Connecting Capitol Hill to the Midwest

U.S. Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., is part of a growing group in Congress that is interested in and excited about the potential benefits of renewable fuels in the United States. Here, he shares some of his ideas and plans with EPM.
By Jessica Sobolik | January 01, 2008
Q: Renewable fuels, including ethanol and biodiesel, have become popular in Congress in the past couple years. Can you explain why support for the industry is building steam on the Hill?
A: Renewable fuels hold tremendous potential to reduce America's dangerous dependence on imported oil, grow local economies, reduce harmful greenhouse gas emissions and provide new markets for farmers. These are win-win-win solutions.

I coauthored the original renewable fuels standard that was included in the Energy Policy Act of 2005. It called for the production of 7.5 billion gallons of renewable fuel annually by 2012. We are now on pace to exceed that goal as soon as next year. I have also introduced legislation to expand the renewable fuels standard to 36 billlion gallons by 2022.

It is important to continue to find ways to reduce the imported oil we use in our daily lives. In America, we use 25 percent of the world's oil. We import more than 60 percent of that oil—much of it from hostile parts of the world. Many in Congress feel that America will remain vulnerable if we continue to depend on Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, Iran, Venezuela and others to feed our energy appetite. Renewable fuels are an important way to help satisfy our energy demand.

Q: What challenges do you think the industry will face in the future?
A: The largest challenge facing renewable fuels in the immediate future is ensuring that we have the proper infrastructure.

For example, we have more than 16,000 flexible-fuel vehicles on the road in North Dakota but only 23 E85 pumps. We have been successful in our efforts to boost production of renewable fuels, but at the same time, we need to make sure drivers have access to vehicles that can burn greater blends of ethanol and have access to E85 and blender pumps.

We are producing more renewable fuels, but we need to find ways to market and deliver renewable fuels to the consumer. I introduced bipartisan legislation earlier this year wtih Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., called the Renewable Fuels Strategy Act. It requires automakers to manufacture more flexible-fuel vehicles and creates greater incentives and requirements for service stations to install renewable fuels pumps.

Q: Earlier this year, you introduced the Security and Fuel Efficiency (SAFE) Energy Act of 2007 (S.875). What is the purpose of this bill?
A: The SAFE Energy Act is a comprehensive approach to reducing America's dependence on foreign oil. I recognize there is no "silver bullet" to solving our energy crisis. We can't dig and drill our way out of our current energy crisis—that's a strategy I call "yesterday forever." Conservation alone is not the only answer, either. The SAFE Act is a balanced energy policy that reduces the amount of oil we use in our economy.

The SAFE Act includes four parts: 1) gradual increases in vehicle efficiency standards, 2) expansion of the production and use of renewable fuels, 3) access to oil and gas reserves in the eastern Gulf of Mexico, and 4) enhancement of international diplomatic alliances for energy security. I worked with the Energy Security Leadership Council, a group of senior business executives and retired military commanders, to develop this balanced energy strategy. It will help to ensure that the generations that follow aren't left vulnerable by a reliance on foreign oil.

Q: The Senate recently passed the Clean Energy Act. How did that come about? Any debates or concerns?
A: The Senate passed the Clean Energy Act in June to address rising energy prices and our growing addiction to imported oil. This bill represents the work of four Senate committees. Each passed strong bipartisan bills that were packaged into the Clean Energy Act.

The Clean Energy Act includes many provisions that were controversial but long overdue, including increases in vehicle efficiency standards that haven't changed in more than 20 years. I was pleased that three of the four key pieces of my SAFE Energy Act were included in the bill that passed the Senate, including increases in vehicle efficiency standards, expanded production of renewable fuels and enhanced energy diplomacy. The House passed its own Energy Bill in August. Now the Senate and House are working to reconcile the two bills in order to send one final bill to the president for his signature.

