Presidental Presence

In May, President George W. Bush visited Virginia Biodiesel Refinery Inc. near New Kent, Va., not only to see biodiesel production firsthand but also to show Americans that he is serious about a national energy policy.
By Jessica Williams | July 01, 2005
When Doug Faulkner first met George W. Bush on May 16, the experience was "phenomenal," he said. "He has a disarming personality. The moment you shake hands with him, you're comfortable. I can see why he's able to get things done."

In that moment perhaps, Faulkner had forgotten the U.S. president had dropped down from the sky in a helicopter to visit Virginia Biodiesel Refinery Inc., which Faulkner owns in New Kent, Va. Bush toured the biodiesel production facility and spoke to a crowd of 500 outside the plant, detailing his four-step plan to make America less dependent on foreign oil. Bush's visit lasted just over three hours but left a lasting impact on the biodiesel industry.

The president is coming
Faulkner first became aware of the president's intention to visit the plant when he received a phone call from a White House staff member two or three weeks before Bush was scheduled to arrive. However, details were sketchy at first. "It's a need-to-know basis," Faulkner said. "You don't know what their plans are. They're very good about talking to you, but I don't think it's definite at any given time. When we first heard, it wasn't definite."

But, sure enough, that Monday morning Bush's copter landed at Colonial Down Race Track, a few miles from Virginia Biodiesel Refinery. Secret Service agents blocked off the road, and the president's limo pulled up to the plant at 10:15 a.m. "They said he'd be here at 10:15, and at 10:15, he rolled in," Faulkner said. "He's very punctual. I'm told that that's not been true in all administrations."

Bush, who traveled with U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Mike Johanns, immediately greeted various members of U.S. Congress outside the plant. Reps. Bobby Scott, D-Va.; Jo Ann Davis, R-Va.; Eric Cantor, R-Va.; Randy Forbes, R-Va.; and Thelma Drake, R-Va., were in attendance, along with State Sen. Walter Stosch and New Kent County Administrator John Budesky.

Guided by Faulkner, Bush then took a tour of Virginia Biodiesel Refinery, where Faulkner showed him the process and the finished product. "[Bush] was already familiar with biodiesel, understood the concepts and did appear interested in the process," Faulkner observed. "He liked the idea a lot." Outside the plant, Bush witnessed various pieces of equipment running on environmentally-minded fuels-a Caterpillar tractor trailer on ultra-low sulfur diesel, an F-250 on B100, a John Deere tractor on B2 and an International hybrid-and referred to them as another part of his energy package to clean up the environment, according to Faulkner.

A plan for energy independence
Following his plant tour, Bush's speech touched on various topics like taxes, unemployment, entrepreneurship and social security, but inevitably turned to renewable fuels. "To keep creating jobs and to keep this economy growing, it is important for our country to understand we need an affordable, reliable supply of energy," Bush told the crowd. "That starts with pursuing policies to make prices reasonable at the pump. Today's gasoline prices and diesel prices are making it harder for our families to meet their budgets. These prices are making it more expensive for farmers to produce their crop, more difficult for businesses to create jobs."

Bush presented a four-pronged approach to making America less dependent on foreign oil. First, he said the country must improve fuel conservation and efficiency. He said his administration was leading research into new technologies that would ultimately reduce gas consumption while maintaining performance. "Today I saw a diesel-powered truck that can get up to 30 percent better fuel economy than gasoline-powered vehicles, without the harmful emissions of past diesels," Bush said. "I mean, the fellow got in the truck and cranked it up, and another man got on the ladder, and he put the white handkerchief by the emissions port, and the white handkerchief remained white.

In other words, technology is changing the world. Our engines are becoming cleaner."

Bush's second step toward energy independence is to produce and refine more crude oil in the United States in environmentally safe ways. Bush said the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska was the most promising site for oil in America. He said technology today would allow workers to drill on just 2,000 of the 19 million acres available there, yielding up to 1 million barrels of oil per day.

