Vilsack renews endorsement of ethanol in Phoenix

By Susanne Retka Schill | February 27, 2014

PHOENIX, Ariz. — Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack left no one in doubt regarding his commitment to the ethanol industry in Phoenix on Thursday, Feb. 27. The ethanol producers, farmers and industry representatives at Growth Energy's annual leadership conference heard a rousing defense of the industry, as well as an enumeration of the means available to him within the USDA to support the industry, regardless of the outcome of the proposed revisions to the renewable fuels standard (RFS). 

He lauded the group of about 500 for the industry's vision that goes far beyond the concerns of being in business. "I know of no group that has more of the national interest at heart than the folks here today and those in renewable energy," he said, pointing to the job creation, impact on rural economies and commitment to increasing the nation's energy security. "This industry and its success is important for the future of the country, it provides stability and opportunities for farm families." 

He acknowledged the big issue threatening the industry, with the U.S. EPA's proposal to ratchet back the renewable volume obligations in the RFS, admitting that as he planned his remarks, "I wasn't sure how well I'd be received." He reported he has cautioned the EPA and the administration to be fully aware of the impact of the proposed changes in rural America. He offered no hint of what the final decision would be, but suggested there are many other tools that have been underutilized that could compensate for any changes, including programs within the USDA that he can implement. "I will do everything I can as long as I can to be sure your industry has a future, and it's bright,"

Vilsack outlined several provisions in the Farm Bill that will benefit renewable fuels. The industry was disappointed that a provision to prohibit the use of the Renewable Energy for America Program funds for renewable fuel infrastructure support, such as blender pumps, made it into the legislation. But Vilsack said that wasn't the final word. "I have a lot of programs at USDA, with enough flexibility that if you can find the service stations wanting install the infrastructure, we're open for business." The agency will utilize several existing programs for small businesses and rural enterprise to offer loan guarantees and other support for flex-fuel infrastructure.

He highlighted other measures the USDA is planning to implement, that will support the industry. "While folks were working on the REAP provision, I was working to expand the energy programs in the Farm Bill," he said. One example is getting more flexibility in the programs offering assistance to biorefineries to be able to support the development of new bioprocessing facilities in rural communities to produce renewable chemicals, polymers and fibers.  "We need jobs, we need innovation, we need manufacturing to come back to rural America," he said.


Another provision in the Farm Bill restores the USDA's trade promotion work and authorizes the department to use funds in energy market promotion. He extended an invitation to the ethanol industry to join in trade missions to countries like China, India and Japan. "They have been slow to embrace renewable fuels," he explained, saying that they need to learn about the benefits of using renewable fuels. While some are saying the utilization of corn for ethanol will decline, he added, others are forecasting export opportunities will expand production. "Get involved in the first trade mission that includes ethanol," he said.

Vilsack also emphasized that despite attempts to the contrary, the USDA is continuing its partnership with the Department of Defense, saying that the Navy, in particular, sees the importance of renewable fuels to the nation's energy security.  "Take a map of the world and see where our naval bases are located. Where does the fuel comes from?  The Middle East.  "It wouldn't take much to bottleneck that supply from the Middle East," he said. A renewable fuel industry in the U.S. mitigates the vulnerability to interrupted energy supplies. "So we wouldn't depend on a narrow strip of water for our energy supply."

Vilsack affirmed the USDA's role in continued advocacy for ethanol. "I believe very strongly in this industry," he said. "This country needs this industry. This country needs the service and community values that you embody."