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Renewable energy featured in ag bill

ST. PAUL - Minnesota policymakers earlier this year decided 25 percent of the state's electricity should come from renewable sources, but now the movement is expanding to include motor vehicle fuel and other energy sources.

Part of an agriculture funding bill the House passed 131-2 Tuesday would put that requirement into law. For instance, it would require 25 percent of fuel used in cars to be made from renewable sources such as plant-based ethanol by 2025.

The mandate is in a $91 million appropriation for state agriculture programs in the two-year budget beginning July 1. By week's end, the House should adopt all of its budget bills, with a bill increasing income taxes on the richest Minnesotans due on the House floor next week.

House agriculture committee Chairman Al Juhnke, DFL-Willmar, called the ag bill "the most bipartisan bill you'll see come through the Legislature this year."

A Senate-passed bill has many similar provisions to the one representatives passed Tuesday. It did not specifically list the 25 percent mandate, but did provide subsidies for biofuel production.

Rep. Aaron Peterson, DFL-Appleton, complained that the House bill does not go far enough to support renewable fuels. Aid provided in the bill will not get Minnesota to the 25 percent level, he said.

The bill includes several provisions to promote Minnesota-grown energy. For example, it establishes the NexGen Renewable Energy Board to provide low-interest loans and grants to bioenergy projects.

Also, the bill makes the Crookston-based Agriculture Utilization Research Institute the renewable energy coordinator.

It also funds several bioenergy projects around Minnesota. Among those is $200,000 for the White Earth Band of Chippewa to study various plants - such as wood, corn stalks and prairie grass - that could be used to make ethanol. Another $200,000 would go to the Bois Forte Band of Chippewa to establish a small community-based wood-fueled ethanol plant.

Another bill, funding environmental projects, representatives passed early Wednesday funds a variety of other energy-related programs, including adding $3.1 million to a wind energy loan fund and $3 million for a University of Minnesota program to increase renewable energy use.

The environment bill spends $10 million to study hydrogen as a fuel. It also would pay $2 million to install more E-85 ethanol fuel pumps and $400,000 for a Koochiching County project to convert trash to energy.

Rep. Dean Urdahl, R-Grove City, failed to pass his pet measure - eliminating lawsuits against food companies from people who blame them for getting fat.

"If you eat too many cheeseburgers and get fat, don't sue the food industry," is how Urdahl summarized his failed amendment.

House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher, DFL-Minneapolis, ruled the amendment did not pertain to the bill, so no vote was allowed.

The ag bill also:

-- Allows the state to pay $100 to $20,000 to farmers when livestock is crippled or killed by a gray wolf.

-- Requires the state Agriculture Department to inspect grain exported from the Port of Duluth.

-- Orders the ag department to establish a place in each county to accept waste pesticides.

-- Provides state payments to owners of cattle who must kill animals that may have bovine tuberculosis, a problem especially in northwestern Minnesota.

-- Extends for five years a moratorium on new open-air swine manure lagoons

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.