In the Spotlight

News & Features
Biodiesel Debate Pits Farmers Against Transportation Industry
By Laura McCallum, Minnesota Public Radio
April 19, 2001
Click for audio RealAudio

A bill working its way through the Legislature would make Minnesota the first state to mandate the sale of biodiesel, an alternative fuel made from vegetable oil or animal fat. The bill, which gets a hearing in the House Transportation Finance Thursday, pits farmers against the trucking industry. Opponents say there are too many unanswered questions about biodiesel, while supporters say the proposal is something the state can do to help farmers.

To learn more about biodiesel, including access to multimedia presentations, visit the Web site of the National Biodiesel Board.
DFL SENATOR JIM VICKERMAN of Tracy says biodiesel is the talk of his district. He calls it a win-win; soybean farmers gain a new market for their crop, and Minnesotans benefit from cleaner air.

"We've got to do something to keep farmers going. Farming is just going to disappear if we don't do something. This is just one, one of the things," he says.

Vickerman's bill would require all diesel fuel sold in Minnesota to contain at least two percent biodiesel after July of next year, and five-percent by 2006.

I'd like to go to 20 percent; I start out with two to get people to use it," Vickerman says.

Vickerman says two-percent biodiesel doesn't have the environmental benefits of 20-percent or higher. But a biodiesel blend will lower sulfur emissions, something the federal government will require by 2006. Vickerman's proposal has generated opposition from the trucking industry, railroads and airlines who say a biodiesel mandate raises too many concerns.

"There are holes big enough in this bill to drive a truck through right now in terms of unanswered questions," says. John Hausladen is president of the Minnesota Trucking Association. He and other opponents say biodiesel is a promising fuel that the government should encourage through incentives, not mandates. Hausladen says biodiesel costs three to five cents more per gallon than diesel, which truckers will have to pass on to consumers.

"This is not a free vote," he says. "There's going to be a cost and I think this debate boils down to who's going to pay the cost of this. And we believe if the state thinks it's good enough policy, then the state should ante up. Put in some of their fleets, do some tests, track some emissions, and then let's talk about where we go."

"This is yet another case in which we're leaping before we look, mandating a demand which we can't satisfy here in Minnesota."

- C. Ford Runge
University of Minnesota
Supporters say biodiesel has been thoroughly tested. But the railroad industry says those tests have taken place in trucks, not locomotives. Railroads are also concerned about the potential for biodiesel to turn to gel in cold weather. The objections expressed by truckers, railroads and airlines have largely fallen on deaf ears at the Capitol, as the biodiesel bill has plowed through committee after committee in both the House and Senate.

The bill's House author, Rep. Torrey Westrom, R-Elbow Lake, says that's because opponents are throwing out arguments that have been refuted.

"They've taken the shotgun approach of scattering as many hypothetical theories out there in hope that something would stick. And frankly, everything's hit the wall and a lot of it's fallen off, because a lot of them are baseless arguments," Westrom says.

Westrom says biodiesel has numerous benefits. It's renewable, reduces U.S. dependence on foreign oil, and will spur economic development in rural Minnesota, as biodiesel processing plants are built. But Minnesota currently has no facility that produces biodiesel, one of several factors that led University of Minnesota professor C. Ford Runge to conclude that a biodiesel mandate is premature.

"This is yet another case in which we're leaping before we look, mandating a demand which we can't satisfy here in Minnesota, and which will be satisfied, at least initially, by out-of-state sources, which I don't think was the original purpose of this," according to Runge.

Runge issued a report, funded by the Minnesota Trucking Association, that predicts a biodiesel mandate will cost fuel consumers and suppliers anywhere from $16 to $48 million more a year. At the same time, Runge says soybean farmers will see only $7.5 million more a year from higher prices.

Supporters dispute Runge's numbers, and argue the payoffs of biodiesel will increase as the industry develops. While neither side is backing down, the lack of any significant legislative opposition means the biodiesel bill has a good chance of landing on the governor's desk this year. Ventura told the bill's author he supports biodiesel, but he didn't say whether he supports mandating its sale.