Senators push for defense alternative fuels

Havre Daily News

by Tim Leeds

Montana’s U.S. senators have sponsored a bill that could increase demand for products grown on local farms.

Sens. Max Baucus and Jon Tester introduced a bill Monday authorizing the U.S. Department of Defense to contract to buy domestically produced renewable fuels for 20 years. The law now only allows contracting for the alternative fuels for five years.

“This bill will boost demand for Montana camelina and provide Montana farmers with a  reliable demand for their crop,” Baucus said in a press release. “And with demand for camelina comes good-paying jobs converting the crop into renewable fuel made right here in America.” 

Tester weighed in on domestic oilseed crop production in 2007, when he sponsored a bill creating a federal crop insurance program for camelina, a primary source in Montana of alternative fuel production.

“This legislation is a win-win because it fuels our military with renewable fuels that can grow well in Montana,” Tester said in the release. “Longer contracts mean more predictability for folks who raise crops like camelina"

Logan Fisher, who operates Earl Fisher Biofuels in Chester with his partner, Brett Earl, said this morning the bill could increase production of camelina and other oilseed crops. That would benefit the local biodiesel plant directly, as well as helping local farmers.

“I think it’s great,” he said. “Any time that the Department of Defense. the government, can buy product locally from our farms, it’s great for our area.”

The U.S. Air Force has a goal of purchasing alternatively produced products for half of its domestically used aviation fuel by 2016, the release said. It already has invested $13 million in testing and certification for aviation biofuels, and has contracted with Sustainable Oils — which recently opened a location in Bozeman — for 100,000 gallons of camelina-based bio-fuels.

The U.S. Navy has invested  $3 million in testing and certification for aviation biofuels and signed a contract with Sustainable Oils for the delivery of 40,000 gallons of camelina-based jet fuel.

The Department of Defense requested the longer contracting period, saying it could save money by allowing negotiation of cheaper contracts.

The release said that allowing the Defense Department to broker contracts like these for a longer period of time will increase demand for Montana camelina, and provide Montana camelina farmers with a sustainable long-term demand for their crop.

Fisher said the production of camelina, which is the primary source for Earl Fisher Biofuels’ biodiesel production, has dropped in the area after spiking during the high fuel prices in 2008.

If the Defense Department starts buying camelina-based fuel, that could make a difference.

“I think it’s possible (that it will increase production),” Fisher said. “Farmers need to get paid for their product” and can’t store it indefinitely.

He said the Chester plant does not produce aviation fuel, so would not directly sell to the Defense Department. But increasing the supply of camelina could help its production of biodiesel, he said.

Nestor “Jon” Soriano, the researcher at Montana State University Northern’s Bio-energy Innovation and Testing Center, said the center is beginning to test aviation fuel made from locally grown oilseeds. Funding for that research is through the U.S. Energy Department.

The bill could have a greater impact than just on jet fuel, Soriano added.

The center has been working with the North Central Montana Transit system, which fuels its buses with a biodiesel blend using fuel produced and tested at Northern, and with Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway, which is conducting a year-long test of using a biodiesel blend produced by Earl Fisher and tested at Northern.

Soriano said the center is working to increase awareness of the value of the locally produced fuel, which could lead to the purchase of biodiesel by the military  as well as other entities in and out of the government.

“One of our ideas is to increase awareness and hopefully, say at Malmstrom Air Base, let them know about it so they want to use it.”

He said the tests with the bus system — at that time using a 5-percent blend — were very successful at temperatures down to 30-below-zero. The testing now is with a 20-percent blend, and the center is waiting to record the results of that, Soriano said.

Northern’s Dean of the College of Technical Sciences Greg Kegel said in the release that the bill would create a win-win situation.

“This legislation will make a big difference for camelina growers in Montana,” Kegel said in the release.