GREAT NECK, N.Y. (PIX11) — It’s a growing trend that can help to fight climate change and can even make medications and cosmetics more Earth-friendly.
Biodiesel production from used cooking oil is a process that transforms waste into green fuel, but it is also a source of an increase in crimes in the tri-state region. It’s spurred a rise in calls for tougher penalties for people caught stealing the increasingly valuable waste substance.
Patrick McCall is the owner of one of the region’s largest investigation firms, the McCall Risk Group. Some of his biggest clients are companies that collect used cooking oil from restaurants and other food establishments. They’ve reported a rise in break-ins to their collection tanks in the last two to three years.
“Basically, once they pry it up,” McCall said in an interview, pointing at the lid of one of the metal cooking oil storage tanks that are about the size of a mini-dumpster. “One gentleman would slide his hose in, siphon out the oil, while the other one kept pressure on it to keep the box raised, and that’s their method to break into a box like this.”
It’s a simple procedure that’s often done by thieves under cover of darkness. Also, the fact that most of the box-shaped, metal used oil storage tanks are located in fairly secluded areas makes them easier targets. So much so, that some of the thefts of oil from them are in broad daylight.
It’s the same vegetable oil that households use in the kitchen to fry food, but after it’s used, it can be converted to biofuel through a process called transesterification. The oil is chemically combined with alcohol and sodium hydroxide or potassium hydroxide. The result is biodiesel and glycerin. The two are separated, with the former being a fuel for combustion engines, and the latter available for use in the production process for cosmetics and pharmaceuticals.
Currently, the most expensive fuel at any gas station is diesel. The fact that thieves can acquire the main ingredient of biodiesel fuel free of charge is an incentive that they can’t pass up.
Romeo Auer, a Long Island-based restaurateur, knows the situation all too well.
“They have a $28,000 [or] $30,000 payday every week,” he said about the cooking oil thieves. “It’s like liquid gold, basically.”
His restaurant, Barona Bay, in Hampton Bays, had been the target of thieves multiple times. It now has two motion-detected surveillance camera systems installed around its used cooking oil storage tank, behind the restaurant.
McCall’s company put the security system in place as part of a larger effort to combat cooking oil thefts across Long Island. “I would say now it’s probably the worst it’s been since I started doing these investigations,” McCall said. His company has been fighting used cooking oil thefts since 2014.
The situation is particularly difficult now, he said, because the price of the oil on the black market is at a near-record high.
In the mainstream market, pure biodiesel, called B99 or 100,- is the most expensive of the eight different fuels tracked by the EPA. Biodiesel produced from used cooking oil is B99 or B100, and its price has shot up nearly 70 percent in the last three years. That increase is mirrored in the black market.
Another incentive for thieves is the resiliency of the biofuels industry. Daniel Schrag, a Harvard Kennedy School professor who won a MacArthur genius grant for his work on energy technology and climate change, talked about the promising future of biodiesel and other plant-based liquid fuels.
“The use of those renewable biofuels in the long run,” Schrag said in an interview, “is going to be important in other parts, [such as] putting renewable biofuels into trucks or into ships or a variety of other things.”
As for biodiesel made from used cooking oil, he said that it’s a tiny share of the potential future green energy market, but nonetheless, “it could be an important lead-in to producing much larger amounts of biofuels.”
That horizon could mean that thefts of used cooking oil will remain frequent, unless there are changes to laws regarding them, according to McCall, the investigator.
Thieves are “getting slapped with these misdemeanor charges, being given the vehicle right back, which is their tool to steal,” McCall said, “and they’re coming back out, you know, loosely the same day, [and] they’re getting the vehicle out of the impound and stealing again, and we’re catching them again and again.”
He’s part of a growing movement to toughen laws against people stealing the oil, as well as against people processing it illegally.
According to several New York investigators, suspects take their stolen oil across state lines to New Jersey or Pennsylvania to processing plants that pay them, without asking questions.
At least two states, California and North Carolina, have now made cooking oil thefts felony crimes. In California, it can result in up to six months in prison. Since it passed the law in 2014, California has seen a dramatic drop in thefts.
McCall endorses similar changes in New York. “There needs to be some stricter consequences,” he said.