Biodiesel Express Speeds up 

Fried fuel pied piper gains new allies in powerful places

Rob Del Bueno -- biodiesel manufacturer and rock star extraordinaire -- has learned two important things in the four weeks since his face was plastered on Creative Loafing's cover.

One: Dozens of people want to help him set up a biodiesel fuel industry in Atlanta.

Two: The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency fines people who make biodiesel -- up to $25,000 for each day they make it. Yikes.

Despite the shadow of a possible fine, Del Bueno's quest -- to sell restaurant grease as a fuel for diesel engines -- is gaining speed.

"I've been getting contacted continuously from people for all different reasons -- political reasons, environmental reasons -- and from all over the place that are just obviously really excited about it," he says. "And to find out that there's these people coming out of nowhere, that's a really good indicator. That's a sign that [biodiesel] has even more potential than we think."

Del Bueno, former bassist for Man Or Astroman?, now plays with the Subsonics. He's only voted once -- in 2000, for Ralph Nader. As a kind of thumbing-his-nose-at-the-system solution to air pollution, he's been converting restaurant grease into diesel fuel for four months.

But now his little project is coming off as less of an underground revolution, and more of a movement to bridge the D-I-Y crowd with environmentally minded business people and rural politicians.

After CL's cover story hit the streets Oct. 2, Del Bueno was contacted by a company that wants to supply him with 2,500 gallons a week of used restaurant grease.

He's also spotted the perfect headquarters for his company, VEGenergy, a former diesel distribution plant only a couple miles from his recording studio in Reynoldstown. The plant has six 25,000-gallon tanks, pumps and fuel trucks, which he can lease or buy outright.

But the best thing that's happened to Del Bueno lately is that he's teamed up with Beth Cope, the former executive director of the Georgia Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League.

Cope, a well-connected politico who grew GARAL into a $400,000-a-year operation, helped him write a business plan, produce a PowerPoint presentation, find an attorney and get to know lobbyists and legislators.

Del Bueno even plans to register as a lobbyist. When he announces this, he laughs as if he can't believe it himself. But, he adds, he's willing to do whatever it takes.

Cope's connections are coming in handy in a push for legislation that might encourage biodiesel. Other states have passed laws that require diesel fuel to contain at least 2 percent biodiesel. Cope won't say what the Georgia legislation may look like or which lawmakers they're talking to.

"I just don't want to let the cat out of the bag," she says. "We're moving along quickly and it's happening fast."

Cope thinks biofuel is such a nifty pollution solution that it could get people who normally don't give a damn involved in politics. She's so ga-ga about the idea that she sees it as an issue that could power a gubernatorial candidate's political platform.

"The thing about biofuel is it creates jobs, makes us less dependent on foreign fuel, so it seems like a no-brainer to me, and the piece about it creating jobs is definitely a populist issue," she says. "We believe this is an opportunity for both Democrats and Republicans to reconnect with constituents that they may have lost and acquire new constituencies."

Cope's also helping Del Bueno find investors. She's in like Flynn with the types who can afford to cut Del Bueno a check to take his venture out of his back yard and into a full-scale facility.

A look at the sponsors and guests of GARAL's last big annual shindig reads like a who's who of the powerful and progressive -- not to mention environmentally minded. Ted Turner was the keynote speaker. R.E.M. was a major contributor. So was the law firm of Butler, Wooten, Fryhofer, Daughtery & Sullivan, whose senior partner, Jim Butler, sits on the Board of Natural Resources.

First though, he has some obstacles to overcome, like the $25,000 per day EPA fines for unregistered biodiesel manufacturers. After reading CL's story on the Internet, other biofuel makers warned Del Bueno that the EPA has busted other unregistered manufacturers.

Del Bueno can avoid the fines by joining the National Biodiesel Board. Membership costs $2,500 and allows a biodiesel manufacturer to register legally with the EPA. To Del Bueno, the board seems a bit like a scaled-down version of the kind of thing that goes on in the petroleum industry.

Requiring manufacturers to join the board "definitely keeps the small guy out. I'm not worried about it in my current operation because it's so small," he says. "But if I were to try and step up my operation just marginally then I'd be at more risk. If I actually get to the point where I could step it up substantially, then I could play their game."

With a little help, Del Bueno is getting better at playing that game. But before you think he's going corporate, check this out. The very first biodiesel event will be a benefit rock show at the Earl, tentatively scheduled for the weekend after Thanksgiving.



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