Q: As one of the original authors of the Energy Policy Act of 2005, would you say it has worked as intended thus far? Do you feel there is room to expand that legislation?
A: The Energy Policy Act of 2005 was a boost to the renewable fuels industry, and the Clean Energy Act expands on that. The renewable fuels standard I mentioned earlier will be expanded nearly sevenfold to 36 billion gallons by 2022 and calls for greater production of advanced biofuels from biomass and other feedstocks. Where we have room to grow is in providing more robust, long-term incentives for renewables. The Senate Finance Committee developed a package of tax incentives that extends for two years (through Dec. 31, 2012) an important tax credit that encourages production of renewable fuels. It also creates a new production tax credit that will hlep encourage investment in cellulosic ethanol. Unfortunately, even these short-term extensions didn't receive enough votes to pass as a part of the Clean Energy Act. However, the Energy Bill passed by the House of Representatives includes tax incentives and we hope to include renewable fuels incentives in the final bill that's sent to the president.

Q: You have an energy plan for North Dakota. Do you think this is something that other states could implement as well, tailored to their own resources?
A: I believe a coherent energy plan is important for any state to have, and that's why my goal has been to create an Energy Corridor in North Dakota. The state has a vast and diverse portfolio of energy resources, and the development of those resources will help our state's economy and our nation by leading us toward energy independence.

North Dakota is the Saudi Arabia of wind. We have tremendous coal and oil reserves. We produce corn, sugar beets, biomass and other feedstocks that can be converted into ethanol. No state has greater potential than North Dakota to provide significant amounts of energy to meet our country's growing demand.

Q: Often the oil and renewable fuels industries are pitted against each other. Do you feel the two could work together to benefit everyone?
A: We will always use our fossil fuels. That is a fact. The question is how we use them. We also need to work together to develop our renewable fuels industry. Yes, we need to dig some. Yes, we need to drill. Fossil fuels will always be a part of our energy portfolio. We also need to understand that renewable energy is no longer some sort of sideshow. Renewable energy is a significant part of our energy portfolio, and must work in concert with fossil fuels in a way that benefits our energy supply, helps reduce our dependence on foreign oil and addresses climate change.

More oil companies are blending renewable fuels like ethanol or biodiesel into their fuel mix. New research is showing that alternative renewable fuels feedstocks such as algae could create even greater collaboration between fossil and renewables. As more energy companies look for ways to capture carbon dioxide for beneficial use, they could theoretically inject that carbon dioxide in algae pond farms that could be harvested as a feedstock for renewable fuel. Finding new and innovative ways to meet energy demand was one of the themes of the Great Plains Energy Expo that I co-hosted in late October in Bismarck, N.D. I organized this event with Bismarck State College and Kadrmas, Lee & Jackson to bring all the major players together—both from the fossil fuels and renewable industries—to discuss our energy future and how to harness it to benefit our state and our nation.

Our country's demand for energy is growing very rapidly, and I believe there is enough room for both industries to succeed.

Q: What other renewable fuels do you see becoming major energy players in the future?
A: Fuel that comes from biomass or cellulose holds tremendous potential for this country. The renewable fuels standard included in the Senate version of the Clean Energy Act contained a provision that mandates the production and use of 21 billion gallons of nonstarch, or biomass-derived fuel, between 2015 and 2022. This country has rich biomass resources like wood chips, crop residues and waste, switchgrass, and many others that can be utilized without significantly impacting traditional farmland.

Ultimately, we must continue to develop all forms of renewable energy. I have funded a project in North Dakota that uses wind power to separate hydrogen from water through electrolysis. Vehicles that run on hydrogen, for example, get twice the power and efficiency to the wheel, and emit water vapor out the tailpipe.

These renewable fuels provide income for our farmers. They help protect the environment and reduce the need to import oil from nations that want to harm us. It is critical that we develop our renewable fuels, and I'm going to keep working to make sure we do so.

Jessica Sobolik is the Ethanol Producer Magazine managing editor. Reach her at or (701) 373-0636.