Biodiesel bill deserves state, gubernatorial support

The fuel additive some cynically ridicule as “veggie fuel” has finally received its due from Minnesota lawmakers. The state House and Senate voted Monday to require all diesel fuel sold in the state to contain 2 percent vegetable oil or animal fat by June 2005, a deadline that could be moved up if certain production levels are met and the federal government provides tax credits. The bill exempts railroads, mining and taconite equipment and nuclear power plant motors.

The bill would be a boost for Minnesota soybean farmers, who would likely supply the materials for the additive, after years of declining prices. The added production incentive would come at a particularly opportune time, since European Commission directives issued in November require E.U. members to raise biofuels to a certain proportion of European fuel sales. The research firm Frost & Sullivan predicts the European biodiesel market will increase from $504 million to $2.4 billion by 2007. However, if, as most analysts predict, supply is limited by the European Union’s decreasing subsidies for biofuel crops, a massive supply vacuum will need to be filled by any producers – such as Minnesota soybean farmers – with surplus crops. Decisions by other nations, such as Argentina, to support biofuels only expand the opportunity.

Closer to home, biodiesel blends improve air quality by producing smaller quantities than diesel fuel of every major air pollutant. Environmental Protection Agency tests run on a 20 percent biodiesel blend found the fuel reduced hydrocarbon emissions by up to 30 percent, carbon monoxide output by as much as 20 percent and carbon particulates by up to 15 percent. Biodiesel burned in properly maintained engines also emits less nitrogen oxide, and a U.S. Department of Energy study found biodiesel production and use emits 78.5 percent less carbon dioxide than conventional diesel. Biodiesel degrades to water approximately four times faster than diesel fuel alone, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture tests found biodiesel 10 times less toxic than ordinary table salt.

The biodiesel bill’s opponents warned of truckers bypassing Minnesota – and its truck stop businesses – to avoid the fuel, but National Biodiesel Board research estimates a 2 percent blend will increase fuel costs only 2 cents to 3 cents per gallon. This cost will be readily offset by biodiesel’s higher fuel efficiency. Every unit of energy used to produce biodiesel results in 3.24 units of energy when the fuel is burned. Conventional diesel runs a net energy loss, gaining only 0.83 units of energy for every unit used in production.

And contrary to much unfounded speculation, 40 million road-test miles have shown biodiesel equivalent to the conventional fuel in consumption, horsepower, torque and haulage rates, with less wear on engines than harsher conventional diesel compounds. Biodiesel is even safer to store, with a “flash point” of 300 degrees, compared with 125 degrees for ordinary diesel.

Biodiesel’s benefits for the state’s farmers, truckers and the environment justify the governor’s signature on this bill and a round of applause from all Minnesotans.