New York City is on a carbon-cutting bender. When Mayor de Blasio announced in 2014 that the city would cut its emissions of greenhouse gases by a whopping 80 percent from 2005 levels by 2050, you would be forgiven if, hands still clapping, you looked around sheepishly and thought, Jesus, how?
But little by little, various aspects of NYC’s carbon bloat are being nipped and tucked. Buildings with inefficient heating systems are getting retrofitted, building codes are being updated to become more energy-efficient, $1 billion in capital is flowing toward making city-owned buildings run cleaner, and New York has committed to adding 100 megawatts’ worth of solar upgrades to public buildings by 2025. A tax abatement program for commercial and residential buildings hopes to add another 250 megawatts derived from photovoltaics, more than quadrupling the roughly 54 megawatts that were installed on homes and offices as of last year.
Now City Hall has introduced another green-energy gambit: Signed by the mayor last month, a new law requires dramatically more biodiesel be blended into petroleum-based heating oil than the current 2 percent. The new mandate, sponsored by Councilman Costa Constantinides, requires that share to rise to 5 percent by next year, then 10 percent by October 2025, 15 percent by 2030, and 20 percent by 2034 — eventually reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 2 million tons per year, or 4 percent of the city’s total output. The plan is hugely ambitious. There is no guarantee that biodiesel production, which will have to be increased by an order of magnitude, will be able to keep pace, nor is it certain that biodiesel is the clean-energy panacea it would appear to be on its face, given its ties to industrial agriculture. And you have to wonder, who’s going to pay for it?
First, the basics: Since 2012, New York City has required that all heating oil used in the city, in all buildings that use oil heat, contain some biodiesel. (As of 2014, about a quarter of all buildings in the city were heated with oil, while most of the rest used natural gas.) The ultimate trash-to-treasure fuel, biodiesel can be recycled from cooking oil collected from restaurants like McDonald’s and Shake Shack — any place that fries food in large quantities. When the city instituted the requirement, companies popped up to collect the used cooking oil and bring it to refineries across the Northeast.
Burning it generates much less carbon dioxide and asthma-aggravating particulates than does burning traditional petroleum diesel. Heating oil that contains 20 percent biodiesel produces about 10 percent less particulate matter and carbon dioxide than oil that doesn’t, and 20 percent less sulfur dioxide, a powerful toxin, according to a report by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. And although biodiesel generates more smog-causing nitrogen oxides than normal diesel when burned in engines, it generates less of the offending chemical when burned in boilers: For every 1 percent of biodiesel added to a heating oil blend, nitrogen oxides (NOx) drop by 1 percent — so a 20 percent biodiesel blend would emit roughly 20 percent less NOx than standard heating oil.
The trouble is, few places have successfully managed the transition to cleaner fuel. Massachusetts tried to implement its own version of a biodiesel mandate in 2008, but walked it back to a “voluntary” mandate in 2010, citing how hard it would be to get a dispersed industry of heating oil companies all on the same page: Enforcement would prove to be too costly. “It has been delay, delay, frustration,” Brooke Coleman, the director of a biofuels advocacy group, told Boston.com at the time.
Now, six years later, Massachusetts biodiesel companies are still struggling. Lynn Benander, the CEO of Northeast Biodiesel, an energy collective that collects cooking oil from restaurants to sell to a biodiesel plant, says business is slow.
“Because the mandate didn’t go through, there’s no incentive locally for people to use biodiesel,” Benander tells the Voice. “It would have helped us build our market. Without the policy incentives, it’s hard.”
What’s more, the environmental repercussions may not be unambiguously positive. Even if biofuels could shrink New York’s immediate carbon footprint, they may in fact place a higher carbon burden on the planet overall. Only about 30 percent of biodiesel is made from used cooking oil in the U.S. What doesn’t come from used fry grease largely comes from other vegetable oils, like palm oil. Palm plantations, based largely in Southeast Asia, are notoriously polluting, releasing vast quantities of carbon dioxide every year. And soybean oil, which is used to make 52 percent of all biodiesel in the U.S., is associated with both industrial cultivation and glyphosate, an herbicide the World Health Organization labels a “probable” carcinogen.
Constantinides, though, seems sure that the city’s oil collection system will grow fast enough to make the point moot. “There is already a robust industry in New York City of grease collection,” the councilmember says, pointing to the fact that the city has gotten along just fine since the 2012 mandate.
Still, 2 percent is a long way from 20; how demand will be met — and who will end up footing the bill — are open questions. To incentivize production, federal law grants $1 in tax credits to the manufacturer for every gallon produced, and state law an additional $0.15 per gallon. What share consumers will have to kick in is less clear. Biodiesel prices, on average, have stayed roughly equal to those of regular diesel in the past few years, according to federal statistics, and the way the city bill is written, it does not appear that costs to consumers will rise. But that’s partly because it offers exemptions if the “price of the required biodiesel blend significantly exceeds the price of oil,” or if “there is an insufficient supply of biodiesel to satisfy the relevant mandates.” In other words, it’s free to you if the subsidies hold.
At the moment the biggest biodiesel plant in the region is the United Metro Energy Corporation, built in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, by grocery store baron and onetime mayoral hopeful John Catsimatidis, who currently has a $62 million home heating oil contract with the city. Catsimatidis once lobbied for a mandate like the one the council just passed — around the same time that de Blasio received a $50,000 donation from him in 2014, sparking accusations of a conflict of interest.
Constantinides avers that neither the new plant nor lobbying efforts had anything to do with the bill: “That was not something that was heavy on my mind. I never had a conversation with Metro.” Instead, he says simply, “We’re going to burn hundreds of millions of gallons less of petroleum.” And who can argue with that?