REFRESH Act: Strengthen rural communities and U.S. energy security

Source: Richard Lugar, Marlin Stutzman • Posted: Tuesday, March 6, 2012

By Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) and Rep. Marlin Stutzman (R-Ind.) – 03/05/12 11:29 AM ET

The House and Senate will consider a new Farm Bill at a time when Americans are struggling with climbing energy costs. This nation deserves strategic policies that promote economic growth, enhance our energy security, and work to save Americans’ money. This will require a comprehensive approach that incorporates more domestic oil, biofuels, fuel-saving innovations, and trade with our Canadian partners.

An overlooked source for innovative energy policies is America’s farm program. As Hoosier members of the Senate and House Agriculture Committees, we laid out responsible energy policies when we introduced the REFRESH Act last fall. The REFRESH Act brings real reforms to farm policy and, by simplifying and consolidating the previous Farm Bill’s energy title, encourages diverse fuels, efficiency investments, and new energy opportunities for rural entrepreneurs.

The Lugar-Stutzman REFRESH Act eliminates or consolidates the energy title to just six core initiatives, half of the previous farm bill. Specifically, the REFFRESH Act would:

• Facilitate research, development, and demonstration of next generation biofuels and biochemicals and the biomass crops and residues to produce them. It would leverage private investment and introduce program reforms to encourage cost competitiveness in the biorefineries and BCAP programs.

• Reauthorize and reform the popular REAP program to demonstrate opportunities for economically viable energy investments and encourage loans rather than grants.

• Repeal the handouts for sugar-based ethanol.

Real commitment to rural growth requires that we put money where our mouth – or authorization – is. We offer basic mandatory funding that is more than paid for through cutting waste.

Renewable energy production creates jobs. Rural communities see potential for real economic growth in the emerging biofuel sector. Advances in technologies and agricultural techniques could offer economic benefits from coast to coast. Using the REFRESH Act as the basis for the next Farm Bill would help galvanize private investment in the sector, bringing jobs to a ready economy.

Dramatic advancements in biofuels will help build a more secure and self-reliant America by reducing our dependence on foreign oil. Each year, Americans spend hundreds of billions of dollars to import oil. Our reliance on ill-tempered regimes halfway across the world does us no favors today and invites insecurity tomorrow. In this tight oil market, even a small supply disruption could cause shortages and force prices even higher.

Biofuels alone will not make America energy independent. But, as part of an inclusive strategy that promotes domestic oil production and construction of the Keystone XL pipeline to bring Canadian oil to the American Gulf coast, they can strengthen our leverage in a global market. Hostile regimes know that oil is power. As their power wanes, we expand our policy options in the Middle East and protect our economy.

While we utilize proven energy sources and develop new opportunities, we must also promote energy efficiency. Rural areas are especially ready for these cost-saving steps. Over 42 million Americans live in rural communities, many in homes that are significantly less efficient than those typically found in cities. The USDA has found that rural households spend $200 to $400 more per year on their utility bills than comparable urban households. That’s a hefty price at a time when families are doing their best to tighten their belts.

The REFRESH Act would make it easier for rural families, farms, and small businesses to pay for energy efficiency upgrades through their regular utility bills.

Indiana’s entrepreneurs and farmers are ready to meet these challenges head-on. Although the Farm Bill is a relatively small part of our nation’s energy policy, it is a key element in the effort to partner with Hoosiers for research and education. That’s part of the reason we introduced the REFRESH Act.

The REFRESH Act saves taxpayers $40 billion over the next ten years. Its energy title moves us in the right direction. We emphasized programs that demonstrate the technological and economic opportunity for energy innovation. We move away from an antiquated and costly grant system toward one focused on loan programs. This isn’t big government extending big subsidies. Our bill offers entrepreneurs and farmers a chance to build more robust private sector growth.

Americans want solutions. The REFRESH Act is an outline for success and should be the foundation of the coming Farm Bill. We have an opportunity to promote self-reliance, ensure security, and cut costs. We look forward to working with our colleagues on these serious reforms.

Sen. Lugar and Rep. Stutzman are Indiana Republicans, family farm owners, and members of their respective Senate and House Agriculture Committees. This column is the first of a four-part series leading up to National Agriculture Day on March 8, 2012.