News & Observer | newsobserver.com | Driver ticketed for using biofuel

Published: Jun 11, 2007 12:30 AM
Modified: Jun 11, 2007 05:26 AM

Driver ticketed for using biofuel

Vegetable oil sticks him with $1,000 fine

Bob Teixeira decided it was time to take a stand against U.S. dependence on foreign oil.

So last fall the Charlotte musician and guitar instructor spent $1,200 to convert his 1981 diesel Mercedes to run on vegetable oil. He bought soybean oil in 5-gallon jugs at Costco, spending about 30 percent more than diesel would cost.

His reward, from a state that heavily promotes alternative fuels: a $1,000 fine last month for not paying motor fuel taxes. He has been told to expect another $1,000 fine from the federal government.

To legally use veggie oil, state officials told him, he would have to first post a $2,500 bond.

Teixeira is one of a growing number of fuel-it-yourselfers -- backyard brewers who recycle restaurant grease or make moonshine for their car tanks. They do it to save money, reduce pollution or thumb their noses at oil sheiks.

They're also caught in a web of little-known state laws that can stifle energy independence.

State Sen. Stan Bingham, R-Denton, is known around Raleigh for his diesel Volkswagen fueled by used soybean oil. The car sports a "Goodbye, OPEC" sign.

"If somebody was going to go to this much trouble to drive around in a car that uses soybean oil, they ought to be exempt" from state taxes, he said.

The state Department of Revenue, which fined Teixeira, has asked legislators to waive the $2,500 bond for small fuel users. The department also told Teixeira, after the Observer asked about his case this week, that it will compromise on his fine.

But officials say they'll keep pursuing taxes on all fuels used in highway vehicles. With its 29.9-cent a gallon gas tax, the state collects $1.2 billion each year to pay for road construction.

"With the high cost of fuel right now, the department does recognize that a lot of people are looking for relief," said Reggie Little, assistant director of the motor fuel taxes division. "We're not here to hurt the small guy, we're just trying to make sure that the playing field is level."

Alternative support

State policies firmly endorse alternative fuels.

In 2005 legislators directed state agencies to replace 20 percent of their annual petroleum use with alternatives by 2010. About 6,000 of the state's 8,500 vehicles are equipped to use ethanol. The state fleet also includes about 135 gas-electric hybrids.

Few states, however, are prepared to regulate the new fuels, says the National VegOil Board, which promotes vegetable oil fuel.

"State offices do not have the forms to appropriately and fairly deal with VegOil, nor the staff to enforce the nonexistent forms," said director Cynthia Shelton. "So either they tell people inquiring about compliance to get lost, or they make them jump a bunch of arbitrary hoops."

Outraged Illinois legislators this spring quickly waived that state's $2,500 bond requirement when an elderly man was nabbed for using waste vegetable oil.

In the mountain district of state Sen. John Snow, D-Cherokee, home-brewed ethanol was once known as moonshine. But a couple of constituents who made it for fuel have been fined for the same tax violation that got Teixeira in trouble.

Snow has introduced several bills to promote biodiesel, which under state law includes vegetable oil.

"One of the biggest problems in the state is a real lack of information for people who want to use alternative fuels," said Snow's research assistant, Jonathan Ducote. "It's just now appearing on [regulators'] radar."

Speedway sting

Teixeira's story began near Lowe's Motor Speedway on May 14. As recreational vehicles streamed in for race week, revenue investigators were checking fuel tanks of diesel RVs for illegal fuel.

The investigators spotted Teixeira's passing bumper sticker: "Powered by 100% vegetable oil."

"It was like some twist of fate that put me there," he said. "It was like I was asking for them to stop me."

Teixeira says revenue officials are just doing their jobs. But he thinks it's unfair that he was lumped with people who purposely try to avoid fuel taxes.

"Individuals who are trying to do the right thing environmentally cannot and should not continue to take this kind of financial hit," he wrote Gov. Mike Easley.

He'll pay the state fine and apply for a state fuel license.

"I'm ready to get myself legal," he said, "and start using vegetable oil again."

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