Tours Put Earth First

Pearl Jam, CSNY, Warped and DMB fight global warmina by switching to biodiesel, funding wind power and more

Rolling Stone

September 21, 2006

By Steve Knopper and Kate Landau

When Tim Foster walks backstage among the trucks and buses at a Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young concert this summer, he notices one thing: The air doesn't smell. "There are engines running all over the place," says Foster, who joined Neil Young as a roadie thirty-three years ago and is now his production manager. "But it's like the exhaust doesn't exist." CSNY's eighteen trucks and buses run on biodiesel, an alternative fuel made from a mixture of traditional diesel and crops such as peanuts and corn, which is the centerpiece of a small but growing movement to reinvent the gas-guzzling concert industry in an environmentally friendly way.

ROLLING STONE spoke to more than thirty artists, managers, promoters, booking agents, owners of truck companies and environmentalists about the tour industry's impact on the environment -- and what can be done about it. At the business's peak during the summer, the top fifty tours put roughly 500 trucks and 400 buses on the road, averaging about 14,000 miles per tour at five miles per gallon, according to estimates from truck companies and artist managers. That's roughly 2.52 million gallons of diesel fuel -- or 28,200 tons of carbon dioxide, about the same amount that 4,500 cars emit in a year. The biggest tours -- Madonna, the Rolling Stones, U2 -- drag as many as thirty or forty diesel rigs with them. Madonna's Confessions trek, for example, used thirty trucks and ten buses, sources say. At five miles per gallon, that's 52,832 gallons, generating 591 tons of carbon-dioxide emissions -- the equivalent of 100 people driving their cars for a year. "There's something gratuitous about having thirty tractor-trailers on an arena tour," says a concert-industry source. "Artists will be forced to think about this as oil becomes more expensive and more precious."

A dozen big-name shows on the road this summer and early fall -- including CSNY, Pearl Jam, Bonnie Raitt, the Warped Tour, Bon Jovi and Dave Matthews Band -- are at the forefront of a movement to tour in a more environmentally sensitive way. While some are using biodiesel, others are donating money to build wind turbines or plant trees; run sound systems on solar or wind power; reduce the number of trucks and buses in their fleets; and impiement strict recycling policies. "It's great being part of the solution," says David Crosby. "We are giving money to American farmers that grow soybeans or corn -- instead of a bunch of people in the Middle East who hate us and want to kill us."

Biodiesel, a clean-burning mixture of vegetable oil or animal fats with different amounts of traditional diesel fuel, comes in several grades -- all of which run in normal diesel engines. The most common, 820, is eighty percent petroleum and twenty percent crops, while the purest form, BIOO, contains no petroleum and generates negligible carbon dioxide when burned. 820 typically costs about twenty cents a gallon more than regular diesel (currently about three dollars), and B100 fluctuates depending on its availability -- from $2.60 to $3.40. About 650 gas stations nationwide carry some form of the fuel.

The first artist to use biodiesel was Willie Nelson, who was so upset by the Iraq War that he started pumping the fuel into his Mercedes in late 2003. In 2004 he began producing his own blend, Bio Willie, and stocked it at a service station he co-owns outside Dallas. (BioWillie is now available in five other states, including California and Georgia.) "We need to get the government behind the building of biodiesel plants," he says. "The plan is to keep biodiesel cheaper than diesel so that it will be a competitor."

Young's Greendale, in 2004, was the first major rock tour to convert to biodiesel. "There were issues: Is it hazardous? At what point would we run out of fuel?" says Scan O'Rourke, vice president of Roadshow Services, a San Francisco company that is currently handling six arena tours. O'Rourke's biggest challenge was drawing a complex map so Young could easily hit biodiesel stations -- and other acts, including Pearl Jam and Melissa Etheridge, have followed Young's lead. The routing was easy for Pearl Jam's recent swing through the Northeast, where biodiesel stations are plentiful, but more difficult for Etheridge's run through Los Angeles, where her two trucks and two buses had to detour about sixty miles to Marina del Rey. When the fuel isn't available, O'Rourke says, tours pay an extra $300 for tankers to truck it in.

Biodiesel has its critics, even among environmentalists. Engines running it produce higher-thanaverage amounts of nitrogen oxide, one of the main ingredients in smog, says Brendan Bell, a Sierra Club energy analyst. Also, some have suggested that it the world's gaspowered vehicles switch completely to biofuels, farmers would need to run more tractors and use more fertilizer -- and the increased demand could lead to higher crop prices or even food shortages. "The perception is 'Biodiesel goes into my tank and flowers come out,' " Bell says. "Is it better than normal diesel? Probably. But it's not like solar and wind power, where you have no emissions. There isn't a magical solution."

Many acts' efforts extend beyond using the fuel: DMB have donated an undisclosed amount of money to offset the carbon-dioxide emissions generated by their buses, trucks and planes since 1991. "We counted everything," says Patrick Jordan, marketing director for the band's management company, Red Light."Itwas a grueling process, actually." Their primary charitable recipient is NativeEnergy, a Charlotte, Vermont, environmental group that uses the money to build wind turbines on Indian reservations, among other initiatives. "The greatest thing we can do is set an example," violinist Boyd Tinsley says. "And encourage our fan base to be more conscious."

The Warped Tour, which drags fifty buses and eighteen trucks around the U.S., switched all of its vehicles to biodiesel this summer. Organizers also switched from using 81,000 paper plates to ecofriendly dishwashing for backstage catering and erected a solar-powered sound system on one stage. "Our experiment has worked very well," says Warped Tour producer Kevin Lyman. "Still, next year I have to think how to get twenty or thirty less vehicles on the road." The vehicle-reducing strategy is working for Bruce Springsteen, whose seventeen-musician seeger Sessions tour used just four trucks. His crew ran "truck rehearsals" before the tour tor maximum efficiency.

Crosby believes the message is spreading -- and that most tours ("anybody that's environmentally conscious") will eventually start using biodiesel. "It doesn't put any crap in the atmosphere and it puts the money in the right place," he says. "It feels good."