A $400 billion farm bill passed by the United States Congress last week is a boon to the bioenergy field, reauthorizing several longstanding programs and establishing an Interagency Biogas Opportunities Task Force to coordinate policies and programs to accelerate biogas research and investment.
The votes on the bill, on Tuesday and Wednesday, came after months of sometimes tense negotiations between farm-state lawmakers in Congress and the White House.
The Senate voted 87-13 in favor of the measure, sending it to the House of Representatives last Tuesday afternoon. The House then voted to pass it, 369-47, sending it on to the White House, where President Donald Trump is expected to sign it.
The legislation sets federal agricultural and food policy for the next five years. Among other things, it reauthorizes and provides funding for several bioenergy initiatives, including the Biorefinery Assistance Program, the Bioenergy Program for Advanced Biofuels, the Biodiesel Fuel Education Program, the Biobased Markets Program, the Rural Energy for America Program, the Biomass Crop Assistance Program, and the Feedstock Flexibility Program.
In addition to establishing the Biogas Opportunities Task Force, the legislation also creates a new Carbon Utilization and Biogas Education Program providing grants to educate farmers and the general public about the benefits and opportunities biogas offers to rural communities and businesses.
Alongside all that, the Byzantine legislation reauthorized crop insurance and conservation programs, provides for trade assistance to agricultural entities, funds organic farming research, banned cockfighting in Puerto Rico, set aside money for Chesapeake Bay conservation efforts, and legalizes the cultivation of industrial hemp, a provision championed by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky.
"We started this journey nearly two years ago," Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kansas, said in a written statement. "As promised, this farm bill provides much needed certainty and predictability for all producers -- of all crops --across all regions across the country."
"The bill invests in research, outreach to beginning and underserved producers, local and organic food production, bioenergy, and access to new markets," said the senior Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee, Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minnesota. "It's the product of strong bipartisan work in both the House and the Senate, and it's something I'm proud to encourage folks to vote for."
As so often happens these days in Washington, D.C., the deliberations over the farm bill got caught up in the national debate over other, unrelated matters, including immigration.
The first bill floated in the House died after more than two dozen Republican members held out for tougher work-related rules aimed at illegal immigrants seeking agricultural employment in the U.S. That position was strongly supported by the Trump administration.
A second version of the bill that included those new work rules finally did pass the GOP-controlled House, but without the support of Democrats. The bill eventually passed last week does not include the hard-line work rules.
In addition to the internal squabbling on one side of Capitol Hill, House lawmakers and their Senate colleagues also sharply disagreed on provisions in the bill related to forestry and conservation.
And just as those differences were being hammered out, the Trump administration weighed in, seeking greater authority for the Agriculture and Interior departments to clear forests and other public lands in the aftermath of deadly wildfires in California.
The White House didn't get what it wanted in that regard either.
On Wednesday, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said while the bill will help producers "make decisions about the future, while also investing in important agricultural research and supporting trade programs to bolster export" it also represented several "missed opportunities," a direct reference to work rules and forest-clearing authority the administration failed to get.
Groups like the Agriculture Energy Coalition struck a decidedly happier note in the wake of the bill's passage.
"We greatly appreciate the continuation of the jobs producing, innovative energy title’s suite of programs," the business group said in a written statement. "We are particularly pleased that the Rural Energy for America Program (REAP), the Biorefinery Assistance program, the 'BioPreferred' program, and the Bioenergy Program for Advanced Biofuel were reauthorized and provided with critically important mandatory funding.
"We are also thrilled renewable chemicals are now fully eligible to participate in the Biorefinery Assistance program along with other constructive changes the Coalition championed," the statement continued.
The coalition did note that two programs -- the Biomass Crop Assistance Program and the Biomass Research and Development Initiative -- were not funded as much as the group would have liked.
"Those gaps need to be fixed in the next Congress to help mitigate catastrophic wildfires while creating new uses for renewable raw materials," it said.
Also applauding the bill's passage was James Greenwood, president and CEO of the Biotechnology Innovation Organization.
"At a time of uncertainty for our nation’s farmers, the agricultural economy, and rural America, this bipartisan Farm Bill will provide the much-needed confidence and certainty for many Americans who rely on its programs and funding," Greenwood said.
“As a result of BIO’s advocacy, the conference committee provided mandatory funding for key programs in the Farm Bill’s energy title ... due to the adoption of several program improvements BIO promoted, the updated energy title ensures that new, innovative technologies and processes can qualify for these critical programs," he said.
"This will help create entirely new value chains for sustainable, renewable products. It will also grow and strengthen America’s rural economy by allowing companies to rapidly commercialize renewable chemicals, bio-based products, advanced biofuels, and other products of industrial biotechnology," Greenwood concluded.