Vilsack says the future for biofuels remains bright

By Erin Voegele | January 20, 2022

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack discussed the important role biofuels and biobased manufacturing play in the rural economy and highlighted the agency’s efforts to support those industries during a Jan. 20 hearing held by the House Agriculture Committee.

In his opening statement, Vilsack focused on the phrase “an extraction economy" and the need to create a circular economy where wealth is created and stays in rural areas. He explained that many of the raw resources produced by the ag economy are currently transported long distances, and value-added at some other location. As a result, opportunities and jobs are created in areas other than rural America. “I think its going to be important to us as we look forward to try to develop what is called a circular economy, in which the wealth is created and stays in rural areas," he said. 

Vilsack offered several examples of a circular economy, including biobased manufacturing. “Biofuels is one example, but there are a multitude of ways in which we can convert agricultural waste products into a wide variety of things beyond renewable energy and fuel, to include chemicals, materials, fabrics, fibers—again creating opportunities for farmers and additional income sources as well as rural jobs.”

He also stressed that climate change creates an opportunity for the ag sector. “As we look at ways in which rural lands can be used to sequester carbon—as we embrace climate smart agricultural practices—it opens up a whole new vista of opportunity for farmers to essentially be paid for the carbon sequestration that they are currently doing and will do in the future,” Vilsack said.

Vilsack also field several questions related to biofuels, the Renewable Fuel Standard, E15 and electric vehicles during the hearing.

Rep. Vicky Hartzler, R-Mo., referenced recent media reports that the Biden administration is considering lowering its proposed 2022 renewable volume obligation (RVO) and asked Vilsack to comment on those rumors.

In response, Vilsack stressed that the proposed RVO for 2022 is the highest in the history of the RFS program. He also discussed the $700 million in COVID-19 relief for biofuels and the $100 million in biofuel infrastructure funds that the USDA has announced it will distribute this year and highlighted the importance of the U.S. EPA’s proposal to deny more than 65 small refinery exemption (SRE) petitions.

Rep. Cheri Bustos, D-Ill., also questioned Vilsack on the importance of biofuels and the Biden administration’s support for the industry.

Vilsack outlined four primary benefits of the biofuels industry. He said the industry supports stability in farm income, increases jobs in rural areas, provides consumers with choice at the pump, and benefits the environment. “That’s why it’s important for the industry to have stability,” he said. “And, stability comes not just from setting a [strong RVO], but from making sure that number is real.” He discussed the Trump administration’s overuse of SRE waivers, noting that RVOs finalized by Trump’s EPA were not real, rather they were greatly dissipated by the granting of SREs. The current administration plans to deny more than 65 pending SRE petitions, which will result in a “real” RVO. “I think the stability is going to be very helpful to this industry,” he said.  

Rep. Mary Miller, R-Ill., said her constituents are concerned about the Biden administration’s focus on electric vehicles and questioned if the administration has shown sufficient support for biofuels.

In response, Vilsack reiterated the importance of the $700 million in pandemic relief and $100 million in infrastructure support that the USDA is offering to the biofuels industry, along with the impact of the EPA’s decision to reign in the SRE program. He also stressed that the Biden administration has also set an ambitious goal for sustainable aviation fuel (SAF). “I think it’s very unfair to suggest that this administration has not been supportive of the biofuel industry,” he said.

Rep. Angie Craig, D-Minn., also questioned Vilsack regarding the focus on electric vehicles. “There is a lot of conversation about electric cars,” Vilsack said, but stressed that cars with internal combustion engines will continue to remain on the road for the foreseeable future and will require the use of biofuels. Liquid biofuels will also continue to be necessary for aviation and marine transport. “We won’t see the elimination of [the biofuels industry]—we’ll see an expansion of it,” Vilsack said. “I’m excited about this industry and think the future is bright.”

Rep. Michelle Fischbach, R-Minn., expressed concern that the fact that biofuels reduce emissions is getting lost in the conversion on climate change, and asked about the agency’s support for biofuels. “I am confidence that I am one of the most ardent proponents of biofuels anywhere in this country and have been for years—decades,” Vilsack said in response, assuring the committee that biobased fuels remain a priority for the current administration.

Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., said Vilsack has long championed efforts to expand biomanufacturing and asked about the impact recently allocated funding will have that sector.

Vilsack explained that a Congress allocated a relatively small amount of funds the agency in a recent infrastructure bill to look at the issue of biobased manufacturing. That funding, he said, could have a profound impact on rural America. Biobased manufacturing provides a market for a variety of agricultural waste products, Vilsack said. Those materials can be used to produce not only fuels, but also chemicals, materials, fabrics, fibers and renewable energy—all of which creates a circular economy, creates new income sources for farmers, and helps avoid some of the environmental challenges associated with some ag industries. He potential, he said, is unlimited and “rural America is ripe for this opportunity.”

A full replay of the hearing is available on the House Agriculture Committee website

 

 

 
 
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