Massachusetts restaurants have become the latest targets of a slick crime wave: theft of cooking oil.
In the bucolic waterfront town of Essex, Mass., police say bandits struck Lewis's Restaurant and Oyster Bar, the Fortune Palace and the Windward Grill along Route 133 after midnight Wednesday and stole containers of used cooking oil, according to NECN, NBC News affiliate in the Boston-area.
"As one of my officers said, 'It's like liquid gold,'" Essex Police Chief Peter Silva told the cable station. "I believe that this is the third time since May of 2011 that this has happened in town, so it's a concern of ours, and we're trying to get to the bottom of it."
Nationwide, restaurants have reported thefts of used cooking oil worth thousands of dollars by rustlers who are refining it into barrels of biofuels in backyard stills. Police say rising oil and fuel prices and tough economic times are behind the recent spike.
"The value goes up and down," said Phil Bruno, general manager of American By/Products Co. Inc., who’s hired to haul off and recycle oil from restaurants in the Essex area. He told NECN that thieves are now beating him to the job.
"It's a commodity, like crude oil," Bruno said, adding, "The prices are up right now. They're at a pretty good level."
Grease is transformed into fuel through a chemical process called transesterification, which removes glycerine and adds methanol to the oil, leaving a thinner product that can power a diesel engine. Biodiesel can also be blended with petroleum diesel, and blends of the alternative fuel are now sold nationwide.
As the price of diesel shoots up, so, too, does the value of grease.
In the last five years, the price of soybean oil — the main feedstock for biodiesel made in the United States — has tripled, according to the National Biodiesel Board.
"It's a bigger problem than I think many people probably realize," Silva said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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