Farm Progress

Major biofuel initiative pushed by Obama administration 255103

David Bennett 1, Associate Editor

June 4, 2009

8 Min Read

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.

Obama has set a “very aggressive timetable for USDA in terms of the work we must do to accelerate investment in new biofuel opportunities: from focusing on additional resources for biorefineries to allowing existing biorefineries to convert to renewable fuel and away from fossil fuel to a bioenergy program that encourages producers to provide new feedstocks … to opportunities for communities to convert, as well.”

The new biofuel push “merges and marries together rural economic development with agriculture to create clean jobs. … It is a firm commitment in making this industry an integral part of this new 21st century American economy. … It provides additional income opportunities for American farmers and ranchers, jobs for those in rural communities, and energy security for every single American.”


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.

“Energy independence (would) end our vulnerability to oil price hikes, something we've felt as far back as the 1970s and as recently as last year. Our economy is at the mercy of foreign oil producers.”

As India and China demand more oil and supplies level off or decrease, “volatile and expensive supply lines are even riskier.”

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.”


Steven Chu, head of the DOE, was equally effusive in praising the interagency biofuel focus. “If you look at the great resources in the United States, certainly agriculture is one of them. We have incredible capacity not only to grow the food we need — along with a dynamic export capability — but we can also grow a considerable (amount) of energy.”

Obama's directive is totally in line with the need “to transition to a cleaner, sustainable-energy economy and to decrease our dependence on foreign oil.”

Chu announced $786 million will be invested in the development of advanced biofuels and expansion of commercial biorefineries. The money “is intended (for) several areas. For example, it will (look at plants' integration) of biofuels, bioproducts and heat and power into a system that could prove commercial viability.”

There will also be “investments in the increase of existing commercial-scale integrated biorefineries that have been awarded in the last two years.”

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.

“We'll also create an ‘algae biofuel consortium’ to accelerate the demonstration of algae (based) biofuels.”

Chu pointed to an Oak Ridge National Laboratory study (for more on Oak Ridge, see that projected one 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.”


To meet Obama's directives, Vilsack acknowledged USDA is to bring “investments required under the Energy Title of the farm bill into the economy as quickly as possible. He's instructed USDA within 30 days to essentially trigger and get into the process 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 products; 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.”

Obama has also asked the USDA to “immediately take our credit programs and see if there are ways we can assist existing facilities that are currently stressed, to restructure their investments and financing in a way to give them time to get through the difficult” economic climate.

Finally, Obama “has suggested the need to go further … to work in concert with the industry to figure out how we might do a better job to create a market for these biofuels we'll produce, how we'll be able to increase the use of flexible fuel vehicles in this country, how we might be able to assist those who market these fuels … and to coordinate the infrastructure necessary and to do it all in a sustainable way.”


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.”

For more on the EPA regulations, see

Asked about how corn-ethanol will figure into the ramped up biofuel focus, Jackson said the EPA would implement “EISA, the law. There are 15 billion gallons of ethanol grandfathered under EISA and one would expect those would come from corn.”

Corn-based ethanol is “a bridge — an extraordinarily important bridge, but a bridge — to the next generation of biofuels.”

In the future, waste products from corn production — cellulosic material — could be a fuel base. “That's another opportunity for producers to profit,” said Vilsack. “The president wants all rural America to participate. So we'll be looking at woody biomass, municipal waste, algae, and a series of things that can be created all over the country. (That way) we'll be more energy secure and creating the type of jobs that can't be outsourced.”

Under the proposed rules, Jackson said, the total volume of renewable fuels ramps up to a maximum of 36 billion gallons by 2022. Following the requirements in the law, the program would then result in a billion gallons of biomass-based diesel fuel, 16 billion gallons of cellulosic biofuel and 21 billion gallons of advanced biofuel.

Journalists pushed Jackson hard on how the EPA views the cleanliness of soy biodiesel and corn ethanol. Will soybean biodiesel be able to meet the 50 percent greenhouse gas reduction requirement in EISA?

“Our analysis shows that there are pathways that biodiesel can accomplish to get to the 50 percent reduction called for,” said Jackson. “One of the things we're doing is soliciting comment on various pathways to enable biodiesel to move to a lower carbon footprint. Our technical analysis shows that's doable, but one of the reasons we have comment is for that.”

The country is moving to next-generation fuel stock, she followed up. “But you can also make the current generation if you're beginning to invest in ethanol and corn-based ethanol you can make that energy and greenhouse gas competitive, as well.”

How might indirect land use be figured into ethanol's carbon footprint scorecard?

The law calls for indirect land use to be part of the analysis, said Jackson. “So, certainly the proposed rule includes that. EPA is soliciting peer-reviewed scientific feedback to ensure that the rule, when it's finalized, includes the best available science.”

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.

Energy Title/farm bill

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. In other words, they can receive assistance from the government to take steps to embrace everything from additional biofuel opportunities to renewable energy sources. We are essentially a financing mechanism for these changes.”

About the Author(s)

David Bennett 1

Associate Editor, Delta Farm Press

David Bennett, associate editor for Delta Farm Press, is an Arkansan. He worked with a daily newspaper before joining Farm Press in 1994. Bennett writes about legislative and crop related issues in the Mid-South states.

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