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October 11, 2007 at 12:20 PM

Biofuel musings on the Willamette

PORTLAND, Ore. – BBI Biofuels’ Western Region workshop – whose motto is “building an industry” – made me ponder how far this budding sector is from Houston and All Things Oil.

Maybe it’s only Portland’s small city blocks, functional urban transport and northern European feel. Or maybe it’s the way the conference looked compared to those in H-Town: no extravagant shrimp buffets or George H.W. Bush keynote speech, and certainly not as many suits wearing high-priced cowboy boots.

But the bravado – riding high on boom times – was the same.

Here are some salient points from the conference:

* People absolutely don’t like oil refineries in their backyards, but they’re somewhat more amenable to similar-looking big, noisy chemical facilities that produce alternative fuels. “The green aspect seems to overcome the NIMBY syndrome, but not entirely,” said Dan Parker, chief executive of Parker-Messana Consulting Engineers, who helped design Imperium Renewables’ Grays Harbor plant.

* Biodiesel is still a niche fuel, but the Northwest is emerging as a national hotspot. The region is far from where biodiesel feedstocks (canola, soybean, palm oil) are grown, but there are many retailers and distributors here handling the fuel, says Thomas Endicott, who heads SeQuential Biofuels, an Oregon biofuel retailer. Over 50 pumps in Washington and 35 in Oregon sell biodiesel at blends higher than 20 percent, “one of the highest concentrations of pumps in the country,” he said. Some 40 “jobbers” – as fuel distributors are called – now distribute biodiesel in the region.

Part of the reason is political: City and state governments have been among the hardest pushers for the fuel to succeed. Portland is the only city in the country with a biodiesel mandate in place; government fleets are still the main purchasers of the fuel, he said.

* Energy independence is not so much isolation as supply diversification – and biofuels enable that. “We’re starting to see a shift from countries depending on petroleum to those being able to produce their own oil,” said Will Thurmond, of Emerging Markets Online, a market research firm. Today, the world’s nearly 200 nations depend on 20 nations for their oil supply; by 2010, he predicts, half the planet’s countries will be producing some biofuel of their own.

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