Rob Elam, biodiesel buff, answers questions
What work do you do?
I’m a cofounder of Propel Fuels, a biodiesel services and distribution firm. Biodiesel is a vegetable-oil based fuel for diesel engines. Using it significantly reduces greenhouse-gas and particulate-matter emissions.
What does your organization do?
Our mission is simple: fill tanks with biodiesel. We’re approaching this in three ways: 1) helping retail station owners get biodiesel pumps up and running, 2) providing consulting services for businesses to help ease them into biodiesel use, and 3) offering design/build services on the production side. There’s a lot of confusion and bad information when it comes to biodiesel. Businesses should be making decisions based on quality information, and consumers deserve a choice.
What long and winding road led you to your current position?
I’ve always had a passion for the outdoors and a sense of stewardship. My grandfather taught me to fish for trout when I was a kid, in the Sierras. My fondest memories and best friendships all share a wilderness component. Fresh air has been good to me, so I figure I should do my part for future generations.
I worked for Outward Bound in my 20s, then joined the corporate world with 3M. The internet caught my fancy; as an anthropology major, I was drawn to the community aspects of it. I found myself in Seattle, started a couple of professional-services businesses, and went all-in with biodiesel and Propel Fuels in June 2004. I’m stoked to be passionate about work again.
Where were you born? Where do you live now?
I was born in Davis, Calif., but raised in Minnesota. I’d like to think I’ve taken the pragmatic fortitude of the Midwest and mixed it with the wild dreams of the left coast.
What environmental offense has infuriated you the most?
Greenwashing, particularly as practiced by the petroleum industry, is a pet peeve. I hope people see through the lies. Looking to Big Oil to solve our petroleum dependence problem is like looking to the Marlboro Man to quit smoking. Detroit Big Auto isn’t any better, with their pathetic vehicle offerings, finger pointing, and lack of leadership.
Who is your environmental hero?
The poet Gary Snyder inspires me with his lifelong message of sustainability, simplicity, and humor.
Who is your environmental nightmare?
James Watt. Really, though, the systemic nature of our environmental plight makes it difficult to point fingers. We all share blame. Change should start with each of us.
What’s your environmental vice?
Consumption. I try my best to purchase wisely, but I’m still consuming things I don’t need.
What are you reading these days?
Some chemical and mechanical engineering stuff related to biodiesel production. I’m reading a ton of blogs and online articles, keeping up with people’s experiences with biodiesel.
What’s your favorite meal?
Sushi’s great! We didn’t have that growing up in Minnesota — unless you count lutefisk.
Which stereotype about environmentalists most fits you?
I’m opinionated. Is that a stereotype?
What’s your favorite place or ecosystem?
The rivers and beaches of the West Coast of North America. Alaska, Puget Sound, California’s redwoods.
What’s one thing the environmental movement is doing particularly well?
I see a new generation using business as a force for change. We need more of it. If Wall Street and the venture capitalists would get on board, we’d have even more to talk about. I’m tired of reading about Yvon Chouinard and Patagonia. Don’t get me wrong — I love what he’s done. There should be a lot more stories like his out there.
What’s one thing the environmental movement is doing badly, and how could it be done better?
Talking too much about the big picture. The big picture is hard for people to grasp. Empowering people with choices in their daily lives, now that’s progress. Part of me believes the traditional “environmental movement” has outlived its usefulness, and we need a new framework of inclusiveness to move things forward. I tend toward words like “values” and “sustainability” rather than “environmentalism.”
If you could institute by fiat one environmental reform, what would it be?
Energy reform in all its facets: sustainable fuels, solar, wind, investing in new technologies instead of oil and coal.
What was your favorite band when you were 18? How about now?
I grew up in the ’80s in Minneapolis. We had Husker Du, The Replacements. I support local music wherever I am. I listen to KEXP in Seattle a lot. I’m an old fan of the band Pavement, since we share California Central Valley roots. I’d like to get Stephen Malkmus driving a biodiesel car. Send me an email, Stephen — maybe I can get you a deal. Neil Young, Willie Nelson, and Dave Matthews are biodiesel supporters. Dave’s in Seattle — so hey, Dave, maybe you and Stephen can get a package deal on new Passat TDi wagons. I hear Farm Aid will focus on biofuels this year, and I’m all for that.
What are you happy about right now?
In spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, I’m feeling good about the direction of things in general. I’m hoping it’s darkest before the dawn. It’s pretty dark right now. People seem to be slowly awakening to the environmental problems we face and how these problems lead to a lower quality of life. For some, it’s the loss of an old fishing spot; for others, it’s the ramifications of imported oil and terrorism. I’d like to think people are making different choices. SUV sales are down. Biodiesel has good energy.
If you could have every InterActivist reader do one thing, what would it be?
Switch your vehicle to something better. Go test-drive one of the new diesels; trade in your old car for a diesel and run biodiesel in it. It’s as close as you can get to driving petroleum-free given our current options. And it feels great!
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