Much attention has been focused in recent weeks on Farm Bill Energy Title programs – federal initiatives that offer farmers and rural businesses the opportunity to contribute to this nation’s energy strategy and add to their bottom line.
But the future of these programs is uncertain as they are no longer a funding priority among lawmakers who cite lean budgetary times and who have been set on slashing nonmilitary spending across the board. What policy makers in Washington always seem to forget is that these programs generate revenues in parts of rural America that have been in a steady economic decline for at least four years.
Despite our concerns, the 25x’25 Alliance recognizes that lawmakers have the challenge of trying to do more with less. The latest House and Senate budget resolutions and appropriations bills have made it clear that numerous agricultural programs, especially those within the Energy Title, are targeted for deep cuts, or outright elimination.
But the Alliance also recognizes the need to maintain a strong rural economy that supports a diverse energy portfolio. And in comments submitted last week to the Senate Energy, Nutrition and Forestry Committee, we warn lawmakers that regardless of their efforts to reduce the federal deficit, they should not sacrifice critical national priorities that will ultimately leave the nation on a sounder economic footing in the future.
These priorities include the Farm Bill Energy Title Programs that 25x’25 has supported since their inception because they strengthen our national security, create jobs, and produce new economic opportunities and investments in rural America.
The Rural Energy for America Program (REAP) supports a wide array of agriculture-based energy efficiency and renewable energy projects through grants and loan guarantees that have positively impacted every state in America by supporting nearly 13,000 projects and leveraging more than $3 billion in private investment. The program allows farmers to save on energy bills and even become energy producers, all while creating jobs in manufacturing, installing, and maintaining renewable energy and energy efficient systems.
Last year alone, REAP provided more than $35 million to farms, ranches and rural small businesses. However, because program grants can cover no more than 25 percent of the total project costs, they also generate considerable private and outside investment in addition to the federal support. Unfortunately, the House budget would cut mandatory REAP appropriations from $50 million this year to just $1 million in FY 2018, and the Senate’s proposal would cut REAP to $7.6 million.
One example of success can be seen in how the U.S. ethanol industry – in a relatively short period of time – has dramatically increased the amount of energy we produce domestically, significantly reducing our need to import oil. To continue down this path towards energy independence, Congress must continue to support the development of cellulosic ethanol and similar advanced biofuels from corn stover, switchgrass, poplar trees and other biomass sources. Many of the programs found within the Farm Bill’s Energy Title are designed to meet this need.
The Biorefinery, Renewable Chemical and Biobased Product Manufacturing Assistance Program that provides critical financing for commercial-scale advanced biorefineries. It reduces investor risk, provides good-paying construction and operation jobs, and broadens the feedstocks used to develop biofuels. Unfortunately, this program currently has no funding.
Similarly, the Biomass Crop Assistance Program (BCAP), which ensures that advanced biorefineries will have the biomass energy feedstocks they need by providing assistance to help farmers and foresters plant and collect next-generation, purpose-grown energy crops and other biomass key to ensuring the near-term commercialization of low-carbon advanced biofuels, biopower and bioproducts, has also been decimated over the past two appropriation cycles.
Lawmakers are also slashing funding for collaborative research efforts that support the production of biomass feedstocks, as well as research on the biofuels and biobased products they can generate – efforts that can lead to cost-saving innovations that will allow the bioenergy industry to stand on its own, without the support of federal dollars.
A fully-funded Farm Bill Energy Title represents less than 1 percent of the cost of the current Farm Bill, adopted in 2014. Yet, the economic and societal benefits it produces are beyond measure, contributing to the nation’s drive for energy independence with rural America leading the way. And yet more cuts in Energy Title programs are under consideration, even as low commodity prices and stale export markets have hurt net farm income.
In the coming months, as work to develop the 2018 Farm Bill advances, we hope that the Agriculture Committees in both houses will continue to defend and support the Energy Title programs that demonstrate an honest commitment by Congress to achieve the crucial goal of a viable and resilient rural America. These programs have proved themselves worthy of reauthorization and robust funding.