In 2008, the Biomass Crop Assistance Program (BCAP) was created as a barely-noticed add-on to the 2008 Farm Bill, signed into law by George W. Bush. What sounded like a good idea — funding the use of waste biomass (sawdust, etc.) for biofuels and other uses — turned out to be not such a good idea.
Complaints about the program are best summarized by the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP).
FSA’s implementation of the program has come under widespread criticism for straying far the program’s original intent. The FSA began the initial phase of the program before setting clear rules for qualifying grants, and before it had completed a full environmental impact statement as required under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). As a result, nearly all of the more than $164 million in funding that has been awarded so far has gone to the forest paper and products industries to burn waste wood for their own energy needs. Most of these users were already buying or using biomass for pre-existing energy purposes.
“Done right, BCAP could go a long way toward helping farmers transition to growing perennial biomass crops,” said Jim Kleinschmit, IATP Rural Communities Program Director. “But so far farmers have seen very little benefit from the millions of dollars already spent on this program.”
However, recent modifications to the program by the USDA’s Farm Service Agency (FSA) have resolved many of the chief issues and, as the president of the Composite Panel Association Tom Julia recently said (pdf), “BCAP has morphed from a job-killing welfare program into one that now makes economic sense and environmental sense.”
The new modifications to BCAP do a significant number of good things:
- The Record of Decision on the BCAP Environmental Impact Statement estimates the total impact from implementation to be an estimated $88.5 billion in economic activity.
- BCAP will reducing the financial risk for producers who support emerging biofuels markets – – – crops including, but not limited to switchgrass, miscanthus, fast-growing woody poplar, jatropha, algae, energy cane, and pongamia.
- Biomass must be certified to have been collected and harvested only with an approved conservation, forest stewardship, or similar plan to protect soil and water quality and preserve land productivity into the future.
- Harvesting must occur with an approved harvest plan.
- BCAP project areas cannot occur on native sod.
- All crop collection, harvesting and transportation must be in strict accordance with invasive plant species protections.
- Eligible materials may not qualify for matching payments for BCAP purposes if UDSA determines that in those distinct localities that the materials are used for pre-existing markets.
- The eligibility of both woody and herbaceous biomass for energy purposes is fully maintained, and the objectives of heat, power, biofuels and bio-based products all remain supported by BCAP, as required by statute.
- Provides bonus incentives for the cultivation of cellulosic biofuels that have 60 percent lower lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions.
- Promotes the cultivation of new biomass for new purposes.
- Doesn’t penalize existing users of biomass for heat and power.
- Disallows windfalls or undue financial gains for producers seeking payment for using their own waste products in existing conversion practices.
These modifications to the program protect the environment and existing industries simultaneously and ensure that the program is not abused. They give incentives the cultivation of new biomass for new markets rather than cannibalizing existing uses which can harm existing industries and drive prices up.
It’s yet another step forward taken by the Obama administration and I can just about guarantee you that you’ve never heard about it. It doesn’t make for a quick sound bite. It doesn’t fit on a bumpersticker. It’s wonky and policy-oriented and those are the kinds of things that make people’s eyes roll back in their heads or that puts them to sleep. But they are the things we had hoped for from this administration and they are taking place over time, methodically and with a solid basis in science and smart economic policy.
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I’m just sayin’…