By Tom Schneider, Carlsbad Current-Argus, N.M.

CARLSBAD A ceremony Wednesday morning in the middle of the Pecos Valley marked the beginning of a significant chapter in energy production in New Mexico.

With the snipping of a ribbon, the Center of Excellence for Hazardous Materials Management moved its Algae Biofuels Project from pilot scale to the commercial demonstration level.

Located on the grounds of the New Mexico State University Agriculture Science Center south of Artesia, this phase of the project expects to be in full operation by Sept. 1, producing algae that will be harvested and processed into biodiesel fuel.

The project has the potential to produce 5,000 gallons of oil per acre per year, according to Doug Lynn, executive director of CEHMM.

The center has been conducting applied research in the growth, harvest and extraction of oil from algae to find the most productive species for the production of biofuel.

Local, state and national officials were on hand to mark the project’s progress.

“The money we’ve received from the state has been a major help: the state of New Mexico has recognized that we have to have move to other (nontraditional) energy sources,” said Rep. John Heaton.

“With 5,000 acres in production, it would produce half of the diesel fuel required for (the state of) New Mexico,” said Heaton, or 25 million gallons of biodiesel fuel.

U.S. Rep. Harry Teague praised the impact the project will have on reducing the country’s dependence on foreign oil.

“The work CEHMM will do in commercial demonstration ponds will make huge advances in America’s energy portfolio by reducing dependence on foreign oil,” Teague said. “Algae is the newest biofuel to become credible.”

The project has been a partnership between CEHMM and the U.S. Department of Energy, New Mexico State University, the State of New Mexico’s Energy Innovation Fund and the city of Carlsbad, Lynn noted.

“It’s about energy, but it’s also about the economy and creating jobs,” said Doug Lynn, executive director of CEHMM.

The project will not only provide a fuel source, it will create 165 high-paying, technical jobs in southeast New Mexico, Lynn said.