Petroleum limited; biofuels can help fill gap
President Bush said in his State of the Union speech that “America is addicted to foreign oil.”
To reduce this dependence, people are looking to “biofuels” made from agricultural crops such as biodiesel from oilseed crops. While it is not practical to replace all our imported oil with biofuels, it certainly can be part of the solution.
Many crops can produce oil suitable for conversion to biodiesel, but most of them are not suited for our cool climate. So far, canola provides the best combination of good seed yield, adaptation to our climate, relative ease of processing, and suitability for existing farm machinery and expertise. However, concerns have been raised about the dangers of growing canola on large acreages in the Klamath Basin. Are these concerns justified?
Here are some questions and answers:
What is canola?
Canola is a plant in the mustard family that was bred by Canadian researchers to produce an edible seed oil. The non-edible oil version of these species is commonly called industrial rapeseed.
Isn’t canola a risky new crop?
In the Klamath Basin it had not been grown or studied until last year. However, it has been grown on tens of thousands of acres in Canada and the Dakotas for nearly 30 years. Oregon State University scientists have studied it in the Pendleton area for over 15 years, and more recently at other sites too.
Hasn’t it become a noxious weed problem throughout Canada?
No. Wild mustard, wild rapeseed, and related species can be a weed in certain situations, but are controlled by normal crop rotation and herbicide use. Wild mustard has long been widespread across North America, including the Klamath Basin. Wild mustard’s domesticated cousin, canola, is less vigorous and less persistent, and has not been a significant weed problem after 20-plus years of cultivation.
Richard Roseberg is an associate professor at the Oregon State University Crop and Science Department. He works at the Klamath Basin Research and Extension Center in Klamath Falls.
Wild mustard, like many weeds, has a built-in survival mechanism. Many of its seeds will not germinate the first year. These seeds are “hard” and can remain in the soil until ideal conditions occur, perhaps several years later, when they can grow. On the other hand, newer canola varieties have been selected by plant breeders for uniform rapid germination, but seeds do not persist in the soil over time. Canola seeds left in the field after harvest may germinate with the first rainfall, but very few seeds will sprout after that.
Doesn’t canola cross-pollinate with other crops and ruin them?
Pollen from canola, like many crops, can mix with pollen from other similar species, affecting the purity of the seed that is produced. It does not affect the quality of the vegetative part of those crops, only the seed. This can be a problem if you are in the business of growing vegetable seeds of crops that are similar to canola. In major seed producing areas like the Willamette Valley, seed growers of all types have restrictions on where they can plant certain crops precisely to avoid contaminating their neighbor’s seed crop. OSU is studying canola to develop safe growing practices in these areas. However, in places like the Klamath Basin this is not an issue since there is no commercial vegetable seed production here. We can. Using recycled grease to make biodiesel is fairly common, and the supply of this grease is quickly getting used up. There’s just not that much recycled grease compared to the amount of fuel we burn each day.
So can we grow enough canola to replace petroleum diesel?
No, but we can replace some. It would take about 10,000 acres of canola to produce 1 million gallons of biodiesel. That sounds like a lot, but in Oregon we consume around 2 million gallons of diesel per day. Thus it would take nearly 8 million acres of canola to provide 100 percent of Oregon’s diesel need. It is clear that agriculture cannot replace petroleum energy by itself, but growing renewable energy such as biodiesel where it makes sense can be a part of the total energy picture.
Does biodiesel work as well as petroleum diesel?
Pure biodiesel can have fuel line problems in cold weather, but using blends or additives eliminates the problem. Mileage is similar. Overall, biodiesel burns with fewer particulates and lower overall pollution compared to petroleum diesel. Many people think it smells better too. Biodiesel blends are identified by the amount of biodiesel in the mix. Thus a B20 fuel is 20 percent biodiesel and 80 percent petroleum diesel. Blended biodiesel is now available locally in bulk, and fuel stations selling biodiesel blends are becoming more common in the region.
Isn’t this biodiesel thing just a passing fad?
In 1892 Rudolph Diesel invented the diesel engine. His early engines ran on peanut oil, and most diesel engines ran on some sort of crop oil source until the 1920s, when they were altered to run better on petroleum diesel. In the end, government rules and the market will dictate what happens with biofuels, but petroleum is a limited resource. Biofuels can be one piece of the long-term energy puzzle.
For more information about canola, see the OSU Oilseed project Web site at http://cropandsoil.oregonstate.edu/bioenergy/index.html
To learn more about the long-term canola breeding program by Dr. Jack Brown at the University of Idaho, see www.ag.uidaho.edu/brassica/index.html