With all the chatter about raising Virginia’s gas tax (an idea that didn’t make it into the Governor’s proposed tax grab-bag), this story in the LA Times offers the cautionary tale of Dave Eck, and what can happen when some folks decide to put cooking oil, rather than diesel, into their tanks:

“All of a sudden they nailed me for a road tax,” said Eck, who drives a Hummer converted to run on vegetable oil. “I said, ‘Not a problem. I’ll do my part. But what do I get? At least let me into the carpool lane.’ “

No such luck. The state offered Eck only a potentially large fine — and not just for failing to pay taxes. He can also get in trouble for carting kitchen grease away from eateries without a license from the state Meat and Poultry Inspection Branch.

Or for not having at least $1 million in liability insurance, in case he spills some of the stuff. Or for not getting permission from the state Air Resources Board to burn fat in the first place.

In the article, we also learn that Gov. Ahnuld burns cooking oil from Costco in his Hummer, but has not paid the 18 cent per gallon road tax (though he will from now on). And, of course, a lot of rogue cooking oil burners simply refuse to tell the nice man from the government they’ve made the switch so as to avoid the taxes, fines permits and sundry regulations they would otherwise face.

Are they economic “free riders”? Yes, at least under the pennies per gallon gas tax. They can counter that their use of an alternative fuel mitigates a host of other problems created by those who do pay the tax. A way around all of this, should fuel substitution really catch on, would be to drop the gas tax entirely and move toward a more rigorous tolling system or a miles traveled tax — neither of which would be, or ought to be, an easy sell.

Of course that sort of system might lead to some bright person developing a hover car that doesn’t use roads at all and runs on the muck they scrape from movie theater floors.

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