Wyden Advocates Bio-fuel Incentives

Senator Ron Wyden has proposed an amendment to an agriculture bill that would give farmers incentives to grow crops that could be used to produce bio-fuels.

From the Oregonian:

The Senate could vote as early as tomorrow on an amendment by Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., that would offer $130 million in seed money to convince farmers to grow more switchgrass, poplar trees and other crops that can be converted into fuel.

The amendment, which Wyden offered with Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Tom Harkin of Iowa, would more precisely target the proposed money so it would provide maximum incentive to wavering farmers. Switchgrass, popular trees and other crops are seen as a promising -- if unproven -- raw material for biofuels. The idea is to encourage farmers to grow the crops so emerging energy companies would have an adequate supply of the raw materials when production expands.

If successful, Wyden's language would mirror language already approved by the House.

The House bill includes protections to ensure that taxpayer funds are not used to destroy native habitats, or to plant invasive species. Wyden's amendment is supported by a collection of environmental groups, including the National Wildlife Federation.

"By taking marginal cropland out of row crop production and putting it to use producing energy, we get a win-win-win for farmers, rural communities and wildlife,'' the NWF said.

Moreover, the Senate bill "eliminated the focus on using the program in targeted areas with the greatest potential for success, and added provisions that would only help farmers after they had already managed to negotiate formal contracts with energy facilities,'' an NWF analysis said.

Read the rest. What do you think of Wyden's amendment?


  • Bill Bodden (unverified)

    Before everyone jumps on Wyden's biofuel bandwagon, check these words of caution on biofuels. Obama and his supporters should also read George Monbiot's article. Monbiot is a non-partisan writer, not a campaign hack appealing to the uninformed.

  • James X. (unverified)

    There definitely is reason for caution on biofuels.

    Also, are you sure it's popular trees, or are they poplar trees?

  • (Show?)

    The first thing I thought of when reading the BO post was: How will this effect food production? Corn is already going nuts as food competes with fuel. Other food crops are being sacrificed in order to produce fuel. But according to the article in the Oregonian (which spelled the name of the tree both ways, both shoulda been "poplar") the proposal calls for using marginal cropland, which is presumably not prime cropland needed for finicky rhubarb, lima beans, and other things we eat. There are lots of non-petrol fuel/energy ideas out there, and we as a nation should explore as many as alternatives to buying Suadi oil and the like as possible. Certainly one of the most important investments we can make for economic and security reasons etc. I hope that five years from now we will have made significant progress and cut our dependence on Bad People for motivating our cars, appliances and economy. And still have reasonable costs for corn and soybeans and all that good stuff we like to eat.

  • (Show?)

    You know, right now I could care less about biofuels.

    Wyden's on the damned Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. Last week a story breaks about the NIE on Iran, and then the CIA is accused of destroying recordings of interrogations that appear to have included torture and the CIA acting general counsel involved in the discussions of that act who that Wyden made sure everyone knew he put a hold on the nomination of earlier this year is still the acting general counsel, like he has been for the past six years. The Democratic chairman of the Senate Intelligence committee is saying that there's no big deal, no special prosecutor needs to be appointed to investigate the possible destruction of evidence, and the first news about the senator for a week is on biofuels? C'mon.

    Is he spread too thin to pay attention to the Intelligence committee? Does he agree with what's going on? What's he waiting for? Where's the Watchdog Wyden we were promised at the August town hall?

  • Dave O'Dell (unverified)

    Why are we even thinking about subsidizing a fuel that releases CO2 into the atmosphere? Has anyone in the Senate heard of a thing called global warming? I'd like to see subsidies for all fuels that produce CO2 when burned eliminated. Not only do biofuels release CO2, but giving farmers incentive to grow other than food crops just drives up the price of food!

    To reduce our dependence on imported oil we need to work on things like incentives for buying locally produced food and other products, improving rail for freight and passengers, making cities more compact for shorter trips (hopefully by bike or on foot), improving mass transit, making bicycling safer, subsidizing renewable energy sources that do not produce CO2 like wind, solar and tidal and creating disincentives for traveling by car like congestion charging and higher fuel taxes.

