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Leonard out to show that canola ideas not snake oil

Commissioner says making biodiesel from cash crop benefits state
by: COURTESY OF THE PORTLAND WATER BUREAU, City Commissioner Randy Leonard is getting ready to stump for biodiesel in Eastern Oregon.

Thursday morning, Commissioner Randy Leonard, his wife and a city lobbyist will climb into a biodiesel-powered Portland Water Bureau pickup and drive to Eastern Oregon.

The task is to sell the benefits of growing canola to make the more environmentally friendly alternative fuel.

But Leonard insists the trip is all about money, not saving the world.

'Biodiesel isn't just some far-left, esoteric, counterculture idea - canola is a cash crop,' Leonard said.

Leonard is scheduled to meet with farmers, co-op managers, shippers and elected officials during the trip. At each stop, he plans to tell them about the ordinance passed by the City Council in July to require that all diesel sold within the city limits contain at least 5 percent biodiesel, which can be made from the canola that already grows easily in Eastern Oregon.

Leonard sponsored the ordinance, which takes effect in July 2007. He predicts it will create an instant 5 million-gallon-a-year demand for canola oil in Portland - a demand that should create a lucrative new market for Eastern Oregon farmers and others.

'Yes, biodiesel is good for the environment, but this is also a huge economic development initiative,' said Leonard, who also has required that all diesel-powered water bureau vehicles run on a 99 percent mix of biodiesel. Leonard announced the requirement at a ceremony at a bureau maintenance yard Sept. 26.

A win-win proposition

As Leonard sees it, Portland's demand for canola will benefit a wide range of business interests, beginning with the farmers who grow it, extending to the co-ops that collect and crush it for oil, and continuing to the shipping companies that will transport the oil down the Columbia River to the city.

As a result, the city's Office of Government Relations has arranged a schedule that includes meetings with the owners of the Madison Farms in Echo, members of the Columbia Crush canola co-op near Hermiston and the Pendleton Grain Growers, and the directors of the Port of Morrow, which Leonard considers an essential link in the distribution system that will be needed to meet the local demand.

Leonard also thinks the ordinance will result in the siting and construction of a biodiesel production plant in Portland - a plant that will have the potential of turning the city into a leading alternative-fuel distribution center.

Leonard said two major fuel companies are currently working with the Portland Development Commission to build such a plant along the Willamette River, where the canola oil from the Port of Morrow would be offloaded. Although he refused to name the companies or the sites under consideration, Leonard predicted a public announcement could be made by January.

Although Leonard insists canola should be considered a cash crop, he betrays a political position when talking about his passionate interest in biodiesel.

'My interest grows out of my disgust with the war in Iraq, which I and a whole lot of people believe is all about oil. Here we have a chance to almost immediately reduce our dependence on foreign oil. The only people who don't like it are oil company executives,' he said.

Pre-emptive strike

Despite his announced emphasis on economic development, Leonard also is looking for another political benefit to his trip - an alliance between Portland and Eastern Oregon residents to fight any attempt by the oil industry to repeal Portland's biodiesel requirement at the next session of the Oregon Legislature, which begins in January.

Although Leonard's ordinance will take effect in a little more than eight months, he is not yet done with it. Leonard plans to introduce an amendment in a few weeks that will prohibit the use of palm oil to make the biodiesel sold in Oregon. Since passing the ordinance, Leonard has met with environmentalists who convinced him that most palm oil is currently produced from plants in tropical rain forests that are not being replanted.

'As I understand it, palm oil production is actually bad for the environment,' Leonard said.

This will not be the first time Leonard has crossed the state as an elected official. Before being elected to the council in 2002, he served nine years in the Oregon Legislature. As a state representative from Portland, he traveled to Eastern Oregon to learn about salmon restoration issues from Native American tribes. And as a state senator, he helped recruit Democratic legislative candidates from the region.

'The people in Eastern Oregon are great - friendly and really good to work with,' Leonard said.