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Committee rejects biodiesel mandate delay

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ST. PAUL — Plans to increase the percentage of soybean oil in diesel fuel sold in Minnesota survived a delay attempt Monday.

“This isn’t over,” state Senate Commerce Chairman James Metzen, D-South St. Paul, said moments after his committee overwhelmingly defeated a bill that would have delayed implementation of a 2008 law requiring 10 percent of diesel fuel to come from soybeans.

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Sen. Melisa Franzen, D-Edina, brought the bill to Metzen’s committee, saying diesel engines are not ready to run on fuel containing 10 percent soybean oil on July 1, as now is required. The bill would “try to address some of the problems our constituents are likely to face this summer,” she said.

She said most cars and light trucks are built to handle 5 percent biodiesel, which now is required to be sold in Minnesota, not the planned 10 percent, known as B10.

Biodiesel supporters said they have heard this argument before, reaching back years to when ethanol first was required to be blended with gasoline. Problems have been few and far between once the state mandated that gasoline and diesel contain plant-based fuel, they said.

Jerry Schoenfeld, who represents soybean farmers and the Minnesota Biodiesel Council, said those who support Franzen’s bill sit on a biodiesel task force but never brought up their complaints until the bill surfaced recently.

Biodiesel pumps $1 billion a year into the Minnesota farm economy, Schoenfeld said, and reduces pollution in areas such as the Twin Cities, which the committee heard is near the federal limit on air pollution.

Schoenfeld said that biodiesel supporters probably would agree to exempt a variety of industries from complying with state requirements, those such as railroads, logging and mining.

Both sides used Illinois as an example to support their cause. Those wanting a B10 delay pointed to fuel-blamed engine problems such as clogged filters and acceleration hesitation. Biodiesel supporters said that even in Illinois, Mercedes-Benz praised biodiesel and urged owners to monitor oil levels and strictly follow oil change intervals, but few problems have been reported.

Illinois allows, but does not require, sales of biodiesel above 5 percent.

Minnesota lawmakers began requiring 2 percent of diesel to be biodiesel more than a decade ago, then upped the figure to 5 percent in 2008. The 2008 law gave the state agriculture, commerce and pollution control commissioners the ability to up the level to 10 percent when they felt there was enough of the fuel. They decided that can happen July 1.

Existing law also allows for B20 at some point, a provision Franzen wants to eliminate.

Franzen, who owns a diesel-powered vehicle, said older vehicles were not made to run on biodiesel and newer ones were made for no more than B5. The committee learned that 125,000 diesel vehicles use Minnesota roads.

The senator said 11 cars and light truck models were available with diesel engines in 2008, and 28 are sold now. But, she added, higher biodiesel content scares buyers.

“Minnesota dealerships are paying the price,” said Amber Backhaus of the Minnesota Automobile Dealers Association.

Kyle Kottke of Buffalo Lake said he and his brothers operate a 95-truck fleet and drivers buy fuel in other states when possible to avoid higher Minnesota prices due to the B5 biodiesel mandate.

“We purchase 2 million gallons of diesel fuel per year, so buying even a portion of that (in other states) adds up fast,” he said.

Assistant Agriculture Commissioner Charlie Poster said the current law “works well.” He said the state’s three biodiesel production facilities made 65 million gallons last year.

“We should not come down on the side of big oil companies,” President Doug Peterson of Minnesota Farmers Union said, discussing the importance of growing American energy in Minnesota.

Metzen, who supports the Franzen bill, and Sen. Gary Dahms, R-Redwood Falls, who opposes it, agreed that the bill could reappear yet this legislative session.

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Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.
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