  • Bill Bodden (unverified)

    The Democratic chairman of the Senate Intelligence committee is saying that there's no big deal, no special prosecutor needs to be appointed to investigate the possible destruction of evidence,...

    I suppose if you compare the destruction of evidence with keeping a justified impeachment off the table it probably isn't that big a deal.

  • Tom Civiletti (unverified)


    Biofuels, as opposed to fossil fuels, do not add to atmospheric CO2 unless they create a loss of plant cover and organic soil content. Replacement growth absorbs the CO2 released from burning the last crop. There can, of course, be many other negative environmental effects, such as fresh water depletion, energy inputs to produce fertilizer and run machinery, runoff of said fertilizer into waterways, etc.

    Still, biofuels are not capable of satisfying our rapacious fossil fuel habit, not even close.

  • Dave O'Dell (unverified)

    Tom, That's only true in the simplest chemical analysis. You admitted to some of the increased carbon yourself in the form of energy inputs to grow biofuel crops, but there are many other ways biofuels increase the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

    1. One problem with biofuels is that they release carbon into the atmosphere sooner than other crops. A good portion of the carbon in food crops is turned into fat and protein in growing bodies. That carbon stays out of the atmosphere for years. Carbon contained in fiber crops like cotton goes into textiles and paper and again stays out of the atmosphere for years.

    So food and fiber crops actually take much of the carbon they breathe in from the atmosphere and keep it from being released for a long time. Biofuels on the other hand will release some of their carbon directly into the atmosphere during processing and the rest as soon as they are burned.

    1. Another problem with biofuels is economic. The economic problem is twofold.

    First, replacing food crops with biofuel crops will reduce the supply and therefore increase the price of locally grown food.

    Second, subsidizing the production of biofuels will increase the supply of liquid fuels to power our cars, trucks and so on and therefore reduce the price of such fuels including gasoline and diesel fuel. The very fuels we are trying to reduce the use of will be getting cheaper spurring us on to use more of them.

    As the price of locally grown food increases and the price of fuel decreases (or doesn't increase as much as it would have) the relative cost of food grown on other continents becomes less. So, now instead of getting much of our food from the Willamette Valley we may get even more of it from South America, Asia or Africa.

    Seems to me like it's the opposite of what we need.

    Let's remove the subsidies for Oil and Gas, increase subsidies for wind and solar and not add any subsidies for biofuels.

    Does it really make sense to pay farmers to grow fuel instead of food?

  • (Show?)

    I think it is fantastic that our Senator is working towards increasing alternative energy resources. As progressives we don’t have to always agree about all of the issues but when one of our elected officials does something right, we need acknowledge and encourage that behavior. This is a good piece of legislation and fair play to Sen. Wyden for putting it forward.

    Corn is a crop that depletes the soil of nutrients and relies heavily on petroleum based fertilizers such as ammonium nitrate. Corn based ethanol produces a small amount of energy compared to the energy used to produce it. Also in the US we have a corn based diet so the use of corn based bio-ethanol increases the price of our food. Demand for corn as fuel competes with demand for corn as food. It drives up prices and reduces crop diversity. Alternatively, ethanol that produced from the switch grass, sugar cane and the ever popular poplar tree is a much more efficient, cost effective and clean fuel. It doesn't adversly affect our food supply.

    If we really want to do reduce our dependence on foreign oil, help combat global warming and support our farming communities, this is an excellent first step. The other steps would be to increase automobile fuel efficiency standards (which Wyden has consistently supported), expand alternative transportation options (which Wyden has consistently supported – he even introduced the bike commuting act 2006 and the OILSLAVE act in giving tax credits for fuel efficient vehicles), increase the use of renewable energy, such as wind and solar (Sen. Wyden has consistently supported efforts to fund sources of renewable energy including calling for 25% of our electricity to be generated by renewable energy) and to decrease our food dependence on corn based foods and encourage people to buy local foods, I have no idea where Sen. Wyden stands on this issue but decreasing our use of corn in fuel is a good start.

