Talking Point

Reflections on 2007, thoughts for 2008
By Jake Stewart | November 20, 2007
2007 brought some of the best and worst of times to this burgeoning biofuels industry, and as with any evolving sector, more turbulence undoubtedly lies ahead. However, with those ups and downs come invaluable experience. For many of the serious issues that the biodiesel industry is forced to grapple with, we have largely been in a reactive, rather than proactive, posture. Though some of the reasons for that are understandable, we must do all we can now to shift from our heels to our proverbial toes if we are to re-establish solid footing in 2008.

We have a rare opportunity to proactively re-package and re-message this industry's vision and goals. It is a window to engage and discuss how a sustainable biodiesel model might offer a long-term solution to some of the problems driving the global biofuel discussion and congressional concerns. Those following the global biofuel dialogue and policy formation are aware that two topics preface any substantive biofuels discussion: carbon balance and food versus fuel.

This isn't just a "green" issue; it is a business reality that will only become more prevalent. There may be domestic distaste in the prioritization of those issues, but it will not change the global market reality or political framework in which we are operating. I'd offer that, as an industry, we might be well-served to aggressively get in front of this discussion with bold statements on a sustainable industry model that we support and for which we strive. Along with sustainable feedstock practices, biodiesel features some of the best carbon and energy balance for any liquid fuel-a message that might make a very timely and well-received centerpiece for the political dialogue of 2008.

Though many intensely argue that we will always (and should) be rooted in a "Big Ag" commodity trading platform, in order to have real long-term viability we must make an aggressive and public movement toward a sustainable model built on a non-food, low-input, distributed and low-carbon basis. This model is taking root on the front lines, but it needs time and real support to mature. We must assertively set the course now for a sustainable model of the future.

The movement toward such a new fuel-based model is understandably unpopular among some who are making great profit in the status quo of inflated commodity prices and trade hedging. This is the elephant in the room at nearly every National Biodiesel Board meeting. Failure to openly and honestly engage the situation only perpetuates quiet hostility between new-generation "feedstock neutral" biodiesel producers and the established presence of traditional feedstock and "Big Ag" commodity interests. My hope is that those interests will begin to recognize that they will be better served in the long run by viewing the potential of this industry as something more than just a demand mechanism to increase commodity feedstock prices. We ultimately win or lose this game together, and there is strong synergy in cooperation.

The biodiesel industry has an opportunity to collectively step out in front of the sustainability and food-versus-fuel issues with bold messaging and vision. The industry will undoubtedly survive the tough times and be stronger for it, but we must work together to get back on our toes and be willing to proactively adapt and evolve to the shifting landscape we now face.

Jake Stewart is the vice president of strategic development for Organic Fuels, a Texas-based biodiesel producer and distributor. He is also the vice chairman of the National Biodiesel Board's technical committee. Reach Stewart at (512) 287-1765
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