Legislator calls for biofuel in heat oil

Posted Nov. 25, 2009, at 7:48 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — A Bangor lawmaker is hoping to encourage growth in Maine’s biofuel industry by requiring that, within two years, all heating oil sold in the state contains a small percentage of fuels produced from renewable sources.

Rep. Steve Butterfield said his proposal, which was developed with the association representing Maine’s heating oil dealers, is modeled after similar requirements in a handful of other states. Butterfield added a number of provisions allowing the governor to suspend the mandate in order to protect consumers should the biofuel market fail to mature.

“We thought that was very important because, again, this is not intended to be, nor is it going to be, a burden on Maine homeowners,” said Butterfield, D-Bangor.

The proposal would require that beginning in July 2011, all No. 2 home heating oil sold in Maine contain 2 percent of fuel derived from renewable sources rather than crude oil. As the amount of biofuel produced in Maine increases, so will the amount of biofuel that will be mixed into traditional heating oil.

Both Butterfield and Jamie Py with the Maine Energy Marketers Association — formerly known as the Maine Oil Dealers Association — point out that homeowners will not have to make any modifications to their furnaces to burn the blended oil because of the low percentage of biofuel.

Biofuels are produced from used oils, such as recycled frying oil from restaurants, as well as from some seeds, grasses and other agricultural products.

But Butterfield, along with other state officials, is most excited about the prospects of producing biofuels from byproducts in the papermaking industry. Because these plants are not using conventional food crops, they avoid most of the controversy that has swirled around ethanol as more farmers grow corn for fuel rather than for food.

University of Maine researchers are working with Old Town Fuel & Fiber — located in the former Georgia-Pacific Corp. mill — to fine-tune techniques to produce biofuels from cellulose.

While the bill does not require that biofuel sold in Maine be produced in-state, dramatically increasing the market for biofuel with even a 2 percent mandate could provide additional incentives to biofuel companies and researchers in Maine, he said.

“We have a huge potential” in Maine, said Butterfield. “Where we are with biofuels today is where we were with wind power a few years ago.”

The bill, which the Legislature will consider by early next year, would also require that heating oil meet the definition of “ultra low-sulfur” in order to reduce emissions of pollutants that contribute to acid rain.

The current draft of the legislation includes clauses allowing the governor to suspend the 2 percent requirement if the price rises more than 20 percent above the market price for standard fuel, or if there is insufficient supply of biofuels in Maine.

A growing number of heating oil suppliers already offer customers the option of buying a biofuel blend, which often costs slightly more than traditional heating oil. Py said he uses oil containing 5 percent biofuel in his furnace and there is no noticeable difference in performance.

Py said part of the reason his organization supports the bill is that it will encourage the private market to produce heating oil from local, renewable natural resources without forcing oil dealers to change their business infrastructure or homeowners to retrofit furnaces.

“It’s definitely feasible,” Py said. “The question has always been whether the price [of biofuel] will be a problem, and it has not been a problem so far.”

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