The third step is to ensure that other nations use technology to reduce their own demand for crude oil. For example, energy efficiency in countries like India and China could help take the pressure off global oil supply and lower U.S. gas prices.

His final step is to develop new alternatives to gasoline and diesel. Bush said biodiesel producers sold approximately 500,000 gallons in 1999. By 2004, however, biodiesel sales totaled 30 million gallons. More than 500 operators of major vehicle fleets use biodiesel, including the Department of Defense, the National Park Service, Arlington County school buses, Harrisonburg, Va., city bus fleets and James Madison University, also in Harrisonburg.

Bush's speech was met with several bursts of applause by the eager crowd. Faulkner, likewise, was impressed. "If you think about [what Bush talked about], there won't be any effect on me or my children, but if something isn't done, their children and their children's children are going to hit a wall," Faulkner said. "His administration is clearly two to three generations out to try to change what is going to happen if nothing is done."

Nationwide biodiesel exposure
After Bush returned to Washington around 1:30 p.m., the impact of his visit still reverberated through the nation. It was the first presidential visit to a renewable fuels facility, and because of the president's high profile status, U.S. citizens who had never heard of Virginia Biodiesel Refinery-or even biodiesel-were seeing it all over the news stations. Even fans of "The Tonight Show" and "Saturday Night Live" were hearing about the visit even though it poked fun at the president, who is known for his ties to the oil industry.

Jay Leno mentioned the visit in his monologue. "At a biodiesel plant [near] Richmond, Va., President Bush came out for alternative fuels," Leno said. "He wants to see more use of alternative fuels, that's good. He said he looks forward to the day when America will invade a country just because it has soybeans."

On "Saturday Night Live's" Weekend Update, news anchor Tina Fey bantered, "To show that his energy bill is about more than drilling for oil in Alaska, this week President Bush visited a plant in Virginia that turns soybeans into a clean burning diesel fuel, which the president hopes one day will be used to fuel oil drilling machines in Alaska."

In the president's defense, Faulkner said Bush isn't as oil-minded as he is stereotypically portrayed. "George W. was basically raised in the oil business," Faulkner said. "So for a man of his stature and his time of life to tour biodiesel facilities and make a speech about how much this is a new part of our energy policy suggests an open-mindedness not associated with a true oil man. He's not a scotch-drinking, hard-headed John D. Rockefeller."

Virginia Biodiesel Refinery expands
Since Bush's visit, Virginia Biodiesel Refinery has continued to expand its production. In June, footings were being installed to double the capacity that was previously doubled at the beginning of the year. Faulkner declined to release how much that was. The plant also increased its production time to 24 hours a day, six days a week. Pacific Biodiesel Inc. in Honolulu, Hawaii, designed and built the facility in 2004.
Last October, Bush boosted the entire biodiesel industry by signing the American JOBS Creation Act of 2004. The bill gave biodiesel blenders a 1-cent-per-percentage of first-use biodiesel and a half-cent-per-percentage to second use biodiesel. So, for example, a gallon of diesel blended with 20 percent virgin oil would earn a 20-cent incentive. A gallon of diesel blended with 20 percent recycled oil would return 10 cents. The incentive only lasts until 2007, but lobbyists are fervently working on getting the incentive extended.

Faulkner said an extension of this legislation was vital to the biodiesel industry. "[The extension] is going to be necessary if you want to see new plants built," Faulkner said. "There's a lot of people who want to do it. If all we have is a year and a half, the [finance] people aren't going to do it. You can't pay for a plant in that kind of time. It's a subsidy, but I don't think it's too unreasonable to get these plants established throughout the country so they can be serving their local areas. And that's good for the economy; it stays in the country." n

Jessica Williams is associate editor of Biodiesel Magazine. Reach her by e-mail at [email protected] or by phone at (701) 746-8385.
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