Column: Biodiesel bill puts our state in the national spotlight

Published 12:00 am Thursday, May 9, 2002

In a legislative session that has been dominated by budget concerns, a number of other important issues have quietly made their way through the legislative process. One such issue – biodiesel – promises to have a profound impact on our national energy policy.

This is an important issue for the state, but it was also controversial, with heavy lobbying taking place on both sides of the issue. Naturally, the soybean industry pushed for passage to assist farmers facing a glut in the soybean market. Opponents, which included much of the transportation industry, said that adding biodiesel to fuels would add to their costs.

Toss in the wild fluctuations we’ve seen in the energy market in the past year and political turmoil in the Middle East, and it’s easy to understand why this issue attracted such intense feelings from both proponents and opponents.

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I think what eventually decided this issue is the turmoil in the soybean market. For years, soybeans have been a miracle crop for Minnesota farmers. Besides their food value, soybeans can be made into diesel fuel, plastic, ink and more than 2,000 other products. Because of that wide demand, soybeans have historically been a fairly safe crop for Minnesota farmers when it came to generating income.

Unfortunately, that’s all changed. Other countries have discovered the crop, and are planting it in record amounts. As a result, prices have dropped dramatically. Five years ago, soybeans brought $6 or even $7 a bushel. Now soybeans fetch about $4 a bushel.

About the only way we’re going to turn that trend around is by finding additional uses for soybeans. Biodiesel is one of the most promising. Higher energy prices are helping make it a legitimate alternative to petrodiesel, but there have also been a number of initiatives on the federal level that are making the use of biodiesel more realistic.

For example, in the U.S. Senate’s farm bill, Minnesota Senator Mark Dayton secured $20 million over four years for biodiesel education, and just last month, an important biodiesel tax credit, also initiated by Dayton, was added to the Senate energy bill. The latter is a real coup for Minnesota because it would provide a credit of one cent per gallon for every percent of biodiesel in a gallon of fuel, up to 20 percent, significantly reducing the cost to biodiesel consumers.

That will ultimately be the key to biodiesel’s success. It’s already a proven product. In more and more places, vehicles fueled by 100 percent biodiesel are proving the fuel’s viability, particularly when it comes to protecting the environment.

With the passing of the biodiesel proposal in Minnesota, the rest of the U.S. will be watching. If we can demonstrate that biodiesel can be a competitive alternative to other types of fuel, the future for biodiesel will be even brighter.