When it was first promoted as a biofuel source perfect for the Montana plains, camelina looked to many like a weed. Seven tough years later, its persistence is being tested.
Acres planted in the crop have plummeted from 22,500 in 2007 to 2,500 in 2011 and possibly even fewer last year, say biofuel companies that once hoped Montana farmers would seed camelina in acres too tough for wheat.
One of the bigger camelina companies in the state, Sustainable Oils, told The Gazette that its farmers planted just 600 acres in 2012. High payouts for conventional crops, coupled with little to no crop insurance for camelina, worked against the plant that had won support from former Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer.
But biofuel producers say the Environmental Protection Agency might have given camelina the break it has needed. Two weeks ago, the EPA approved camelina oil as a low-carbon feed stock under the Renewable Fuel Standard, which mandates a steep ramp up in U.S. biofuel use to reduce greenhouse gases.
Camelina oil is a clean-burning replacement for diesel fuel that can be used in diesel engines without modification. Other vegetable oils also used as diesel replacements have received EPA approval and done well. The Renewable Fuel Standard qualification could give the biofuel new legs — probably not this growing season, but at least by fall.
“You’ll see, there’s a real cause and effect here,” said Scott Johnson, of Sustainable Oils. “We’re going to take care of our growers that are committed to us now. … Then we fully expect to see growth late in the season, in the fall and next spring.”
The federal government gives approved Renewable Fuel Standard fuels identifiers known as “renewable identification numbers.” Called RINs for short, the 38-digit serial numbers are assigned to every gallon of biofuel produced.
Petroleum companies required to blend biofuel into their products collect RINs and submit them to the government as proof they are adding biofuels. When companies haven’t blended enough biofuel, they go shopping for RINs to buy.
Camelina companies now have RINs to sell, Johnson said, which should benefit production. It’s a big break for a fuel that struggled to find support in the post-recession economy.
Montana biofuel companies generally didn’t fare well during the recession or afterward. There was some federal support for biofuel research made available through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, but there wasn’t much support after that money expired. Biofuel producers like Montana Microbial Products seemed close to increasing their fuel production but lacked funding to do so.
“Ever since the economic collapse, raising capital has been harder,” said Cliff Bradley, of Montana Microbial Products. “If we had done this before 2007, it would have been better.”
Montana Microbial Products perfected a way to make fish food from barley, which created ethanol as a byproduct. The fish food was to answer a chronic problem for fish farms, which feed their trout and salmon pellets made from ground up fish caught off the coast of South America. Those pellets often come from waters polluted with chemical products like fire retardant. The retardant is then passed on to the farmed fish.
Bradley said it has been hard to find venture capital investors interested in a business with equipment and building costs. These days, investors would rather spend their money on intellectual property.
Momentum is building for biomass-based butanol, created from northwest Montana’s pine beetle killed trees, said Brian Spangler of the state Biomass Energy Program. Part of the Department of Environmental Quality, the biomass program is partnering with researchers from several states to produce butanol-based fuel for airplanes. The name of the group doing the butanol project is the Northwest Advanced Renewables Alliance. Organized at Washington State University, NARA is developing not only ways to make fuel but also to distribute it around the region, possibly using existing infrastructure.
Butanol doesn’t attract water like ethanol does, which makes it practical for air and marine use. The wood fuel behaves more like gasoline and can be burned in automobiles without modification. The fuel can also be shipped by pipeline, Spangler said, something ethanol cannot do.
“This whole $40 million grant for NARA is all about butanol, which can be put right in a pipeline and transported,” Spangler said.
Ethanol use is Montana is up, Spangler said. Montana fuel providers now generally blend ethanol at 10 percent in Montana gasoline. A year ago, that wasn’t the case for Montana refineries. There are no commercial ethanol plants in Montana, so imported ethanol was blended infrequently.