    I think that we should give credit when credit is do. Nice job on this one Sen.


  • Bill Bodden (unverified)

    Corn is a crop that depletes the soil of nutrients and relies heavily on petroleum based fertilizers such as ammonium nitrate.

    Petroleum-based fertilizers are relatively new while there are historical references to corn going back thousands of years. How did all those farmers manage without Monsanto's help?

  • (Show?)

    <petroleum-based fertilizers="" are="" relatively="" new="" while="" there="" are="" historical="" references="" to="" corn="" going="" back="" thousands="" of="" years.="" how="" did="" all="" those="" farmers="" manage="" without="" monsanto's="" help?="">

    By rotating crops that needed less water and nutrients and then letting fields lie fallow so that corn was grown in 4 to 5 year rotations thereby allowing the soil to be replenished.

  • Tom Civiletti (unverified)


    I don't disagree with your critique of bio-fuel, except that the net carbon release with bio-fuel is still less than with fossil fuel. The biggest problem with bio-fuel is that it is being over promoted so that some people think it will save us from peak oil and global warming. It will not do either.


    Modern corn varieties do require large inputs of nitrogen and phosphate. I grow some organically, using seed meal and fish bone meal, which are expensive.

  • Dave O'Dell (unverified)

    Just checked out the article If we want to save the planet, we need a five-year freeze on biofuels by George Monbiot linked to in the first comment on this page. It is quite an eye-opener. He claims that using palm oil for biofuels releases ten times the carbon dioxide of burning diesel fuel. I don't know, but if it's true that rainforests are being slashed and burned to plant palm oil then that sounds about right.

    If true, it's an even more powerful argument against subsidizing biofuels.

    Tom, I think we agree more than disagree, but I don't think biofuels will reduce the use of fossil fuels, but only redistribute their use. I think the only way to reduce the use of fossil fuels is to reduce our consumption directly (by using less energy) and indirectly by buying fewer material goods which require fuels to produce and transport. What we do buy needs to be produced as closely to home as possible. Biofuels have a place in replacing a little of those fossil fuels, but even wind and solar (the best options for energy in my opinion) will help reduce the price of fossil fuels and hence re-encourage their use.

  • George Seldes (unverified)

    The Wyden move is foolish but irrelevant--just more pork for the biofuels biz, which is only in existence because of pork like this.

    There's no shortage of biomass -- what cellulosic ethanol lacks is a cost-competitive way to convert that cellulose to useful fuel in a production facility. Plants have spent 4.5 billion years figuring out how to maintain cellular integrity against attack from foreign pathogens--we have spent three decades trying to figure out how to dissolve that cellulose and turn it into alcohol, and we're essentially not much closer than we were three decades ago.

    With oil at $90 a barrel, if you have to subsidize any part of a competing fuel production process, that tells you just how inefficient the competing process is. When oil was $20 we kept hearing about how we needed to subsidize ethanol but there'd be no need for it at $40 -- well, it nearly touched $100 and the subsidy ranchers are still hard at it, doing what they do best: giving tax money to help keep car culture going as the climate crashes.

  • (Show?)

    Dave O'Dell wrote: He claims that using palm oil for biofuels releases ten times the carbon dioxide of burning diesel fuel. I don't know, but if it's true that rainforests are being slashed and burned to plant palm oil then that sounds about right.

    Yikes. Good thing that biofuels in use in Oregon aren't imported palm oil.

    For example, local company SeQuential Biofuels says this about their 1 million gallon production:

    The feed stock is primarily based on used cooking oil with the hope of transitioning to more regionally produced oil seed crops like Canola.

    Would someone, please, explain to me the problem with using USED cooking oil to drive my Jeep Liberty?

    Sorry, someone other than Fake George Seldes - who is a joke and a fraud.

