Why Biofuels?

By Representative Greg Macpherson (D-Lake Oswego, SW Portland).

At their annual summit in January, Oregon business leaders made sustainability a core strategy. Last week the Oregon House advanced that strategy by passing a package of legislation on biofuels. It came out of the House Committee on Energy and Environment, where I serve as a member.

The time is right for a shift to biofuels and other renewable energy sources. Burning fossil fuels, like coal and oil, releases carbon dioxide, a major cause of global warming.

Unlike fossil fuels, which come from plants that grew millions of years ago, biofuels are produced from plants grown today. They burn cleaner than fossil fuels and the cycle of growing the plants and burning fuel made from them does not add carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.

Our legislation focuses on biodiesel and ethanol. Biodiesel is a vegetable oil extracted from seeds that can be grown in Oregon, like canola. It’s burned in oil furnaces and in diesel cars and trucks.

Ethanol is blended into gasoline to expand its volume and cut harmful emissions. Currently ethanol comes from corn grown mainly in the Midwest. But a new technology hopes to make ethanol from cellulose, the fiber in straw and forest wastes.

The challenge is how to develop Oregon production of biodiesel and ethanol when they must compete with petroleum, which the federal government subsidizes in many ways. The competition gets tough as oil prices swing up and down in the global market.

One way to promote Oregon biofuels production is to give tax breaks. Our legislation increases tax credits for businesses and homeowners who install renewable energy equipment.

But tax breaks just spend the Oregon’s general fund by reducing the revenue the state otherwise receives. And they’re rarely eliminated, even when the need no longer exists.

Therefore, our biofuels legislation also creates two renewable fuel standards for Oregon – requiring that diesel contain 2 percent and later 5 percent biodiesel and that gasoline contain 10 percent ethanol. The standards go into effect when Oregon production of biodiesel and ethanol exceeds certain thresholds.

The only votes against the biofuels legislation last week were on the renewable fuel standards. Opponents argued that the state shouldn’t require Oregonians to use renewable fuels, even in small percentages.

Despite this argument, I strongly support the renewable fuel standards. Unless we assure local biofuel producers a stable market, we cannot expect them to make a risky investment in this new technology. Furthermore, providing a local market for oil seeds and wood waste will support Oregon’s farmers and forest owners.

I do not expect Oregon to become a major producer of biofuels. But I believe supporting biofuels will advance Oregon’s broader reputation for sustainability. One of our greatest economic opportunities lies in becoming an intellectual center for renewable energy.

Several major developers of wind energy have their offices in Oregon. Researchers at Oregon State University are doing cutting edge work on new technologies. A pilot project for harnessing wave action is being developed on the coast. Other research aims at a hydrogen fuel cell that emits only water vapor.

All of this promotes Oregon as a leader in sustainability, a core strategy for our economy.

Comments

  • (Show?)

    Rep. Macpherson is rapidly becoming a leader in the legislature, particularly when it comes to strong communication between his office and the community. He has one of the most detailed newsletters I've seen, and columns like these are excellent outlets for presenting a position in a low key but informative manner. All representatives should have an online presence as thorough.

  • BlueNote (unverified)
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    I am a city boy, but my extended family has farmed in eastern Oregon for well over 100 years. Times are tough, and farmers could use some help as they struggle to deal with rapidly rising fuel and fertilizer prices while at the same time crop prices are either stagnant or dropping due to global competition from China, South America, Australia, etc. So, in theory, I like to hear about the Oregon legislature helping farmers.

    However, very few of the federal or state ethanol / biofuel proposals are actually going to put any dollars into the pocket of the average farm family. Wheat, dry beans and grass are unlikely biofuel candidates, but that is what the majority of eastern Oregon farmers grow. Dryland farmers can't grow canola. Agribusiness and huge farms sucking water from the Columbia River (Senator Gordon Smith and his rich friends come to mind) will make plenty on these bills, and a few speculator / promoter types may do ok, but for the average farmer this is not going to do anyting.

