Vilsack keeps USDA's foot on the gas for biofuels development

By Kris Bevill | February 25, 2011

The USDA has quickly become this year’s No. 1 supporter of biofuels advancement, revamping several of its programs to financially support advanced biofuels projects, granting substantial loan guarantees to cellulosic ethanol producers and formulating a plan to subsidize the nationwide build-out of blender pump infrastructure. In a speech delivered during the USDA’s Agricultural Outlook Forum on Feb. 24, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack again voiced his commitment to the biofuels industry and discreetly confronted recent Congressional efforts to stall federal support of biofuels by telling attendees “now is not the time to take the foot off the gas” in terms of support for renewable fuels.

“This is an important component of energy security in this country,” he said. “As a result of American farmers and growers today, America is importing 450 million fewer barrels of imported oil. This is an amazing opportunity for us to rebuild and revitalize rural communities … to add up to perhaps as many as a million new jobs in rural America, to see $100 billion of capital investment in new facilities. There’s no reason for us to take the foot off of the gas.”

Vilsack then furthered his agency’s commitment to biofuels, announcing on Feb. 25 that he will sign a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the Governors’ Biofuels Coalition to encourage the continued development of biofuels and bio-based products. The MOU will encourage parties to focus on eliminating obstacles to the development of higher-blend biofuels, develop techniques and systems that make feedstock production sustainable throughout the U.S. and increase public understanding of the benefits of agriculture.

The Governors’ Biofuels Coalition includes governors from 36 states and representatives from Canada, Mexico, Brazil, Sweden, Australia and Thailand. The coalition was formed in 1991 to promote the use of ethanol but has since expanded its mission to include other renewable fuels as well as bio-based products.

Additionally, the USDA announced Feb. 25 it will soon be seeking proposals to study the feasibility of providing crop insurance to biofuel feedstock growers for crops such as corn stover, straw and woody biomass. Funded by the Risk Management Agency, the studies will be in addition to research already being conducted on energy cane, switchgrass and camelina, according to the USDA.

One of the largest concerns related to the development of advanced biorefineries is what many refer to as the “chicken and egg” issue between feedstock and plant construction. Growers are hesitant to plant dedicated energy crops before a biorefinery is built; biorefinery developers cannot build plants without a guaranteed feedstock supply. Vilsack said providing crop insurance for energy crops will be an important step toward providing the risk management necessary to further develop the biofuels industry. “Renewable energy development contributes to the Obama administration’s effort to ‘win the future’ by supporting America’s farmers as they grow and harvest materials that can be converted into renewable energy,” he said.

Parties interested in submitting proposals for the crop insurance feasibility studies are encouraged by the USDA to visit the RMA’s website for further details. Solicitations will be available at www.fedbizopps.gov.