An Uncertain Future

USDA announces more BCAP project areas, but the program’s fate is unclear
By Erin Voegele | August 22, 2011

The USDA announced four new Biomass Crop Assistance Program project areas spanning six states in late July, bringing the number of project areas named in the past few months to nine. Together, the nine project areas span an estimated 330,000 acres of energy crop production.

Two of the new BCAP project areas will target the growth of camelina in areas of California, Montana, Washington and Oregon. The third will encourage the growth of hybrid poplar trees in Oregon, while the fourth is designed to support the growth of switchgrass in Kansas and Oklahoma.

Although the past year has been highly successful for BCAP, the future of the program remains uncertain. According to Todd Atkinson, chief of staff at the USDA’s Farm Service Agency, the funding for the current fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30, has already been allocated. This means no new project areas are expected to be announced before that date. Additional project areas could be named during the next fiscal year, as long as more funding is allocated to the program.

Existing project areas, however, will not be affected if Congress fails to fund the program in the next fiscal year. According to Atkinson, funding that has been obligated to existing project areas and has been allocated via contracts the FSA has entered into with projects is already in hand. “If funding [for BCAP] is terminated into the next fiscal year, it will not affect any of the contracts we enter into right now,” he says.

Regarding funding for the next fiscal year that begins Oct. 1, Atkinson notes that the U.S. House of Representatives has passed an agricultural appropriations bill, which proposes zeroing out funding for the BCAP program. However, the U.S. Senate has not acted on its version of the bill. Once the Senate acts, both versions of the bill will have to be reconciled in a conference committee. It remains to be seen what the final outcome will be for BCAP. Federal lawmakers may also be working on the 2012 Farm Bill soon. It is impossible to project at this time whether that bill will reauthorize the BCAP program.

The biorefining industry will clearly benefit if the program is reauthorized and allocated additional funding. Atkinson stresses how important feedstock development is to the sector. “As resources are invested in research and development…capital equipment, facilities and infrastructure, and all the financial risk mitigation tools to help start this industry, I like to say ‘forget not the feedstock,’” Atkinson says. “We need the feedstock in addition to the facilities. Many of these dedicated energy crops may take two or three years before they are mature enough to harvest, so an investment needs to be conducted in tandem with the development of the facilities that propose to use these feedstocks. The [facilities] that are in precommercial stages or are under construction now that may be ready to go online in [the 2013-’14 timeframe] need sufficient quantities of feedstock. It all rests on a strong base of available feedstocks that can be obtained economically.” 

—Erin Voegele