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    Great Falls now a major center of biodiesel development

    By David Murray, Great Falls Tribune,


    Montana farmers are well acquainted with oilseed production. Crops like canola, flaxseed and safflower are widely grown across the state, harvested and processed to produce cooking oils for human consumption. However, a different oilseed crop, camelina, is making new inroads into Montana agriculture - not as a food crop, but as a source of renewable diesel fuel.

    On June 23, Sustainable Oils, a global leader in the development of camelina varieties for biodiesel production, held the grand opening of its North American headquarters in Great Falls. The new facility firmly establishes northcentral Montana as a focal point of biodiesel development, and carries with it the opportunity for farmers to add a new crop to their rotation that’s both drought tolerant and compatible with wheat production.

    “Camelina is a crop that farmers can feel good about growing,” said Sustainable Oils President Mike Karst at last week’s grand opening. “It protects the soil while it's growing in their fields, but it also protects the air after it’s harvested and processed, creating benefits for the environment throughout its entire lifecycle.”

    “We at Sustainable Oils are proud to be opening our North American Headquarters here in Great Falls,” Karst added. “Montana is the perfect region for us to do our camelina operations, to educate growers in this beautiful facility on the benefits of our crop, and to develop the crop and establish it as the premier renewable diesel feedstock in North America.”

    “With the grand opening of Sustainable Oils today we’re welcoming a company that fits perfectly in our community profile; agriculture, science and opportunity. Sustainable Oils will be on the leading edge of research and marketing and breeding of a crop we can all get behind," said Great Falls Mayor Bob Kelly. "We’re proud to have you join our community. We look forward to creating relationships that go beyond the workplace.”

    Camelina is a distant cousin of canola. The plant produces a tiny seed, roughly the size of a sesame seed, that contains between 30% and 40% oil. Sustainable Oils has been developing new varieties of camelina from in Great Falls for the past 15 years, with the initial intent of developing the crop for jet fuel production.

    Several years ago, the company was purchased by Global Clean Energy Holdings, a California-based renewable energy company with facilities in Spain, Mexico and Argentina. The research being done at Sustainable Oils now has a global reach, and its parent company, Global Clean Energy, is on the verge of opening a refinery in Bakersfield, Calif. capable of producing 210 million gallons of biodiesel annually.

    “We’re building this global breeding program, but it all starts right here in Great Falls, Montana,” Karst said.

    Global Clean Energy CEO Richard Palmer said the proprietary varieties of camelina developed in Montana are a perfect fit for Montana farmers because they require little water and can be grown on land that is typically left fallow.

    “Many people think that fallow land doesn’t cost farmers anything,” he said. “Well, anybody in farming knows that to keep land fallow, it costs you money. You don’t get a return on it. Some are paying land rent on it, some are just paying for the chemicals to chem-fallow or to take care of it. There’s not really an appreciation for the third or quarter of your land that’s fallowed every year.”

    “What we’re trying to do is bring some rural development in as an opportunity for the farmers and the communities that support them,” Palmer continued. “We’ve developed a crop that grows on fallow land and plots of land that are not being used. We’re not asking somebody to plant our crop instead of another crop. We’re saying plant our crop instead of no crop.”

    “We’re doing this without the farmers having to invest any additional capital,” he added. “We grow our crop on the fallow land with the exact same equipment; the tractors, the seeders, the sprayers, the harvesters, their storage facilities, their trucks – everything they already own. Our crop generally goes in around or before wheat and it comes out before wheat.

    “All that equipment that’s already being used now gets extra benefits. They can depreciate it over more acreage, and they get a lot more benefit out of it. The farmers are going to grow it, they’re going to get paid for it, and they’re going to make a profit off of it. It does work, and it does provide a lot of economic development.”

    Camelina has been grown in relatively small quantities in Montana since the mid-2000s. With its refinery in California scheduled to begin operations in late 2022, Global Clean Energy is preparing to ramp up their camelina production. Palmer said the company will be targeting up to five-million acres in Montana to grow camelina. He added Montana is the perfect location to serve as its center for crop production.

    “If you begin to map where the varieties fit - with a short growing season and the low water need from the crop, the climate is great here,” Palmer said. “Plus, the BNSF Railroad is here, and you have a wide range of shuttle loading facilities that can load 100 train cars at a time. We started this process by asking ourselves - when we grow to maturity where has the logistics infrastructure that we can utilize? This is it.”

    Currently most biofuels produced in the United States are made food-stocks such as corn oil and soybean oil. One of the advantages of camelina is that is does not compete with food production.

    “Almost all of the renewable fuels that are produced today in the United States is primarily sourced from vegetable oil,” Palmer said. "By growing stuff as a non-food crop on non-food land, we’re not affecting food availability or security or price.”

    Sustainable Oils President Mike Karst said that when the Bakersfield refinery begins operations, all the biodiesel produced there will be sold in California, which has established financial incentives to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. He added that the oil company giant Exxon Mobil is a partner in the development of camelina-based biodiesel.

    “Exxon Mobil buys all our renewable diesel, so our supply chain is backed by Exxon Mobil all the way back to the grain that these growers provide. When we have farmer meetings here in Montana, Exxon Mobil comes with us. They’re a regular part of our normal farmer meetings.”

    Karst would not disclose the current number of producers Sustainable Oils has contracted with to produce camelina, or the number of acres currently planted. Sustainable Oils is currently soliciting for additional farmers to begin growing the crop. Karst emphasized that Sustainable Oils works with its producers every step of the way to help them begin production.

    “If a grower is growing wheat and you ask them to plant this - there is going to be a learning curve,” he said. “We provide all the assistance on how to set the equipment up. We will be there when they start planting, we will be there when they start harvesting. For first-time growers we go out, we help them set that combine, we’re in the field with them a lot. It’s not one of those things where you sell them the seed and then you disappear. We’re not that kind of a company. We are partners with these growers. We are here for the long haul. We’re not going to leave people stranded, either in lacking agronomic support or in lacking a market. We have a guaranteed market for this, and they cannot produce too much for us. We will take everything there is.”

    This article originally appeared on Great Falls Tribune: Great Falls now a major center of biodiesel development

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