    So, in conclusion, thanks for the effort, but from my perspective these bills appear to be more "window dressing" than actual help for either the environment or the farm economy.

  • Noblesse Oblige (unverified)
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    Bluenote - actually, there are some processes in the works that will use dryland wheat for ethanol production, so maybe there's a role for the existing family farmers in this mix after all.

  • I DOUBT IT (unverified)
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    These guys love "window dressing" and hoodwinking y'all. They won't be happy until everyone lives in The Portland Projects and rides on the jam packed mobile germ factories.

  • JMG (unverified)
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    OK, but is it important that, factually, biofuels are (a) a trivial pittance on the scale of our transportation fuel usage; and (b) responsible for saving almost NO fossil fuel use; and (c) therefore, not much better for the environment than burning oil? (Since you have to burn so much coal and/or nat gas to grow/harvest/process/distill/ship the biofuels?

    Ethanomania is a terrible disease whereby well-meaning people line up to pump money into ADM's pockets for little or no gain, while at the same time avoiding the necessary reality: WE HAVE TO STOP DRIVING SO MUCH, NOW. For the sake of the climate we have to reduce total greenhouse gas emissions on the order of 5% per year; coincidentally, that's about the amount that liquid fossil fuels are going to be declining here shortly--thus, we're not going to be able to afford to dink around burning fossil fuels to make biofuels -- we need to be shedding demand for fuels as fast as we can, relocalizing our communities, getting as much freight as possible onto barges and rails, and as many as people as possible off the motors entirely.

    Every penny invested in biofuels is spent propping up a failing system that can only collapse harder the longer it is prevented from gradually declining.

    This is not just me talking-- see the extraordinarily good and well written r-squared blog, where the problems of peak oil/climate change and the issues with ethanomania are explored in depth with clear and accessible language and straightforward computations. http://i-r-squared.blogspot.com/

  • Peter Bray (unverified)
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    Instead of focusing on biofuels, how about more aggressively tackling Measure 37? So far, your committee seems to be doing pretty much NOTHING in that regard.

  • BOHICA (unverified)
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    I got 2 words for ya, Industrial Hemp. Tell the feds to stick it where the sun don't shine and let Oregonians start growing this crop.

    Hemp facts

    *Hemp can be made into fine quality paper. The long fibers in hemp allow such paper to be recycled several times more than wood-based paper. *Because of its low lignin content, hemp can be pulped using less chemicals than with wood. Its natural brightness can obviate the need to use chlorine bleach, which means no extremely toxic dioxin being dumped into streams. A kinder and gentler chemistry using hydrogen peroxide rather than chlorine dixoide is possible with hemp fibers. *Hemp grows well in a variety of climates and soil types. It is naturally resistant to most pests, precluding the need for pesticides. It grows tightly spaced, out-competing any weeds, so herbicides are not necessary. It also leaves a weed-free field for a following crop. *Hemp can displace cotton which is usually grown with massive amounts of chemicals harmful to people and the environment. 50% of all the world's pesticides are sprayed on cotton. *Hemp can displace wood fiber and save forests for watershed, wildlife habitat, recreation and oxygen production, carbon sequestration (reduces global warming), and other values. *Hemp can yield 3-8 dry tons of fiber per acre. This is four times what an average forest can yield. *At a volume level of 81%, hemp oil is the richest known source of polyunsaturated essential fatty acids (the "good" fats). It's quite high in some essential amino acids, including gamma linoleic acid (GLA), a very rare nutrient also found in mother's milk.

    While not a panacea to everything, it is a viable alternative to some of the problems facing us today. Why it is not allowed is beyond stupid, it is criminal.

  • Rick T (unverified)
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    Biofuels are not carbon neutral, and will add to climate change, as well as taking land out of food production. They can only slightly mitigate the negative effects of fossil fuels, by dilution. They require massive injections of water and nitrates.