  • Tom Civiletti (unverified)


    The devil here is truly in the details. Discussion without computation is not worth that much. As to used cooking oil being used as raw material, that is most likely about biodiesel, not ethanol, so the amount of processing is much less. To judge the worth of using used cooking oil for fuel, we need to know what would have been done with the oil instead. Perhaps it would be used to feed animals, so there would a complex set of considerations about the relative worth of the end-products. If the oil would have been dumped in a landfill, well, it could be seen as close to free energy, but then, there's that nasty global warming to consider.

    Whatever we do, we will need to reduce energy consumption greatly, unless someone comes up with a cheap way to access huge amounts of geothermal energy, or to build cold-fusion energy cells. Don't count on either in the short term, and unfortunately, the short term is all we have left.

    And whatever we decide to subsidize should be chosen on the basis of sound science and technology, not political influence. When there are huge players involved like Cargill, ADM, and the oil companies, rational policy is a tough row to hoe.

  • BOHICA (unverified)

    Nothing grows better on marginal cropland than industrial hemp and yet where is the legislation to allow it to be grown without a permit from the DEA?

    Hemp oil from the seeds, and all kinds of products from the fibers. Its just plain stupid.

    "Make the most you can of the Indian Hemp seed and sow it everywhere." -President George Washington,
  • Bill Bodden (unverified)

    I don't know, but if it's true that rainforests are being slashed and burned to plant palm oil then that sounds about right.

    It's true. There was some film on some TV channel recently showing forests being cut down for more profitable trees to be used for fuel. Where? In Indonesia, host of the recent global warming conference. If I recall correctly there were environmental problems with just the cutting down of the trees to be replaced. I'll try to get a link to more information.

  • Curt (unverified)

    We could power every hippie van in the country with used cooking oil. The problem is, we already were. The old hippies and diesel hackers already had dibs on all that oil. It's not like there's millions of gallons of the stuff already going to waste. So, if we want to use biodiesel, we have to get it from, I dunno, soybeans or something. And we have to use diesel tractors to raise the soybeans, etc etc. Even if we can get a little more soy oil than the diesel we burnt to grow and transport the beans, are we anywhere near carbon neutral?

    Ethanol is even worse -- until someone figures out an economic way to get cellulosic ethanol (kind of like until someone figures out a way to keep fusion under control I guess), subsidies to that industry will just amount to a gift to the industry. It takes as much energy to grow, ferment, and distill the ethanol as there is in the ethanol. Brazil can make ethanol work, but that's because they're using sugar cane not corn.

    Biofuels are a total waste. They are merely a gift of MY tax money to some corporation. Triple the CAFE standards and you'll get the same reduction in our fuel demand, for free.

  • andy (unverified)

    Any time you have to hand out checks to get people to do something there is a clue that maybe the underlying activity isn't all that attractive. So handing out millions to farmers to get them to grow something tells you that there isn't a market for it. The economics are suspect to start with in this whole area but that doesn't seem to stop the big gov types from wanting to hand out money.

  • Tim Raphael (unverified)

    Before bashing biofuels--even corn ethanol--I urge you to consider the latest research:

    1) The latest economic analysis that debunks the food versus fuel myth is here.

    The impact of rising costs of petroleum on marketing, packaging and transporting food are a far greater factor in food cost.

    2) The latest low carbon fuel research from UC Berkeley showing that corn ethanol can reduce CO2 emissions by 40% compared to conventional gasoline is here. http://repositories.cdlib.org/its/tsrc/UCB-ITS-TSRC-RR-2007-2/

    3) All major national environmental organization support the Energy Bill in Congress, including a 36 BGY renewable fuel standard. (I'm have a PDF of their letter that I'm struggling to figure out how to attach!)

