Biofuels Oasis Opens in South Berkeley

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Thursday May 28, 2009 - 06:59:00 PM

It’s not a gas station, yet more than 2,000 people swear by it when it comes to refueling their cars in the East Bay. 

Some do it because they are against the Iraq War. Others because they despise Dick Cheney. But the overwhelming majority of customers filling up their tanks with leftover recycled cooking oil at Berkeley’s BioFuels Oasis do it because of their love for the environment. Even if it means paying a buck or two extra. 

BioFuels Oasis, an all-women cooperative, moved from their old location at Fourth Street and Dwight Way to 1441 Ashby Ave. on May 1, taking over what was once Kandy’s Carwash, an African-American-owned business that had been a fixture in the South Berkeley neighborhood for years. 

Supporters of the carwash turned up at the city’s zoning meetings more than a year ago to try to stop the fueling station from relocating to Ashby and Sacramento Street, arguing that the city should not encourage the displacement of yet another African-American business from a historically black part of town.  

Although the zoning board gave the fueling station and the carwash time to mediate and explore the possibility of co-existing on the same site, nothing ever came out of it. Landlord Craig Hertz testified at a public meeting that the carwash’s owner, Kandy Alford, was facing eviction because he was behind on his rent by six months. 

At that time, Councilmember Jesse Arreguin, who was then a zoning commissioner, expressed hope that BioFuels would usher in a new chapter of community-building in the neighborhood, one that would heal some of the old wounds. 

Today, the co-op’s owners say the healing has already begun. They have toiled over the last nine months to transform the 1930s gas station-turned-carwash back into a fueling station. Wooden canopies adorned with shade-providing shrubs and creepers loom more than 13 feet over the two fuel pump islands. The original brick-and-tile gas station cottage serves as the main office, where people can sign up on the spot for a new membership. Solar panels and a radiant floor heating system, which generates heat from hot water, take care of the PG&E bills. 

“It’s been really good so far,” said Margaret Farrow, one of the co-op’s five worker-owners, while helping one of her clients fill up his Dodge Ram at the station Wednesday. “We have gotten a lot of welcomes from local businesses and residents. Kandy himself has come by here and chatted with us. He’s something of a local fixture himself and always has funny anecdotes to share with us.” 

Started by Jennifer Radtke and Sara Hope Smith in 2003 to give Bay Area residents easy access to biodiesel, BioFuels Oasis currently serves up to 60 cars every day and boasts a membership of 2000. 

“At that time there wasn’t any place to buy biodiesel—people were making their own biodiesel,” said Farrow, who joined the cooperative three years ago. “It’s really a grassroots level movement and we have put our blood, sweat and tears into it.” 

Farrow said the station was the only one of its kind in the East Bay, expanding to urban farming with its new location to help those raising poultry and livestock to buy chicken feed and grain. 

“We are like a family here,” said Ace Anderson, another worker-member who got hooked on biofuels when she started making her own fuel with leftover cooking oil from Blowfish Sushi in San Francisco. “We have cool customers who are willing to spend $10 a month to help protect the environment. They will come in here no matter what the cost of petrol.” 

State law requires biofuel stations to get a variance to operate, Farrow said, and they can only sell to members. Membership is free at BioFuels Oasis and its two pumps are open to anyone with a diesel engine from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. 

When asked about the backlash biofuel has provoked around the world—it has been blamed for everything from environmental damage to displacement of food crop production—Farrow said the co-op does its best to give its patrons all the information they need to be comfortable with their purchase. 

“I think it’s very important for people to find out where the fuel is coming from, what feeds it,” she said, adding that BioFuel Oasis buys recycled vegetable oil only from within a 200-mile radius. “We are very aware that ecosystems are being destroyed to grow food and fuel. Our customers are intelligent people and they often tell us about what is going on out there.” 

Chris Anderson, who teaches at the San Francisco Art Institute, pulled up his Dodge truck into the station’s wide driveway a little after noon to fill up his tank. 

“I hate Dick Cheney,” he said, when asked why he had made the choice to switch over from regular gas to biofuel. “I’d rather put money in here than give it to all the greedy CEOs at the big oil companies. Also, biofuel works way better than diesel. It’s more lubricating and extends engine life.” 

Sara Hughes, who owns Green Dog Pet Care in Berkeley, drove in after Anderson to fill up $70 worth of biofuel into her V-8 turbo diesel van. 

“Sure it’s more expensive but I don’t want to pollute the environment any more,” said Hughes, who drives a couple of hours daily for work. “I made the change a year ago and enjoy the experience.” 

Biodiesel is currently selling for $3.69 a gallon, a dollar more than regular gas at the Chevron gas station just a few blocks up the street and about $1.24 more than diesel. 

Farrow said that one of the reasons why more people were not using biodiesel was because of the price. 

“But there are still enough biofuel stations around that would allow me to drive from here to neighboring states and not be worried about running out of fuel,” she said. “And I can always carry my own biofuel with me because it’s non-toxic.” 

At least eight cars refueled at the station between 11:30 and 12 p.m., and most were from outside Berkeley. 

“These fuel stations are like shrines to me,” said Ross MacDonald, who said he was on a pilgrimage from Washington, and had stopped at BioFuels to refuel his beat-up 1985 Mercedes. “They are so few and far between, but it feels so good. I’d rather do this than spill blood.” 

Across the street, David Dowd of US liquors sat watching the cars take off after spending about five minutes each at the pumps. 

“When Kandy’s was there, there was a lot more people, a lot more noise, and a lot more customers for me,” he said. “But now, people buy gas and go home. It’s very quiet, but I like it.”