Vilsack weighs in on U.S. energy vision
President Obama this week unveiled his vision for the country’s energy future in a speech at Georgetown University. (Click here for the full speech.)
The president acknowledged that the energy industry must focus on safety, responsibility and diversified innovation to tap into the full effect of “American ingenuity.” Reporter Jessica Naudziunas on April 1 spoke with the man who will help implement the agriculture side of Obama’s energy plan. U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack answers her questions on how American farmers, agriculture and biofuels will play a role in Obama’s goal of cutting foreign oil imports by ⅓ by the year 2025.
Q: President Obama mentioned over the next two years, plans for building four next generation bio-refineries will begin. Who will own these plants and where will they be built? How will that be decided?
A: Well, under the energy title of the farm bill, the USDA has the capacity to provide grants and loans to enterprises that want to produce advanced biofuels and take us to the next generation as the president has challenged us to do (Click here for details.) So, we will be receiving applications from a variety of energy companies that have new technologies, different technologies, and we’ll analyze the feasibility of the plants and make awards accordingly.
Our hope is to have facilities in all parts of the country, so that we begin to have a sort of nationwide net cast in terms of biofuels. We’re excited about this future. We think it is certainly part of this energy and transportation future the president outlined in his speech in Georgetown.”
Q: What does Obama’s energy plan mean for the American farmer?
A: Well, first of all, that farmer may need to know about our own USDA REAP (Rural Energy for America) program, which encourages farmers to take a look at their own operations to determine how they might be able to incorporate renewable energy into their own operations to be able to produce it. You know, we’ve got farmers across the country producing methane from their livestock operations, taking biomass from their crop production processes and converting it into power for their own farming operations, and some of them even putting it on the grid, and selling it back to the utility company.
So, first and foremost they need to take a look at their own operation. Secondly, when we talk about biomass, we talk about using animal waste or other crop residue, we’re talking about new income opportunities for farmers. As well as, hopefully, creating jobs in rural communities and in the bio-refineries where the farmer, the spouse or family member can be employed. So, there are tremendous opportunities here for revitalization of the rural economy and helping to increase farmer and rancher bottom line.
Q: Safety and responsibility was a theme throughout Obama’s speech, but he didn’t give a clear view of the biofuel industry’s possible safety issues. So, environmentally or otherwise, to what kind of safety standards should the biofuels industry be held to?
A: Well, obviously, in terms of employee safety, OSHA regulations would apply. In terms of environmental safety, one of the great things that’s happening in biofuels, they’re becoming much more energy efficient, much less reliant on natural resources than they have been in the past. It’s important for us to expand significantly beyond corn-based ethanol. To encourage new and alternative feed stocks that will allow us to waste product more effectively and more efficiently, and get more environmentally sensitive materials into the bioenergy process. That’s why woody biomass, perennial grasses, crop residue, animal waste, which in some cases have been issues and challenges for farming operations, can now be opportunities for profit.
Q: As we are a public media organization, we encourage listener and reader collaboration. Here are two questions from our followers:
#1 How will an increase in biofuel production effect larger ecosystems? The U.S. keeps growing more corn to meet ethanol mandates. What are your ideas to address the pollution problems, outside the Mississippi River Basin Initiative?
A: That’s one of the reasons why we’re trying to expand beyond corn-based ethanol, to take some of the pressure off corn-based ethanol. Congress has basically directed us to produce 36 billion gallons of biofuel, and 21 billion of those 36 billion gallons must come from sources other than corn-based ethanol. So, that’s why we’re going into the Northwest and taking a look at woody biomass, why we’re looking at algae production possibilities, perennial grasses. Ways in which we can better utilize resources that are available in all parts of the country to produce biofuels, and to do it in an environmentally sensitive and appropriate way.
It’s also an opportunity for us to expand job growth in rural areas. I think there is a real effort on the part of the administration to expand corn-based ethanol, to make sure we are focusing this on all parts of the country. As it relates to the Mississippi, one of the positive aspects of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s work is expanded numbers of acres in conservation programs, doing a better job of avoiding soil erosion, doing a better job of rewarding new conservation programs...no till, things of that nature, we’re going to continue to see more of that.
We’re right in the process now of working with our ecosystems market department to try to create financial incentives for those conservation programs in terms of environmental quality and environmental benefit. So, there are a lot of things going on in this space that I think should be hopeful for those that are concerned with the Agriculture Department’s role in the protecting the environment.
Q: And the second question from one of our readers:
#2 How do you see algae fitting into Obama’s plan to expand biofuels to the next generation of “clean energy”?
A: Well, we have a program right now where we are investing in Sapphire Energy in New Mexico, which is an algae-producing plant that is capable of producing biofuel. We think this is a technology that is worth investing in, and certainly part of the strategy of diversifying to feedstock, so there’s no question that there’s a place for it, as there is with woody biomass, perennial grasses, animal waste, and others.
Q: Obama mentioned one of the biggest problems in the alternative energy industry is renewable fuel distribution. How would you like to see the current ethanol blending tax credit be reformed to help this “problem,” or is there another solution?
A: I think it is important to take a look at the incentives. Some folks want to end the incentive program right now. The problem with that is it will reduce substantially our capacity to expand production, and will result in job loss. I think a better way is to create a glide path away from those incentives and those support structures and use them in a way to produce more flexible fuel vehicles that can use renewable biofuel, and at the same time figure out a way to incentivize gas station owners, convenience store owners, petroleum marketers to use resources to invest in blender pumps and distribution systems that will make it easier and more convenient to access biofuels.
Q: It’s clear, Obama sees biofuel as one legitimate source of energy that will decrease imports and dependence on foreign oil in the long term. That means job and investment opportunities. If you were to give advice to a Midwestern farmer who is interested in developing the biomass potential of his or her land in anticipation of this growing, government backed industry, what kind of suggestions would you give?
A: I think it is important to invest in technologies that work, but I think at the same time there is a mandate to produce 36 billion gallons of renewable fuels and instructions to use other sources, other than corn, to produce those fuels. So, I would be looking for technologies that are at a pilot scale, working. And I would be taking a look at ways in which you could either produce the feedstock, or be part of the ownership operation that is utilizing the new feedstock to produce biofuels. The great thingabout this opportunity for farmers is farmers have a chance to profit from production. They can take what was once waste product, and convert it into an asset and sell that asset. They can also be an investor in a processing facility and benefit not only from the production, but also the processing of that waste product.