Last Thursday the departments of Agriculture and Energy jointly unveiled a new $47 million grant program to develop more energy from renewable biomass. The announcement came within a swirl of policy confrontations over the future of the domestic oil industry, including President Obama’s renewed calls for ending $4 billion in taxpayer subsidies for oil and gas companies along with a vote last Thursday by the House of Representatives to expand offshore oil drilling. With all this activity swirling around, perhaps now would be a good time to take a deep breath and pick apart the implications of the Obama Administration’s slow but steady transferal of taxpayer resources from fossil fuels into renewables.
$47 Million for Renewable Biomass Research
The new federal grant program divides $47 million among eight projects located in farflung areas of the country, including Hawaii (yes, it’s a state!), where researchers will develop a protein supplement for livestock using byproducts from algae biofuel production. Other projects involve developing energy feedstock from waste paper (South Carolina), from drought and salt-tolerant crops that can grow on marginal lands (New Jersey), from switchgrass (Massachusetts), and from sweet sorghum (Florida). Three others, in Kansas, Kentucky and Montana, aim to improve the cost-effectiveness of biorefineries and to develop their ability to deliver high-value products.
$47 Million for Green Jobs
The first thing to note, as Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack points out, is that the projects are targeted to create new green jobs in rural communities. This is in contrast to offshore oil drilling, which creates jobs, well, offshore (not to be facetious, but coastal populations are growing and it’s really America’s interior, small-and-shrinking communities that need a new employment platform). While some of the new green employment will be in technical fields, for the most part the biomass programs will create new green job opportunities in traditional fields including farming and forestry. Traditional skilled trades, such as electrician, also stand to gain from the construction and operation of new biorefineries and other related facilities.
$47 Million for 21st Century Job Opportunities
One aspect of renewable energy is its potential for creating new jobs in traditional fields, but the opportunities are also significant for new job creation in high value R&D careers. Elsewhere in CleanTechnica we’ve pointed out that a coal is a primitive form of energy that belongs to a bygone age. In terms of career opportunities, the same case can be made for our continued dependence on oil. Yes, there are technological advances to be made in emission control, but the impacts of fossil fuel harvesting can’t be papered over by new technology. By continuing to focus tax dollars on subsidizing fossil fuels, we are missing the opportunity to fund the development of a far wider range of energy sources that call for new skills in high value fields.
All Together Now: Jobs, Jobs, Jobs
When you combine the new biomass initiative with other Obama programs such as encouraging onsite biogas production by livestock farmers and the redevelopment of brownfields for renewable energy, you get a picture of an ambitious federal jobs program that echoes the Works Progress Administration of the Great Depression. The WPA put millions of Americans to work while the private sector struggled, and it created a legacy of public buildings, roads roads and other vital infrastructure projects that continue to serve today’s generation. In contrast, the legacy of fossil fuels can be summed up by the recent run of disasters (Gulf oil spill, Tennessee coal ash flood) and the rising tide of documentation on the public health consequences of fossil fuel use.
Image: Switchgrass by Matt Lavin on flickr.com.
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Tina Casey specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. You can also follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.