Vislack defends biofuels, bioenergy during House hearing

Source: By Erin Voegele, Ethanol Producer Magazine • Posted: Sunday, March 6, 2016

On Feb. 24, the House Committee on Agriculture held a hearing on the state of the rural economy. Biofuels and bioenergy were among the topics discussed during the nearly three-hour event.

When asked to characterize the state of the biofuels industry, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack spoke about the need to maintain a strong rural economy. “I think the ability to maintain a strong and vibrant rural economy is dependent on our capacity to diversify and to create new opportunities to complement production agriculture and exports, which has been the traditional way of supporting rural America,” he said. “In my lifetime, agricultural production has increased by 170 percent even though the inputs have been relatively stable. That’s producing 170 percent more on 26 percent less land, with 22 million less farmers. The challenge that we have in rural areas is that as we were getting fewer and fewer farmers and were becoming more and more efficient with production agriculture, we didn’t overlay that with a complimentary economy that would allow folks to live work and raise their families in small communities. We’re now doing that,” he noted, adding that the development of the bioeconomy, biofuels industry and bioenergy industry all play a part in bringing manufacturing back to small towns.

Vislack stressed that the biofuels industry is something people like and want. It’s helping create jobs, reducing the cost of gas over time, reducing emissions, reducing the trade deficit, and helping to reduce U.S. reliance on foreign oil. According to Vilsack, the industry is also helping to diversity the economy and is creating jobs in rural America.

Responding to questions about USDA support of biomass fuels, Vilsack noted the department is working through its network of research centers to look for ways in which appropriate biomass supply chains can be created for each region of the country. He also spoke about Farm Bill programs that support the production of advanced biofuels and provide loan guarantees for biorefinery projects.

In his testimony, Vilsack also highlighted the potential for biofuel use by the U.S. military. The Navy wants half their fuel to be biobased and domestically produced, he said, adding “I was privileged enough to be on a destroyer watching it be refueled with beef tallow fuel out on the Pacific theater just a couple of weeks ago.”

According to Vilsack, interest in biofuels is also strong in the private aviation sector. “There are roughly 40 airports that sell 90 percent of the jet fuel, and they are extremely interested in doing this because of the emissions and the benefit from the emissions to meet international standards,” he said, noting aviation use represents a 17 to 19 billion gallon market.

Vilsack also defended the USDA’s Biofuel Infrastructure Partnership during the event. The 21 states that participate in the program match $100 million in USDA funds with $120 million in commitments, he said. “We anticipate and expect over 5,000 additional distribution systems being put in those 21 states, so there is a lot of interest in this program,” Vilsack continued.

Vilsack said the biofuels industry directly and indirectly supports 450,000 jobs and has lowered the price of gas. “You can’t deny the fact that study after study shows that this industry has indeed over time reduced the cost of gas to consumers,” he added. Responding to misinformation regarding the food versus fuel debate, Vislack stressed there is no correlation between ethanol production and the cost of food.