White House Clean Energy Forum outlines bright future for biofuels

By Jon H. Harsch

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.

Washington, May 5 – Promising that the rapidly developing biofuels industry “will be an increasing source of income for rural America,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told a White House Clean Energy Economy Forum Wednesday that “Renewable energy production is a key to sustainable economic development in rural America.”

Nancy Sutley, Chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, opened the forum by noting that “As the President has said, the country that leads the world in clean energy will be the country that leads the global economy, and we will not settle for second best.” She told the auditorium filled with over 100 participants representing farm groups, bioenergy companies, investment firms and rural and environmental organizations that the biofuels industry creates “enormous opportunities for farmers and ranchers and for rural areas.”

One highly critical entrepreneur, Bob Kozak, the President of Atlantic Biomass Conversions which is developing advanced biofuels technologies, charged that the Obama administration “does not have a commitment to biofuels or to rural economic development.” He said far more should be done to promote biofuels as a matter of national urgency. That criticism sparked another entrepreneur, Piedmont Bioproducts CEO Ken Moss, to praise the administration for its aggressive efforts to speed the development of the renewable energy industry.

Another concern voiced at the forum was that the administration needs to be more creative in developing new ways to secure financing such as tapping the bond market. USDA Undersecretary for Rural Development Dallas Tonsager responded that USDA is actively involved in creating new sources of financing. Vilsack said USDA recognizes the “necessity of educating our commercial banking friends.”

Boeing’s Bill Glover said the airline industry is very interested in alternative fuels “to decarbonizes our industry.” Vilsack responded that he’s eager to meet with the industry to pursue ideas, noting that USDA is already working closely with the U.S. Navy on aviation biofuels. Vilsack also said that in developing a new industry, the government needs to be willing to make mistakes despite the political risk involved.

Ben Larson of the Union of Concerned Scientists said that “Society can’t afford to miss out” on the wide range of environmental and economic benefits offered by biofuels. He and others said one key to successful development will be to agree on a workable definition of biomass.

Vilsack explained that USDA is working closely on a government-wide effort to develop a comprehensive energy policy, including a “long-term national commitment” to bioenergy. He and several panelists agreed that long-term policies are vital to avoid problems such as the current shut-down of biodiesel plants because Congress has failed to renew the biodiesel tax credits which ended last December.

Dr. Jose Olivares of the Los Alamos National Laboratory commented that one way to speed development of the new bioenergy industry will be to “utilize existing infrastructure” whenever possible.

Growth Energy CEO Tom Buis and National Farmers Union President Roger Johnson pointed out that the “food versus fuel” issue is a false one, since farmers continue to oversupply both the food and fuel markets as shown by continuing low commodity prices.

Tonsager and others stressed the importance of encouraging local investment in bioenergy projects. Johnson said that having farmers investing in ethanol plants was one reason for the industry’s rapid growth and the strong support for the industry in rural communities. Drake University’s Prof. Neil Hamilton said it’s important to develop renewable energy properly so that it “doesn’t become another extractive energy source” which leaves rural communities with problems instead of additional revenue.

To read more about bioenergy issues raised at the forum, go to: www.agri-pulse.com/20100505H3.asp.

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