By KENNETH R. FLETCHER, Capital News Service
BETHESDA - People who drive grease cars may be saving the planet by driving a car powered by vegetable oil, but are they breaking the law in the process?
Anyone can modify a diesel engine to run on used vegetable oil, with a little elbow grease and a conversion kit that can be ordered online for about $1,000.
A typical conversion adds a second fuel tank to the car: The original tank holds diesel and the second holds vegetable oil that drivers can get from restaurants, supermarkets or even their own kitchens.
After starting the engine, the car runs on diesel just long enough to heat the vegetable oil until it flows freely enough to use. Then the engine switches over to straight vegetable oil.
But it is technically illegal to modify a car to run on any fuel other than the one it was designed for. And because vegetable oil has not been approved as a fuel by the Environmental Protection Agency, grease cars are in violation of the Clean Air Act.
This does not apply to the use of biodiesel, an EPA-regulated fuel created by blending vegetable oil and diesel.
But people who modify their cars to run on vegetable oil could face a $2,750 fine, though the EPA has no record of any such penalties, according to spokesman Dale Kemery.
People who run their cars on homebrewed fuels are also supposed to pay a Maryland fuel tax of 24.25 cents per gallon, be licensed as a special fuel user by the state and file a monthly report on the use of fuel.
But because the use of vegetable oil fuel is so new, nobody has been penalized for not paying taxes, said Warren Hansen, spokesman for the Maryland comptroller's office. He said there are currently only about 100 licensed special fuel users in the state.
Smarter Fuel, a company that picks up oil from restaurants, pays fuel tax and sells it for use in engines, has met no legal opposition and hopes that vegetable oil will become an EPA-approved energy source.