GOP Farm Bill Mixed Bag for Energy, Efficiency, Conservation and Forestry

Source: By Jessie Stolark, EESI • Posted: Monday, April 16, 2018

On Thursday, April 12, Chairman Conaway introduced a GOP-only Farm Bill and expects the Committee will mark up the bill starting April 18. While the overall conversation is dominated by debate over the future direction of the Nutrition Title (which represents 80 percent of the overall farm bill), there were both good and bad changes to the energy, efficiency, forestry and conservation titles. While EESI is disappointed to not see a bipartisan bill go forward, we appreciate the hard work of the Committee to further a bill that helps during a time when the farm economy is down 50 percent in just a six-year period.  Within, we consider some of the key provisions affecting energy, efficiency, conservation and forestry.

Nutrition Title Is the Big Kahuna

Despite earlier signs of bipartisanship, talks between Republicans and Democrats broke down late last month over Republican desires to enforce stricter work requirements for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (previously known as food stamps).  Despite being the ‘Farm’ Bill, nutrition represents the bulk of the bill, at roughly 80 percent of overall funding.

Therefore, finding a bipartisan solution to the Nutrition Title, therefore, represents the best way forward for passage of a bill, since both rural and urban members need to vote for passage of a Farm Bill and because millions of families, children and disabled rely on nutrition assistance programs.  While Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) and House Agriculture Committee Chairman Conaway (R-TX) feel confident they will have the votes to pass a Farm Bill, it looks increasingly like the Committee will need to seek a short-term extension to continue funding USDA and other programs past the Farm Bill’s expiration date (September 30) while the broader debate over the Nutrition Title wages on.

Energy Title Is Moved to Rural Development, Receives Only Discretionary Funding

Since its inception in the 2002 Farm Bill, Energy Title (Title IX) programs have helped farmers, ranchers, small businesses, and rural communities generate thousands of jobs and millions of dollars in economic development. The sectors impacted by the Energy Title range from renewable energy—including wind, solar, geothermal, biogas, and advanced biofuels—as well as energy efficiency and biobased chemicals and products. The Farm Bill Energy Title programs have played an important role in the greater diversification of rural economies across the country.

Despite these successes, House lawmakers have decided to eliminate the Energy Title. The individual programs of the Energy Title now appear under Rural Development, subtitle E, “Farm Security and Rural Investment Act of 2002,” along with the Rural Energy Savings Program (RESP), which gives zero-interest loans to rural electric utilities to help their members make energy efficiency upgrades. RESP is authorized at $75 million per year within the bill. The following Energy Title programs are reauthorized over the next five years (note that these program numbers reflect their previous program numbers in the farm bill):

  • The Biobased Markets Program (9002), receives discretionary funding at $2 million per year,
  • The Biorefinery, Renewable Chemical and Biobased Product Manufacturing Assistance (9003) receives discretionary funding at $75 million per year,
  • Repowering Assistance Program (9004), receives discretionary funding at $10 million per year,
  • The Biorefinery Program for Advanced Biofuels (9005), receives discretionary funding at $50 million per year,
  • The Biodiesel Fuel Education Program (9007), receives discretionary funding at $2 million per year,
  • The Rural Energy for America Program (REAP, 9006), was carried over, but carries no funding in the bill itself.  In the bill “section-by-section” summary, it receives discretionary funding at $45 million per year, and,
  • The Biomass Crop Assistance Program (BCAP, 9011) receives discretionary funding of $25 million per year.
  • Additionally, the Biomass Research and Development Program (BRDI, 9008), receives discretionary funding of $20 million per year.

Conservation – Acres Increase, But Working Lands Program Cut Significantly

One of the major changes to the Conservation Title is that acreage under the largest conservation program, the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), which pays farmers to retire lands was increased.  The increase in acres in this program will be offset, however, by a decrease in rental payments per acre.

But working lands conservation, through the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) was cut by 25 percent over the next 5 years and rolled into the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). While the two programs have some overlap, advocates argue that they are separate for a reason. According to the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, “CSP helps farmers and ranchers implement advanced conservation stewardship systems to address priority resource concerns on their land. EQIP … provides cost-share assistance on a one-time basis to help producers implement specific conservation practices.”

Forestry Title Contains Encouraging Provisions on Forestry Stewardship

Within the forestry title, the Landscape Scale Restoration Program is codified. This allows for cross-state forest restoration projects to move forward under state level Forest Action Plans. Additionally, the bill reauthorizes the “community wood-to-energy” program with $20 million in discretionary funding, which provides support to local communities wanting to use wood resources for energy as well as expanding forest products markets.

The bill also contains parts of the Tall Wood Innovation Act (TIA), which includes funding for R&D on mass timber as a building material, Wood Innovation Grants, and the Tall Wood Building Competition. The draft farm bill contains only the research portion of the TIA.

While it is encouraging to see many of these important programs continued, it is distressing to see them assigned only discretionary funding, as this leaves them essentially hanging in the balance.  As we have seen over the past five years, appropriators are increasingly fond of making major policy decisions through appropriations.  Therefore, assigning only discretionary (rather than mandatory) funding to these programs often seals their fate as dead on arrival.

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