Biofuel standard poses challenges
Only about 5 percent of biofuel feedstock comes from Northwest
By DAVE WILKINS
BOISE -- The federal government's commitment to increasing the nation's use of biofuels offers some opportunities, but perhaps even greater challenges, officials said during a conference in Boise.
The new renewable fuel standard, rolled out by the Obama administration in July, mandates the use of 36 billion gallons of renewable transportation fuel annually by the year 2022.
Up to 15 billion gallons of that amount can be provided by corn ethanol. Twenty-one billion gallons is mandated to come from advanced biofuels, with most of it -- 16 billion gallons -- from cellulosic biofuels.
An estimated 93 percent of the feedstocks for the advanced biofuels is expected to come from the Midwest and Southeast, according to an interim USDA report. Only about 5 percent is expected to come from the Northwest through feedstocks such as canola, straw and logging residue.
"The Northwest is not a huge player in this business," said Dick Rush, Idaho state executive director of the Farm Service Agency, sponsor of the Oct. 26 conference.
The goal of using 36 billion gallons of renewable fuels by 2022 won't be an easy one to reach, conference presenters said.
The target is incompatible with the Environmental Protection Agency's restrictions on higher ethanol fuel blends, said Russ Hendricks of the Idaho Farm Bureau Federation.
"You can't fulfill both of those policies," Hendricks said. "They are diametrically opposed."
The EPA recently approved 15 percent ethanol blends in gasoline, but only for vehicles that are model year 2007 or newer.
Presenters were also critical of EPA regulations that they said were burdensome on small biofuel producers. The government should consider reinstating some regulatory exemptions for small producers and extending or reinstating tax incentives, officials said.
The biggest challenge for biofuels may be the world's growing food needs and the land base that will be required to grow it, Hendricks said.
Biofuel projects pose a bit of a conundrum, he said.
Farmers are reluctant to grow a dedicated energy crop without a nearby processing plant, and investors are reluctant to put up money to build a plant without a local feedstock supply.
Idaho faces some significant challenges when it comes to producing biofuel feedstock, Hendricks said.
The state produces only about 80,000 acres of grain corn, so it's not likely to be a major player in providing feedstock for corn-based ethanol plants.
There could be some potential in Idaho for producing advanced biofuels such as cellulosic ethanol produced from feedstocks such as straw and logging residues, Hendricks said.
Idaho farmers grow about 1.3 million acres of wheat and about 500,000 acres of barley each year.
But much of the state's straw production is used as livestock bedding by the dairy industry, he said.
Farmers have also switched to small grain varieties that are shorter in height, which has reduced the total volume of straw. They're also plowing under more of their crop residue because of more restrictive field burning regulations.
"A lot of that crop residue is being incorporated back into the ground," Hendricks said.
Forest residue is another potential feedstock for advanced biofuels, but the U.S. Forest Service, which controls 80 percent of the forest lands in Idaho, has severely restricted timber harvest, Hendricks said.
Much public attention has been focused on emerging energy alternatives such as electric vehicles and compressed natural gas, said Paul Kjellander, administrator of the Idaho Office of Energy.
But the world isn't going to switch to electric vehicles overnight, he said.
Biofuels could continue to play a fairly significant role for some time, he said.
"I don't see us turning our back on the transportation fuels we have now," he said.