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Walker attacks ethanol law

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Monday, September 01, 2008

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SALEM Just weeks before Eastern Oregon gas stations will be required to sell fuel blended with ethanol, one lawmaker is already reconsidering the state’s year-old renewable fuel mandate, provoking an industry that’s invested upward of $300 million to produce ethanol in, and for, the Oregon market.

Sen. Vicki Walker (D-Eugene) calls ethanol a “boondoggle” and says one of her top priorities in the next legislative session is to repeal or retool the requirement that all unleaded fuel sold in the state be at least 10% ethanol. Walker voted for the law, but now calls her decision a mistake. She says most of her other Natural Resources Committee members side with her.

As more states set biofuel standards and more drivers begin to use it, ethanol as a viable alternative to conventional gas is coming under fresh scrutiny at a time when gas prices are soaring.

Walker says the gas mileage in her Toyota Camry hybrid has dipped since she started using the blended fuel, an ethanol side effect the industry acknowledges. She also blames the increased use of corn for ethanol for rising food prices, although experts continue to debate this. “We have created a very expensive alternative to fuel,” she says.

In June, the new Cascade Grain plant in Clatskanie began producing its goal of 113 million gallons of ethanol per year. President Charles Carlson says the $200 million plant was built in Oregon because of the renewable fuel law, and vows to fight any attempt to overturn it.

It’s a “knee-jerk reaction” Carlson says of Walker’s plans. When locally produced and sold, ethanol drives down prices at the pump and reduces dependence on foreign oil, he says.

The Oregon Environmental Council recognizes corn ethanol isn’t the most efficient alternative fuel, but supports the law because it lays the infrastructure for future investment and research in Oregon into other biofuels such as cellulostic ethanol, says John Galloway, program director.

“Corn ethanol is the only market-ready crop right now,” says Tim Raphael, director of government affairs for Sacramento-based Pacific Ethanol. Last year the company completed a $100 million ethanol plant in Boardman. In January the federal Department of Energy awarded the company $25 million to research and produce cellulosic ethanol at its Boardman facility.

Repealing the law would have a “chilling effect” on similar research and investment, says Raphael.                    

JASON SHUFFLER


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