Recent Op-Eds

Higher fuel prices and the upswing in summer driving have focused South Dakotans and officials in Washington on ways to lessen our dependence on foreign sources of energy. Biofuels are our most readily available form of homegrown renewable energy, and increased consumption and new innovations have the potential to make biofuels an even more central part of our nation's energy strategy. These developments are particularly exciting for South Dakota because our state is uniquely positioned to be leader in clean energy.

When my Senate Agriculture Committee colleagues and I were drafting the 2008 Farm Bill, I included an important provision creating the Biomass Crop Assistance Program (BCAP). BCAP is designed to promote the increased production of cellulosic ethanol, a second-generation biofuel refined from non-edible plant matter, such as wood chips, prairie grasses, and corn cobs and stover. These resources, which refiners call feedstocks, are abundant throughout South Dakota and in other parts of the country that are not generally known for corn production.

The first part of BCAP provides matching payments to producers who supply cellulosic refineries with feedstocks. These payments are available to those who collect, harvest, store, and transport renewable biomass to the refinery or biomass power plant. The second component of BCAP provides incentives for producers to grow energy-dedicated drops in close proximity to existing and planned biorefineries.

Just recently, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced that funding will be made available for the first stage of BCAP. This is an important step, but there are still steps that the government will need to take to move second-generation biofuels to the next level.

One of the most pressing changes that Congress needs to make is to fix a last minute provision that was added by the Speaker of the House, at the request of environmentalists, to the 2007 Energy bill which changed the definition of "renewable biomass" to exclude wood waste collected from national forests. Since these particular feedstocks are currently excluded from the definition of biomass, ethanol refined from waste materials such as slash piles that are found in our national forests cannot count toward the 21 billion gallons of cellulosic ethanol mandated by the Renewable Fuels Standard. Slash piles and wood chips are a promising feedstock for cellulosic ethanol production, and excess wood waste creates a significant fire hazard on national forest land. I have introduced bipartisan legislation to correct this mistake, and I am currently working to make that happen.

In addition to fixing the definition of biomass, the market must expand to accommodate second generation biofuels. The Environmental Protection Agency is currently considering raising the level of ethanol that can be blended with gasoline. Currently, E10, consisting of 10 percent ethanol and 90 percent gasoline is the maximum approved blend. Corn based ethanol is meeting our demand for E10 and studies have shown that E15 offers similar performance while decreasing our dependence on imported oil.

Biofuels create jobs in rural America and provide our agricultural producers with a new, thriving market. Increased use of renewable fuels also reduces the need for imported oil, much of which comes from countries whose leaders do not always have our nation's best interests at heart. Cellulosic ethanol can thrive in South Dakota, and I am confident that BCAP will play an important part in increasing the amount of renewable fuels that are produced in the United States.