    Ergo: Let's bypass biofuels for carbon-neutral electric generation and electric replacement techniques. Commercial and Residential Solar hot water panels alone can replace 10-15 percent of our current electric use, freeing our electric production for transportation; electric cars and more trains. Toyota and, allegedly, GM, will soon offer a plug-in hybrid car. If you drive less than 40 miles per day, you can go fossil free. Thats what we must work toward.

  • GT (unverified)
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    "Instead of focusing on biofuels, how about more aggressively tackling Measure 37? "

    Keep your money grubbing hands OFF measure 37! This land isn't yours so why do you act like it is? The greedy state and greedy developers who line the pockets of the Metro and City Commissioners are shaking in their boots that they are losing control. They want everyone to live in the The Projects so they can have ultimate control over the populace. This nefarious government already owns most of the land in the state and yet has the audacity to make undue hardships for the private landowners. They also make it next to impossible to farm in the first place, thus proving themselves to be hypocrites in this area, too. All this blather about "growing local" yet they don't even take care of the farmer. Then the farmer wants to capitalize on his property because he's getting up there in age and the state says "NO" to that too. This is tyrrany at it's best and very reminiscent of COMMUNISM. If you want to regulate the land how you see fit, then YOU need to come up with the cash and buy out the land yourself and do what YOU want to do with it. No more taxation without representation!

  • (Show?)

    Please stay on topic. This post is about biofuels, not M37.

  • GT (unverified)
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    Actually it does. They want all the farmers to grow crops to make biofuels out of. Well the yield is so bad for crops for biofuels that they would have to plant canola all over the entire state for fuel. So how does that accomplish anything? We'd be getting all our fuel locally but still have to import food? These progressives just like to go after fad, rather than practical concepts. Remember Vera and her hairbrained idea to get rid of all the freeways and put a roof over I-405? Give me a break.

  • Randy Leonard (unverified)
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    "Biofuels are not carbon neutral, and will add to climate change, as well as taking land out of food production."

    No so.

    Canola crops dedicated to biodiesel production consume as much carbon dioxide as burning biodiesel creates.

    Thank you for a very good post, Greg.

  • (Show?)

    Nice to see this post from Rep Mcpherson about one of the three conservation minded bills that recently passed the house.

    Also today in the Oregonian we see an article by author Bruce Sterling about the same topic.

    Yesterday, one of the foremost boosters of green initiatives, Dan Carol, came very close in the chair race at the DPO.

    A couple of weeks ago at Davos, the self styled Masters of the Universe discussed little else beyond ways to implement and profit from the finally popular Green ethos.

    As Rep Mcpherson, Dan Carol, and Bruce Sterling have all stated clearly, there is no single magic bullet, but getting the Big Boys on board is a major step toward turning this debate away from the old paradigms and getting some of the big capitalists involved on our side for a change.

    Sterling winds up with this:

    "Green will never be sexier than it is in 2007........The time for action is not now. The time for action was 40 years ago".

    Way to go Rep Mcpherson! You guys haven't created Utopia in one fell swoop, but the rational among us never imagined that you could, and we are encouraged by this first step in the '07 session.

    On the down side of the Tipping Point, we have a lot more momentum.....

  • cnskate30 (unverified)
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    I agree with the legalization of Industrial Hemp. My message is to the author of the original post. Has anyone attempted to attach something to this legislation that would allow the growth of Industrial Hemp for production of Biofuel? If you need help getting the word out, I would be glad to volunteer some time and energy to help research the advantages of Industrial Hemp. Never mind the rediculous arguement that growing grains for biofuel takes corn out of the feed stock market, we have way too many farmers receiving subsidies to not grow crops for that to ever hold up. I issue of sustainability is of local sustainability, say I grow hemp on my farm, my neighbor grows vegetables and our friend has a ranch with livestock, we all get together and co-op our products and have a free market in between all of us, sounds good doesnt it? But one piece of that is missing. The hemp.

