Not only did the U.S. government shut down at midnight on Monday, but so did the nine month extension of the 2008 Farm Bill. With no new five-year Farm Bill, the future is uncertain for rural energy programs supported by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), including the Biorefinery Assistance Program that promotes the development of biorefineries in the U.S.
As we have reported earlier this year, the U.S. Senate passed its version of the next five-year Farm Bill, including funding for farm, nutrition, and energy programs. Importantly, the Senate bill continues and provides mandatory funding for existing Farm Bill energy programs and extends eligibility to renewable chemicals. After failing to pass a combined bill, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a "farm-only" bill this summer and a nutrition-only bill cutting $40 billion in food stamps just last week. The House farm-only Farm Bill contains an energy title without mandatory funding that will instead be subject to annual appropriations, and it does not extend the energy programs to renewable chemicals.
There has been hope that though the differences are deep, the House and Senate will be able to pass a five-year Farm Bill by the end of the year when mandatory funds for commodity subsidies and food stamps expire. Whether this is true now largely depends on how quickly Congress re-opens the government and raises the debt ceiling to ensure the ability of the U.S. to meet its financial obligations.
On September 19, 2013, in a partisan vote, the U.S. House of Representatives passed by a vote of 217-210 its version of the nutrition portion of the next Farm Bill. All Democrats and 15 Republicans in the House of Representatives voted against the bill, which would cut $40 billion from the national food stamp program over the next decade and will almost surely delay final passage of the next five-year Farm Bill. The current Farm Bill expires on September 30.
Historically, the Farm Bill has combined funding for farm and nutrition programs. This summer, by a bi-partisan vote, the Senate passed S. 954, its version of the next five-year Farm Bill that included funding for farm, rural energy, and nutrition programs. It continues funding for Farm Bill energy programs that help encourage biofuels production, and expands coverage to include renewable chemicals. S. 954 would cut only $4 billion from the food stamp program over the next decade.
The House split the farm and nutrition portions of the Farm Bill because in June of this year, it failed to pass a combined bill that would have cut $20 billion from food stamps. At the time, generally, Democrats felt the food stamp cuts were too steep, while Republicans thought they did not go far enough. Over the summer, House leadership opted to split the bill into farm and nutrition only parts, and to get the votes to pass the nutrition portion by answering the Republican call for steeper cuts.
Now that the House has passed both the farm and nutrition portions of the next Farm Bill, it is expected that House leadership will appoint conferees to meet with the already named Senate conferees in an effort to prepare a bill in final that may be passed by both the House and Senate and signed into law by the President. No one expects this process will be complete by September 30, but they are hopeful it could happen by the end of the year when farm support will revert back to a 1949 agriculture law. If that happens, there will not be any continuing support for biofuels and renewable chemicals.
Last week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced that it is seeking bids from bioenergy producers to purchase sugar from the Department as part of the Food, Conservation and Energy Act of 2008 (the 2008 Farm Bill) Feedstock Flexibility Program (FFP). This will be the second time that USDA will utilize the FFP. The 2008 Farm Bill directs USDA to keep sugar prices at or above certain levels, and authorizes USDA to either acquire sugar through forfeiture of sugar loans made by the USDA's Commodity Credit Corporation or to buy sugar and sell it to bioenergy producers until prices raise to those levels. Domestic sugar prices have been falling this year.
USDA was criticized for its first sale of sugar as part of the FFP about a month ago because in that instance USDA had purchased 7,118 short tons of refined beet sugar for $3.6 million and sold it to renewable fuel producer Front Range Energy for $900,000 (a loss of $2.7 million).
USDA is continuing its work to promote the U.S. biofuels industry, which USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack believes helps bolster the U.S. agriculture sector and rural economy. On September 12, 2013, USDA announced that it will provide a total of $15.5 million to 188 advanced biofuel producers under USDA's Advanced Biofuel Payment Program, which was created under the 2008 Farm Bill (P.L. 110-234, the "Food, Conservation and Energy Act of 2008"). It is reported that through that program to date, USDA has provided $211 million to 290 biofuel producers. This federal support is an important component to efforts of producers in the still nascent advanced biofuels industry to get up and running. USDA's press release on this announcement is available online.
Congress returned from its August recess this week, and, as expected, the Republican leadership of the U.S. House of Representatives is looking toward passing legislation on the remaining nutrition portion of the Farm Bill, including $40 billion in cuts to food stamp programs over the next ten years. The bill could come up for a vote next week.
House Republican leaders, including House Committee on Agriculture Chair Frank Lucas (R-OK), have stated they do not wish to go ahead with a conference committee with the Senate to complete the next five-year Farm Bill until they pass the nutrition portion. In June, the House passed a "farm-only" Farm Bill, H.R. 2642, which left out funding for food stamps and other nutrition programs. A more comprehensive version of the Farm Bill containing $20 billion in cuts to nutrition programs was defeated in a previous vote mainly because several Democrats felt the cuts were too large, while several Republicans thought they did not go far enough.
