In 1958, when John Benish Jr.’s father began ferrying school children in the rapidly expanding Chicago area, the Space Race had just begun. Elvis Presley topped the charts. But long after Elvis had left the building, even in the 1990s, the junior Benish remembers seeing the plume of black smoke that would rise above the iconic yellow school buses when the driver started the engine.
Six decades later, a lot has changed. For one thing, the kids have cleaner buses to ride on – and in the Benish company’s case, biodiesel is largely to thank. Success with biodiesel also built the foundation for Benish to start evaluation of other products made with U.S. Soy, such as tires made by Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company.
Benish Jr. serves as president and chief operating officer of Cook-Illinois Corporation, the sixth largest school bus contractor in the U.S. He began powering his fleet of more than 2,200 school buses with biodiesel blends in 2005.
A second-generation executive of a family-owned-and-operated school bus company who also serves as past president of the National Student Transportation Association, he now urges other school bus companies to make the switch to biodiesel.
In 2022, the company celebrates running an estimated 25 million gallons of biodiesel blends in its diesel buses.
“I’ve come to the conclusion that biodiesel is the fastest, easiest way to decarbonize a school bus and clear the air, because it can be used immediately in existing diesel technology rather than investing in a new fleet or waiting for future technologies,” Benish Jr. said. “As we head back to school for another year, I’m urging all school bus fleets to take a serious look at adopting biodiesel to reduce their carbon footprint and clean up the air that students, drivers and the community breathe.”
“We applaud Cook-Illinois Corporation for their commitment to cleaner air for kids and their employees,” said Dan Farney, a soybean grower from Morton, Illinois and a former chair of the United Soybean Board. “Their 25-million-gallon milestone is a great example of the important role U.S. Soy has in delivering sustainable solutions to every life, every day.”
Biodiesel works like petroleum diesel, but it’s made from plant-based oils, like soybean oil, or recycled fats and cooking oil. It can be blended with — or sometimes fully replace — petroleum diesel for less impact on the environment. Biodiesel reduces greenhouse gas emissions by an average of 74% compared to petroleum diesel.
Benish Jr. said the company, based in Oak Brook, Illinois, uses up to 20 percent biodiesel (B20) in everything with a diesel engine, with no need to modify the engine. That’s about 1,500 buses.
“The fuel is extremely reliable, but at the heart of our commitment to biodiesel is that it is better for the children,” Benish Jr. said. “We transport many special needs kids, and breathing issues and asthma are common. Biodiesel reduces harmful exposure.” A new study shows that switching to 100% biodiesel in 28 transportation and home heating oil sectors, one of which was Chicago – Naperville, would create immediate community health improvements. Combining all 28 sites, benefits would include more than 456,000 fewer/reduced asthma cases per year, more than 142,000 fewer sick days per year and over $7.5 billion in avoided health costs annually, the study showed.
Under Benish Jr.’s leadership, the company was the first in Illinois to switch an entire bus fleet to blends up to B20. He said biodiesel is noticeably better for the engines, which show reduced wear and tear due to the fuel’s enhanced lubricity. He also likes that it supports Illinois soybean farmers rather than oil outside of the U.S.
Benish Jr. volunteers as a Bio Ambassador, a United Soybean Board educational program that assists fleets and other leaders nationwide to increase awareness of how soy-biobased products can benefit human health and the environment. He is an inaugural member of the B20 Club of Illinois, a partnership of the American Lung Association (ALA) and Illinois Soybean Association that recognizes and supports Illinois-based fleets committed to using B20 or greater blends. Benish also led efforts to pilot buses with B100 — 100% biodiesel — in five full-size diesel school buses using the Optimus Technologies Vector System.
“This school bus fleet is a true pioneer, having used biodiesel blends up to B20 continuously since 2005,” said Bailey Arnold, lead for the B20 Club of Illinois and director of clean air initiatives for ALA. “There’s no doubt that Cook-Illinois is a national leader in fighting climate change and protecting the health of students and communities through the use of alternative fuels and technologies like biodiesel.”
Made from an increasingly diverse mix of resources such as recycled cooking oil, soybean oil and animal fats, biodiesel and renewable diesel are better, cleaner fuels that are available now for use in existing diesel engines without modification.
Because of the potential for biobased products to create new markets for soybeans, U.S. soybean farmers have invested millions of dollars to research, test and promote biobased products. Much of this work was done through the United Soybean Board, which is composed of 78 U.S. soybean farmers appointed by the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture to invest soybean checkoff funds. As stipulated in the Soybean Promotion, Research and Consumer Information Act, USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Services has oversight responsibilities for the soybean checkoff.