Federal Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack unveiled $45 million for biofuels projects Tuesday, including Montana camelina.
But with deep cuts looming for the 2012 Farm Bill, the secretary was peppered with questions about whether his funding vehicle — the Biomass Crop Assistance Program — was running on empty. Vilsack said the program was moving forward, cautiously.
“This is a great challenge for everyone in government, and I’m embracing the challenge. I’m not shying away from it,” Vilsack said, noting that in the short term, the House Agriculture Appropriations Committee has backed a 10 percent cut in discretionary spending at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
And two months ago, the House Agriculture Appropriations Committee endorsed $134 million in Biomass Crop Assistance Program cuts this year and no funding in 2012. The 3-year-old program helps farmers cover costs of planting nonfood energy crops.
The Biomass Crop Assistance programs rolled out Tuesday are funded for five to 15 years, during which time the USDA will be leaning on Republicans who supported biofuels as part of an energy independence platform to do so again. Federal officials are still under a Bush-era directive to add 36 billion gallons of biofuels to the nation’s fuel supply by the end of the decade. Corn-based biofuels such as ethanol can reasonably supply about 16 billion gallons toward the goal, Vilsack said.
Tuesday’s announcement was about how to produce the other 20 billion gallons needed. The rest of the fuel is going to have to come from other sources like camelina oil and cellulosic fuel sources like wood pulp and switchgrass, invoked by former President George W. Bush in 2006.
Biomass Crop Assistance money directed at Montana, Washington, Oregon and California is to spark 51,000 acres of camelina production to feed a fledgling bio jet fuel industry. Sustainable Oils, one of the larger camelina buyers in the Pacific Northwest is teaming up with AltAir, a company that plans to open a commercial scale biofuel refinery in Bakersfield, Calif., in 2012 and a second refinery in Washington state the following year.
AltAir’s refineries would be the first commercial scale operations in the U.S., said Scott Johnson of Sustainable Oils. Boeing and the Air Transportation Association say they’ll buy the biofuel, which will be blended 50 percent with normal jet fuel. That commercial interest, combined with the continued testing of blended camelina jet fuel in military aircraft, has Johnson optimistic about Sustainable Oils’ ability to assure farmers the camelina they grow is already spoken for.
Sustainable just delivered another 40,000 gallons of camelina oil to the Navy for flight testing, Johnson said. A new military biofuel contract will be bid next week.
“One of the things we’re proud of at Sustainable Oils is we contract acres with farmers that we know we’re going to sell,” Johnson said. “I will only contract acres with farmers that I know I can pay them for.”
Camelina production in Montana has tapered off from a high of about 19,000 acres a couple of years ago to an estimated couple thousand this year. For Sustainable Oils’ part, Johnson said the company has been able to buy harvested camelina from farmers who couldn’t line up buyers. Those purchases have driven down Sustainable’s contracted acres to about 1,500 this year.
But Johnson is concerned about the level of federal support for noncorn biofuels as the young camelina industry begins testing the private market for jet fuel sales.
“This type of support from the government will attract investors, attract customers,” Johnson said.
Looking at the 2012 Farm Bill, Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., said it’s going to be challenging to find support for biofuel programs, but necessary if energy independence remains an American objective.
“Really, when it comes to Biomass Crop Assistance programs, or any program, it’s going to be about priorities,” Tester said. “There’s going to be some trimming in the farm bill, but we also need opportunities to create jobs in the farm bill. Agriculture is our biggest industry in the state of Montana.”
The only way programs like Biomass Crop Assistance move forward is through bipartisanship, Tester said, which is hard to find in Congress now.
Presently, Biomass Crop Assistance and several other bio energy programs lack baseline funding in the 2010 Farm Bill, meaning dedicated financial commitment isn’t there.