Rural energy programs cut under House panel's version of farm bill

The Repowering Assistance Program pays some biorefineries to use biomass instead of fossil fuels to power their heating and electricity needs. It began with $35 million in fiscal 2009 and carried $15 million in discretionary funds for fiscal years 2009 through 2012.

The Biofuels Infrastructure Study calls for the Energy, Transportation and Agriculture departments along with the Environmental Protection Agency to jointly assess infrastructure needs for developing and transporting biofuels with an eye toward market trends through 2025.

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The Rural Energy Self-Sufficiency Initiative was authorized at $5 million each fiscal year between 2009 and 2012. It provides grants to rural communities for installing renewable energy systems that reduce “conventional energy use” and increase renewable energy use.

Renewable Fertilizer Study, which got $1 million in the 2008 Farm Bill, was required to be completed less than one year after that law took effect.

The Forest Biomass for Energy Program is a competitive research and development effort that targets breakthroughs in using low-value forest biomass as energy. It also looks to promote methods in producing energy from forest biomass in biorefineries or through other manufacturing arenas, discovering transportation fuels from forest biomass and bolstering tree growth for renewable energy production.

That program was funded at $15 million each year between the 2009 and 2012 fiscal years.

The House version reduces direct spending by $35 billion, about $11 billion more than a Senate-passed bill.

The five-year bill would authorize farm subsidies, conservation programs, crop insurance and food stamp spending and is expected to be scored as costing in excess of $900 billion over 10 years.

House Agriculture Chairman Frank Lucas (R-Okla.) and ranking member Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) have both signed off on the bill, which includes much deeper cuts to food stamps than the Senate bill.

A handful of other programs would undergo changes that supporters claim will boost efficiency and save money.

Rural Energy for America would be one of those altered programs. The initiative subsidizes farmers, ranchers and small rural businesses for installing renewable energy systems and also offers grants for energy audits. Ethanol blender pumps would no longer qualify for that assistance, and funding for feasibility studies would end.

The bill also would cancel collection, harvest, storage and transportation (CHST) payments in the biomass crop assistance program. Those payments “created a possible unintended consequence of market competition” between landscapers and particleboard manufacturers and operations that convert biomass into energy, according to an April 2011 Congressional Research Service report.

Management of the CHST has been inefficient, and its purpose lacked a clear direction, according to an Agriculture Department (USDA) report released in May. No vision was ever set on how those payments would help reduce dependence on foreign oil by boosting biofuel production, it said.

The Biorefinery Assistance Program would no longer give grants for biorefinery demonstration projects, the bill said.

Other programs will get reauthorized or expanded under the bill.

The bill retains the following programs: the Biodiesel Fuel Education Program, the Bioenergy Program for Advanced Biofuels, the Biomass Research and Development Program, the Feedstock Flexibility Program and the Community Wood Energy Program.

The Biobased Markets Program would expand eligibility for USDA’s BioPreferred Program to forest products “with mature markets,” such as pulp, paper and wood pellets. That program began with the 2002 Farm Bill with the intent of boosting domestic demand and jobs in the biofuel industry.