USDA and Biomass Energy Policy

By Bob Cleaves | November 01, 2011

The original Biomass Crop Assistant Program, or BCAP, had all the hallmarks of a well-intentioned but poorly conceived federal initiative. Among other things, it provided matching payments for the collection, harvesting, storage and transportation of biomass materials to so-called biomass conversion facilities. We all know how this story ended—the USDA was deluged with requests for matching payments for material that was not economic for use in biomass boilers before the BCAP program was even instated. These requests caused huge market distortions and a significant fiscal drain on the public. Add to that the payments for business-as-usual activities, and you had a poster child for a government program run amok.

Fast forward three years after BCAP was passed by Congress. USDA, working with the forest products industry and nongovernmental organizations, corrected earlier flaws in the program. Most importantly, material would only qualify if it didn’t have a higher commercial use in the market; waste products would qualify only if they would otherwise be openly burned or left to decay in landfills. Other important reforms were proposed and implemented by USDA, all with the support of the industry. Meanwhile, the corrected program was achieving its intended objectives by enabling the removal of tons of forest floor debris and other waste materials in places with a high risk of forest fires.

Despite adjustments to the program, BCAP, like many other federal programs, increasingly became a convenient target for elimination. It was defunded by the House earlier this year, with the fate of the program hanging in the balance through the work of the Super Committee for the 2012 Farm Bill.

BCAP may have a new lease on life, however, through the efforts of Rep. Marlin Stutzman, R-Ind., who sponsored H.R. 3111, the Rural Economic Farm and Ranch Sustainability and Hunger Act of 2011, or REACH. A companion bill in the Senate by Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., appears imminent. REACH codifies many of the reforms that USDA made to the program in the most recent rulemaking, including the need to demonstrate that biomass material when used for energy is “otherwise uneconomically retrievable.” In other words, a waste product that, but for BCAP support, would be left to decay or burn—causing forest fires and climate change. Also, REACH requires the Secretary of Agriculture to make BCAP payments based on the most cost-effective proposals, and further requires that collection of material be done sustainably.

The federal government has a critically important role to play in the health of our nation’s forests. When properly implemented, BCAP matching payments are a cost-effective means of promoting healthy forests and supporting rural economies. Simply put, the BCAP provisions in REACH are worth fighting for.

Author: Bob Cleaves
President and CEO, Biomass Power Association