Opinion: The Farm Bill energy programs are paying off for rural Americans

By Guest Author

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By Lloyd Ritter, Co-Director, Agriculture Energy Coalition

In its recent report, “Farms and Free Enterprise: A Blueprint for Agricultural Policy,” The Heritage Foundation calls for the elimination of constructive energy programs in the next Farm Bill. That's a nonsensical proposition. The Farm Bill's Energy Title reduces our dependence on oil, reduces carbon emissions, and helps meet growing consumer demand for sustainable energy and bioproducts. Further, the programs have unlocked billions of dollars of private lending for rural communities, which otherwise lack access to capital. The programs are supporting a resurgence of manufacturing in the United States, which drives job creation and economic growth for rural communities across the United States.

The bi-partisan renewable energy and energy efficiency programs in the 2014 Farm Bill, like previous farm bills, have undoubtedly made a difference in growing our nation's agricultural and clean energy economy. Examples abound.

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The USDA “REAP” program has funded renewable energy and energy efficiency projects in all 50 states. Between fiscal years 2009 and 2016 (to date), REAP has supported approximately 6449 projects! These include solar, geothermal, biomass, small hydro, wind, and energy efficiency measures, including approximately 5,363,140 mWh of electricity produced cumulatively during this time period.

Very recently the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) released a new report highlighting the economic impact of the U.S. biobased industry over the past decade. The report shows that in 2014, the biobased products industry contributed $393 billion and 4.2 million jobs to America's recovering economy. It also indicates that the sector grew from 2013 to 2014, creating or supporting an additional 220,000 jobs and $24 billion over that period. This success can be tied back to the investments made through the Farm Bill energy programs.

The Biomass Research and Development Initiative (BRDI) is a joint program through USDA's National Institute of Food and Agriculture and the U.S. Energy Department (DOE) that develops economically and environmentally sustainable sources of renewable biomass and increases the availability of renewable fuels and biobased products. It addresses the development of cost-effective technologies for using biomass in the production of biofuels and/or biobased products, which can lead to cheaper and cleaner alternatives to petroleum based products. The program has invested more than $332 million to accelerate research into new markets for farm and ranch based biomass.

The Biomass Crop Assistance Program (BCAP) provides financial assistance to producers and businesses to grow, harvest and deliver cutting-edge biomass feedstocks to commercial renewable energy facilities. The program also supports hazardous fuels reductions, helping the most heavily forested states protect forests, and develop energy. Producers have cultivated roughly 49,000 acres of purpose-grown energy crops for the production of next-generation biofuels and bioenergy with assurance that this federal program will help them understand and manage the risks of producing new crops.

The Farm Bill's 9003 program provides access to capital for manufacturers developing, constructing or retrofitting biorefineries for advanced biofuels or renewable chemicals. Under the 9003 Program, USDA works with rural lenders to expand access to funding for manufacturers in rural communities that might never be able to pool sufficient capital for large manufacturing projects. To date, the program has provided $844 million in loan guarantees, helping advanced biofuels start-ups leverage more than a billion dollars in new capital.

The Heritage Foundation's report misrepresents the clear successes and innovation of the Farm Bill's bi-partisan Energy title and ignores the real world benefits it brings to the rural economy. Those benefits include displacement of about 6.8 million barrels of foreign oil each year, improving our energy security, and reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by as much as 10 million metric tons per year, which improves our environment.

The latest Farm Bill has spurred the growth of the clean energy and “bioeconomy” and expanded markets for thousands of producers and sustainable enterprises, benefiting rural America and the rest of the nation. That's why more than 100 organizations across the country, from the agriculture, energy, environmental and rural development sectors have all voiced support many times for these sensible, forward thinking public investments. These efforts deserve meaningful and consistent Federal support going forward to fully achieve their potential.

About Lloyd Ritter

Lloyd Ritter is the founder and managing partner of Green Capitol, LLC. Since 2006, Green Capitol has specialized in agriculture, clean energy and environment advocacy, strategic planning, and public policy development. Lloyd is a seasoned veteran in agriculture, energy, environment, public health, sustainable development policy and advocacy with more than twenty years' experience in all levels of government - domestic and international. He has written and/or helped pass landmark legislation such as the clean energy title of the Farm Bill, the first Renewable Fuels Standard, and important renewable electricity and tax provisions. Lastly, Lloyd is a coalition developer and manager, including running the Agriculture Energy Coalition. 

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