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Biofuel to the rescue
Tackling our oil addiction with veggie diesel may not solve all our energy problems, but it's a start that many lawmakers are willing to make
BY JONATHAN COOK


SUVs FOR THE POOR

The day before two of his bills — one to increase the excise tax on SUVs; another to decrease the road tax on biodiesel — went to committee, Representative John Eder was sandbagged by his Republican and Democratic peers. In a bare-knuckle political move, Eder’s West End district was eliminated due to redistricting. If the new map withstands legal challenge, Eder, the highest elected Green in the nation, will be forced to run for re-election against another serving representative, eliminating the traditional advantage held by incumbents.

Having to overcome an admitted preoccupation with his lawsuit, the rookie representative testified before a pair of committees on April 3, appealing to committee-members’ common sense.

When told by the Taxation Committee’s Senator Ethan Strimling (D-Portland) that the proposed tax increase on new SUVs would prevent low-income people from affording the gas-guzzlers, Eder pointed out for the senator: " Not many low-income people are buying new SUVs. "

At the same time, Eder displayed willingness to compromise, revising his bill on the spot to try to please committee members. But by unanimous vote, the Joint Standing Committee on Taxation killed the bill.

However, even Senator Richard Nass (R-Acton), who has crusaded against the cost of Maine’s government, stated support for the general idea of using tax policy to discourage low-mileage passenger trucks and encourage alternative-fuel vehicles. In spite of this kind of broad-based support, alternative fuels have faced powerful opposition.

Coming down against two bills that would eliminate the road tax on biodiesel are the Department of Transportation (DOT), the Maine Petroleum Association, and a truckers’ group whose representative admitted that his members would benefit if biodiesel were cheaper. Yet, the Maine Motor Transport Association’s Dale Hanington opposed the bills for the same reason as DOT, because it would take an estimated $4000 from the half-billion-dollar highway fund.

In spite of abundant support for renewable energy in general, both Eder’s and Senator Kneeland’s tax-incentive bills for biofuel are unlikely to pass committee muster in their present form.

DOT’s Gary Williams testified in opposition to the bills, saying, " It is true that there is not a level playing field for biodiesel, but the tax structure does not create the imbalance. " The fear is that as biodiesel becomes more popular, the small reduction to the highway fund will grow. Williams testified that exempting biofuels from the highway tax would create a " long-term taxpayer subsidy. "

Despite their weighty opposition, DOT touts " firm ongoing support of alternative fuels. " To back up this claim, Williams testified that DOT has purchased some propane buses, installed one natural-gas fueling station for Portland buses, and added one Honda Civic Hybrid to its fleet.

Though the Transportation Committee takes a dim view of tinkering with the road tax, and in spite of the Taxations Committee’s need to maintain revenue levels to balance the budget, committee members have said they would like to incorporate some form of biofuel support into comprehensive bills. Also, the Federal Energy Tax Incentive bill should provide some price help for biodiesel.

In addition, that bill’s 1.5-cent-per-kilowatt-hour tax credit for solar power should also help the Solar Market fulfill their objective of helping people harness the sun. One customer, a farmer in Kennebunk, erected four solar towers the size of tall picnic umbrellas in his field. The top panels are loaded with photovoltaic cells (shiny discs that transform the sun’s rays into electricity). The panels pivot, following the sun’s path from rise to set in order to maximize exposure. Even sunlight captured on a partly cloudy morning last autumn proved enough to turn the electric meter backwards — a revolution in more ways than one.

The farmer says the meter reader for the power company has come by several times. " I don’t think he can believe his eyes. "

" By accelerating the use of alternative fuels, " US Senator Olympia Snowe said in a recent press release, " we can change our future — we will be less reliant on foreign oil, improve public health, reduce risks to the ozone layer, and improve overall air quality. "

The opportunity to change is here. Is the will?

— JC

When the President insists that killing thousands of Iraqis is the only way to protect national security, could he be implying that our security depends on control of the world’s oil? Isn’t it the blood of our economy, after all?

Right now several bills, in both the US Congress and the Maine State House, directly address America’s Middle Eastern oil addiction. If the war in Iraq isn’t about oil, if this is really about liberating Iraq, then why the sudden flurry of legislation designed, as one lawmaker put it, to " move towards greater energy independence " ?

Maybe it’s coincidence.

Here in Maine, biodiesel, of the several alternative energies possible for use, could have the largest single impact on the oil-import problem because imported oil not only runs our cars, but heats many of our homes, as well. Thus, tri-partisan support has been voiced in the Maine State House for new legislation that would even the playing field for biodiesel, an American-made renewable fuel. Nearly identical bills, calling for tax incentives for the fuel, have sprung up independently, initiated by all three parties.

On the federal level, many legislators, including US Senator Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), say now is finally the time to give up on the billions of dollars worth of oil imported from the Middle East. With mention of " vulnerability to terrorism " and " attacks on our soil, " Snowe’s finance committee recently passed a tax/energy incentive package. The bill includes eight measures that will make domestic renewables price-competitive with imported petroleum and also encourage efficient technologies.

According to a spokesperson for Senator Snowe, her bill, which provides up to 20 cents per gallon as tax credit on biodiesel, has high hopes of becoming law sometime in June because of its strong non-partisan support. Nearly everyone is in agreement — national security is synonymous with domestic energy.

Meanwhile, the 121st Legislature in the Maine State House is also considering ways to promote domestic renewable energy.

