available.
“It’s a gateway for people to get a little more comfortable with the first viable alternative to petroleum in over 100 years,” Baker said.