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How green is our valley? 

WASHINGTON — For most of this decade, Arkansas politicians and many in the state's agricultural community have talked euphorically about the potential of biodiesel, an alternative fuel made from soybeans, to be a bonanza for the state.

But that picture is being questioned by critics who consider both biodiesel and its “big brother,” corn-based ethanol, to be government-subsidized boondoggles that take attention and money away from better solutions to dependence on fossil fuels.

Yet visions abounded — and still do — of a line of biodiesel plants running up and down the Mississippi Delta, adding to local tax bases and generating economic development in rural areas, as well as giving Arkansas farmers a voracious new market for soybeans, the state's second most important crop behind rice.

The state's farm press, university researchers and lawmakers, especially the congressional delegation, have been among the loudest in trumpeting the potential of Arkansas to become a major producer of biodiesel, which serves as either an additive to or replacement for petroleum-based diesel in buses, trucks, farm and other heavy equipment.

It can be labeled anything from “B2,” meaning diesel with 2 percent biodiesel content, to “B100” which is pure biodiesel. There about 65 service stations or other outlets that sell biodiesel in Arkansas, most located in eastern Arkansas and Pulaski County.

Arkansas leaders also talk of the state being in position to make a mark with other “biofuels,” such as “cellulosic ethanol.” The latter is made by breaking down the cell walls of non-edible vegetation such as forest slash, rice hulls or switchgrass to unleash sugars, just as getting sugar from corn is the key to making ethanol.

Scientists view cellulosic ethanol as a more environmentally friendly than corn-based ethanol, although the latter has received federal subsidies for close to three decades and is associated with powerful members of Congress from the Midwest and mega corporations like Archer-Daniels Midland and Cargill Inc.

For Arkansas, the logic behind being a biofuels leader seemed simple. A booming biodiesel industry ought to be a given for one of the top soybean-producing states in the nation. And with the state's abundance of agricultural and forest by-products, finding enough “biomass” to have a booming cellulosic ethanol industry seemed inevitable as well.

Headlines like “Arkansas could be biofuels production center” or “Biodiesel Fueling Arkansas Farms” sprouted like kudzu on many of the state's agricultural websites and regional farm journals in recent years.

But lately, the outlook for biofuels nationally, especially biodiesel and corn-based ethanol, has been clouded by changing economics and controversies over whether they are really environmentally beneficial.

“Since 2006, there has been a dramatic change of perspective,” Doug Koplow, an expert on alternative fuels at Earth Track, an energy research firm in Cambridge, Mass., said.

While optimism about cellulosic ethanol continues, a commercially viable plant still doesn't exist either in Arkansas or the rest of the United States. Production so far has been limited to laboratories and a few pilot plants.

And while production of biodiesel has exploded nationally — largely because of federal subsidies — the industry is off to a slow start in Arkansas.

While Arkansas remains a top 10 soybean-producing state, it ranks only 20th in biodiesel production capacity, according to the National Biodiesel Board, an industry trade group. It's far behind states such as Iowa, Texas and Illinois.

As a result, Arkansas has just three operating biodiesel plants, two of which came on line just in 2008. They are located in Batesville, DeWitt and Crossett. A fourth, in Helena-West Helena, is expected to begin operation sometime this year. Still another plant, built in Stuttgart, was severely damaged by a tornado last year, and it's still not known whether it will be brought back to life, said Richard Bell, the state's secretary of agriculture.

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