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USDA Proposal for Biomass Crop Assistance Program Falls Far Short of Promoting Sustainable Bioenergy Production

February 10, 2010

This week USDA issued a proposed rule for the increasingly controversial Biomass Crop Assistance Program (BCAP). The department will take public comments on the proposed rule until April 9, 2010.

The 2008 Farm Bill and the accompanying Manager’s Statement clearly spells out BCAP’s primary focus: to promote the cultivation of perennial bioenergy crops that show exceptional promise for producing highly energy-efficient bioenergy or biofuels, preserve natural resources, and are not primarily grown for food or animal feed. BCAP may also be used to promote annual bioenergy crops when inclusion in resource-conserving crop rotations can improve existing row crop systems.

It was on this basis that NSAC was supported BCAP. USDA’s current proposal for BCAP, however, falls far short of these goals.

NSAC will work with other concerned organizations throughout the comment period to demonstrate to USDA officials that without a requirement for environmentally sound production systems, BCAP will do little in the long run to address the nation’s need for truly renewable and sustainable bioenergy production.

Recap of BCAP to date

As noted in a previous blog post, as currently implemented, BCAP is little more than a boondoggle.

First, last June, the Farm Service Agency (FSA) issued a Notice of Funding Availability for the Collection, Harvest, Storage and Transportation (CHST) component of the program without a proposed regulation or environmental review. In the notice, the FSA interpreted the CHST component as an “entitlement” to BCAP matching funds of $45 per ton for any and all entities that collected just about any organic material from agricultural or forest land and delivered it to a BCAP eligible “bioconversion facility.”

Not surprisingly, the number of registered facilities burgeoned to over 400, led by lumber and paper mills burning wood for their own energy use– something many already did with no federal subsidy. Consequently, funds allocated (though not yet spent) for BCAP through the end of March 2010 soared to over $500 million, more than seven times BCAP’s estimated budget of $70 million in the 2008 Farm Bill.

The Proposed Rule

In the proposed rule issued Monday, USDA says it will terminate the June 2009 Notice and that CHST matching payments will be governed by the final rule. Yet it also estimates BCAP costs at an astounding $2.1 billion on CHST from 2010 through 2013. Moreover, FSA proposes to include commodity crop residue and feed grains other than corn in the CHST. Under the proposal, collected crop residues, including corn stover, would be subsidized with no attention to impact on soil health other than an existing conservation compliance (soil erosion) plan, if applicable. Similarly, forest biomass removal has no environmental controls.

Far from the new proposed rule offering re-assurances on CHST, it instead presents additional reasons to be extremely concerned.

The mainstay of the BCAP program, projects to establish bioenergy crops, is vague and deficient. First, there is no process for assessing and ranking project proposals. Instead, USDA proposes a continuous application process, which appears to be a simple first-come, first-serve approach.

In addition, although the proposed rule gives lip service to the statutory requirement for a conservation plan for participants in projects, the proposed rule references the Conservation Reserve Program conservation plan, which is designed for land removed from production, not land producing bioenergy crops. The planning language references permanent cover, not biomass production and residue removal, hence completely missing the mark.

There is also no clear process for providing technical assistance for conservation plans and no role provided for the Natural Resources Conservation Service. The proposed rule calls for conservation districts to review conservation plans if they want to, but if the conservation district declines to review a plan or even disapproves a plan, FSA can waive the need for conservation plan approval.

In essence, the proposed rule seems to reflect USDA and White House approval for FSA’s view that BCAP payments are another “entitlement” and its light disregard for the goal of developing the nation’s next generation of bioenergy crops in environmentally sound production systems.

As stated above, NSAC will work with its partners through the comment period to address these concerns. If you or your organization would like to submit its own comments, click here to access the regulations.gov page for the BCAP proposed rule.

Categories: Conservation, Energy & Environment

2 responses to “USDA Proposal for Biomass Crop Assistance Program Falls Far Short of Promoting Sustainable Bioenergy Production”

  1. […] National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition » Archive » USDA … […]

  2. Miscanthus is more environmentally efficient at producing biomass than annual crops such as cereals. It can produce biomass approximately 3 times more energy efficiently than a crop such as Wheat. This is achieved because Miscanthus does not need high inputs of fertilizer application associated with arable crops and the crop is perennial.