Rural energy efforts run low on fuel as farm bill expires
Amanda Peterka, E&E reporter
Published: Tuesday, October 1, 2013
Chuck Bushman Farm flipped the switch earlier this year on 360 solar
panels spread across its chicken barn in Castalia, Iowa.
Each panel is capable of generating 240 kilowatts of power for the
supplier of organic milk and chickens. Some days, the solar panels are able
to produce more power than what is needed, and the farm banks it for when
the demand for electricity exceeds what the panels provide. The farm also
has smart meters for the chicken coop and the rest of its buildings to
monitor where electricity demand is highest.
The Department of Agriculture provided the funding for the project
through its Rural Energy for America Program, whose mission is to help
farmers and ranchers install renewable energy technologies and improve
energy efficiency. Since its creation in 2002, the program has given rural
landowners grants and loans for about 7,000 projects in all 50 states.
But USDA's ability to carry out projects like the installation of solar
panels was left to dangle last night with the expiration of the farm bill.
Without a new bill that includes mandatory funding, conservationists warn,
REAP and other programs will run out of fuel and USDA won't meet rural
landowners' demand for renewable energy and energy efficiency.
"There's a great degree of uncertainty around the program, and word is
getting out that funds are getting cut, but USDA still had demand in excess
of what the funding would supply," Andy Olsen, a senior policy advocate at
the Environmental Law and Policy Center, said late last week. "What we
really need is for Congress to pass a new farm bill."
After months of wrangling, mostly on the House side, the sun set on the
farm bill at midnight with little fanfare, dwarfed by the larger government
This is the second time in two years that Congress has allowed the farm
bill to expire. Last year, U.S. farm policy lapsed for three months before
Congress early this year tacked a nine-month farm bill extension into larger
legislation to avoid the "fiscal cliff."
Farm bill caught in the weeds
There have been 10 full or partial iterations of the 2012 (now 2013) farm
bill since fall 2011:
- The version hatched by Senate and House ag leaders for the joint
supercommittee on deficit reduction that died when the committee died.
- The Senate's version last year that passed the chamber.
- The House Agriculture Committee's version last year that passed the
committee but never made it to the floor.
- House leaders' short-term farm bill extension that was pulled almost
as soon as it was floated.
- The farm bill extension proposal late last fall from Sen. Debbie
Stabenow (D-Mich.) and Rep. Frank Lucas (R-Okla.) that was never even
- The nine-month farm bill extension that was passed in the fiscal
- The 2013 full Senate farm bill that passed the chamber.
- The 2013 full House farm bill that did not pass the chamber.
- The House farm-only bill that passed.
- The House food stamps bill that passed.
Bonus: The drought plan that the House did pass last year the day before
the August recess that wasn't a farm bill but that included livestock
disaster assistance provisions to try to appease the agriculture community.
-- Amanda Peterka
Last year's farm bill expiration was unprecedented in U.S. farm policy
history, but this year's had been long expected as the House has proposed
cuts to the bill's food stamps program. The farm bill's expiration, though,
has been downplayed by senior agriculture leaders in Congress because
funding and authorities for major commodity subsidies and food stamps will
not begin to expire until the beginning of next year (E&E
Daily, Sept. 20).
But several of the bill's smaller programs -- such as those in the
energy, conservation, organic and trade-promotion sections -- are facing
uncertainty at best and shutdowns at worst as of last night's expiration.
For energy programs, it's a question of funding.
USDA operates seven energy programs, including one that provides loans to
biorefinery producers to commercialize the next generations of fuels made
from agricultural residues, perennial grasses, municipal solid waste and
Most share a foxhole with REAP, which the department also uses to install
pumps at gas stations capable of dispersing higher blends of ethanol.
While they retained their authorizations to operate when the farm bill
expired at midnight, the programs are left with a dwindling supply of
carryover dollars and no certainty that funding will be available in the
future. Planning for future projects will likely become more complicated the
longer the nation is without a new bill.
"This year in a couple of the programs we had some carryover mandatory
dollars that we were able to utilize. But those opportunities are just about
gone," said Doug O'Brien, USDA's acting undersecretary of rural development,
in an interview last week. "We're running out of that fuel that is moving
these renewable energy programs."
Rural advocates say the programs are already on life support because of
both uncertainty over the farm bill and diminished dollars from
congressional appropriators -- discretionary funding for REAP this year
totaled about $3 million, compared with the $25 million that the farm bill
had authorized for each of the past four years.
A year ago, all of the farm bill's energy programs were among 37
"stranded" programs that did not have an authorization beyond fiscal 2012.
While they were reauthorized in the farm bill extension, none of the
programs was provided with any mandatory funding.
The 2008 farm bill provided for a total of $255 million in mandatory
funds for REAP and $320 million for the Agriculture Department to offer to
biofuels producers as part of its Biorefinery Assistance Program.
In the absence of fresh cash, USDA is using carryover mandatory funding
from the 2008 farm bill to enroll new participants in the programs,
according to the agriculture official. Though the department expected to be
able to exceed $35 million this year in grants through the Rural Energy for
America Program, energy program accounts are just about tapped out.
O'Brien, whose office administers the programs, said the department is
doing its best to work with the funding it's been given.
"As folks who work in the department, we certainly are cognizant and
concerned about what happens about policy in the future," O'Brien said, "but
at the end of the day, we have -- and have had -- great tools and we've just
been focused on making sure we're implementing those in the best way
The farm bill's expiration won't affect ongoing projects but instead
hampers the department's ability to sign up new farmers and ranchers.
"Without the new mandatory funding or appropriated dollars, which
is highly unlikely in the short term, they're essentially not going to run
those programs. They'll remain dormant to nonexistent," said Lloyd Ritter,
co-chairman of the Agriculture Energy Coalition who has worked on four farm
The Obama administration and rural energy advocates are pushing for a
farm bill conference committee to include the Senate version of the farm
bill's energy title, which would provide $900 million in mandatory funding
for programs. REAP would receive about $48 million a year for the five-year
bill's duration, while the Biorefinery Assistance Program would receive $100
million this fiscal year and $58 million in fiscal 2014 and 2015.
The House version authorizes $1.4 billion in discretionary funding for
energy programs but does not provide any mandatory funding.
Stakeholders are simply looking for a clear signal from Congress,
"It's a very poor way of doing business in the federal
government," he said. "It's just inappropriate to have programs exist and
not exist and exist again. ... I don't think there's any question it's
turning people away."