House hearing raises questions about rural energy programs

By Melissa Coon

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.

Washington, June 9 – In a public hearing Wednesday, members of the House Agriculture Subcommittee on Conservation Credit, Energy and Research discussed the implementation of Title IX, the 2008 Farm Bill energy title, with an eye on being prepared for the 2012 Farm Bill. In particular, members questioned how these programs impact rural areas and whether or not there was significant “bang” for the “bucks” invested.

In her opening statement, Deputy Under Secretary for Rural Development Cheryl Cook outlined USDA’s perspectives on rural energy and each program in her mission area.

“Renewable energy and energy efficiency are important commitments for USDA,” she said “Because of its feedstock and siting requirements, much of renewable energy is largely rural energy.”

Cook acknowledged that renewable energy and energy efficiency constitute an enormous opportunity for rural America.

“With rural broadband, local foods and local markets, and a broad-based rejuvenation of rural businesses, renewable energy development is among the drivers supporting the revitalization of the rural economy,” she said.

She continued by saying that four of the five Rural Development Title IX programs are currently being implemented.

“Rural Development is working to present a consistent source of funding to bolster lending and project confidence for these programs,” she said. “In total, the Section 9003 and 9007 programs awarded funding for 1,559 projects during Fiscal Year 2009, which USDA estimates would create or save approximately 10,300,000 million Btu’s of energy. This would equate to 1.76 million barrels of crude oil, or enough energy to provide electricity for 250,815 homes.”

Despite this, subcommittee members remained hesitant about the relatively slow pace in which some programs have been implemented. They pointed out their concerns with funding and questioned USDA’s ability to meet the needs of rural farmers and small business owners.
"The 2008 Farm Bill expanded on the previous energy title by increasing funding for programs for the development of advanced
biofuels, and created new policies that would advance next generation biofuels and reduce our reliance on corn ethanol as the only
viable commercial biofuel.   However, it is unfortunate that two years after the adoption of the Farm Bill none of the major
provisions in the title are operating under their final rules.  USDA has paid out millions of dollars to programs that are not
operating the way Congress intended. This is not the best use of taxpayers' dollars and this is not the way Congress intended to
invest in the advancement of next generation biofuels," said Subcommittee Ranking Member Bob Goodlatte.
“It’s critical that we have funding notices that come sooner than they did this year because then when you have a final deadline, it’s easier to get this money out the door,” said Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin (D-SD).

Rep. Lary Kissell (D-NC) questioned the costs and benefits of the Rural Energy for America Program (REAP) which provides incentives for rural renewable energy products. Cook said the cost of production can be lowered.

Kissell then asked if there was a lesson that could be taken from the 2008 implementation and applied to better prepare for 2012.

“We’re looking forward to completing the rule making process, making sure that we have properly implemented the law as it exists today before making suggestions on how to change the law,” Cook replied.

Cook said she does not feel enough is being done to coordinate with states which are trying to invest in renewable energy. She also said that everyone should take a closer look at the amount of funding which is going to need to be invested in order to deliver renewable energy.

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