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Grease bandits strike as biofuel demand rises

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"People who were not in the industry in 2006 are seeing this is a moneymaker," says Mr. Griffin. The trouble for these grease greenhorns, he says, is that there's no free grease anymore – it's all under contract. "So those people, if they can't get the volume of grease they want, then they will just steal it."

Rosenzweig's call brought five policemen, who arrested the alleged thief, David Richardson. He did not have a California permit to collect or haul grease. Reports say his 4,000-gallon tank was half full and he planned to sell it for $1.35 a gallon, meaning he stood to make roughly several thousand dollars.

When grease was much cheaper, restaurants here and around the country would often have to pay to have the grease removed from outdoor bins. Now that yellow grease fetches a good price, Rosenzweig doesn't charge his clients – some services even pay the restaurant. There's strong competition for contracts.

"Everybody gets a kick out of it, thinks it's funny – 'Oh, how weird that somebody would steal it'. But it's a serious crime, and it hurts all of the reputable guys," says Rosenzweig. He estimates he can lose a couple hundred dollars for every full container. "You lose enough of those every week, or every month, and it starts to hurt."

Just who owns the grease can be a slippery legal question, according to Houston attorney Jon Jaworski. He's defended clients in more than 150 grease cases and refers to himself as "the grease lawyer."

For years, grease was put out in barrels next to the trash and picked up by verbal agreement. After a court ruling found that arrangement to be a free-for-all, he says, collectors drew up written contracts and provided branded bins. Collection companies say that once the grease hits the container, it's theirs.

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