Every five years or so, Congress debates and adopts a far-reaching package of programs commonly known as the Farm Bill. The comprehensive legislation directs a significant portion of America’s budget for a long list of national priorities – such as improving food security and nutrition, conserving natural resources, and enhancing quality of life in rural communities.

Twenty years ago, on May 13, Congress passed the bi-partisan Farm Security and Rural Investment Act of 2002. What made that particular Farm Bill different was the inclusion of the first-ever energy title, which addressed emerging national priorities: energy security, environmental health, and rural economic opportunities. One prominent group hailed it as “landmark” legislation. 

As the lead Congressional staffers working for the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee at the time, we helped pull together the policies and programs of that original energy title. Now, as Congress begins work on the next five-year Farm Bill, we see the tremendous value in maintaining, updating and growing the programs to meet today’s challenges. 

The original energy title focused in large measure on building the up-and-coming biofuel market, with the largest portion of funding for the new title devoted to a Bioenergy Program (a notable and important precursor to the first Renewable Fuel Standard). 

After 20 years, the U.S. biofuel industry has matured. Renewable fuels now meet a measurable portion – almost 12% -- of the nation’s transportation fuel needs. Since 2002, U.S. farmers have improved yields of the major crops used in biofuel production – corn and soybeans – by 36% on a national average, according to USDA’s National Agriculture Statistics Service. To meet future demand for low-carbon fuels and reduce emissions in other transportation sectors like aviation, shipping, and rail, the Farm Bill should support additional sources of sustainable biomass. 

The Farm Bill energy title programs will be crucial in achieving the Sustainable Aviation Fuel Grand Challenge of 3 billion gallons of SAF by decade’s end. For example, USDA’s Biorefinery Assistance Program supported construction of a new sustainable aviation fuel project in Nevada. But the program has only scratched the surface of its potential. It can do much more with greater focus from the administration. 

Over time, the Rural Energy for America Program (REAP) became the cornerstone of the energy title. This program has supported more than 20,000 renewable energy and energy efficiency projects since 2003. The program’s small loans and grants produce tremendous returns. Just since its 2014 reauthorization, the program has leveraged $7 billion in private investment

In a typical year, the REAP program receives four times as many applications as it can fund. An incentive-based program utilizing public-private partnerships could be an easy win for all. The program should be appropriately funded and any efficiencies in the application process should be instituted. REAP is hugely popular because it helps finance projects that use proven, low-cost technologies such as solar that reduce energy bills. The grants and loans could go a lot further to support proven but under-utilized technologies like small-scale wind and biogas. A reserve fund within the program for these technologies would provide a significant return on investment and is an essential next step. 

Congressional leaders strongly support renewed federal commitment and funding for what has grown into the BioPreferred program. Today, the program helps biobased product manufacturers build new markets through certification and labeling in addition to the federal purchasing program. More than 3 4,700 products sport the label. This program, like others, needs much more funding. It also needs more government-wide accountability on product purchasing to fully realize its potential.

U.S. biobased manufacturers directly employ 1.65 million American workers and indirectly support more than 2 million family farms. In 2017, the industry produced and sold $162 billion worth of products, with California, Georgia and Texas as the top markets. More than 3,100 companies participate in BioPreferred offering nearly 16,300 products. The growing range of essential goods made from renewable resources displaced as much as 9.4 million barrels of oil in 2017.

Twenty years ago when the original energy title programs were developed,  over-reliance on imported oil and concerns about environmental health were emerging as national challenges. Today, energy security and climate change have become the most urgent issues facing the country. Farmers and rural businesses still have a vital role to play in addressing these challenges – while continuing to provide nutrition, preserve land and other natural resources, and drive economic growth for rural communities. 

On the 20th anniversary of the original Farm Bill energy title, there’s good reason to look forward to its future.

Lloyd Ritter, Esq., and Aaron Whitesel, Esq., partners in Green Capitol LLC.

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