Environment and Technology and Transportation, Distribution & Logistics

CHRIS KATTERJOHN Commentary: 'Dallas'-like TV hit in our future?

March 20, 2006

Just as the popular prime-time soap opera "Dallas" emerged from Texas oil-industry lore, "Indiana" someday could become a mega-hit on television.

After, that is, the state becomes the "Texas of biofuels" and the lurid, steamy tales of Big Biofuel begin to play out.

I'm not sure who came up with "Texas of biofuels," but the analogy surfaced after the recent announcement that the world's largest soybean processing plant and biodiesel facility will be built in northern Indiana. With this project, two other biodiesel facilities and a handful of ethanol plants under construction here, the state is poised to become a leading producer in the biofuels industry. What better ancillary use for our corn and soybeans than using them to make ethanol and biodiesel?

Biofuel production has been on the state's radar as a potential economic engine for years. But Gov. Mitch Daniels deserves points for incorporating agri-business into his election campaign and then doing something about it.

As it turns out, the governor's initiative coincided with a new strategy at the Indiana Soybean Board, where leadership made a commitment to work with the new administration to boost agriculture, according to Chris Novak, executive director of the board.

This confluence of forces has created "a great new climate for ag development" in Indiana and has his farmers talking about "the stars aligning," Novak says. Timing is everything, and this business could have major long-term impact for Indiana.

The environmental benefits of both ethanol and biodiesel, both of which burn cleaner than petroleum products, are well-documented.

Another benefit: The growth of the biofuel industry will allow us to become less oil-dependent in this world where most oil-producing nations are vulnerable to volatile constituencies and the threat of terrorism.

We must also remember that we can't grow oil.

From a practical standpoint, biodiesel is user-friendly because it can be used in conventional diesel engines without major engine modifications.

Those who have tried it swear by it. After a two-year experiment with three school buses begun in the fall of 2003, the Monroe County Community School Corp. converted its entire fleet of more than 100 buses to biodiesel.

Today, all Monroe County public transportation systems-including city fleet and public buses, the county highway department and Indiana University buses-use a 20-percent blend of soy biodiesel.

School systems in Zionsville, Muncie, Fort Wayne and South Bend have jumped on the same bandwagon. Indianapolis Power & Light Co. uses biodiesel in some of its vehicles.

Ethanol is not quite the no-brainer. Today's cars can run on 10-percent ethanol blends, but higher blends of ethanol, such as E85, require flexible fuel vehicles to achieve greater environmental benefits.

By all accounts, petroleum products are still more efficient in terms of performance and miles-per-gallon ratings. And at times, depending on overall market conditions, biofuels are more expensive.

The costs of producing biofuels are still higher than petroleum, too, although most experts agree that as technology progresses, those costs will decline significantly.

These are small prices to pay when you consider the end game, i.e. a cleaner world and healthier planet, lesser dependence on foreign oil, and a significant cut in our defense costs to protect the oil fields of the Middle East.

Equally important, a burgeoning biofuel industry would be great for Indiana corn and soybean farmers, giving them a lucrative, new market in their own back yard. And finally, this industry would nicely leverage other Hoosier strengths-transportation and distribution. I hope the stars continue to align to promote agribusiness and maximize Indiana's agricultural traditions in the new world. Then, who knows, maybe someday my grandchildren or great-grandchildren will be watching reruns of "Indiana," the hottest prime-time soap opera of 21st century television.



Katterjohn is publisher of IBJ.To comment on this column, go to IBJ Forum at www.ibj.comor send e-mail to ckatterjohn@ibj.com.
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