Every major source of energy used by modern society has an environmental impact-and all too often these impacts are negative. Fortunately, things may be changing.

Right now, our Chesapeake region has an unprecedented opportunity to take the lead in a new form of energy that can fuel our cars and heat our homes while protecting the environment and sustaining farm land. Better still, it will be made from plants that grow well in our region and do not compete with food sources.

Known as "next-generation" biofuels, these new fuels are made from cellulosic (the flesh of plants) resources such as forest slash (the debris left after timber is cut), agricultural crop residues (such as the leaves and stalks of corn or barley), perennial grasses and even algae.

The good news is that we have no shortage of any of these in our region-we are home to a number of diverse feedstocks that could serve as sustainable crops for cellulosic biofuels throughout the year.

Because the Chesapeake region is located in such close proximity to major East Coast energy markets, our cellulosic feedstocks can be transported at a relatively low cost. A large number of universities and research institutes in the region are already working on cellulosic biofuels as well, and the private sector is showing a growing interest in the industry, as shown by an increase in capitol investment and the willingness of many companies to partner and develop competitive technologies.

Imagine that in the next three to 10 years as the technology comes on line, these materials will be transformed into liquid fuels to supplement our more traditional consumption of petroleum-based gasoline and home heating fuels. Given that 43 percent of the nation's home heating oil and kerosene and 13 percent of the nation's gasoline is consumed by the Bay region's six watershed states, the opportunity is significant.

Consider our oil addiction: Each year, our country has to assume more than $300 billion in additional debt just to finance our oil needs. It's jeopardizing our economy and our national security. And, while corn-based ethanol has helped to ease our dependence on foreign oil-right or wrong-many are concerned about the effects that more corn plantings will have on water quality and the impact that increased corn demand for ethanol production has had on food prices.

That's why I was honored to chair the Chesapeake Bay Commission's Chesapeake Cellulosic Biofuels Project and its accompanying expert advisory panel this past year. We explored the feasibility and viability of next- generation biofuels and determined that Maryland, along with the entire Chesapeake Bay region, is strategically positioned to lead the nation in establishing this promising new industry.

But to truly lead, we must lay down policies that favor the advancement of these technologies. We will need to support our farmers and provide the needed fuel pumps and blending facilities, all while protecting our natural resources.

Our report, produced in conjunction with the commonwealth of Pennsylvania, was released earlier this month. It presents a road map for us to lead the nation in sustainable, homegrown next- generation biofuels that will benefit farmers, the economy and Chesapeake Bay.

In the report, we identify three major areas where action is needed: production of feedstocks, natural resource protection, and marketing and infrastructure.

The public sector, particularly state government, can play a vital role in developing this industry in these three key areas. And while many decisions related to the development of the cellulosic biofuels industry will be made by the private sector, our goal of economic, environmental and social sustainability can be best achieved through the cooperative efforts of both the public and private sectors.

That is why we, as a state and a regional community, must act now to design and implement effective policy and legislation to seize the opportunity before us.

Let me be clear: The measure of success is not a well-written report or one that is well-designed. It is not that a panel of experts has convened and advised. Rather, the measure of success will be that the necessary policy is laid down in the region for the successful development of next generation biofuels.

The future environmental quality of our Chesapeake Bay, the strengthening of our agricultural communities and our energy future are dependent on our actions today. The time to act is now.