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Congressman says ethanol could reduce dependence on oil

By Matthew Stolle

mstolle@postbulletin.com

ST. PAUL -- U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson, the ranking Democrat on the U.S. House Agriculture Committee, said ethanol could play a key role in freeing the United States from its dependence on oil from Saudi Arabia if the country got serious about renewable fuels.

"If we were able to do everything that some of us would like to do, we could be completely off of Saudi oil in 10 years through ethanol and biodiesel production" and improved fuel efficiency standards, Peterson said.

Peterson, Minnesota's 7th District representative, made his remarks in St. Paul a day after the state Senate passed a bill to double the amount of ethanol in gasoline sold in Minnesota.

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Peterson said the war in Iraq and the volatility of the Middle East have opened people's eyes to the need for greater energy independence.

"Frankly, in my opinion, (Saudi Arabia is) almost a bigger problem than any other country in the Middle East. And that regime, at some point, is going to collapse. What we end up with is probably not going to be something that we like here in the United States," he said.

Currently, Minnesota gas is blended with 10 percent ethanol, an alcohol distilled from corn. The Legislature wants to bump that up to 20 percent by 2012. Minnesota is the only state in the nation with an ethanol mandate.

Yet, other states and countries are becoming aware of ethanol's economic potential, he said.

Mississippi, for example, is looking at building two or three large ethanol-producing plants, Peterson said. Iowa has or is in the process of building nine plants. Foreign countries are also getting into the act. Colombia is building its first production facility.

Indeed, Peterson expressed a concern that there would be a short-term oversupply of ethanol with so many plants coming online.

Peterson said more needs to be done to encourage the use of E-85 fuel, a blend of 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline. There are currently 21 car models that use E-85. The problem is that there are too few E-85 gas pumps. Minnesota has about 100 of them. Another challenge is that some car dealers aren't even aware of the existence of E-85 cars.

"So some exciting things are happening, but it's kind of the chicken and egg thing. You're not going to have E-85 cars if you can't buy E-85 gas. So we've got to get the system in place," Peterson said.

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Legislators say that Minnesota would have to obtain a waiver from the Environmental Protection Agency to double its ethanol content in gas. But Peterson said the energy bill before the U.S. Senate would make the issue irrelevant by getting rid of the requirement for oxygenated fuels.

The bills moving through the state House and Senate have bipartisan support, a contrast from the days when the Legislature first imposed the 10 percent rule. Back then, the debate was heated and angry. Peterson said one reason for the growing acceptance of ethanol is that the nightmare scenarios first described by the ethanol foes never materialized.

"I think that's over with now. People see the possibilities," Peterson said.

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