A bill on its way to the governor's desk would make Minnesota the first state in the country to mandate biodiesel use. The House and Senate passed the bill, requiring diesel fuel sold in the state to contain a two-percent blend of biodiesel by 2005.
Backers of biodiesel say it's the best thing to happen to agriculture since Minnesota led the push to encourage corn-based ethanol in the mid-'90s. Biodiesel is derived from soybean or other vegetable oil or animal fat. Supporters say it's better for the environment than regular diesel, will boost sagging soybean prices and create jobs as biodiesel plants are built.
"Throw us a damn bone," said Rep. Doug Peterson, DFL-Madison. "I'd like to have biodiesel. I'd like to have better than $10-an-hour jobs in rural Minnesota."
Opponents include truckers and other diesel users, who say biodiesel will raise fuel prices.
Rep. Tim Wilkin, R-Eagan, says the trucking industry will be forced to pass increased costs onto consumers.
"This legislation would make Minnesota an island. And, yes, it might benefit some farmers; it might benefit a few select producers of soy, but I'll tell you what: the burden is going to be felt by many, many more Minnesotans."
The House voted 78-53 for the bill, a few hours after the Senate approved it by a wider margin of 53-11.
Biodiesel has had a rocky road in the Legislature. A five-percent mandate passed the Senate last year, was rejected by the House, but then went back to conference committee at the end of last year's special session. When it emerged this session, critics said the conference committee hammered out the two-percent mandate largely behind closed doors.
Conference committee co-chair Sen. Steve Murphy, DFL-Red Wing, says legislators have been quietly working to find a compromise since last session.
"This wasn't done cloak-and-dagger or anything like that. It was all out in the open. We just didn't try to slug it out in the press," according to Murphy.
The bill exempts railroads, mining equipment and motors at nuclear plants. The requirement could go into effect before 2005, if biodiesel production exceeds a certain level, and if the federal government offers a tax credit of at least two cents a gallon.
Opponents say the mandate will cause truckers to avoid Minnesota service stations and buy their diesel in other states.
The president of the Minnesota Trucking Association, John Hausladen, says lawmakers have passed a new tax on diesel users in an attempt to help agriculture.
"It's a variety of issues - it's election year politics, it's redistricting politics, it's trying to take a farm vote in a Legislature that can do darn little to help farmers anymore," he said.
Hausladen says truckers are pinning their hopes on Gov. Ventura to stop the bill from becoming law. Ventura hasn't said whether he'd sign or veto the bill. Spokesman John Wodele says Ventura is skeptical of a new mandate, particularly in a time of budget crisis.More from MPR