Klobuchar visits Brewster as part of Homegrown Energy Tour
BREWSTER -- On her second day of a two-day Homegrown Energy Tour of southwest and west central Minnesota, U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar on Tuesday was both eager to talk about the failed attempts to pass new federal farm bill legislation and see what Minnesota-grown companies are doing to produce clean energy from wind, sunlight, corn and soybeans.
In her first visit to Minnesota Soybean Processors (MnSP) Tuesday, Klobuchar toured the soybean crush facility and biodiesel refinery, and then met with the cooperative's board of directors to hear about the board's ongoing discussions to expand the Brewster facility by adding a $10 million glycerin refinery.
The Agriculture Utilization Research Institute (AURI) of Marshall recently helped fund a feasibility study on the market for refined glycerin. Taryl Enderson, MnSP general manager, said there is much more work to be done before a decision is made to advance the project.
One of the questions posed to Klobuchar during her visit was whether MnSP might be able to access energy funds through USDA Rural Development to construct a glycerin refinery. One of the victims of the farm bill extension was the energy title, which wasn't in the 10-year baseline.
"That doesn't mean we won't get the money somewhere," Klobuchar told the MnSP board. "The Rural Development funds have been critical."
MnSP board member Mike Zins said the vertical integration at the processing facility is "what's keeping this plant alive."
"By having the biodiesel plant here and now the possibility of taking a byproduct of the biodiesel operation and making glycerin out of it, that is what's going to keep this going," Zins shared. "We're in business to stay in business. We started with the intent that we would provide a value to the farmers in this area."
The region's soybean producers have benefited by capitalizing on the value-added ventures of MnSP, but as Zins was quick to point out, energy legislation that has to be addressed year after year is a hindrance to proposed expansion.
Said Zins, "As you put these things in place with regard to the farm bill, energy, ethanol and biodiesel, you got to remember when you set up a plant like this, it's not set up...."
"For one-year increments?" Klobuchar finished.
"I know," she continued. "If we could somehow get our courage up to get a debt deal done ... then I truly believe energy and immigration reform are probably the two issues where we could get some bipartisan consensus.
"We need to push an energy vote for a longer term instead of year to year to year, which is so damaging not just for you guys, but for wind, solar -- everyone involved in this," Klobuchar added.
MnSP biodiesel marketer Ron Marr said the glycerin refinery being discussed in recent months will take the crude glycerin currently marketed to other processors and process it in-house, adding further value to the soybeans crushed at the Brewster facility.
"Finished glycerin is used in everything from nitroglycerine to bread, hand lotion, cosmetics and pills, but it has to be refined," Marr said. "It isn't just one product that we're looking at. We're looking at that continuing value-added chain, which is employment and investment."
Enderson said there are three different grades of glycerin -- refined, technical and pharmaceutical.
"You can go all the way up to an automotive grade to make antifreeze," Enderson explained. "It's a good payback right now, but (discussion) is in the early stages.
"We're just looking at a refinery and if it will pay back," he added.
When MnSP opened 9½ years ago, it was strictly a soybean crush facility. Two years later, the biodiesel refinery was completed.
Jim Sallstrom, MnSP board chair, said the refinery expansion was what gave MnSP an advantage over a stand-alone crush plant. As other competitors have had to close, MnSP has managed to continuously produce biofuel for the last seven years.
Now with 80 employees, Sallstrom said more hiring would be likely if the expansion moves forward.
In addition to considering a glycerin refinery on site, MnSP is expecting to move forward this year with enough track for two unit train (110- to 120-car) rail lines, which would hook into the Union Pacific Railroad adjacent to the facility. UP has already granted access for one track, and MnSP is working with six neighboring landowners for access to create a second track.
In introducing Klobuchar to the board Tuesday, Sallstrom referred to her as a "strong supporter all the way through," for biofuels.
"Amy is not of an agricultural background, but she's really taken it upon herself to really learn what's going on in agriculture and has been a huge supporter of agriculture," Sallstrom said.
Meeting with the producers she represents, as well as expanding her knowledge of agriculture and energy was the primary reason for Klobuchar's Homegrown Energy Tour. In addition to her stop at MnSP Tuesday, she met with people in Pipestone to discuss extension of the wind energy production tax credit; toured Minnesota's newest and largest solar farm near Slayton; and planned to visit the Prairie Rose Wind Farm at Hardwick.
"One of the things I wanted to do was talk to people about what happened at the end of the year -- the good and the bad," Klobuchar said. "The good being we got the biodiesel and the wind and solar tax credits extended; the bad being that the farm bill was simply extended."
She was among senators who put in many hours to write new federal farm legislation before the end of 2012. That legislation passed in the U.S. Senate after 80 amendments, but the House of Representatives failed to approve its own version of the bill.
Now, Klobuchar is hopeful new farm legislation can be attached to legislation addressing the debt ceiling.
"The Senate passed a really strong bill and if we could just get that attached, it's $24 billion in cost savings over the last one and stronger policy," she said. "We transferred from direct payments to enhanced crop insurance and did some other things to consolidate some programs. While there's still some difference between the House committee bill and the Senate ... we can negotiate."
To MnSP board members, she said there remains strong support for biofuels in the Senate.
"We've seen a reduction in dependency on foreign oils from 60 to 45 percent," Klobuchar said. "The fact that, in the middle of all this mess, (the biodiesel tax credit) was extended is just a sign that people really perceive this as part of our future."
Daily Globe Reporter Julie Buntjer may be reached at 376-7330.