OLYMPIA – Trying to wring millions of gallons of motor fuel from farm fields, state lawmakers voted Friday to require fuel companies, by late 2008, to sell at least 20 million gallons of biodiesel each year.
“The future is coming at us. We have no choice,” said Rep. Hans Dunshee, D-Snohomish. “Do we wait until fuel is $5 a gallon? $7 a gallon?”
The bill, which must still be approved by the state Senate, also requires every gallon of gasoline sold in Washington to be at least 2 percent ethanol by the same date. Ethanol is a crop-derived alcohol already common in some brands of gas.
The changes, Rep. Jeff Morris, D-Anacortes, said, are “a giant step forward to keep us in front of the pack.” Two weeks ago, the House voted to set up a $9 million emergency loan program for four oilseed crushing plants in Eastern Washington, including $2.75 million for one in Spokane Valley. That bill also awaits a Senate vote.
Surprisingly, much of the resistance to Friday’s bill came from the very farm districts it’s intended to help most. Many GOP lawmakers from the Palouse and large swaths of Eastern Washington voted “no.”
Some said the state shouldn’t meddle in free markets. Others predicted the new fuel will thicken in cold weather, or damage filters or engines. Yet others predicted that Midwestern soybean farmers would rush to capture the new market, squeezing out Washington’s growers. “Perhaps the worst thing we could do to our farmers would be to give them false hope,” said Rep. Doug Ericksen, D-Bellingham.
“If this is such a great deal, where are all the venture capitalists?” said Rep. Lynn Schindler, R-Otis Orchards.
Dunshee dismissed the objections as “just a dark cloud to try to slow down progress.” Most House members apparently agreed. House Bill 2738 passed overwhelmingly, 70 to 28.
For weeks, lawmakers have been touting the bill as something that Eastern Washington farmers, Puget Sound commuters and environmentalists could support. Such proposals would be “the feel-good hit of the session,” one Seattle Democrat predicted in early January. Gov. Chris Gregoire repeatedly called for the 2 percent standard.
Farmers “need to know there’s a market for their product,” she said earlier this week. “A promise of a market isn’t enough.”
After some 11th-hour tweaking, however, lawmakers Friday night voted to instead require fuel suppliers, blenders and importers to show that at least 2 percent of their total sales are biodiesel. The result is the same: a market for at least 20 million gallons of biodiesel fuel a year.
“It (the change) gets us there, just at a different angle,” said the bill’s prime sponsor, Rep. Janea Holmquist, R-Moses Lake.
Under federal interstate commerce rules, several lawmakers said, the state cannot require that the biodiesel or ethanol used here be Washington-grown. But the bill does say that as the state’s farmers and fuel companies ramp up oil seed production and refining, the biodiesel requirement would grow to 5 percent. The 2 percent ethanol blend – which would amount to about 50 million gallons a year – could eventually rise to 10 percent, so long as it doesn’t hurt air quality.
The bill includes a safety valve: The governor could suspend the mandates if they prove “technically or economical infeasible.”
“We don’t want to put in a renewable fuel standard that will fail,” said Holmquist.