- The Washington Times - Friday, May 11, 2007

The Mid-Atlantic states could become leading producers of alternative fuels as the ingredients to make ethanol expand beyond corn kernels in the coming years, analysts told the Chesapeake Bay Commission yesterday.

The region will have to balance the effects of new farming industries with renewed conservation efforts to preserve the Chesapeake Bay, the analysts told lawmakers from Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia who sit on the commission.

“The reality is that it’s coming. It is going to happen,” said William Matuszeski, a consultant who is developing a biofuels report for the commission. “We really can’t fight it.”

Midwest states, where most corn-based ethanol is generated now, have to truck their fuel to far away refineries in Philadelphia and other East Coast cities.

“We’re close to the refineries. We have the geographic advantage,” he said.

The fast growth of corn-based ethanol production will likely reach the Mid-Atlantic region first, prompting concerns over increased levels of nitrogen being added to the Bay. With up to 1 million new acres of corn possible in the region in the next few years, conservation gains made in the Bay since 1985 could be reversed if new measures aren’t adopted, Mr. Matuszeski said.

“That’s why it’s a serious concern,” he said, adding, “This is an opportunity as much as it is a set of problems.”

But the projection of 1 million new acres is exaggerated, said Douglas Scott, assistant secretary of the Maryland Department of Agriculture’s conservation office. He said 286,000 new acres are being planted this year in the six-state watershed, and “not all of those six states drain into the Chesapeake Bay.”

With limited land for corn production, the area could become a leader in the transition to ingredients besides grain, analysts told the commission. Emerging biotechnologies would enable the production of cellulose-based fuel from straw, stems and other agricultural leftovers. Cellulose, the woody material that makes plant stems hard, would be broken down into sugar to turn into ethanol.

Leftover forest materials in the region, which are typically burned, could be a big source of cellulosic ethanol, as would native grasses.

Such biofuel production would help reduce the nation’s dependence on foreign oil and help meet President Bush’s goal of producing 35 billion gallons of biofuel annually by 2017.

Biofuels from such materials can produce more energy than corn-based ethanol. Biodiesels, primarily from soybean oil, have similar advantages and potential to expand. A plant being constructed in Baltimore is focused on making biodiesel from chicken fat, and one in New Zealand uses algae grown in sewage-treatment plants.

Government subsidies for corn-based ethanol are a hurdle for the transition to other materials. Mr. Matuszeski said the commission could create incentives to encourage the private sector to invest in new technologies.

The final report is expected to be submitted to the commission in July for release in August.

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