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Rural America as a fuel source

(Friday, June 11, 2004 -- CropChoice guest commentary) -- Thomas D. Rowley, Dodge (KS) Globe, 06/11/04:
Inscribed on the walls of the U.S. House of Representatives' Science Committee Room are two quotes - ostensibly to both capture the import of the deliberations in that hallowed place and to inspire them.

The first is by Tennyson: "For I dipped into the future, far as human eyes could see. Saw the vision of the world and all the wonder that would be."

The second is from Proverbs: "Where there is no vision, the people perish."

Two scenarios. One hopeful. The other glum. The difference between the two: foresight (and funding).

Which brings me to a topic in sore need of both: biobased energy.

In the 2002 farm bill, Congress created several programs to promote biobased energy -- energy produced from agricultural products and wastes. Think, for example, of corn turned into ethanol and manure into methane. Among other things, the farm bill called for federal agencies to buy biobased products, provided grants and loans for renewable energy projects, and funded research and development in bioenergy.

The Bush administration's 2004 and 2005 budgets, however, slashed funding for some of the programs-some by more than half.

This apparent lack of foresight and definite lack of funds was the underlying text of a congressional briefing organized by the Environmental and Energy Study Institute, timed to coincide with Earth Day, and held - fortuitously or ironically - beneath those two quotes.

According to Carol Werner, executive director of the Institute, for the first time ever, the 2002 farm bill embraced agriculture as a way to deal with energy and environmental issues while at the same time revitalizing the agriculture sector.

According to Roger Szemraj, chief of staff for Democratic Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur of Ohio, "This is an agricultural issue, a trade issue, a jobs issue, and an energy self-sufficiency issue."

To back that up, Szemraj trotted out some impressive statistics.

1. The United States imports 62 percent of our petroleum and by 2025 that could grow to 77 percent;
2. Ethanol saves the federal government $3.6 billion annually, adds $450 million to state tax receipts, and reduces our trade deficit by $2 billion;
3. A study by the Renewable Fuels Association shows increasing ethanol production to 5 billion gallons a year would create 214,000 jobs and increase household income by nearly $52 billion.

Finally, to those who cry foul over subsidizing ethanol and other biofuels, Szemraj cites the General Accounting Office in pointing out that the federal government has doled out $130 billion in subsidies to the oil industry over the last three decades.

Despite all that, the administration's budget-this year and last-cut funding for programs that could help move us toward reliance on biobased energy and away from fossil fuel dependence and all the trouble it brings.

For example, the Renewable Energy System and Energy Efficiency Improvements Program provide grants, loans, and loan guarantees to farmers, ranchers, and rural small businesses to develop renewable energy projects and improve energy efficiency. Congress authorized $23 million per year for it in the farm bill (which the president signed). The 2005 budget cuts it by 52 percent.

The Value-Added Producer Grants Program spurs development of new uses, including renewable energy, for agricultural products. Congress wanted $40 million per year. The budget calls for $15.5 million.

USDA's budget for bioenergy and energy-related programs ($347 million this year) is expected to drop to $250 million next year.

Granted, there's stiff competition for federal dollars. Always has been, always will be. But scrimping on the development of alternative sources of energy isn't simply from lack of funding. It's a lack of foresight.

* Thomas D. Rowley is a Rural Policy Research Institute Fellow. The Rural Policy Research Institute provides objective analysis and facilitates public dialogue concerning the impacts of public policy on rural people and places.