Fighting for the Farm Bill

Renewable groups take action to protect energy programs
By Kris Bevill | November 15, 2011

Par for the course, House and Senate Agriculture Committees missed a Nov. 1 deadline they set for themselves to provide policy recommendations to the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction detailing its suggestions to cut $23 billion from the 2012 Farm Bill. Ahead of the specific policy recommendations release, details as to which programs would be targeted for reduction and/or elimination were sparse. Paul Winters, communications director for the Biotechnology Industry Organization said the committees’ work on the issue had been “a little bit of a black box,” with very little information leaking out to interested parties. But despite the lack of indicators, renewable energy groups decided to launch an aggressive campaign to convince congressional members that the Farm Bill’s energy programs should be spared the chopping block.

The renewable energy sector is a diverse one, and often becomes splintered as individual industries fight to retain support for their causes in an era of scant federal financial opportunities. The Energy Title of the Farm Bill provides support to all sectors, however, so representatives of biofuels, biomass, wind, forestry and other industries decided to join together to form the new Ag Energy Coalition. Winters says the coalition allows the groups to speak with one voice as to the importance of renewable energy.

“That’s why the coalition was formed,” he said. “To unify our voice and say that the Energy Title as a whole and all the programs are important, rather than try to fight for individual programs.”

Programs housed within the 2008 Energy Title include the Rural Energy for America Program, the Biomass Crop Assistance Program, the Biorefinery Assistance Program and the Biobased Markets Program. In a letter sent to House and Senate ag committee leaders, as well as the 12 members of the joint select committee, the newly formed Ag Energy Coalition pointed out that the popular energy programs have helped fund thousands of projects in rural areas throughout the country. While they have had high impact, the programs carry a relatively low price tag, totaling less than 1 percent of total outlays, according to the group.

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack addressed the importance of the Energy Title during a speech delivered in October to agricultural equipment manufacturers at the John Deere Des Moines Works facility in Iowa. “Rural America has done a great job of helping to develop the domestically produced renewable energy and fuel,” he said. “That job must continue because when we create those opportunities, we create jobs, we reduce our reliance on foreign energy sources, and we enhance our national security. USDA has to have the tools to be able to continue to help this biobased and biofuel and renewable energy economy, and we need to make sure that it's vibrant in all regions of the country. Continuing our investment in renewable energy, biofuel, and biobased products will improve the bottom line for farmers as we find creative ways to use that which they grow.”

The joint select committee is scheduled to identify more than $1 trillion in budgets cuts over the next 10 years by Nov. 23. Congress is then expected to vote on the super committee’s budget reduction plan by Dec. 23.

Meanwhile, some members of Congress have moved ahead with plans to overhaul the renewable fuel standard (RFS) and delay the introduction of E15 into the marketplace. Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., introduced a bill that would require an independent scientific analysis to be conducted on the implications of E15 use in vehicle, marine and small engines. Sensenbrenner said he has “serious concerns” with the U.S. EPA’s approval of E15 for some vehicle models and feels that the introduction of E15 into the marketplace is being rushed. The EPA is currently the defendant in multiple lawsuits filed by opponents of E15, including small engine manufacturers and petroleum refiners.

On Oct. 5, Reps. Jim Costa, D-Calif., and Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., introduced legislation that would place limitations on the corn ethanol portion of the RFS based on biannual USDA reports on the corn stocks-to-use ratios. In the case of tight corn supplies, the corn ethanol portion of the RFS would be reduced. Ethanol representatives say this approach would place the industry in jeopardy and have no effect on corn prices. 

—Kris Bevill