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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Farmers’ leftovers could fuel economy

Betsy Z. Russell Staff writer

BOISE – Leftover straw from wheat and barley crops in Idaho could be part of future bio fuels that help reduce the nation’s dependence on foreign oil, an array of experts said Thursday at a conference here.

In fact, the same principle could apply to unwanted straw from Kentucky bluegrass fields in North Idaho, where annual field burning has created controversy, smoke-related health problems and extensive litigation.

“Any cellulosic material can theoretically be converted into a liquid fuel,” David Garman, assistant secretary of energy, said at a conference on Bio Fuels Production and the New West sponsored by the Center for the New West and the National Commission on Energy Policy. “The Department of Agriculture believes that we could do a billion tons dry-weight of agricultural residue, which would provide 30 percent of our transportation energy needs and still meet all of our food production and energy production requirements.”

He added, “It can’t totally eliminate our need for petroleum, but it can make a huge dent.”

The Intermountain West is being targeted as prime territory for producing the next generation of bio fuels, which researchers hope will focus on highly available cellulose from products like straw, grasses and forest residue. A Canadian firm is eyeing Idaho Falls as a top contender for a major new ethanol plant that would turn cast-off wheat and barley straw into fuel.

But there may not be enough bluegrass production left in North Idaho to draw a plant to produce bio fuels like ethanol. “The production on the Rathdrum Prairie has decreased significantly in the last few years,” said Wayne Meyer, a former state legislator and bluegrass farmer from Rathdrum. “The farming on the Rathdrum Prairie is going to come to an end as we know it. My family just met with a Realtor yesterday on the possible sale of 500 acres.”

That move is coming not because of smoke or straw questions, Meyer said, but because of traffic and development pressure. With increasing development and road improvements, traffic is getting so heavy around parts of his farm that it’s becoming a problem just to move farm machinery up and down the roads. “They’re going to pave the road in front of my house this month, and not at my request, either,” Meyer said.

Most U.S. ethanol now is made from corn, which provides starch rather than cellulose. But the nation couldn’t produce enough corn to make the kind of dent in foreign oil needs that the U.S. Department of Energy envisions. That’s part of what drew about 150 farmers, state legislators, business people, academics and government officials to Thursday’s conference.

“Clearly it is an opportunity, I think, for us to broaden our horizons when it comes to ethanol,” said U.S. Sen. Larry Craig. “I see it as a tremendous added opportunity for American agriculture and agricultural production.”

Garman said he hopes western states can lead the nation “to realize the promise of home-grown energy from cellulose and biomass.”

However, the technology is in its early stages – there’s not yet a full-scale commercial plant that’s producing ethanol from cellulose.

Jeff Passmore, executive vice president of Ottawa-based Iogen Energy, said his firm has a demonstration plant in Ottawa that’s now producing 1 million gallons a year of cellulose-based ethanol. If his firm builds the Idaho Falls plant, it would produce 40 million to 60 million gallons a year, he said.

In addition to the Idaho Falls area, the firm is considering two sites in Canada and is being courted by Germany, which also wants the plant. Company officials already have signed up farmers who would supply about 350,000 tons of straw a year in eastern Idaho if the plant were built there. They’ve also signed up similar numbers of farmers around the prospective sites in Saskatchewan and Alberta.

“We’re riding two or three different ponies, because if one stumbles, we can’t afford not to have another option,” Passmore said. His company’s partner in the venture is Shell Oil, which owns 30 percent of Iogen.

Meyer said he’s heard of an individual in Spokane County who is experimenting with a “gasification” process to turn grass straw into fuel. “The utilization of straw is a problem for the bluegrass industry, if we have to bale it off,” he said.

An earlier North Idaho venture produced strawboard from the material but ultimately didn’t succeed. Meyer said the company he sells his seed to has been making feed pellets out of the straw and mats for erosion control on highway projects. “But it’s a limited market,” he said.

Meyer estimated that between Spokane, Kootenai and Benewah counties, the area could produce a maximum of about 75,000 tons of bluegrass straw a year. “They need a lot more than that to build” an ethanol plant, he said.

The Rathdrum Prairie is down to about 2,500 acres of grass seed fields, Meyer said, from a historic high of nearly 13,000 acres.

Though several lawsuits challenging the annual burning of Rathdrum Prairie bluegrass fields on public-health grounds have failed, a new notice of intent to sue was filed May 20 by Safe Air For Everyone and the American Lung Association of Idaho/Nevada.

The notice, a requirement before filing a lawsuit under the Clean Air Act, names the Environmental Protection Agency, the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality, and three farmers, including Meyer.

It charges that field burning in Idaho violates the federal Clean Air Act.