ORLANDO, FL, Feb. 24, 2012 - Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack today said the administration had little choice but to request no funding for virtually all farm energy programs established by the soon to expire 2008 Farm Bill. He said because the farm bill does not authorize the programs beyond the life of the legislation, there are no Congressional Budget Office baseline estimates for the programs beyond this year, making them vulnerable in a time of drastic federal spending cutbacks.
Still, Vilsack told the National Ethanol Conference, the USDA will ask Congress for flexibility to modify programs that do have baseline funding for use in the development of biofuels and others resources he said are critical to a bio economy that can boost the fortunes of rural America.
The agriculture secretary cited a USDA rural business and industry program in the agency's Rural Development office that could offer between $800 million and $1 billion toward bioenergy development.
Addressing the lack of funding for farm energy programs, such as the Biomass Crop Assistance Program, the Biorefinery Assistance Act and others, Vilsack cited the need for Congress to reduce the baseline to "help get our debt in line." With available funding extremely limited, for USDA to recommend spending federal dollars on programs that are not included in the baseline beyond this year would mean taking money from programs that are, including commodity, crop insurance and conservation programs, which, he said, have "very influential" constituencies.
In addition to seeking expanded use of Rural Development monies, Vilsack said he would also pursue flexibility in the department's research funding to help pursue the development of bioenergy crops and technologies. Earlier in his remarks, he cited the department's coordination of five virtual regional research centers that work on the science necessary to ensure profitable biofuels can be produced from a diverse range of feedstocks across the nation.
The department says that over three years, USDA has invested about $320 million to accelerate research on renewable energy ranging from genomic research on bioenergy feedstock crops, to the development of biofuel conversion processes and cost/benefit estimates of renewable energy production.
Vilsack said the funding from programs other than the farm bill, and from research programs would also focus on the development of other bio based products, including biopolymers, adhesives, chemicals and nutriceuticals, in addition to biofuels.
The secretary said it was critical that Congress provide more agricultural research money, contending that without an increase, American food and fiber production "flat-lines."
However, in answer to a question from the audience about any expectations of congressional bipartisanship leading to a comprehensive energy policy that embraces bioenergy contributions to the nation's energy solutions, particularly from rural areas, Vilsack was not hopeful. He said, only half-jokingly, "I can be optimistic about the future of agriculture . . . Just don't ask me to be optimistic about this Congress and bipartisanship. That's not fair."
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