The Obama administration has announced a major, concerted push by the USDA, Department of Energy and EPA to support the development and expansion of domestic biofuels.

The initial effort will be done through a working group between the three agencies with renewable fuel standards, emission-reduction targets and a host of other biofuel-related issues on the agenda.

“I’m excited about this opportunity because (President Obama) has directed us to create a comprehensive biofuel marketing development program to focus on the infrastructure necessary for this industry to be a permanent part of the American economy, and to do it in a sustainable way,” said USDA secretary Tom Vilsack during a May 5 press conference.

EPA

In the 2007 Energy Independence and Security Act (EISA), “Congress recognized the need for a home-grown fuel source,” said Lisa Jackson, EPA administrator. “Every year, we send billions of dollars overseas, often to unfriendly places. With renewable fuels, we can send those billions to rural and farming communities, to people who need help most in these challenging economic times.”

Jackson pointed out EISA calls for investment in corn-based ethanol, a “swift transition” to advance cellulosic ethanol, and 36 billion gallons of renewable fuels in 2022 — “enough to cut petroleum consumption by nearly 11 percent.”

Further, by adhering to EISA-instituted renewable fuel greenhouse gas emission reductions, “we can cut greenhouse gases equivalent to taking 24 million cars off the road.”

For more on the EPA regulations on renewable fuels, see Regulation of Fuels and Fuel Additives: Changes to Renewable Fuel Standard Program.

Jackson pledged actions on biofuels would be “informed by the best science. To add to that good science, EPA is seeking further peer review. It is important that the public and scientific community have a chance to examine the strategy. So, we’ll be soliciting comments from the public for the next 60 days and look forward to hearing from all stakeholders as we do so.”

Among items to be “specifically peer reviewed” according to Jackson: satellite data used to project future land use changes; the land conversion/greenhouse gas emissions factors; the estimates of greenhouse gas emissions from foreign crops; the methods to account for the variable timing of greenhouse gas emissions; and the issue of how models are used together to provide overall lifecycle greenhouse gas estimates.

The EPA “welcomes additional scientific and public scrutiny of our work,” said Jackson. And the EPA will certainly get it. Pushback from several commodity groups — aggrieved by some of the underlying EPA scientific assumptions on biofuel standards — began almost immediately after the joint press conference.

Department of Energy

Steven Chu, head of the DOE, announced $786 million will be invested in the development of advanced biofuels and expansion of commercial biorefineries.

Funds will also go to the three U.S. bioenergy research centers. The centers “have already shown great new advances. One example: the centers have already developed yeast and bacteria that, when fed simple sugars, can produce gasoline and diesel-like fuel.

Chu pointed to an Oak Ridge National Laboratory study (for more on Oak Ridge, see Energy needs drive innovation, require research focus) that projected 1 billion tons of agricultural waste and crops “specifically designed for energy could be available and have minimal impact on our food production. If you transfer that billion tons of agricultural material into what we expect in ethanol, that corresponds to something on the order of 100 billion gallons of ethanol. That would go a long way towards wiping out our need to import oil.”

More Vilsack

To meet President Obama’s “aggressive deadline,” Vilsack acknowledged the USDA is to bring “investments required under the energy title of the farm bill into the economy as quickly as possible. (Obama) has instructed USDA within 30 days to essentially trigger … the various programs identified by the farm bill.

“There is over $1.1 billion of opportunity here, created by Congress, to assist in building biorefineries and helping existing refineries convert from fossil fuel power to renewable power; to create opportunities for producers to … produce new cellulosic crops and product; to provide (a chance) for producers to look at their operations and see how they might convert to renewable sources and utilize (things) other than fossil fuels.”

Vilsack reminded that USDA’s “responsibility is crafted, directed and shaped not just by the (recent) memorandum signed by (Obama) but also by the energy title in the farm bill.”

Congress has directed USDA “to make available resources to farmers to first and foremost audit their activities on farm to determine if there are steps that could be taken by individual farm families to convert to renewable energy sources and move away from reliance on fossil fuels. Resources have already been provided under this program, as we speak, to farmers across the country to conduct these audits.”

Once the audits are complete, growers “can make application to the USDA for additional resources to convert their operations.”

Editor’s note: an expanded version of this story will appear in the print edition of Delta Farm Press.

e-mail: dbennett@farmpress.com