The Common Good
January 2006

Would Jesus Drive a Mercedes?

by Ryan Beiler | January 2006

The untapped potential of biodiesel.

In 2002, the Evangelical Environmental Network launched a campaign asking “What would Jesus drive?” Though my Amish ancestors would be pleased if I answered “a horse and buggy”—or maybe a bicycle—I’ve come to depend on a car for running errands, visiting family, and hauling around carless friends. So when my trusty ’88 Toyota Camry wagon was stolen a little more than a year ago, I scanned Craig’s List for a replacement, trying to find a Christ-like car.

At first, there was Prius-envy. All the cool kids have hybrids; they get a million miles to the gallon and their exhaust smells like fair trade coffee—or so I hear. But I was on a waiting list to buy affordable housing, and saving for a down payment (still am). So a more modestly priced listing piqued my curiosity: 1985 Mercedes Benz 300TD station wagon. Green. Biodiesel compatible. $3,700.

Biodiesel? Pull up to McDonald’s and pump out their deep fryer? Totally renewable fuel with lower emissions? Though they were asking more than twice what I’d spent on my last two ’80s station wagons, it was justifiably affordable for a car that cared for creation. And the exhaust would smell like french fries. Literally.

But would I need to study diesel mechanics in case an errant McNugget got lodged in my catalytic converter? Would dedicating all that extra effort to a car be good Christian stewardship or simple living—the very principles guiding my choice?

Then I learned the best-kept secret of biodiesel: This Mercedes didn’t have the special conversion needed to burn waste vegetable oil like the “grease cars” that get all the press. But, like any diesel engine, it could, without modification, burn commercially refined biodiesel made from soybeans. Renewable fuel without the mess? I was sold. When the police recovered my stolen Camry a few weeks later on Thanksgiving Day, I counted my blessings...and began to covet every diesel I saw.

Several months later, the failure of my Camry’s power steering system coincided with the availability of a yellow 1983 Mercedes 300TD. I was always a fan of the station wagon as the anti-SUV, and an early ’80s Mercedes was the most affordable diesel I could find. I talked the price down to $3,100 and was off to fill my tank with sweet, sweet soy.

AVAILABILITY REMAINS biodiesel’s most significant challenge to gaining wider public use—a chicken/egg supply/demand thing. Initially, the only biodiesel pump within reasonable distance was at the Pentagon, where a set of alternative fuel pumps sells a 20-percent blend (B20). But after enduring a brief crisis of conscience (sure, it’d be nice if all the tanks and planes ran on renewable fuels—but the blowing-up-people thing still concerns me), I ended my reliance on the military-industrial complex and joined a newly formed co-op that imports 100 percent biodiesel (B100) to a nearby Maryland suburb.

Paying higher prices for B100 is akin to spending more for organic milk (which, by the way, will not run in any diesel engine—don’t even try it). Some states offer tax incentives to help split the difference, and blending with petro-diesel is also a cost-cutting option. But as a wise friend once advised about paying more for organic groceries, if you can honestly afford it, you’re paying the true cost of food—or in this case, fuel—instead of passing that cost on to underpaid workers or the environment.

Post-Katrina spikes in fuel costs may have put “for sale” signs on gas-hogging behemoths and a spasm of triumphant glee in the hearts of SUV-bashers. But as long as oil consumption remains at the center of crises including war and the environment, it will be crucial to develop alternatives to fossil fuels—and that will require active participation by consumers to push markets in more sustainable directions. Automakers are already scrambling to meet demand for hybrids, and biodiesel production is likewise increasing. And though I thoroughly enjoy cruising around town in my butter-yellow Benz—did I mention it has a sunroof?—I still ride my bike whenever possible. —Ryan Beiler

Ryan Beiler is Web editor for Sojourners. Learn more about biodiesel, including nationwide availability, at www. biodiesel.org and www.biodieselnow.com.

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