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Off-road vs on-road diesel: what's the difference?

Simple rule of thumb: anything that starts with the words “off road” is at least 50% more awesome than the regular version. Think about it. Off road tires, off road campers, off road trails, off road barbecue smokers. Off road diesel, too, right? Unfortunately, no. 

Off road diesel breaks the rule of automatic off-road awesomeness. Off road diesel is exactly the same as on road diesel, it’s just red. And it’s not even red for any awesome reason: it’s red because of tax law. Now that might get you seeing red.

why do we have it?

Various governments have decided that the different things people do with diesel other than driving – mostly commercial activities like operating agricultural, construction or other heavy equipment – should be incentivized. Or, if you’re thoroughly glass-half-empty, driving diesel vehicles on roads should be deterred more than those other activities. Either way, governments have set things up to tax driving diesel vehicles more than they tax those other diesel operations. Because reasons.

Off road diesel, then, costs less at the pump than on road diesel because there are less taxes per gallon. Even though, chemically, they are the exact same thing.

how do they know?

Diesel wholesalers add the red dye to off road diesel to facilitate compliance and enforcement. Diesel fuel pumps have prominent signs indicating if they carry the off road or on road versions. As tempting as it might be to pay “off road” prices and put some red diesel in your tank, that’s a high stakes wager. Police officers have testing kits in their patrol car, dipping a tube into the fuel tank to test for the presence of the red dye. If you fail “the dip,” you’re going to be out a lot more than just a quarter per gallon at the pump. Fines can range over $10,000. And, depending on what kind of mood the lawmen are in, your jurisdiction and (let’s be honest) your record, this may not be just a highway infraction: technically, it’s tax evasion. We all know how adversely those two words can change the conversation.

can't i just use off-road in my on-road truck?

And don’t get tempted into thinking you found a loophole: taking your pickup truck off roading once a week doesn’t qualify you to use off road diesel. Again, this isn’t how we normally think about all things off road. Even if you spend most of your time driving off road, that’s still considered “on road” usage for fuel tax purposes. Commercial vs. non-commercial vehicles is a more accurate distinction.

If you’re unsure whether you qualify for using off road diesel, there are better places to find out for sure than blog articles or Reddit boards. An accountant or lawyer would be the safest options. 

Then, if you or your fleet are able to take advantage of off-road diesel, Whatley Oil has the red stuff as part of our full spectrum fuel offerings. We won’t go so far as to say that legally avoiding fuel taxes qualifies as off road awesomeness, but every little bit helps. Let us know what you need, and we’ll make sure all of your vehicles stay up and running, on road and off.

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