Lawmakers to mull fate of farm bill energy programs

Source: Marc Heller, E&E News reporter • Posted: Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Advocates for programs that turn crops into energy may have a better idea after a hearing this week whether they’ll have to fight for survival in the 2018 farm bill.

The Senate Agriculture Committee holds a hearing Thursday on programs that use sources ranging from grass to wind to water to generate power in rural areas, as lawmakers consider the long-term future of those programs.

While the programs have wide support on the committee, some have faced cuts by congressional appropriators, and the Trump administration tried to eliminate some for the next fiscal year. Energy programs in the 2014 farm bill totaled about $879 million for the 2014-2023 period.

“I think these programs are valued on a bipartisan basis,” said Lloyd Ritter, executive director of the Agriculture Energy Coalition. “The question is funding.”

Near the top of the agenda in the industry is the $50-million-per-year Rural Energy for America Program (REAP), which helps rural small businesses install renewable energy systems and more energy-efficient equipment, for instance.

That program looks poised to survive the appropriations process for the next fiscal year, after the Senate Appropriations Committee declined to accept a deep cut proposed in the House.

Committee ranking member Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) has been an outspoken supporter of the REAP program. In addition, the American Farm Bureau Federation asked the committee earlier this year to maintain funding for REAP, without other energy programs.

Committee Chairman Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) has said his top priority in the farm bill is the farm safety net, led by crop insurance, and that all programs face tight funding.

Other programs, such as the Biomass Crop Assistance Program (BCAP), have had a rougher ride. That program, meant to spur farmers and companies to invest in projects turning perennial grasses and other cellulosic sources into energy, has faced skepticism in Congress.

The group Taxpayers for Common Sense has urged its elimination, but others, such as the California Department of Food and Agriculture and the California Environmental Protection Agency, have pressed for its continuation.

Some lawmakers have tried to eliminate BCAP through appropriations; in the last farm bill, Congress reduced the authorized level to $25 million per year, from an unlimited amount in the 2008 farm bill.

In last year’s appropriations, Congress slashed BCAP to $3 million.

The Agriculture Energy Coalition has urged Congress to improve BCAP, in part as protection against wildfires in the West. Advocates for biomass crops say harvesting of woody material makes those areas less susceptible to runaway fires.

Ritter said he expects the committee to continue with an energy title in the bill, although advocates have suggested renaming it to include manufacturing, a reflection of the jobs the industry can support.