Safely Securing Energy Crop Acres

BCAP assists in establishing energy crops throughout US
By Kris Bevill | September 12, 2011

The USDA awarded nine Biomass Crop Assistance Program project areas and one nonproject area in fiscal year 2011, consuming the entire $112 million budget for the first, and possibly only, year of a program designed to invest in the expansion of energy crops throughout the U.S. Two of the project areas—switchgrass in Kansas and hybrid poplar in Oregon—will directly benefit cellulosic ethanol facilities. Others are focused on converting energy crops to biodiesel, biobutanol and pelletizing biomass for a variety of uses. Poet LLC is the beneficiary of the nonproject area. The USDA is providing matching payments to farmers to cover the cost of providing corn stover to Project Liberty in Emmetsberg, Iowa.

Todd Atkinson, chief of staff at the USDA’s Farm Service Agency, says more than 40 applicants filed to establish BCAP areas this year, but a relatively tight budget made it impossible to fund all of them. Approved projects will incentivize the planting of switchgrass and other perennial native grasses, giant miscanthus, camelina and poplar in areas across Arkansas, Missouri, Kansas, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Oklahoma, Oregon, California, Montana and Washington. Unfunded proposed projects would have established a wide range of feedstocks, from pennycress to energy cane to pongamia—an oil seed tree native to India.

Applicants must meet two very important criteria to be considered. The first, which could be difficult for many cellulosic ethanol producers, is that a biorefinery needs to be ready to begin producing when the crop is ready for harvest. The second is a required environmental assessment if there is any question as to the crop’s impact on any number of environmental concerns. “We’ve never intentionally planted pennycress on 200,000 acres, so what does that mean in terms of what crops you plant?” Atkinson explains. “Is it going to be displacing crops? Is it going to be grown in flood-prone areas? Does it attract pests that might get into corn? There’s all these different things.”

When the USDA finalized BCAP last year, it also issued an environmental impact statement, which focused on switchgrass. For this reason, proposed projects intending to use switchgrass did not have to complete an environmental assessment, but other energy grasses, specifically miscanthus, were put to the test before those projects were approved. “If you take a look at some of the dedicated energy crops that people have proposed, depending on where you grow them, sometimes they might flirt along the lines of invasiveness, because you want a hardy crop,” Atkinson says. “We are intentionally establishing crops at a commercial-scale using federal dollars, so you need to do an environmental assessment if we don’t know the full environmental impacts.”

The two project areas devoted to energy crops for ethanol production were sponsored by Abengoa and ZeaChem Inc. The FSA approved up to $6.2 million to be used to establish 20,000 acres of switchgrass in Kansas and Oklahoma which will be used to supply the company’s 25 MMgy cellulosic plant in Hugoton, Kan. In Oregon, the FSA will provide up to $17.1 million to establish 7,000 acres of hybrid poplar for ZeaChem’s 25 MMgy in Boardman. (“Trees are more expensive than switchgrass,” Atkinson says.)

It is unclear what will happen to BCAP when the USDA’s new fiscal year begins on Oct. 1. The U.S. House of Representatives proposed eliminating the program completely in fiscal year 2012, but the Senate had not acted before the August recess. President Barack Obama requested that $201 million be appropriated for the program. If BCAP is allowed to continue, Atkinson says the FSA will re-evaluate the acreages allotted to previously approved projects, many of which were downsized due to budget constraints, and consider expanding them. In the meantime, farmers in the program can rest assured that program payments will not be suddenly eliminated. “We cannot enter into a contract to pay out for years unless we have that money right now,” Atkinson says. “If you enter into a contract for three years, you will be paid for three years. If it’s for five years, it’s five years. None of these people are at risk of having a funding disruption.”

As for future new project areas, the agency is trying to keep an open mind about what crops might be added to the mix. “We want to be as specific as possible so that people have certainty, but we’re also working to be as flexible as possible in order to accommodate entrepreneurs who may have approaches that have not been envisioned,” he says. 

—Kris Bevill