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Why thieves smell treasure in used cooking oil

  • The U.S. Renewable Fuel Standard requires more biofuel in the U.S. transportation fuel mix.
  • Biodiesel is a biofuel that can contain used cooking oil, known as yellow grease.
  • As much as $75 million in yellow grease is stolen each year, with thieves collecting around 25 cents a gallon.

It sounded odd when a Virginia man was arrested recently for pumping hundreds of gallons of used cooking grease from a dumpster outside a Burger King in the Allendale Shopping Center. But this isn't the first time used cooking oil caught thieves' attention. In August, for instance, the Stamford, Connecticut, police department reported similar thefts. And it has happened regularly over the years. 

The National Renderers Association estimated as much as $75 million in grease is stolen each year, according to widely reported 2017 figure. Such incidents are on the rise, law enforcement in Fairfax, Virginia, told The Washington Post.

Why? The answer may be simple: Demand for biofuel is climbing.

That's  a result of a federal law called the U.S. Renewable Fuel Standard, which was expanded in 2007. It mandates an ever-increasing amount of fuel used for transportation be blended with renewable sources to help curb greenhouse gas emissions. Those renewable additions are mostly in the form of ethanol, made from vegetables like corn, which is blended with gasoline and other fuels. But they also include recycled cooking oil, which is turned into something called biodiesel.

According to the U.S. Energy Department, gasoline and diesel fuel blended with renewables will reach 36 billion gallons in 2022. That's up from virtually nothing in 2005 when the standard was first enacted.

Yellow grease

The oil once used to cook your fries is actually called yellow grease, and about 12 percent of all biodiesel uses it. More than half of yellow grease comes from soybean oil, according to the Energy Information Association. Production of yellow grease into biodiesel rose roughly 13 percent in 2018 to 1.67 billion pounds, up from roughly 1.4 billion in 2017.

Yellow grease prices vary around the country, but they've held steady in the past year, according to charts from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The Virginia theft suspect told police he was normally paid 25 cents a gallon, netting $300 to $400 a trip, according to The Washington Post. Fairfax County, Virginia, has had six reported thefts of yellow grease in the past year, and many more may go unreported, the detective working the Virginia case told the paper.

That's a lot of fries.