Representative John Eder (G-Portland) has sponsored two bills designed to " open up the debate " on imported fuel. And, sounding the same note as federal lawmakers, he says, " You can’t have an honest discussion about energy policy without talking about the military industrial complex. "

MIDWEST OR MIDDLE EAST

Fuels made from vegetable oils have been around since almost the beginning of recorded history. In the Old Testament, olive oil provided fuel for lamps. According to certified engineer and biodiesel researcher Ralph Turner of Freeport, straight vegetable oil was converted into something comparable to petroleum-based fuel by a simple chemical process in the 1840s.

Rudolph Diesel then used veggie-fuel in his engines 40 years later. But when oil wells from Pennsylvania to Texas to Arabia flooded the market with cheap, abundant, black gold, everything else was shelved. Today, with US oil companies pushing for access to national parks and US tanks blasting away in the cradle of civilization, veggie fuel is making a comeback.

Its benefits are nearly universally praised. According to the US Department of Energy (DOE), biodiesel is " One of the most thoroughly tested fuels in the country. "

It is often mixed with petroleum diesel, but can be used in most diesel engines at full-strength (B100) without altering any equipment. In fact, biodiesel has better lubricity than petroleum diesel, and that reduces mechanical wear and tear and increases engine life.

The DOE says biodiesel reduces greenhouse gas by 78 percent because the carbon dioxide released by burning vegetable oil is absorbed by the same crop grown to make the fuel in the first place. The DOE calls that a " closed carbon cycle. "

On the other hand, burned petroleum releases carbon dioxide that had been removed from the atmosphere millions of years ago and stored under ground. Releasing that carbon dioxide adds to the total amount in the atmosphere. Scientists consider carbon dioxide to be a greenhouse gas — one of the main causes of global warming.

And that just scratches the surface of the proven air-quality benefits of biodiesel.

According to a new Environmental Protection Agency report, biodiesel reduces emission of particulate matter by 47 percent. Unburned hydrocarbons are reduced by 67 percent. And carbon monoxide is reduced by 48 percent.

When biodiesel is used in boat engines, water quality stands to improve, also. The chemical structure of biodiesel enables it to more readily biodegrade in water without causing toxic damage to fish and plant life.

Blended with its bio-counterpart, petroleum diesel itself becomes less toxic. According to a 1995 University of Idaho test, biodiesel can triple the degradation rate of petroleum, making it an obvious choice for use in boats. California has even approved it for use in oil spill remediation.

Compared with the US, Europe has a much larger percentage of diesel passenger vehicles, and biodiesel has played a significant role there. According to the European Biodiesel Board, this biofuel powers more than 500 million kilometers of travel annually.

Domestically, it is produced in the Midwest from soybeans and standardized by the American Society of Testing and Materials (ASTM D 6751). A blend of 20 percent biodiesel and 80 percent petroleum, known as B20, is used by more than 250 vehicle fleets nationwide.

Take the Department of Defense: It has been using various alternative fuels in order to comply with the 1992 Energy Policy Act. The law requires federal and state fleets to reduce both pollution and US dependence on foreign oil. Biodiesel was added in 1998 to the list of alternative fuels fleets could use to accomplish the goals.

Executive Order 13149 of 1998 requires federal agencies to decrease the annual petroleum consumption of fleets by 20 percent before 2006 as compared to 1999 levels. As a result, even in the heart of Texas, biodiesel has made inroads. The ground fleet of the Texas Air National Guard 147th Fighter Wing — President George W. Bush’s former outfit — based at Ellington Field, now uses biodiesel, according to the Houston Business Journal.

That’s great, you say, but where can you get the stuff? Two retailers of this biofuel currently exist in Maine. One of them, the Solar Market in Arundel, has, in the past, delivered it as home heating fuel, but sees most of its biodiesel business coming from people filling up their diesel-engine vehicles, according to owner Naoto Inoue. A common occurrence is a visit from a Volkswagen TDI, a diesel truck, or a farm tractor, pulling up to the garage on the side of the Solar Market building and filling the tank from a standard gas-station pump. The customer then subtracts the gallons from a pre-paid account, and drives away leaving a hint of freedom fries in the air.

But the Solar Market focuses on solar energy products, not liquid fuels. Inoue sees biodiesel mostly as a way to bring people into his store and interest them in his favorite topic: harnessing enough of the sun’s energy to power homes and send excess electricity back into the utility wires for a credit — essentially billing the power utility instead of the other way around.

Still, biodiesel is important to Inoue. He has traveled to Augusta to lobby for biodiesel legislation. He also urges his customers to call their representatives and demand tax relief for the fuel.

The other Maine retailer, Frontier Oil of South China, comes at the business from a different angle. For 18 years, Joel Glatz, owner of the heating oil company, has sold imported petroleum to people who want a cheap way to stay warm. " I felt like I was part of the problem, " he says. " But I said if I don’t do it, someone else will. " Now he feels that he is pioneering part of the solution because he also sells biodiesel supplied from Iowa via rail car.

When Glatz learned of biodiesel’s environmental and national security advantages, he knew he had to offer this fuel to his customers. " I was convinced there was a market, " Glatz says.

Today, Glatz has 20 home-delivery customers for what he calls " bioheat " — because biodiesel makes people think of transportation, he says. He also has about half a dozen customers who come in and fill their own containers. But he’s not nearly satisfied. He thinks he can lower the pre-tax price of $2.50 per gallon by producing it locally.

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Issue Date: April 17 - 24, 2003
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