A Real Contender? Kinky Friedman, Biodiesel and the Race for the Texas Governor's Mansion

An independent campaign for governor is a hard row to hoe in Texas, but self-appointed biodiesel spokesman Kinky Friedman has his sights on the top office. As the gubernatorial race draws into the homestretch for the November vote, the novelist, musician and comedian may be a real contender for the title. Biodiesel Magazine relays perspectives from Lone Star State industry stakeholders on an unusual champion and eccentric supporter.
By Nicholas Zeman | July 01, 2006
Maybe a Jewish cowboy writer who grew up in Texas will do something besides drive the state's economy and educational system into the toilet-that's what some in Alamo country are saying about Kinky Friedman, independent candidate for governor.

Friedman has had dozens of articles written about him over the course of the past year in venues ranging from the New Yorker and CBS Sunday Morning to The Houston Chronicle. For the most part, the media have focused on his political incorrectness, his ranch with over 60 rescued dogs, his signature use of the color pink, and his cigar smoking and well-documented drug use. They've also focused on his out-of-left-field promises, such as giving free parking to anyone who uses renewable fuels. In fact, Friedman's support of biodiesel, in particular, has become a significant part of his platform. "Biodiesel-it's good enough for Willie Nelson's tour bus, and the city of Denton is using it to fuel its entire fleet of diesel trucks," Friedman states on his Web site. "Biodiesel is fuel you can grow. That's good for farmers, good for the air, good for the Texas energy industry and good for Texans. With biodiesel, everybody wins but OPEC."

Despite his antics, slurs and sordid past, supporters say that Friedman represents new-century thinking in regard to the nation's energy situation, and that he wants Texas to lead in the production of biofuels the way it has led in gas and oil exploration. "As far as biodiesel goes, Kinky Friedman would certainly be the most progressive candidate," says Jake Stewart of Biodiesel Industries, which operates a 3 MMgy biodiesel plant in Denton, Texas, that is powered by landfill methane and provides B20 for the town's diesel vehicle fleet. "He's really running in the Jesse Ventura niche. He came out of the gates, and people were like, 'Is this a joke, or is it for real?' It would be an understatement to say that he is an underdog I mean he is not picked to win by any stretch, but regardless of whether he gets elected or not, the messaging and the voicing there is valuable."

Leaders in the industry agree that Friedman is forcing the other candidates to talk about biofuels and introducing the topic into the political conversation-but not without a few glitches. "He's certainly running on the ticket of biodiesel, but he still uses [the terms] vegetable oil and biodiesel interchangeably. In that regard, he still has a way to go," says Jeff Plowman of Austin Biofuels, a biodiesel retailer servicing the central Texas area with 17 B20 locations and four B99 pumps.

Texas is the leading biodiesel production state, and Friedman has made the fuel a cornerstone of his campaign. But some say biofuels-both biodiesel and ethanol-are an easy sell politically, and that candidates latch onto issues that demonstrate a popular appeal. "Biodiesel kind of has an apolitical niche," Stewart says. "It's kind of like motherhood and apple pie. It's an easy ticket to sell politically."

Others view the touting of biodiesel on the political front as insincere, especially when some of the statements seem misinformed or half-cocked. "The whole Kinky Friedman thing just doesn't turn me on," says Plowman. "He says things like he is going to make Willie Nelson his energy secretary, which we don't have [in Texas] anyway." Plowman did agree with his colleagues, however, that biofuels have been pushed to the forefront of this election because of Friedman's efforts. "It's an issue that everyone is going to have to talk about," Plowman says.

But the biggest issue for biodiesel in Texas is not the gubernatorial race, however. Ironically, while several positive developments have taken place recently in Texas, the dark cloud of the Texas Low Emissions Diesel Program (TxLED) has lingered over the industry. This would essentially outlaw biodiesel in Texas as an overabundant emitter of NOx.
The recently formed Biodiesel Coalition of Texas (BCOT) represents the Texas biodiesel industry both politically and as a trade interest group at the state level. "In that sense, we have consolidated our voices, which no other states have done," Stewart says of the group Biodiesel Industries has joined. BCOT was able to get an extension-or a "stay of execution," as Plowman called it-after biodiesel was initially ruled non-TxLED compliant. This meant that it was illegal to blend biodiesel with petroleum diesel. This was a big deal, as Texas represents the largest diesel market in the United States and is one of the largest producers of biodiesel in the country. "I believe it was pushed by the additive companies to get a piece of our industry," Plowman says.

The Dec. 31 deadline requires BCOT to present technical and/or legal arguments that would lead the TxLED program to retract its initial ruling of biodiesel as non-compliant. "Our goal is to give the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) the technical information they need to exempt biodiesel or to view biodiesel for all of its benefits more comprehensively, [rather] than to point at an Achilles heel and eliminate biodiesel from the Texas market," Stewart says. "I believe that the technical argument has shifted, and we as an industry need to be more outspoken. There is some onus on the industry to start talking about NOx and biodiesel in a different light."

Meanwhile, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) has stated that there is no information that concludes whether or not biodiesel decreases or increases NOx, which Stewart believes is the most technically responsible stance on the issue. "We'd like to see this just go away-if you're going to ban biodiesel in Texas, obviously it's not a great thing for us," says Peter Bell, CEO of Distribution Drive, a distributor and marketer of BioWillie-brand biodiesel blends and a wholly owned subsidiary of Earth Biofuels. "So we would like to see [the deadline] extended or to see this thing go away completely." When asked if the election of Friedman would help this precarious situation, Bell says, "Absolutely yes-or as Kinky would say-'Why the hell not?'"

As part of his campaign, Friedman contends that family farms are falling off by the day in Texas, and agricultural energy sources are a way to amend this problem. "His message is basically, 'Let's put the American farmer back to work,' and regardless of the candidate, the message is important for Texas," Stewart says. "This is a state that has so much feedstock production potential and really represents the biodiesel production model as a whole-'from soil to oil' as I call it-which would have a positive ripple effect on the state's economy."

Supporters claim Friedman would have a positive effect on the growing biodiesel industry in Texas as a lawmaker and highly visible spokesman, who smokes cigars and rides around in pink cars wearing a black cowboy hat. "BioWillie is supporting Kinky, and hopefully he will support us when he gets in," Bell says. "Kinky Friedman is our man, and he is going to make Willie Nelson his energy minister if he gets in, so we think that will be pretty fantastic for biofuels in Texas."

Nicholas Zeman is a Biodiesel Magazine staff writer. Reach him at nzeman@bbibiofuels.com or (701)746-8385
 
 
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