Originally created 06/12/06

Biofuels grab attention of agriculture candidates



ATLANTA - When gasoline prices edged toward $3 a gallon, Houston George would pay about $60 to fill up his Ford Explorer.

Soon, he hopes to drive around on vegetable oil.

Mr. George, who lives in Marietta, recently traded in his Explorer for a Ford F350 diesel pickup and ordered a customized auxiliary tank to hold 60 gallons of vegetable oil - his first jump into the world of alternative fuels.

"My brother has a fleet of (work) trucks," Mr. George said. "He's waiting to see how this turns out."

Through his research in the small but growing Atlanta market of biodiesel sellers, Mr. George said he thinks he can get modified vegetable oil fuel for $1 a gallon cheaper than conventional diesel.

But that was not his deciding factor in looking at biodiesel.

"It's not a fossil fuel. That was the No. 1 reason," he said. "I care about reducing grease that's going in a landfill and reducing emissions."

WHETHER THEY'RE concerned about their pocketbook or the environment, more consumers are taking a serious look at alternative fuels, and Georgia political hopefuls are paying attention.

For the first time, biofuel has a place in the crowded race for agriculture commissioner this year.

All four Republican candidates and Democratic incumbent Tommy Irvin have made the issue some part of their campaign platform and are trying to tell voters how they would promote the fledgling industry in Georgia.

"This is kind of the biggest year that biofuel has been the focus of" campaigns, said Anne Gilliam, the diesel campaign coordinator for the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy advocacy group.

But the options are still limited for consumers wanting to use biodiesel or ethanol, because of both car technology and the small number of retail outlets in the state.

Agriculture commissioner candidates say they see biofuels as a growth industry that could help Georgia's farmers and timber companies, which are both getting pinched by oversees growers.

"I think we've waited too long already," said Gary Black, who will face the three other Republican candidates in the July 18 primary.

Mr. Black said the topic is usually the first one he hears while visiting farmers even though other voters still are not as familiar with the subject.

Biodiesel is a renewable fuel made from natural oils, such as soybean, and can be used in diesel engines. Another area receiving increased attention is ethanol, which is made by distilling the starch or sugar from various types of plant matter.

A mix of current conditions - from high gasoline prices to increased concerns about air quality around the state's metro areas - have candidates thinking this issue will stick around.

"People are not expecting gasoline to get back in the $2 range," Mr. Irvin said. Biofuel is "very competitive when gasoline gets over $2.50 a gallon."

Middle East turmoil also has some consumers looking at alternative fuels.

"Certainly it's fuel prices, but I think Americans and Georgians are really sick of being so dependent on foreign oil no matter what the price is," said Sen. Brian Kemp, R-Athens, who decided not to run for his legislative seat again for a shot at agriculture commissioner. "We've got a unique opportunity in Georgia to really be a leader in the world for biofuels."

Agriculture commissioner candidate Bob Greer said he supports state incentives to help get the facilities started and help farmers grow energy crops.

"We need to work on a program of tax incentives for them to grow these products and to get involved," he said.

A debate has developed over whether states should promote the biofuels industry by adopting usage rules - either statewide in private vehicles or just in government-owned fleets.

Earlier this year, Mr. Kemp introduced legislation that would have required government and school vehicles to use at least 2 percent biodiesel for their fuel. The bill passed the Senate but never got voted on in the House.

Proponents of the idea say it would help the industry get established in Georgia, but commissioner candidate Deanna Strickland said she was wary of making it a rule.

"Out there in the rural part of the state, we have school districts that can barely afford to put diesel in their school buses," she said.

Reach Vicky Eckenrode at (404) 681-1701 or vicky.eckenrode@morris.com.