Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced October 21 that the government will pay farmers to produce nonfood crops that can be refined into fuel and sold at fuel stations. The government will defray as much as 75 percent of startup costs for farmers who sign up for the program.
He also said that federal assistance will be available to construct five new biorefineries or bioenergy plants in rural America, and that matching funds will be used to get 10,000 biofuel pumps and storage sites installed over the next five years.
The secretary’s announcement came a week after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency ( EPA ) said it would allow sales of fuel containing up to 15 percent ethanol ( E15 ) for auto model year 2007 and newer cars and light trucks. The EPA said it expects to make a decision soon on expanding the use of E15 in vehicles going back to model year 2001.
The Energy Independence and Security Act passed by Congress in 2007 calls for 36 billion gallons ( 136 billion liters ) of renewable fuel to be produced annually in the United States by 2022. That means the country must triple its production between now and then and that higher blends of ethanol — a corn-based ingredient that can be mixed with regular gasoline — must become more widely available, along with so-called advanced fuels produced from other crops.
Biofuel, like its fossil gasoline and diesel companions, creates greenhouse gas emissions. But the biofuel “carbon footprint” is just 40 percent to 80 percent that of traditional gasoline, depending on the product and how it’s produced.
President Obama has pledged to reduce oil imports and to create new and cleaner energy markets and jobs. The push for biofuels is one of many programs under way to meet those goals.
The Renewable Fuels Association, a trade group representing producers, estimates that the 10.6 billion gallons ( 40 billion liters ) of ethanol used in the United States in 2009 reduced greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles by 16.5 million tons. That’s equivalent to taking 2.7 million vehicles off the road, the group said.
Last year, production of renewable fuels supported nearly 400,000 U.S. jobs, adding $53.3 billion to the gross domestic product, the association reported.
In addition to the new policies aimed at vehicles, the U.S. Agriculture Department and the Federal Aviation Administration have signed a new, five-year agreement to develop crops that can be processed into jet fuel for the airline industry.
“I believe the need for energy security, a cleaner environment and better economic opportunity in rural America make the case for immediate action,” Vilsack said in an October 21 speech in Washington.
MORE ADVANCED BIOFUELS NEEDED
To meet the renewable fuel standard mandated by Congress, Vilsack said the nation must move aggressively to develop more advanced sources of biofuel such as cellulosic ethanol, biofuel produced from wood, grasses and nonedible parts of plants; and biobutenol, an alcohol similar to ethanol that is produced when corn, sugar beets and other crops are fermented.
He also asked Congress to extend a tax credit for traditional ethanol producers that expires at the end of 2010.
Some environmental groups have criticized the program, saying that taxpayers are spending billions of dollars to support the corn and ethanol industries even though the fuel does not provide a significant reduction in emissions. “Not all biofuels are created equal,” said Daniel Lashof, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Climate Center.
According to the EPA, ethanol produced from corn at a modern refinery powered by biogas can represent a 20 percent greenhouse gas reduction compared with regular gasoline. Advanced fuels double or triple that.
With U.S. energy consumption expected to grow 50 percent by 2035 and with foreign oil now accounting for 60 percent of the market, Vilsack said the nation must change course.
“Today, we still send a billion dollars a day outside our shores helping other countries’ economies grow while our own economy recovers from a deep recession,” he said. “With the disastrous oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, we are also reminded that the development of our own oil resources is not without environmental or economic risk. We can do better. We have to do better.”
The announcement of the Agriculture Department initiative on biofuels is available on the department website. The EPA ethanol announcement is available on the agency’s website, as is an agency analysis of greenhouse gas emissions from renewable fuels.