Biodiesel boon to jobs, economy, ag chief says

The biodiesel industry needs to initiate dialogue with environmental groups and engage young people in shaping the nation’s future for renewable energy, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said Thursday at the 2013 National Biodiesel Conference and Expo in Las Vegas.

The industry’s production of nearly 1.1 billion gallons of biodiesel fuel in 2012 supported more than 64,000 jobs across the country, creating new economic opportunities for farmers and revitalizing small towns across America, the secretary told several hundred industry leaders on the final day of the conference at The Mirage.

The industry is projected to grow substantially in the coming years, producing a target of 2 billion gallons in 2015, supporting more than 74,000 jobs and generating $7.3 billion in gross domestic product.

Vilsack, former governor of Iowa, said people must understand the importance of rural America and understand that biodiesel is creating a new dynamic in raising farmers’ income.

“You’ve got people internationally questioning the industry,” he said. “Somehow in America, we’re not big enough and strong enough to produce food for the American people with enough left over for fuel. We have done it and we’ll continue to do it because we’re the most productive nation in the world.”

Roughly two-thirds of the nation’s oil was imported in 2005. Today it’s less than 50 percent and “dropping like a rock,” due in large part to advances in biodiesel technology, Vilsack said. That makes the country more energy secure.

Joe Jobe, chief executive officer of the National Biodiesel Board, said some people use hydraulic fracturing as an argument against biodiesel, asserting that everyone will get cheap gasoline.

Crude oil is a global commodity and the price is based not on worldwide demand and supply, but on political policy in the most unstable part of the world and from manipulation by the nationalized oil companies of OPEC, he said.

That’s why it’s important to diversify the nation’s transportation fuel portfolio so that it’s more in line with the electricity market, which is relatively stable and affordable because of numerous energy sources, Jobe said.

“Even if America becomes 100 percent self-sufficient on petroleum, we’d still be exposed to worldwide fluctuations,” he said. “There has to be a mix if we want stability. Our goal is to make transportation fuel like our power generation fuels. Wind, solar … nobody’s going to war over those.”

Vilsack said the U.S. Department of Agriculture is helping to expand markets for biodiesel, which is a blend of fuel made from recycled cooking oil, soybean oil and other agricultural products.

The department invested more than $500 million with the U.S. Navy and Department of Energy to develop advanced biofuels for military ships and aircraft. The Navy’s “Great Green Fleet” conducted operations off the coast of Hawaii using advanced marine and aviation biofuels. “Understand the importance of this industry to the defense department. If we have to buy oil from other sources, we have to defend that source,” Vilsack said.

USDA also invested more than $320 million to accelerate research and development of advanced biofuels. It supported more than 200 refiners looking to produce biofuels, including Fulcrum Sierra Biofuels in Nevada to convert municipal waste into energy.

Contact reporter Hubble Smith at hsmith@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0491.

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