Members of Congress rarely dabble in state politics. But Congressman Mike Ross, D-Ark., has begun telling audiences in and out of Arkansas that its General Assembly should pass legislation mandating the use of renewable fuels in the state.

Ross, a member of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, says renewable fuel use and state legislation requiring the blending of ethanol and gasoline or biodiesel and regular diesel seem to go hand in hand.

“You can talk about incentives and loan guarantee programs until the cows come home,” he said, “but if you look at states that have a 10 percent requirement that all gasoline be ethanol or a 5 percent requirement that all diesel be biodiesel, that’s where you will find the majority of the country’s ethanol and biodiesel plants.”

Ross cited Minnesota, the home of House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson, as an example of the positive impact blended fuel mandates can have on renewable fuel production and consumption.

“Twenty years ago, Minnesota did not have a requirement for its gasoline to contain a 10 percent ethanol blend,” he said, speaking at an Energy Outlook Seminar at the Mid-South Farm and Gin Show in Memphis, Tenn. “And they had zero ethanol plants. Arkansas still doesn’t have any.”

Arkansas has two biodiesel refining plants, both of which have small capacity compared to plants in states that require a 5 percent or 10 percent blend of biodiesel with regular diesel.

Minnesota recently passed a law increasing the requirement from a 10 percent to a 15 percent ethanol blend in gasoline, “and they now have 18 ethanol plants, all employing 35 to 40 people, making $45,000 to $60,000 each,” said Ross.

“You can’t drive around the state of Minnesota without seeing corn growing and growing in places where it used to not grow. Not only can we do this with corn, we can use rice hulls, woody mass, slash, treetops, and tree limbs. There’s a lot of stuff we could be doing this with, but we’re not in most states.”

Several Mid-South legislatures have considered laws requiring ethanol or biodiesel blends, but only Louisiana has enacted such a mandate. In Louisiana, the minimum percentage of ethanol or biodiesel blends increases as the state’s renewable fuel production capacity rises.

Increasing the production of biofuels provides an “amazing” opportunity to change the face of the farming industry and trigger an agricultural revival, while improving national security, said Ross, who represents most of south Arkansas in Congress.

The congressman said he can’t say with certainty to dependence that oil is 5 percent, 10 percent or 50 percent of the primary reason the United States went to war in Iraq. “The truth is that across the country and here in the Delta, Americans are paying the price for a failed energy policy.”

Currently, the United States consumes 21 million barrels of oil a day, of which 12 million barrels are imported. That means the country is 60 percent dependent on foreign oil. Further, only 2 percent of the world’s oil reserves are located in the United States.”

Critics have said that blends of ethanol and gasoline and biodiesel are expensive and would not be competitive with straight gasoline or diesel without the tax incentives provided by the federal government. Ross disagrees.

“I do know that we’re sending $12 million an hour of your tax money to Iraq at the same time that they’re telling you that we have to shave back the 2007 farm bill,” he said. “Furthermore, if we’re spending $3 a gallon for gasoline like we were in August, but we’re sending $12 million an hour to Iraq, where they’re sitting on the second largest oil reserves in the world, how much are we really paying per gallon?

“I don’t know, and I don’t think any of us do. But I believe it is an important reason why we must reduce our dependence on foreign oil, and one of the ways we do that is by investing in alternative and renewable fuels like ethanol and biodiesel.”

Reducing dependence on foreign oil is more than an abstract issue to residents of rural Arkansas, some of whom drive 50 miles or more a day to get to work and back. Others are having difficulty paying this winter’s high utility bills.

“I have a difficult time explaining this to members who represent districts that have mass transit systems,” said Ross. “I’ve told them that mass transit in southwest Arkansas is hitching a ride on a log truck.”

Writing the 2007 farm bill could be the next step in accomplishing America’s energy independence on its farms, said Ross, who served on the House Agriculture Committee before moving to Energy and Commerce.

“The 2002 farm bill created programs to help farmers, ranchers and small businesses invest in biofuels, wind and solar power and energy efficiency programs,” he said. “Chairman Peterson and I agree the 2007 farm bill should continue these and contain funding increases for research, development and production of biofuels such as cellulosic ethanol and biodiesel.”

Among those are the Section 9006 Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Program, the Section 6401 Value-added Producer Program, the Section 9008 Biomass Research and Development Program and others.

“While I support increased funding for the energy title of the farm bill, I also believe we must carefully examine the costs and benefits associated with any increased demand for feedstocks to minimize negative effects on producers and consumers,” he said.

The administration’s farm bill and budget proposals include $1.6 billion in renewable energy funding, including $500 million for an agriculture bioenergy and biobased research initiative, $500 million for renewable energy systems and energy efficiency improvements and $100 million to support producers of cellulosic ethanol.

“All of these efforts are steps in the right direction, but I believe much more can and should be done. That is why I am writing legislation to put our nation on a path to energy independence.”

His plan, he said, will focus on investing in alternative and renewable fuels such as cellulosic ethanol and biodiesel, increasing the domestic energy supply and supporting research and development for advanced technologies such as nuclear, clean coal and hydrogen power.

“We must create and extend tax credits for ethanol and biodiesel to encourage increased production of home-grown, American-made biofuels and expand the number of ethanol and biodiesel pumps at gas stations. We must also increase the number of flex fuel and hybrid vehicles and provide consumers with incentives to invest in these technologies.”

The United States must also allow more domestic and offshore oil drilling in places such as the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge and the outer continental shelf and using the revenues to fund alternative energy initiatives.

We’ve heard that Brazil became energy independent last year due, in part, to ethanol production,” Ross noted. “However, they also increased their domestic drilling nine times. We don’t have any plan to accomplish that in the United States.”

e-mail: flaws@farmpress.com