Biofuels on the Hill

U.S. Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., is part of a growing group in Congress that is interested in and excited about the potential benefits of renewable fuels in the United States. Here, he shares some of his ideas and plans with Biodiesel Magazine.
By Jessica Sobolik | November 20, 2007
Q: Renewable fuels, including biodiesel, have really become popular in Congress in the past couple years. Can you explain why support for the industry is building steam on the Hill?
A: Renewable fuels hold tremendous potential to reduce America's dangerous dependence on imported oil, grow local economies, reduce harmful greenhouse gas emissions and provide new markets for farmers. These are win-win-win solutions.

I coauthored the original renewable fuels standard that was included in the Energy Policy Act of 2005. It called for the production of 7.5 billion gallons of renewable fuel annually by 2012. We are now on pace to exceed that goal as soon as next year.

It is important to continue to find ways to reduce the oil we use in our daily lives. In America, we use 25 percent of the world's oil. We import over 60 percent of that oil-much of it from hostile parts of the world. Many in Congress feel that America will remain vulnerable if we continue to depend on Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, Iran, Venezuela and others to feed our energy appetite. Renewable fuels are an important way to help satisfy our energy demand.

Q: What challenges do you feel the industry will face in the future?
A: The largest challenge facing renewable fuels in the immediate future is ensuring that we have the proper infrastructure.

For example, we have more than 16,000 flexible-fuel vehicles on the road in North Dakota but only 23 E85 pumps. Likewise, there are only 11 biodiesel pumps in the state. We have been successful in our efforts to boost production of renewable fuels, but at the same time, we need to make sure drivers have access to them.

The renewable fuels industry will be heading for a cliff if we don't find a way to get renewable fuels to the consumer. I introduced legislation earlier this year, called the Security and Fuel Efficiency (SAFE) Energy Act of 2007, which requires automakers to manufacturer flex-fuel vehicles, and creates greater incentives and requirements for service stations to install renewable fuels pumps.

Q: What is the purpose of SAFE Energy Act (S. 875)?
A: The SAFE Energy Act is a comprehensive approach to reducing America's dependence on foreign oil. I recognize there is no "silver bullet" to solving our energy crisis. We can't dig and drill our way out of our current energy crisis-that's a strategy I call "yesterday forever." Conservation alone is not the only answer, either. The SAFE Act is a balanced energy policy that reduces the amount of oil we use in our economy.

The SAFE Act includes four parts: 1) gradual increases in vehicle efficiency standards, 2) expansion of the production and use of renewable fuels, 3) access to oil and gas reserves in the eastern Gulf of Mexico, and 4) enhancement of international diplomatic alliances for energy security.

I worked with the Energy Security Leadership Council, a group of senior business executives and retired military commanders, to develop this balanced energy strategy. It will help to ensure that the generations that follow aren't left vulnerable by a reliance on foreign oil.

Q: The Senate passed the Clean Energy Act earlier this year. How did that come about? Any debates/concerns?
A: The Senate passed the Clean Energy Act in June to address rising energy prices and our growing addiction to imported oil. This bill represents the work of four Senate committees. Each passed strong bipartisan bills that were packaged into the Clean Energy Act.

The Clean Energy Act includes many provisions that were controversial but long overdue, including increases in vehicle efficiency standards that haven't changed in more than 20 years. I was pleased that three of the four key pieces of my SAFE Energy Act were included in the bill that passed the Senate, including increases in vehicle efficiency standards, expanded production of renewable fuels and enhanced energy diplomacy. The bill was sent to the House of Representatives, and those congressmen have passed it, as well.

Q: As one of the original authors of the Energy Policy Act of 2005, would you say it has worked as intended thus far? Do you feel there is room to expand that legislation?
A: The Energy Policy Act of 2005 was a boost to the renewable fuels industry, and the Clean Energy Act expands on that. The renewable fuels standard I mentioned earlier will be expanded nearly sevenfold to 36 billion gallons by 2022. The bill requires the Secretary of Energy to submit a report to Congress on the U.S. DOE's efforts to implement 5 percent biodiesel into the current diesel pool. The bill authorizes further study and testing of engine durability using biodiesel, and uniform labeling of certified blends of biodiesel.

Where we have room to grow is in providing more robust, long-term incentives for renewables. The Senate Finance Committee developed a package of tax incentives that included a two-year extension of the $1-per-gallon credit for biodiesel and also extends for four years the small biodiesel producer credit of 10 cents per gallon on the first 15 million gallons of production. Unfortunately, even these short-term extensions included in this incentives package didn't receive enough votes to pass as a part of the Clean Energy Act. However, we are determined to bring this legislation up later this year to provide greater incentives for renewable energy.

Q: You have an energy plan for North Dakota. Do you think this is something that other states could implement as well, tailored to their own resources?
A: I believe a coherent energy plan is important for any state to have, and that's why my goal has been to create an Energy Corridor in North Dakota. The state has a vast and diverse portfolio of energy resources, and the development of those resources will help our state's economy and our nation by leading us toward energy independence.

North Dakota is the Saudi Arabia of wind. We have tremendous coal and oil reserves. We produce canola and soybeans to be used as feedstock for biodiesel, along with corn and other biomass that can be converted into ethanol. No state has greater potential than North Dakota to provide significant amounts of energy to meet our country's growing demand.

Q: Often the oil and renewable fuels industries are pitted against each other. Do you feel the two could work together to benefit everyone?
A: We will always use our fossil fuels. That is a fact. The question is how we use them. We also need to work together to develop our renewable fuels industry.

Yes, we need to dig some. Yes, we need to drill. Fossil fuels will always be a part of our energy portfolio. We also need to understand that renewable energy is no longer some sort of sideshow. Renewable energy is a significant part of our energy portfolio, and if we do not exercise it in a way that benefits our energy supply and helps us to address the climate change issues we confront, then we have fallen short.

This was one of the themes of the Great Plains Energy Expo that I hosted in late October in Bismarck, N.D. I organized this to bring all the major players together-both from the fossil fuels and renewable industries-to discuss our energy future and how to harness it to benefit our state and our nation.

In fact, we have already found some ways for the oil industry and renewables to work together. We blend renewable fuels with oil to create ethanol and biodiesel. Renewable fuels producers produce carbon dioxide that could be captured, shipped to oil fields, and fed into the ground in a process that enhances oil recovery and sequesters the greenhouse gas.

Our country's demand for energy is growing very rapidly, and I believe there is enough room for both industries to succeed.

Q: What other renewable fuels do you see becoming major energy players in the future?
A: Fuel that comes from biomass or cellulose holds tremendous potential for this country. The renewable fuels standard included in the Senate version of the Clean Energy Act contained a provision that mandates the production and use of 21 billion gallons of non-starch, or biomass-derived, fuel between 2015 and 2022. This country has rich biomass resources like wood chips, crop residues and waste, switchgrass, and many others that can be utilized without significantly impacting traditional farmland.

Ultimately, we must continue to develop all forms of renewable energy. I have funded a project in North Dakota that uses wind power to separate hydrogen from water through electrolysis. Vehicles that run on hydrogen, for example, get twice the power and efficiency to the wheel, and emit water vapor out the tailpipe.

These renewable fuels provide income for our farmers. They help protect the environment and reduce the need to import oil from nations that want to harm us. It is critical that we develop our renewable fuels, and I'm going to keep working to make sure we do so.

Jessica Sobolik is the Managing Editor for Biodiesel Magazine. Reach her at [email protected] or (701) 373-0636.
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