  • Mike Austin (unverified)
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    Daily Kos had an article on new technology developed in Hawaii for converting biomass into charcoal. This new technology is supposedly relatively very clean. Considering that charcoal is competitive with coal in terms of energy output, yet is far superior to coal in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, this may be a promising technology. Also, the Kos article mentioned that there is an incredible amount of fuel lying around on the ground around the country that is currently a forest fire hazard. This biomass could be process into charcoal and substituted for coal.

    So, for example, Oakridge could set up a small charcoal-fired power plant, get all of its fuel from the surround forest, and have the quadruple advantages of providing jobs in the Oakridge community, greatly reducing the fire danger in the surrounding forest, replacing high-greenhouse-gas coal, and decentralizing our electric generating infrastructure. If the Oakridge example was multiplied by 50 in every state where there is sufficient fuel, there could be tremendous benefits on many levels. Here's a link:

    http://www.mic.hawaii.edu/dev_tech/engineer/charcoal.html

  • Zachary (unverified)
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    Mike is right on when it comes to using forest (and other, such as farm) biomass as fuel. Rather than lose energy with each conversion (ie biomass to ethanol), why not use biomass directly for heating? Check out Fuels for Schools, a program in Idaho, Montana, and a few other neighbors to the east that are already using biomass as the feedstock for heating.

    The benefits? Reduced use of oil-based fuels for heating, improved forest health by removing excess fuel (this lowers forest fire burn temperatures, a good thing), the creation of a local fuel supply, and, therefore, local jobs are created to facilitate the supply chain. In addition, biomass heating helps schools b/c biomass has a less volatile price that is consistently lower than what heating oil/natural gas costs per btu. Not only does this reduce oil use, improve forest health, and create local jobs, it saves money too!

    Of course all things must be done in moderation. We cannot advocate scouring all forest floors for fuel. Also, some places are inaccessible to vehicles and we would not want to advocate new roads just to gain access to relatively modest amounts of biomass. Particulate emmissions were of concern, however with recent particulate sequestration technology, this is no longer a problem. These are details that would require some regulation, but no deal-breakers.

    Look for and talk about biomass heating! It's local, it's cheap, it's carbon neutral, it promotes energy independence, and it improves forest health!

  • GT (unverified)
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    I like that idea - let's cut down all the tress for biofuel! They are unsightly anyway and just get in everyone's ways.

  • jaybeat (unverified)
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    Posted by: JMG | Mar 10, 2007 11:41:11 PM

    OK, but is it important that, factually, biofuels are (a) a trivial pittance on the scale of our transportation fuel usage; and (b) responsible for saving almost NO fossil fuel use; and (c) therefore, not much better for the environment than burning oil? (Since you have to burn so much coal and/or nat gas to grow/harvest/process/distill/ship the biofuels?

    a) Every little bit helps, eh? Anyone promising a "one-size-fits-all" silver-bullet solution is either sadly mistaken or trying to sell you something. I'm using less oil from the Middle-East and producing fewer greenhouse gases by using bio-diesel in my car. What are you doing?

    b) and c) The oil industry has made many so-called "researchers" a lot of money by paying them to produce junk science on how it supposedly takes more fossil-fuel to produce biofuel than the biofuel you end up with. This is often called the "net energy" of the fuel.

    Well, do you want to know what fuel has the lowest net energy? Gasoline!! It only yields 0.805 BTUs of liquid fuel energy for each BTU consumed! How can this be? Well, for starters, the oil in the ground is, essentially, "free"--if you can pump it out of the ground, it's yours. You own it. So, it has an economic yield that puts tons of cash in oil companies' wallets, but it actually loses energy by the time it gets into your tank. (Dino-diesel is a barely better, but still a net loser, at .843.)

    Biofuels, on the other hand, do from a little better to a lot better:

    Ethanol 1.34 (meaning a gain of 34%) Biodiesel 3.20

    And, AFAIK, these are for "virgin" biofuels (made from corn and virgin veggie oil). Ethanol from waste biomass and biodiesel made from waste oil would likely send the numbers off the chart.

