(Kitchen) grease is the word

RALEIGH, N.C. – Yellow kitchen grease has become as good as gold as gasoline prices soar and biodiesel fuel becomes more appealing.

Just as one industry’s waste becomes a hot commodity for another, a slippery underworld of fry crooks – kitchen-oil rustlers who strike stealthily with siphon and hose – has emerged.

North Carolina state Rep. John Torbett, a Republican, has proposed a bill aimed at reining in the banditry. But the proposal has kicked up a fuss among small businesses that see more than a hint of green in the alternate fuel source.

Not only has Torbett proposed to make it illegal to steal or help anyone pirate kitchen grease, but he also has called for more regulation of those who resell the waste.

The bill would make it a felony to purloin used kitchen grease valued at more than $1,000, and a misdemeanor for anything less.

It also would require collectors of the waste to be licensed and inspected by the state if they plan to resell the animal fats or vegetable oils as fuel.

And it would require anyone with such an operation to show proof of general liability insurance of at least $1 million.

“I think this stinks,” said Lyle Estill, a founder of Piedmont Biofuels, a Chatham County cooperative that collects, processes and resells used vegetable oil. “This is just a bunch of Republicans trying to pass a bunch of new regulations to crush the little guy.”

Torbett said Estill’s characterization is incorrect.

The bill, Estill contends, is being driven by large rendering plants, companies scattered across the country that make it big business to sell the waste byproducts to feed farms, makeup companies, soap and detergent factories and other industries.

“The fact that there’s good energy in used kitchen grease is nothing new,” Estill said.

What has happened, he says, is the larger companies are seeing their market shares shrink as more people turn to alternate fuels to power cars, trucks, farm equipment and other machines.

Processed fryer oil, or yellow grease, is traded on the commodities market, and its value has increased tremendously over the past decade.

In April, yellow grease was going for a record 46.5 cents per pound, or $3.68 per gallon – up from 8.5 cents per pound, or 66 cents per gallon, in April 2001. The biggest surge has come in the past few years, as gasoline prices have climbed. This week, grease was trading for about 45 cents per pound, or about $3.50 per gallon.

Biodiesel fuel is derived by processing vegetable oil or animal fat with alcohol. With a conversion kit, anyone can turn discarded cooking oil into a usable engine fuel that can burn on its own, or as an inexpensive additive to regular diesel.

Some buy or collect the kitchen grease above-board. Others pilfer it, especially as gas prices get closer to $4 a gallon.

Some states have wrestled with yellow oil thieves for years. California has had a kitchen grease law on the books for more than a decade. Virginia adopted a law last year similar to the bill sponsored by Torbett.

Although state larceny laws already could cover such thefts in North Carolina, Torbett said he heard complaints that it was difficult to get such matters prosecuted.

“The courts weren’t looking at it with a degree of seriousness, because in their minds it was just people stealing grease,” he said.

So the bill refers to the larceny of kitchen grease specifically in an act covering the rendering industry. Farmers who use the waste for personal use are exempt from the licensing and regulation.

Marc Dreyfors, manager of Greenways Transit Services, a Durham, N.C.-based company that collects about 2,000 gallons of yellow kitchen grease each month for his business, said the Torbett proposal could make it more difficult for him to stay in business.

Energy companies need to be able to weather the highs and lows of the market, and often the large companies are the ones that can withstand the ups and downs over the long haul.

“Trying to make a living in the green economy is kind of hard,” Dreyfors said. “The volatility in the energy industry is amazing. Only the big boys can go long. And that’s going to be the death knell for America and small business.”

Licensing fees and inspections wouldn’t be cost-prohibitive for large rendering plants, which collecting hundreds of thousands gallons of yellow grease a year, Dreyfors says. But the changes could push a smaller, more volatile business toward ruin.

Torbett disputes notions that his bill is designed to crush the small fry in the alternative fuel industry and leave the new energy world to the larger corporations.

“This is about what’s rapidly becoming a commodity,” Torbett said. “I found out about this and thought it needs to be brought up.”