    4) I also wrote a guest column for Blue Oregon that touches on these issues. Here's the link http://www.blueoregon.com/2007/10/energy-independ.html

    Thanks Tim

  • Tim Raphael (unverified)

    Yikes! None of my links worked. Here's another attempt:

    1)http://www.informaecon.com/PressReleases.htm 2) http://repositories.cdlib.org/its/tsrc/UCB-ITS-TSRC-RR-2007-2/ 4)http://www.blueoregon.com/2007/10/energy-independ.html

    Sorry Tim

  • zilfondel (unverified)

    As far as Palm Oil is concerned, that is mostly being driven by the huge demands of the European Union (including nations like the UK and Netherlands) stipulating Biodiesel.


    Unfortunately, they did not discriminate as to their sources. Luckily, they are rectifying that as new information has come to light as how third-world nations have been using TERRIBLE environmentally-damaging methods for producing oil for biodiesel production.


    However, there are other, far less damaging ways to produce oil for biodiesel - this is because you can use a huge variety of vegetable oils in the conversion process.

    Luckily, the Netherlands - the world's largest consumer of biodiesel - is demanding oil that is less damaging to the environment. That country also has a pretty big stake in global warming - the country could be off the map even before 2100 if global warming causes sea level rises.

    http://news.mongabay.com/2007/0427-nl.html http://www.planetark.org/dailynewsstory.cfm/newsid/45894/story.htm

    Here are some very interesting factoids:

    "The world's centres for oil palm production are Indonesia and Malaysia where rapid deforestation and the drying out of asssociated peatlands are, Greenpeace claim, releasing huge amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and thereby speeding climate change."

    BUT - good news also:

    "In Africa, the situation is very different compared to Indonesia or Malaysia. In its Human Development Report 2007-2008, the United Nations Development Program says production of palm oil in West-Africa is largely sustainable."

  • Joanne Rigutto (unverified)

    Unfortunately, given that there is so much money to be made in the biofuels industry, and that there are so many ag and energy giants invested heavily in biofuels I think that biofuels production will only increase both in the US and around the world. There are also a lot of politicians who are in favor of biofuels production and use all the way from people like Randy Leonard of the Portland City Council to Ron Wyden, to the high ups in the United Nations pushing for biofuels and they're not going to give up on them.

    For all that those in favor of biofuels protest the claim that increased biofuels production will not noticably effect the price or availablility of food, they're still wrong and I'll tell you why. While we may still be able to buy imported 'reasonably priced' food, eventually locally grown food will have to go up in price because the production of food plants and some types of feeds for food animals will of necessity decrease as more and more acres are devoted to biofuels feedstock production - although some biofuels byproducts like distillers grains for cattle feed will increase in availablility. If you have an 100 acres and you can make more money and access a more stable market by growing fuels feedstocks than you can growing berries, grains and pulses, or greens, etc. for human or livestock consumption, then you're probably going to grow fuels feedstocks. Every acre devoted to fuel feedstocks is an acre not devoted to food production. Diminished production + demand that stays the same or increases = higher prices. And don't believe for a moment that only marginal lands will be used to grow poplar trees and switchgrass etc. for ethanol production. High value and rich farmland will be used to produce fuels feedstocks if those crops bring more money into a farmer's pocket, and high value farmland with rich soils will yield a heavier crop as well, increasing profits for the farmer - theoretically. There is not enough aerable land in the US to supply more than 20% or so of our current fuel requirements, and that's if all of the aerable land were to be turned over to fuels feedstocks production. If that were the case, instead of being dependant on foreign oil, natural gas, etc., we'd be just as dependant on foreign produced food. I don't know about you, but if I had to choose which to be dependant on in the form of imports, I'd rather it not be food. We already import too much of that as it is, but at least it's not all of our food.

    A phenomenon being seen in countries that are already heavily invested in biofuels, such as Brazil, and those developing countries that are becoming heavily involved in biofuels is the growing involvement of major oil companies in agriculture. BP and others are investing in refineries and the purchasing of large tracts of agricultural lands in order to vertically integrate the production chain for biofuels similar to what's already happened in many segments of the food animal industry - poultry, beef, swine. Vertical integration is a proven business model - if you produce the feedstock, refine the product, and market it through your own gas stations, you're sitting in the cat bird seat, especially if you can get a handy dandy government subsidy to help you along the way.

