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St. Paul, Minn. — Minnesota was the first state in the nation to mandate the use of biodiesel. The 2002 Legislature passed a law requiring all diesel fuel sold in the state contain at least 2 percent of the product made from soybeans. The law kicked in September 29th, once the production from Minnesota's three biodiesel plants reached sufficient capacity.
But the switch has not gone smoothly for the people who must fill their tanks with the alternative fuel, according to John Hausladen, president of the Minnesota Trucking Association.
"We have had repeated reports from our members of significant fuel filer plugging -- which, you know -- the weather gets cold, that can happen," Hausladen said. "But when it happens on the same truck again and again and again, you know there's something bigger going on. We've done the research. We're tying to find the data, and everything points to biodiesel as being the culprit."
The culprit was not quite as obvious to state officials. The Minnesota Department of Commerce investigated the complaints, tested fuel samples, but still hasn't pinpointed the exact problem.
Gov. Tim Pawlenty, a big backer of biodiesel and other alternative fuels, said there are different theories about the cause. He wants more testing.
"It's not a problem overall with the fuel," Pawlenty said. "It's just a cold weather issue in limited or isolated areas. It's not across the whole state, and it's not even across all trucks. So, there are certain areas on certain days where there seems to be a problem. And we have to get to the bottom of it."
The state's largest refiner, Flint Hills Resources in Rosemount, recently quit delivering certain cold-weather biodiesel blends to greater Minnesota. The refinery's own tests found high levels of glycerin in some of the biodiesel.
We just want a little breather here to get through this time where we're learning to use the fuel and they're frankly learning how to make the fuel.
- John Hausladen
Kristen Duncanson of the Minnesota Soybean Growers Association and the Minnesota Biodiesel Council agreed that there's something amiss with the fuel. She's just not sure if the problem is with the soybean-based product or with the diesel fuel it's blended with. Duncanson said the diesel supply was stretched thin this fall after Hurricane Katrina.
"A lot of the diesel fuel, bio or not, is being sucked out of the bottom of tanks that have probably some questionable fuel," Duncanson said. "There's still a lot of number two diesel out there in the system, or blends that haven't gone to the cold winter blends. And so we nee to get all that through the system and get it re-supplied where it needs to be re-supplied, tested and as quickly as possible come to a conclusion."
Duncanson's group asked this week for a 15-day variance on the biodiesel mandate to provide time to identify and correct the problem. The Minnesota Trucking Association requested a 30-day waiver. John Hausladen said the problems with biodiesel can ultimately be solved.
"We are not trying to give biodiesel a black eye, Housladen said. "We hope that this alternative fuel can work. We just want a little breather here to get through this time where we're learning to use the fuel and they're frankly learning how to make the fuel.
State officials briefly lifted the biodiesel mandate back in October when a bad batch of the fuel was detected. That 10-day waiver also allowed refineries to ship unblended diesel fuel.