Passage of a nutrition portion of the Farm Bill containing $40 billion in cuts may attract enough House Republicans to lead to a conference committee with the Senate to hammer out a final version of the next five-year Farm Bill, but it will not make those negotiations any faster or easier. In May, the Senate passed its version of the next Farm Bill, S. 954, the Agriculture Reform, Food and Jobs Act of 2013, which funds both farm programs and food stamps. S. 954 contains a strong energy title with nearly $900 million in mandatory funding and expanded eligibility for renewable chemicals. Senate Committee on Agriculture Chair Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), who is leading the Farm Bill effort in the Senate, has said that $40 billion in cuts is a "non-starter." In fact, she and other Democratic leaders in the Senate opposed the original $20 billion in cuts the House attempted to pass earlier this year. This disagreement will likely extend the Farm Bill conference committee negotiations beyond September 30, when the current version of the Farm Bill expires.
This week, the National Advanced Biofuels Conference and Expo was held in Omaha, Nebraska. During the three-day conference, industry leaders presented on and discussed major issues facing the industry, from legal considerations to advancing the aviation biofuels industry, supply, and feedstock successes and challenges. During the conference, Michael McAdams, President of the Advanced Biofuels Association, and Joe Jobe, CEO of the National Biodiesel Board, discussed some of their current federal policy priorities and work. Both spoke about the importance of the federal RFS to the industry and stressed the need for industry to unite at this time when it is increasingly under attack.
McAdams addressed the work this year of the House Energy and Commerce Committee to examine and reform the RFS. He mentioned that Committee's two-day hearing this summer on the subject during which he testified on the importance of the policy. He stated his expectation that legislation to reform the RFS could be drafted and considered by the House of Representatives by mid-October. He urged everyone to contact their Members of Congress on behalf of the RFS, if their trade associations asked them to do so.
Jobe made similarly supportive statements of the RFS and the need for the industry to unite. In addition, he stated the importance to the biodiesel industry of not only the RFS, but of maintaining the biodiesel tax credit. He attributed both policies to the industry's recent substantial growth, and cited them as important to achieving the industry's new goal of making up 10 billion gallons of the fuel supply by 2022.
Also during the conference, on behalf of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, Rural Development Acting Under Secretary Doug O'Brien announced that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is making payments to support the production of advanced biofuel. USDA is making nearly $15.5 million in payments to 188 producers through the Advanced Biofuel Payment Program. USDA remains focused on carrying out its mission, despite a time of significant budget uncertainty. This announcement is one part of the Department's efforts to strengthen the rural economy. The funding is being provided through USDA's Advanced Biofuel Payment Program, which was established in the 2008 Farm Bill. Under this program, payments are made to eligible producers based on the amount of advanced biofuels produced from renewable biomass, other than corn kernel starch. Examples of eligible feedstocks include but are not limited to: crop residue; animal, food, and yard waste; vegetable oil; and animal fat. Through the Advanced Biofuel Payment Program and other USDA programs, USDA is working to support the research, investment, and infrastructure necessary to build a strong biofuels industry that creates jobs and broadens the range of feedstocks used to produce renewable fuel. More than 290 producers in 47 states and territories have received $211 million in payments since the program's inception. It has supported the production of more than three billion gallons of advanced biofuel and the equivalent of more than 36 billion kilowatt hours of electric energy.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced that it had purchased 7,118 short tons of refined beet sugar for $3.6 million and sold it to renewable fuel producer Front Range Energy for $900,000 (a loss of $2.7 million) under the Food, Conservation and Energy Act of 2008 (the 2008 Farm Bill) Feedstock Flexibility Program (FFP). This was the first time USDA had utilized the FFP. The 2008 Farm Bill directs USDA to keep sugar prices at or above certain levels, and authorizes USDA to either acquire sugar through forfeiture of sugar loans made by the USDA's Commodity Credit Corporation or to buy sugar and sell it to bioenergy producers until prices raise to those levels. A copy of the USDA press release on this announcement is available online.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has announced that it will, for the first time, use its Feedstock Flexibility Program to help restore U.S. sugar prices at or above specific levels. Under the program, U.S. sugar producers may sell their sugar to USDA, which then plans to sell it to biofuels producers. Under the 2008 Farm Bill, USDA is required to keep U.S. sugar at prices at or above certain levels. This year's prices have been low.
On August 15, 2013, USDA announced funding under its Renewable Energy for America Program (REAP) for 631 energy efficiency and renewable energy projects throughout the country. About $400,000 will go to 13 projects designed to install blender pumps in gas stations, which will allow for the greater distribution of higher blends of ethanol, including E85 fuel. The ethanol industry has been calling for greater federal help on blender pumps to allow for greater distribution of E85, which can help alleviate the impending "blend wall."
On August 12, 2013, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) released its "World Agricultural Supply and Demand Estimates" report in which it projects the U.S. will produce a record 13.76 billion bushels of corn in 2013. The report is available online.
Representatives from ethanol trade groups Growth Energy and the Renewable Fuels Association (RFA) praised the news and argued that it showed the federal Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) was not contributing to higher food prices and that it "should be the last nail in the coffin of the ridiculous 'food versus fuel' argument." RFA's press release is available online.