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Washington falling far short of goal for use of biofuels

High prices, limited supplies among barriers

Associated Press

OLYMPIA – Washington state won’t reach its goal next month of having biofuels make up at least 20 percent of its fuel use in state vehicles and ferries.

The state had set a June 1 target for alternative fuels to make up a fifth of its fuel use. But as of the end of last year, such fuel accounted for just 2.1 percent – the best showing since the target was written into law three years ago.

Gov. Chris Gregoire said members of her staff will meet with department leaders next month to figure out how to speed up use of the new fuels.

“I don’t want to lose the momentum that we’ve built up,” Gregoire told the Herald of Everett. “We’re going to get there, but it’s going to take more time than what was originally projected.”

By using fuels made from sources other than petroleum, the state hopes to cut air pollutants and reduce effects on climate change. It also wants to stimulate a new industry for turning renewable resources such as vegetable oils, animal fats and recycled cooking oils into diesel fuel.

In January 2005, then-Gov. Gary Locke set a goal for state agencies to use at least 20 percent biofuel by Sept. 1, 2009. A 2006 law signed by Gregoire sped up the schedule, requiring a blend of not less than 2 percent biofuel beginning June 1, 2006, and reaching a 20 percent blend – or 20 percent of total fuel use – by June 1 of this year.

The law has no penalties for noncompliance, but the Department of General Administration must report on the state’s biofuel usage.

Its latest report found that in the second half of 2008, the state burned 10.2 million gallons of fuel, of which 211,500 gallons, or 2.07 percent, was biofuel.

Removing ferries, which account for the vast majority of fuel usage, improves the performance, though the state remains far from compliance. Biofuels made up 4.8 percent of the total fuel use by state agencies and institutions of higher education, up from 3.9 percent in the first half of 2008.

High prices and limited supplies were the biggest hurdles to adopting the new fuels, the study found.

On average, a blend of 20 percent biofuel with 80 percent petroleum-based diesel costs 33 cents a gallon more than regular diesel.

The study also found a limited number of suppliers in Eastern Washington and irregular supplies on the West Side.

Lawmakers and the governor acknowledge the problems, but say that if the state makes it clear it will be a longtime buyer, industry will increase production.

“We’ve got to figure a way to get the price down, and the only way to get the price down is to get the demand up,” said Rep. John McCoy, D-Tulalip.

Secretary of Transportation Paula Hammond said farmers have told her they don’t want to plant crops used in making biofuel if the state is going to be buying less.

“They’re watching very closely,” she said. “For the market to adjust you have to say we’re going to do this. Everybody is trying to make this work because it is a good goal. It’s achievable.”

The Legislature granted a two-year exemption on biofuels to Washington State Ferries, the single largest consumer of fuel at roughly 17 million gallons a year. Proponents said it would save money better spent on roads.

Sen. Janea Holmquist, R-Moses Lake, was among senators opposed to the move.

“We needed the state to fulfill its commitment. We’ve had plenty of time to get ready for this,” Holmquist said. “It’s pulling the rug out from underneath all the citizens who invested in the promise of a biodiesel market.”

Gregoire doesn’t like the exemption, either.

“I know (legislators) wanted to save some money,” she said. “We need to be the stable force for this to be able to develop into a profitable enterprise. If we abandon it in the tough times, we’ll never get to it in the affordable times.”

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