25x'25 Partners, State Supporters Succeed in Shaping 2014 Farm Bill

It took almost two years, but Congress is now in the final stages of passing a new, five-year farm bill that will strongly support renewable energy and energy efficiency programs that help keep this nation on the path to a clean energy future. And much of the credit for this major policy renewal can go to the legions of 25x’25 partners, state leaders and other renewable energy advocates who made lawmakers understand the need for these important programs.

House and Senate conferees reached a final agreement on the Agriculture Act of 2014 early in the week, and the House of Representatives Wednesday morning adopted the measure by a vote of 251-156. A vote on the bill in the Senate may come as soon as this week, and President Obama is expected to sign the legislation into law shortly thereafter.

The new farm bill contains strong energy, conservation and rural development titles that underscore the role federal policy plays in boosting the rural economy. Key among the bill’s provisions is a stand-alone Energy Title that provides nearly $900 million in mandatory funding for renewable energy and energy efficiency programs critical to a 25x’25 clean energy future.

That conferees agreed with the Senate version of the title that called for mandatory funding for farm energy programs – as opposed to discretionary funding that could be left to the whims of the appropriations committees – reflects the importance lawmakers give to the role of farms, ranches and forestlands in generating the resources needed to produce a wide range of clean energy sources.

Congressional supporters of farm energy programs are listening when rural Americans tell them they want the economic benefits that renewable energy and energy independence can offer, whether it’s an added revenue stream or operational cost savings. 25x’25 partners, state and regional alliances, farm and energy groups, grassroots supporters of renewable energy have all made clear to lawmakers that farm and forestry energy programs offer public benefits that go beyond agriculture.

Key programs in the title, such as the Rural Energy for America Program (REAP), the Biomass Crop Assistance Program (BCAP) and the Biorefinery Assistance Program (renamed under the new bill as the Biorefinery, Renewable Chemical, and Biobased Product Manufacturing Assistance Program), not only provide an economic boost for rural America through the creation of new jobs; they also enhance our nation’s energy security and improve the environment.

REAP has a 10-year history in which USDA has awarded grants and loan guarantees for more than 3,000 projects in small (less than 50,000 population) rural communities. These projects provide capital otherwise unavailable to farmers, ranchers and rural small businesses to develop clean energy resources on their lands and cut energy waste in their operations. The farm legislation making its way through Congress and eventually to the president’s desk will provide the program $50 million annually in mandatory funding.

BCAP, which will receive mandatory funding of $25 million each year over the life of the farm bill (fiscal 2014-18), offers payments to owners and operators of agricultural and non-industrial private forestland to grow and deliver biomass feedstocks, like energy grasses, straw or crop residue.

The biorefinery program has been expanded to not only provide loan guarantees for the development, construction and retrofitting of commercial-scale biorefineries to make advanced biofuels, but also to promote the development of facilities that make renewable chemicals and biobased products. The program would receive mandatory funding of $100 million for this fiscal year and $50 million in each of the next two fiscal years. Annual discretionary funding of $75 million is set in the bill for fiscal 2014-18.

25x’25 has long recognized that this country is in a time of fiscal austerity. But it’s encouraging to see that lawmakers understand the federal government’s continued investment in programs continue to offer big returns. The passage of the a strong energy title that authorizes energy programs with a committed source of funding underscore’s the Alliance’s view that farms, ranches and forestlands produce much more than commodities.

Congress should be commended for acknowledging that through sustainable intensification of production and sound conservation measures, farmers, ranchers and foresters produce multiple high value public goods and services, including clean water and air, open space and habitat for wildlife, improvements in biodiversity and other solutions that improve national and energy security, public health and quality of life.

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