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Walking into the lion's den for the future of energy

It must have been a strange sensation for Rick Tolman. After years of watching the Natural Resources Defense Council bash farm groups, the CEO of the National Corn Growers Association met with NRDC leaders in their New York offices recently.

Tolman, the top staff member of the St. Louis-based NCGA, was invited to the NRDC meeting to discuss the potential for ethanol and other alternative fuel sources. The NRDC believes all fuel used for transportation in the United States could one day be derived from biomass sources, Tolman says.

“Our organization has talked about biomass fuels being supplemental to other fuels, but not completely replacing them,” he noted. “In that regard, this (the NRDC) group is very futuristic. They're looking at whether this can realistically be done, and they're asking ‘what is the best pathway to get there?’”

Using a grant from the U.S. Department of Energy, NRDC is exploring strategies to transform the U.S. fuels market into a bio-based market by 2050. The group's plan calls for a biomass transition to begin in 2025.

Tolman discussed the importance of a renewable fuels standard and other legislation that will encourage growth in the biofuels industry.

NRDC leaders, in turn, talked about their vision for more farmer-owned, rurally located fuel production operations. The group plans to construct several pilot plants and is looking at economic models and simulations for future production, transportation and storage of biofuels.

“The piece that I was able to share with them is what's happening right now with the growth and development of the ethanol industry,” said Tolman. “I talked about the current situation, and we discussed ideas of how to get where they want to go in the next 25 to 50 years.”

NCGA and the NRDC still have a ways to go before peace breaks out between the groups. The NRDC Web site, located at, contains an e-mail form letter supporters can send their senators, urging them to vote against the energy bill corn growers have been trying to pass.

But it's still a major step for the organization that almost brought the apple industry to its knees with the Alar scare to ask a farm group for its opinion on anything.

At press time, little progress was being reported on the energy bill.

Some say crude oil prices hitting their highest level since the Gulf War could give the bill new life, but that is not a given until House leaders back off on the bill's product liability waiver for MTBE.

As for the NCGA and NRDC, they have several things in common, Tolman said, including the desire to protect air quality, water quality and other environmental entities. “I was able to make them more aware of what we're doing and why.

“We both see the benefits of rural economic development and see the benefits of more energy coming from biomass. We both see energy security benefits as well.”


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