Vilsack: US needs 'significant commitment' to biofuels industry

By Holly Jessen | April 20, 2011

Opportunity. That’s the buzz word for biofuels, according to Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack. “There are tremendous opportunities here,” he said. “The last thing anybody should be doing is cutting the legs out from under this industry at a time when oil prices are unstable.” He also pointed out that imported oil comes, at least in part, from countries that do not like or agree with U.S. policies or are very unstable. 

Vilsack, along with U.S. EPA’s Administrator Lisa Jackson, held a press conference April 19 following a visit to a Renewable Energy Group Inc. biodiesel facility in Newton, Iowa. They also held a renewable energy roundtable, which was attended by Poet LLC CEO Jeff Broin, Todd Becker, CEO of Green Plains Renewable Energy Inc., Rick Schwark, president and CEO of Absolute Energy Inc in St. Ansgar, Iowa, and Owen Shunkwiler, general manager of the Poet Biorefining plant in Coon Rapids, Iowa. 

Growth Energy CEO Tom Buis praised the EPA and USDA for the event. “With gas prices skyrocketing past $4 a gallon and conflict in the Middle East still unresolved, the U.S. ethanol industry stands ready to work with the USDA and EPA to promote the use of renewable energy to keep more dollars in the American economy and strengthen our national security,” he said.

The USDA has been very busy lately, stopping at various ethanol production facilities. On April 20 Vilsack joined Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Gov. Mark Dayton in Inver Grove Heights, Minn., to highlight renewable energy projects. On April 15 Vilsack spoke at the grand opening of the BioProcess Algae LLC’s commercial-scale algae bioreactor project, which is located at Green Plains Renewable Energy Inc.’s 65 MMgy ethanol plant in Shenandoah, Iowa. Two days earlier, USDA Rural Business-Cooperative Service Administrator Judith Canales stopped by to check out the progress on the ICM Inc. cellulosic ethanol pilot and demonstration plant under construction in St. Joseph, Mo.

When asked what the USDA’s strategy was for these series of meetings, more of which are planned for the future, he said it was to express support for the biofuels industry. “We’ve gone from 60 percent of our oil being imported to 52 percent in the last couple of years, part of the reason for that is because we’ve made continued expansion opportunities in biofuels available.” he said.

He also called biofuels a “lynch pin” to revitalizing rural communities, providing revenue for farmers as well as jobs. “The president is very insistent on reducing our reliance and importation of foreign oil by one third in the next decade,” he said. “In order to do that you have to have a number of strategies—one of which is a significant commitment to the biofuel industry. We found out what happens when the supports are ended abruptly, when the biodiesel tax credit was stopped. We lost production capacity, we lost jobs and we don’t want to replicate that.”

Vilsack also mentioned Rural Energy for America Program funding, which is available to help finance blender pump installations, and the need for more flex-fuel vehicles on the road. “We clearly need to expand sign the distribution system, in terms of making supply more convenient and more available in all four corners of the country,” he said.

The stop in Iowa also included a tour of a livestock farm in Pleasantville and a 1,600 acre row crop farm in Prairie City. It was a chance for Jackson and Vilsack to meet with farmers and ranchers to discuss the agencies’ joint efforts to ensure that U.S. agriculture continues to be productive. “The farmers and ranchers we visited with today —and hundreds of thousands like them around the country— are our nation’s first and finest conservationists,” Vilsack said. “They understand better than anyone that you cannot continually take from the land without giving back and they have taken incredible strides to protect the land they rely on. USDA will continue to work hand-in-hand with EPA to ensure that both agencies are pursuing common-sense regulation that will let farmers make the decisions they feel are best for their own operations.”