For those who believe in the future of biodiesel in Arkansas, a recent front page of the Wall Street Journal may have brought some scowls and tears. The article declared the nation's biofuels boom was “running on empty” and listed reasons why the industry is distressed; for starters, the global credit crisis, a glut in capacity, and lower oil prices.
Here in Arkansas and throughout the Delta, that was not news. Those issues are at the heart of why we are not yet transforming soybean oil and other feedstocks into biodiesel at the pace we originally envisioned.
But, some of us remain hopeful — and some days we are encouraged — that biodiesel will emerge as a consistent source of energy for trucks, tractors, and other diesel-powered engines in the Delta and the nation.
First, the original reasons for America to turn to biofuels have not changed. As Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe told the 110 attending the Arkansas Clean Cities Coalition meeting recently, the rationale to support alternative fuels in our state remains a “no-brainer.”
For Arkansas, with its abundance of soybeans and other renewable feedstocks, a robust alternative fuels industry would create jobs and economic growth. In December 2008, research by the University of Arkansas at Little Rock Institute of Economic Advancement found the production and sale of just 60 million gallons of biodiesel in Arkansas could create more than 1,500 jobs and generate more than $11 million in new state and local tax revenue. The same story would hold true in prominent soybean-producing states.
Second, a shift to alternative fuels will contribute to energy independence and national security. We're addicted to foreign oil. As a nation, in July we spent about $24 billion for oil imports, or $537,381 per minute, an alarming amount of it from volatile countries who don't like America very much.
Third, the governor touted the environmental benefits of alternative fuels. We are proud that soy-based biodiesel reduces lifecycle carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, by 78 percent compared to petroleum diesel. Biodiesel burns cleaner in today's diesel engines, and for it to be certified, it must meet even more rigorous quality standards as petroleum fuel.
Gov. Beebe offered three benefits of alternative fuels, and he was correct. However, there are 184 more reasons I believe in the future of biodiesel. That is how many Arkansans are enrolled in the new “Renewable Energy Technology” courses at five higher-education institutions in our area.
When these students graduate, they will have a two-year degree that offers much-needed training to sustain the promise of renewable fuels. They'll be educated in basic mechanics, understanding biomass feedstocks, best industry practices, industrial safety, and more.
Those students, most of them college age, will not only know the importance of “green” jobs; they will be prepared to fill those jobs. They and others like them will also be consumers and champions of renewable fuels in Arkansas who understand the economic benefits of locally grown energy.
For those who think I'm too optimistic, I'll confess that I'm from a farming community, where we run up against freezes, floods, droughts, and hail — always at the worst possible time — and still seem to survive. So, yes, I'm an optimist, and I believe the time is right for America to achieve a stronger economy, greater energy independence, and a cleaner environment.
The answer, at least some of it, is found in the soybean fields of the Delta.
Troy Hornbeck is a principal of the Hornbeck Agricultural Group, the owner and operator of Arkansas SoyEnergy Group in DeWitt, Ark.