Energy Minister David Parker believes New Zealanders may have to accept initial volumes of biofuels from "unsustainable" sources for the sake of the long-term fight against climate change.
He said last night outside a biofuel and electric vehicle conference in Wellington that the important issue was to ensure the right signals were sent to oil companies that they had to be relentless in pursuit of sustainable transport fuels.
"In the early years the percentage of biofuels is not a huge amount so you could start without that being tied down completely and there would be a small proportion which might come from unsustainable sources," the minister told the Herald.
"What's important is you actually get them in place by the time those proportions are growing.
"You send the signal that they have to come from sustainable sources, then the oil companies are looking at where they are going to source their biofuel - they are actually going to change anyway."
Mr Parker's comments came several days after he acknowledged that the Government's goal of launching a biofuels sales requirement on July 1 - a three-month delay from the original April 1 launch date - may face a further delay while sustainability clauses can be tightened up before a parliamentary select committee.
He said he was talking in terms of months, not years.
The Government wants oil companies to ensure 0.53 per cent of petrol and diesel sales comprise biofuel in the first year of a regime rising in stages to 3.4 per cent by 2012.
But National MP Nick Smith flagged serious trouble for the Biofuel Bill last week, when he said his party would not support it unless it was satisfied biofuels would make a positive contribution to the environment.
He said officials had told the select committee they did not expect to introduce sustainability regulations, which the Green Party demanded as a condition of its support for the bill, until 2011.
But Mr Parker told the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Authority's conference yesterday that that was when an international agreement on sustainability standards was expected.
"Until then, we need our own," he said, adding that officials would welcome more ideas from conference delegates on how to tighten that aspect of the bill.
Environmentalists in Britain are protesting against the introduction there in less than a fortnight of a mandatory biofuels requirement without stronger conditions to ensure it is not met from importing energy-hungry corn, or puts added pressure on the world's food supply and shrinking rainforests.
A United States Government agricultural research leader, Dr Bill Orts, told the conference that a redoubled focus on developing non-food cellulose sources was essential to counter the existing use of more than 25 per cent of his country's heavily subsidised corn production for just 3 per cent of its transport fuels.
Mr Parker said that although biofuels and electric cars had important roles in long-term efforts to combat climate change, a requirement beginning on Sunday for vehicle dealers to display fuel-efficiency labels offered early and easy energy savings of up to 7 per cent.
"It is in the short-term more significant than biofuels," Mr Parker said.