Vilsack hasn't wavered in support of ethanol industry, RFS

By Holly Jessen | February 08, 2013

Although some want to revise or repeal the renewable fuel standard, Tom Vilsack, secretary of agriculture has not wavered. “Our position is that we are strong supporters of the RFS,” he said Feb. 7. “It’s working, it’s doing what it’s supposed to do, and it has helped to build this industry.”

Vilsack spoke to about 1,100 at the National Ethanol Conference, which was held Feb. 4 to 7 in Las Vegas. After a speech in which he said critics were attacking the ethanol industry because it is winning, he spoke privately to a small group of reporters, including Ethanol Producer Magazine.

Asked if President Obama’s support had waned, Vilsack drew a laugh with his response. “I’m still here, man,” he said, referring to the fact that he will remain in office with the USDA while other administrative appointees are transitioning out in Obama’s second term.

Vilsack pointed to 2012 grain-ethanol production numbers as well as progress in the advanced biofuels industry, as it ramps up to commercial production. “(The RFS is) working and we would hope that Congress would continue to let it work,” he said. He also answered a question about what effect it would have on calls to repeal the RFS if the cellulosic ethanol industry did not reach commercial production levels as quickly as expected. “That’s question that could have easily been asked in prior years but I not sure it’s the right question this year,” he said, predicting that by the end of 2013 at least 10 million gallons and perhaps 14 million gallons of the fuel will be produced, with more biorefineries coming online in 2014. “I think we are at that tipping point where we are actually going to see results and I think that’s going to take some pressure off,” he said.

On the subject of rising imports of Brazilian sugarcane ethanol, he said the larger, long-term issue was its potential impact to investments in U.S. innovations and development of new bio-based products. The U.S. has been stagnant and satisfied with the way things are for far too long, he said. “I think this industry has basically challenged that thought process, what can we do differently,” he said.

In his speech to the full group, he’d spoken passionately about his vision for a new bio-based economy that could someday revitalize the U.S. economy while also reversing the trend of population decline in rural areas. The ethanol industry helped start that, he said, and although it’s very small right now it has huge potential for growth, with many entrepreneurs, small businesses and multiple biorefining facilities. Some of these new ventures will fail, he said, but others will succeed.

The subject of the drought and what next year’s crop might look like also came up. Vilsack said he thought farmers should always be optimistic as a new planting season approaches. Still, with the drought actually continuing in some areas through the winter, some soil moisture levels are concerning. Vilsack has been able to find a positive in the current situation, however. “The drought is a wake up call,” he said, providing an opportunity for deeper discussion on changing climate. In fact, on Feb. 7 the USDA released a plan for climate change adaption, which is now open for public comment. “The bottom line is, there is an impact on forestry and ag production which will result in greater amount of storms and more extreme weather conditions,” he said. “We have limited amount of time to research and create strategies to mitigate that.” 

He briefly mentioned one strategy which could beneficially impact the ethanol industry by providing additional feedstock supplies. Multicropping, or cover cropping, is helpful in a wide variety of areas, including reduction of carbon emissions and water retention, he said, adding that the USDA would release more information later in February.