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Car and truck groups gear up to stop Minnesota biofuel mandate

By   /   May 11, 2015  /   News  /   No Comments

By Tom Steward | Watchdog Minnesota Bureau

Minnesota has long been considered part of Midwestern flyover country. Now the North Star state is becoming drive-over country, among truckers and other drivers of diesel vehicles.

The state’s 10 percent biodiesel mandate is propelling some to go out of their way to refuel in bordering states — and a federal lawsuit to eliminate the nation’s highest required bio-diesel blend.

“I think biodiesel is good for America, but it’s bad for my car. I just spent all this money on this car,” said Chris Winger.

The Maplewood man drives a 2013 VW turbo diesel station wagon designed and warranted to run on a 5 percent biodiesel blend, B-5. Biodiesel is a renewable fuel derived from agricultural feedstocks that are blended with diesel to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

“The high pressure fuel pump can’t quite deal with it, because the viscosity level is lower in biodiesel,” said Winger, who’s racked up 26,000 miles without any problems — so far. “And if that goes, that takes out everything. You buy a $30,000 car. I want to have it for 10 or 20 years.”

Winger’s concerns are part of a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Minneapolis by a broad coalition of state and national transportation groups from the Minnesota Trucking Association to the American Petroleum Institute. Automobile dealers, truckers, refineries and car manufacturers seek to eliminate the nation’s highest biodiesel mandate that stipulates only B-10 can be sold from April to October.

“There are tens of thousands of vehicles on the road right now whose engines were not designed to handle B-10,” said Scott Lambert, president of the Minnesota Automobile Dealers Association. “When there’s a problem with their vehicle, they’re not going to call their legislator. They’re not going to call the manufacturer. They stand in our service shops and say ‘why isn’t my vehicle running?’” Lambert said.

The Minnesota Commerce Department declined to comment on the legal challenge, but the National Biodiesel Board defended the bio-blend’s track record with consumers.

MN Automobile Dealers Association photo

DOWN AND DIRTY: Several photos in the court file show the impact on vehicles, which are mostly designed and warranted to run on up to 5 percent biodiesel.

“We are disappointed the American Petroleum Institute and other national groups have sued to suspend Minnesota’s strong, local biodiesel policy. The policy was created in response to Minnesotans’ broad desire to diversify the fuel supply with locally produced biodiesel that creates jobs, protects our environment and reduces our dependence on foreign oil,” said Jessica Robinson, the National Biodiesel Board’s communications director.

The case claims B-10 harms both consumers and businesses through increased maintenance costs and legal liability for damage to vehicles. The mandate also undercuts the flexibility given to producers in blending biodiesel under the national renewable fuels standard, according to court documents.

Several photos submitted by Mercedes-Benz Research and Development for North America depict alleged engine damage caused by biodiesel — grungy, gummed up parts, filters and engine blocks.

“The resulting damage to engines and other drivetrain components will require MBUSA (Mercedes-Benz USA) either to service more claims at a significant cost — even those that should be denied because of out-of-warranty fueling — or to deny claims, which will negatively impact customer goodwill,” said William Woebkenberg, U.S. fuels, technical and regulatory affairs director for Mercedes-Benz, in the court filing.

Minnesota truckers also put the pedal to the metal in the complaint over higher fuel costs. Kottke Trucking spends 3 cents more per gallon on average for B-10 in Minnesota than for diesel fuel bought from the same truck stop chain across the state line, according to an analysis outlined in the case. As a result, the Buffalo Lake trucking company’s 90 drivers have standing orders to refuel out of state whenever possible.

“Kottke Trucking is at a competitive disadvantage as a result of the price differential created by Minnesota B10 mandate. The data show neighboring states which have no such mandate have lower fuel prices,” said owner Kyle Kottke in court papers.

Several industries receive an exemption from the biodiesel mandate, including nuclear plants, trains, mining, logging and some boats. As for diesel truck and car drivers? They’re already looking down the pike to 2018, when Minnesota plans to double down and impose a B-20 mandate — unless the federal court orders a detour.

“We believe we have a strong case. We are looking forward to having our conversations in court,” said John Hausladen, president of the Minnesota Trucking Association.

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Tom formerly served as staff reporter for Watchdog.org.