We should look before leaping on the biofuel bandwagon

Washington state seems poised to jump on the biofuel bandwagon, but before we do, it may be wise to look before we leap.

The concept of biofuel - using plants to make fuel - has been around for more than a century. In the late 1800s, Rudolph Diesel ran his first diesel engine on refined peanut oil and Henry Ford was a big proponent of ethanol, made from corn. But the idea faded because making gasoline from crude oil was cheaper and easier to refine.

Today, the need to reduce our dependence on foreign oil, concern about air pollution and the push for renewable energy has rekindled interest in biofuel. The idea is also politically attractive, drawing support from environmental groups and farmers.

The move toward biofuels is gaining momentum across the nation. In the 2005 Energy Bill, Congress mandated the use of four-billion gallons of renewables, including biodiesel and ethanol. The mandate increases to seven and one-half billion gallons in 2012. In addition, ethanol enjoys a 51-cent per gallon federal subsidy and biodiesel has a $1 per gallon federal tax credit.

In our state, a group of lawmakers from both political parties are working on their own mandate, requiring that all diesel sold in the state contain a minimum of 2 percent of biodiesel, with the mandated percentage increasing over time. In addition, Gov. Gregoire wants to spend $17.7 million in the 2006 supplemental budget to promote the production and use of biofuels made from crops grown in Washington. Most of the money would be used to establish a revolving loan fund for bioenergy projects, including low-interest loans for construction and processing equipment.

The goals of biofuel supporters are laudable, and it will almost certainly become part of our long-term energy strategy. There is no question that we need to divorce our state and nation from foreign oil, especially from volatile and hostile nations. But before we jump on the biofuel bandwagon, we should slow down and make sure we have accurate information and realistic expectations.

For example:

* Some biofuels don't save energy. In fact, some require more energy to grow, harvest and process than they save. That is true especially if they are crops requiring irrigation. For example, in Brazil biofuels are made from sugar cane, which requires less energy and processing than products made from corn. In Washington, it may be more feasible to produce fuels from dry land-grown canola than sprinkled soybeans. There are differences and we ought to deal with those dissimilarities before we plunge head first into a pool of additional mandates.

* According to the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), biodiesel burns cleaner than diesel, but raises nitrogen oxide levels which contribute to smog.

* The EPA also found that biofuels reduce fuel economy because ethanol and biodiesel have less energy than petroleum-based diesel. Opponents say this will mean higher costs for truckers, farmers and consumers.

* Because of the land required to grow the crops, many doubt that we could ever produce enough biofuel to make an impact. In a recent New York Times article, Dan Becker of the Sierra Club said, "Biodiesel is perfectly fine for somebody who wants to tinker in their garage, but as a public policy matter, biodiesel really doesn't help the energy equation very much."

* Minnesota temporarily suspended its statewide biodiesel requirement this winter because of reports of engine and fuel line problems with its soybean-based biodiesel. That overriding concern has truckers, steamship operators and railroads lining up in Olympia seeking an exemption from our state's potential mandate.

Making fuel out of plants may be a great idea, but the state should move carefully to be sure that the theory actually works in practice.

If it doesn't work, the state shouldn't impose mandates to force people to buy it. If it does work, the mandates won't be needed.

Don C. Brunell is president of the Association of Washington Business.

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