By Jon H. Harsch

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.

Washington, Oct. 21 – In a packed National Press Club press conference Thursday, Agriculture Sec. Tom Vilsack unveiled a sweeping initiative to dramatically increase federal support for the biofuels industry. Vilsack stressed that for the industry to fulfill its promise to reduce the country's costly petroleum imports, USDA must simultaneously boost research, create a national network of biorefineries, build market demand, establish a distribution system, and incentivize farmers to grow new bioenergy crops.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announcing USDA's new biofuels initiative Oct. 21. Photo: Agri-Pulse

Vilsack insisted that much of this new federal biofuels initiative can be accomplished with existing authorities and existing funding. He also pointed to the high cost of a failure to act. He said that by failing to renew the biodiesel tax break which expired last January, Congress put 12,000 people out of work in the biodiesel industry. Additionally, Vilsack explained that he wants swift action on biofuels, using authorities and funds provided by the 2008 Farm Bill “to make the case” for having Congress extend these authorities and funds when it writes the 2012 Farm Bill.

One measure of the opposition USDA will face in its drive to create new regional biofuels research centers, new biorefineries, and an initial 10,000 blender pumps and storage tanks is that petroleum industry supporters were on hand at the press conference to deliver a very different message. A coalition of conservative groups led by the Competitive Enterprise Institute called for ending biofuels subsidies, charging that “The corn ethanol lobby may say it wants to make America energy independent, save the planet, and save the family farm, but what it really wants is more – more trade protection, more of our tax dollars, and more market-rigging rules.”

Another protest group at the press conference charged that “dirty biofuels” are responsible for “ecological destruction, high food prices, and climate pollution.” One reporter asked Vilsack why he would seek to subsidize ethanol when “studies show” ethanol does not provide environmental benefits. Vilsack responded that such studies are outdated and that current studies show the ethanol industry's already substantial environmental benefits becoming even better as the industry improves efficiencies.

Vilsack explained that “Domestic production of renewable energy, including biofuels, is a national imperative and that's why USDA is working to assist in developing a biofuels industry in every corner of the nation. By producing more biofuels in America, we will create jobs, combat global warming, replace our dependence on foreign oil and build a stronger foundation for the 21st century economy.”

Vilsack's string of announcements Thursday included:

  • USDA is releasing its final rule to implement the Biomass Crop Assistance Program (BCAP) to incentivize farmers to grow new, non-food, non-feed biomass crops by making payments of up to 75 percent of the cost of establishing eligible perennial crops. Payments will be for up to five years for annual or non-woody perennial crops and up to 15 years for woody perennial crops.
  • USDA has signed a five year agreement with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to develop aviation fuel from forest and crop residues and other “green” feedstocks to reduce dependence on foreign oil and stabilize aviation fuel costs.
  • Five Regional Biomass Research Centers will “help accelerate the development of a commercial advanced biofuels industry across the United States.”
  • A new USDA Economic Research Service biofuels report shows that replacing more petroleum with cost-competitive domestic biofuels reduces crude oil imports, thereby lowering prices for energy and benefiting the U.S. economy, creating higher wages for workers and boosting Gross Domestic Product and real income. To read the complete ERS report, go to:

To read more of what Sec. Vilsack said at the press conference, go to:

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