Renewable fuel policies will be part of new farm legislation

WASHINGTON - Corn is just the beginning. That's the message of Upper Midwestern legislators as they work to promote renewable fuels on Capitol Hill. Corn-based ethanol production has served as a successful renewable fuels guinea pig but key lawma...

WASHINGTON - Corn is just the beginning.

That's the message of Upper Midwestern legislators as they work to promote renewable fuels on Capitol Hill.

Corn-based ethanol production has served as a successful renewable fuels guinea pig but key lawmakers believe Congress must take advantage of upcoming agriculture legislation to place more emphasis on emerging biofuels.

"We're very interested in the next generation of ethanol," U.S. Rep. Earl Pomeroy, D-N.D., a House Agriculture Committee member, said in a Washington interview.

Lawmakers and experts believe the agriculture and energy industries need to look beyond corn as the primary source of ethanol and begin focusing research efforts on more sustainable renewable fuel ingredients.


Renewable fuel policies will be part of a new so-called farm bill Congress is expected to draft later this year. Lawmakers see that legislation as an important vehicle to strengthen government-funded studies of renewable fuels.

President Bush agrees that more research is needed. In his proposed 2007 Farm Bill, the Republican president establishes an agricultural research initiative that would be funded with $500 million over a decade. It would involve leading research universities and the U.S. Agriculture and Energy departments.

Bush, in his recent State of the Union speech, also called for a production mandate of 35 billion gallons of renewable and alternative fuels in 2017.

"It's a huge amount of increase over where we are today," Eric Larson, a Princeton University researcher, said during a recent biofuels conference at the University of Minnesota's Twin Cities campus.

"If we're going to get even close to the kinds of goals people are putting out there for alternative fuels, we need second-generation biofuels," Larson added.

Plants such as switchgrass and bluestem grasses are often cited as likely sources of so-called cellulosic ethanol, a second-generation fuel, said U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson, DFL-7th District. But future research must go further to include tree materials and even garbage, the Democratic congressman said he plans to argue, through his position as House Agriculture Committee chairman.

"We know how to make it. We know that it's doable," Peterson said of cellulosic ethanol. "What we don't know is what is the best feed stalks to use - and where."

The congressman wants to see better organization of existing research efforts to ensure studies aren't being duplicated. He also might try to require federal grant recipients be determined with geographic considerations.


"We may actually prescribe where some research is done, to make sure it's done in all different areas" of the country, Peterson said.

Sen. John Thune, R-S.D, said he sees growing support for renewable energy among lawmakers from across the country, not just in the Midwest. That has happened as it has become more evident that many regions will have a stake in developing new biofuels, he said.

"I think everybody now realizes our future is in homegrown energy," said Thune, a member of the Senate Agriculture Committee.

Talk of the potential for more research dollars hasn't gone unnoticed, Peterson said during an interview in his Capitol Hill office.

"This already created a feeding frenzy," he mused, noting that he's spoken at conferences where university researchers "are just swarming around" because of the potential for more project money.

"That's not bad - if whatever they're doing ends up getting us where we need to get," Peterson continued. "I told them I'm not interested in building any empires, building any new (research) buildings, creating any new bureaucracy.

"What I'm interested in is results."

The federal government has a responsibility to help foster renewable fuel sources in their infancy, Thune said, in part because of the national security concerns surrounding continued dependence on foreign oil. Over time new biofuel production methods will become market-driven, just as corn-based ethanol has, he said.


Minnesota is in a good position to take advantage of budding renewable fuel initiatives because of its early successes with ethanol derived from corn, U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman said.

Coleman, a Minnesota Republican on the Senate Agriculture Committee, said the country needs a "national resolve and commitment" to renewable fuels, "and research is a big part of it."

As lead author of the House version of the next farm bill, Peterson said he also envisions the possibility of using farmland secured in a conservation reserve program to grow ethanol-producing grasses.

University of Minnesota ecology professor David Tilman said recently that land could be used as a source of energy in the United States if Congress changed the conservation program.

Farmers are skeptical of such a change, but their view might be different after there have been more advances made on cellulosic ethanol, he said.

"I may be totally wet, but this is what I want to put in place to see if I'm right," Peterson said.

Studies shouldn't stop at prairie grasses, Coleman said.

"It'd be a shame if the only thing we grow that wasn't used for energy is sugar," he said. "I think we'd be missing opportunities for our sugar growers if that happened."


Still, Coleman is considering ways to promote corn-based ethanol outside the United States.

The first-term Republican requested his staff to explore whether there is interest among ethanol industry insiders to collaborate with their counterparts in Brazil, a leading ethanol producer.

"If you look down the road, (there are) some people looking at the possibility of working together as a region to promote ethanol worldwide," he said. "I think there's some big opportunities."

Scott Wente works for Forum Communications Co., which owns the Bemidji Pioneer.

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