When Republican leadership in Congress tried to torpedo the U.S. Navy’s ambitious biofuel programs last spring, the Navy managed to fight its way around those obstacles. The maneuvers received some media attention at the time, but one strategic ally seems to have slipped under the radar: the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The USDA has been funding a network of eight biofuel refineries in every region of the country while supporting foundational research that will help make biofuels cost competitive with fossil fuels, which will benefit the Navy and farmers alike.
Biorefineries to Aid Farmers
When you think of biorefineries, the fuel is the first thing that naturally comes to mind, but a key mission of the USDA’s biorefinery program is to aid farmers and boost rural economies.
The Navy and Department of Energy first announced a major biofuel partnership with the USDA last summer, capping off President Obama’s midwest bus tour in support of the Administration’s rural economic development programs.
The USDA is funding the eight new biorefineries under The Biorefinery Assistance Program set forth in Section 9003 of the 2008 Farm Bill. The goal of that program goes beyond the dollars and cents of competitive biofuels. According to the USDA, it is intended to:
“…increase the energy independence of the United States; promote resource conservation, public health, and the environment; diversify markets for agricultural and forestry products and agriculture waste material; create jobs and enhance the economic development of the rural economy.”
A New Biorefinery for North Carolina
The USDA’s latest biorefinery project is a $99 million, 80% loan guarantee to the global engineering company Chemtex, which also received funding to work directly with local farmers to raise “energy grasses” like switchgrass and miscanthus.
The new biorefinery will be the first commercial-scale facility of its kind in the Mid-Atlantic, and the USDA expects it to create 65 jobs on site with another 250 jobs off site, many involved in raising and transporting feedstock for the refinery.
In a sustainability twofer, some of the feedstock will also double as natural effluent management for waste lagoons at local pig farms, where a grass called Coastal Bermuda is already being used for that purpose. By transitioning to energy grasses, farmers will continue the land stewardship program while benefiting from a new revenue stream.
USDA estimates that local farmers stand to gain $4.5 million in new revenue annually when the new biorefinery is completed.
U.S. Navy: 3, Biofuel Opponents: 0
By putting itself front and center as an early adopter of biofuels, the Navy’s goal has been to help the biofuel industry build up to an economy of scale that makes its product competitive with petroleum fuels.
To that end, the Navy has budgeted for the purchase of biofuels even though they are currently more expensive. The program culminated in the launch of biofuel-assisted ships and aircraft in the new Green Strike Group this summer, and a full Great Green Fleet is planned for 2016.
When Republican leadership in Congress tried to prevent the Navy from building biofuel refineries or purchasing any new fuels that are currently more expensive than conventional fuels, the response was swift and sure.
By early July, the Obama Administration announced that the USDA, Navy, and Department of Energy will partner in a $62 million biofuel research initiative under the Defense Production Act, a 1950′s-era law that is routinely used to ensure a domestic supply of vital defense materials.
A few days later, the Administration also announced a $420 million biorefinery program, consisting of $210 million in matching federal funds for private companies to build three biorefineries.
The USDA’s eight-refinery network makes it three points for the Navy, and in an election year when farmers are under acute distress, it would be odd indeed if Republican leadership continued to make a public case against biofuels while undercutting a vital national defense program, too.
On the other hand, it’s been an odd year…
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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+.