    In some countries, subsistence farmers are being displaced as land is being seized by governments and sold to companies - both domestic and transnational companies - engaged in the energy industry. In Brazil, one area highlighted in an article in the July 2007 issue of Grain's magazine Seedling, 30 years ago, local food production was robust and there was a healthy local farming community. Now, all of the agricultural land in the area has been turned over to sugar cane production and is owned by 30 disteleries/refineries. The local farmers were displaced and the area is now entirely dependant on food imported from other areas of Brazil.

    The same edition of Seedling points out that in some areas of the world where palm oil is the most commonly used cooking oil, due to the high demand for palm oil as a feedstock for biodiesel, the price has risen to the point that poor people can no longer afford to buy it to cook with. Some countries have gone so far as to impose a price cap on palm oil just so that people can afford to cook with it.

    In some areas of the US this year lands that were used to produce hay for livestock forage and fodder were converted to corn production for ethanol. The government was paying more for corn than the farmers could make growing hay, so they switched. And who can blame them? Unfortunately this has helped to contribute to a hay shortage already created by the droughts and a poor havest due to unseasonable frost and rains in some areas.

    The demand for biofuels will require that higher value farmland be turned over to fuels feedstocks production and will require increased output levels from each acre used in production. This is going to necessitate higher inputs in the form of fertilizers etc. especially as cellulosic ethanol production is perfected. Plant products like field stubble will be used increasingly as feedstock to produce ethanol, meaning that no or very few nutrients will be returned to the soil. Then there's the whole issue of what kind of plants are going to be used for biofuels production. In Oregon and Washington the fight is on to use rapeseed, a plant used to produce Canola oil - to produce biodiesel. Rapeseed is highly invasive and can cross pollinate with some vegitable seed plants rendering the seed useless for vegitable production. Rapeseed can be grown in the Willamette Valley in certain controled areas and must be harvested for fodder before the seed matures, but according to vegitable seed producers, if allowed to be planted widely, could put vegitable seed production in danger. The Capital Press has had numerous articles on this topic over the last couple of years.

    All of this is leading us down a path, agriculture wise, that I'd rather not travel, but I don't think we have much of a choice at this point....

  • Messr Te (unverified)

    Corporate welfare only prolongs the status quo. Biofuel incentives won't reduce our dependence on foreign oil in a meaningful way, but will definitely increase the price of food.

    It's like trying to reduce American cocaine consumption by incentivizing Peruvian farmers to grow other crops. Incremental supply increases won't influence consumer demand, only rising prices can do that (raise the gas tax!).

    But Wyden wants to get reelected, so he's not going to double the gas tax. Not when he can pass out federal tooth fairy incentives.

  • Joanne Rigutto (unverified)

    Messr Te,

    While you're right that biofuel incentives won't reduce our dependence on foreign oil, not much anyway, raising the tax on fuel will raise the cost of food too. You need to remember, the gas tax covers diesel too, and while the tractors on most farms don't use taxed diesel, at least those owned by farmers who buy large amounts - I don't use much diesel in my tractor, 10-15 gallons/year so I buy mine at the pump and pay taxes on it -, the trucks bringing your food to you do and that will increase food prices at the retail level.

    The only way you are going to make food reasonably priced is to raise your own or to buy from local producers in bulk - think half a beef from a farm as opposed to a steak or roast froma retail store - and put it up either by freezing, canning or drying/smoking. Of course that will help those who know how to do that and have the acreage to grow their own or who have the space to store 6-8 months of food and know how to preserve it and have the itme to preserve the food. Of coursem if you can't grow your own, unless you live very close to a small local producer you're going to have to pay higher gas prices to get to where you buy that locally produced food or the farmer is going to have to truck it to the farmers market that is close enough for you to walk or bike to, either way, higher gas prices will mean higher food prices for you .....

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