    (More info and citations here: http://www.mda.state.mn.us/ethanol/balance.html)

    Finally, carbon released by burning bio-fuels does not contribute to climate change, because the plants the fuel came from took that carbon out of the atmosphere only recently. Fossil fuels, on the other hand, put carbon into the atmosphere that was taken out hundreds of millions of years ago. As far as the climate is concerned, that carbon is "new" in that it is a net addition to the carbon already in the normal, short-term atmospheric/biological carbon life-cycle. Bio-fuels add ZERO net carbon to the atmosphere.

    Ethanomania is a terrible disease whereby well-meaning people line up to pump money into ADM's pockets for little or no gain, while at the same time avoiding the necessary reality: WE HAVE TO STOP DRIVING SO MUCH, NOW. For the sake of the climate we have to reduce total greenhouse gas emissions on the order of 5% per year; coincidentally, that's about the amount that liquid fossil fuels are going to be declining here shortly--thus, we're not going to be able to afford to dink around burning fossil fuels to make biofuels -- we need to be shedding demand for fuels as fast as we can, relocalizing our communities, getting as much freight as possible onto barges and rails, and as many as people as possible off the motors entirely.

    Every penny invested in biofuels is spent propping up a failing system that can only collapse harder the longer it is prevented from gradually declining.

    This is not just me talking-- see the extraordinarily good and well written r-squared blog, where the problems of peak oil/climate change and the issues with ethanomania are explored in depth with clear and accessible language and straightforward computations. http://i-r-squared.blogspot.com/

    I agree that much of the corn-fed ethanol industry is no more than a new subsidized market for mono-culture ag-factory corporations, and has many negative side effects. (Clearing the rain forests to "grow" ethanol doesn't help the climate, either, though it does advance Brazil towards its goal of freedom from dependence on foreign energy, which has its own benefits. I haven't noticed them starting any wars in the Middle East, lately.) I also agree that our high-consumption, auto-centric patterns of development, transportation and lifestyle, must be altered if we are to have any hope of avoiding a combined peak-oil/climate change catastrophe.

    But it is not a "one or the other" situation! None of this can happen overnight! All of this will require a hard fight against entrenched interests who will do everything within their substantial power to oppose all of this. If they can pick off biofuels over here, do you really think they are going to then say, "But, of course, we have to completely change society away from internal combustion..." Ha! The enemy of their enemy is their friend. If they can get us arguing about whether or not biofuels are "good enough" to be worth trying, that is one less battle they have to devote their own resources to.

    It is just like Republicans creating straw-dog or flat-out false "problems" for Democratic presidential candidates, a year before the first primary. If we spend the next 10 months like we have the last 2, tearing each other down, we're doing their work for them.

    "I am the snake who bites his own tail."

    We need it all. Even if we work harder than possible, we won't get it all. So we can't afford to turn our backs on anything that might help.

  • Mike Austin (unverified)
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    I like that idea - let's cut down all the tress for biofuel! They are unsightly anyway and just get in everyone's ways.

    What are you, a troller? According to the article I cited on Daily Kos, there are <u>trillions</u> of BTUs lying around on the ground around the country, primarily as logging slash. There's no need to cut down trees and no one is suggesting we do so.

  • BlueNote (unverified)
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    Beware generalized statistics regarding the use of "biomass" to generate energy. A very substantial amount of energy is already being generated from biomass. I believe it is called "burning wood".

    I think most of us are looking for a technology that magically transforms waste cellulose into a gasoline replacement. If you discover how to do that, I hope you will let me know before you go public. I have a crisp $100.00 bill that I will trade you for exclusive patent rights to your invention.

  • tg (unverified)
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    If they were to put every square inch of arable land in Oregon into Canola production for "BioFuels" how much would we still need to import to fill our energy needs? Just curious if they've actually done any practical studies on this other than trying to be trendy and green?

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