Vilsack emphasizes support for ethanol, energy security

By Holly Jessen | September 21, 2011

There are two main strategies to meet President Obama’s goal of reducing the nation’s dependence on foreign oil by one third within the next 10 years, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack told members of Growth Energy on Sept. 21. The first is becoming more efficient with the fuel used. The second strategy is creating alternatives to foreign oil. “[That means] alternatives that are home grown,” he said. “Alternatives that help to create jobs here in America. Alternatives that provide better bottom lines for farmers and producers around the country. And that’s what your industry is doing—that’s what you are advocating for.”

Vilsack gave a keynote address at Growth Energy’s invitation-only Second Legislative Conference, held Sept. 19-21 in Washington, D.C., office. Besides conducting the organization’s annual business meeting, the event provided an opportunity for Growth Energy members to meet with members of Congress.

To reach the 36 billion gallon mark, as specified in the renewable fuel standard, the country will need to reduce its reliance on foreign oil by 18 percent, Vilsack said. That adds up to about the same amount that’s currently imported from the Middle East. The fact that the U.S. has a choice, that it isn’t compelled to import petroleum, isn’t something that he thinks the American public fully understands. “We can either create opportunity here, or fuel opportunity elsewhere,” he said. “And there is no better opportunity in my mind to help revitalize a rural economy that is need of revitalization than this industry.”

Vilsack outlined some of the ways the USDA has tried to “aggressively promote and advance” the alternative energy industry. Two of those methods include funding for blender pumps through the Rural Energy for America Program and the Biomass Crop Assistance Program, which provides up to 75 percent reimbursement for farmers cost to establish energy crops. 

With legislators gearing up for a big budget fight, those two programs are in danger of being cut or drastically reduced, Vilsack said. The USDA budget that recently went through the U.S. House of Representatives, for example, only included a couple million for REAP funding, just a fraction of the program’s current funding level. Vilsack requested that Growth Energy members speak to lawmakers about the importance of REAP to the ethanol industry while they talk about the importance of the ethanol industry to rural America. He also mentioned concerns that the importance of BCAP would be forgotten in budget discussions on the 2012 farm bill. “Absent your advocacy it is possible that REAP doesn’t get funded adequately and BCAP goes away,” he said.

There are powerful forces aligned against the ethanol industry, Vilsack acknowledged. Those forces don’t want flex-fuel pumps in gas stations and other expansions to infrastructure to get ethanol to consumers. Those groups don’t recognize the importance of supporting an industry that is still in its infancy. “You all have been around for a while but you haven’t been around as long as, say, the oil industry, just to choose one industry,” he said, to laughter in the audience. “Yet we still continue to subsidize and support some of those mature industries, in a fairly extensive way.”

Legislators need to know that agriculture is having a record year, in part because of the ethanol industry, he said. A record amount of ag products are being exported, including ethanol and distillers grains. The ethanol industry is creating jobs, as many as 400,000 direct and indirect jobs, according to one study. And the future of homegrown energy looks even brighter—reaching 36 billion gallons will mean biorefineries in all four corners of the U.S., creating $100 billion in investment in rural communities and as many as a million jobs. “So you want to solve the job problem, you want to reduce your dependence on foreign oil, you want to create a revitalized rural economy, you want to strengthen America, you want to be a nation that once again exports and makes, creates and innovates—you’d better be a supporter of biofuels,” he said.