BCAP's future still uncertain, USDA releases program info

By | December 16, 2010

While the biomass industry is scrambling to prevent Congress from slashing Biomass Crop Assistance Program funds in the proposed omnibus spending bill, USDA has issued new information about the program, following the Oct. 27 final rule release.

It’s likely the release of the new BCAP information hasn’t created the excitement across the industry that it would have if the program’s future wasn’t in jeopardy.

The current $1.1 trillion 2011 Omnibus Appropriations Act essentially strips BCAP of its funding, as well as the Biorefinery Assistance program and Bioenergy Program for Advanced Biofuels (see “Omnibus spending bill could kill BCAP”).  

The end of the program could mean the collapse of the industry, from the perspective of many. Steve Flick, president of the 600-member, farmer-owned cooperative Show Me Energy, has actively been working to bring the matter to the attention of appropriators on Capitol Hill. He said if BCAP funding is cut, U.S. farmers will never trust USDA again when it comes to energy policy. “And the U.S. will never attain the [renewable fuel standard] goal—it’s a pipe dream, the next generation fuel industry will also collapse and jobs will be lost immediately,” Flick said.

Bob Cleaves, president of the Biomass Power Association, said BCAP has meant the difference in whether biomass power plants have been able to stay open or close. He described the defunding provision as “completely out of left field. It would not only have a devastating effect on biomass power producers, but growers, electric co-ops and various others. Loggers and waste handlers have spent huge amounts of money and taken significant risks in anticipation that the program would exist.”

Cleaves said the BPA, along with 40 other companies and organizations, sent a letter to leadership last week imploring Congress to reverse the defunding of BCAP. “We’re quite concerned about this, at a time where our renewable brethrens like solar and wind are getting significant benefits in the current Tax Bill. It’s extremely unfair to leave biomass out in the cold.”

USDA spokesman Justin DeJong said if BCAP is ultimately eliminated, the Senate would ensure that U.S. dependence on foreign oil and fossil fuels will not only continue, but also grow for the foreseeable future.

DeJong pointed out that BCAP is expected to create 700,000 jobs nationwide and $80 billion in economic activity over the next 10 years. “We strongly encourage the Senate to make the corrections necessary so there are resources to continue building a sustainable biofuels industry—for our environmental as well as national security future,” he said.

Cleaves pointed out that the Senate Appropriations Committee is asking the Senate to vote on the omnibus bill before Saturday evening, so there isn’t much time. “It’s a 2,000-page piece of legislation and extraordinarily complex,” he said. “This is exactly what the voters were telling Congress not to do in November—to ram something through at the last minute.”

The biomass industry has tremendous support in both the House and Senate, Cleaves added, and the BPA is working with allies to see if something can be done. “But our impression is that this is a very fast moving train. The government runs out of money on midnight on Saturday, and will only continue to be funded through this or a continued resolution. Candidly, we’re hopeful it will fail in its current form.”

Two Republican votes are needed for the Senate to approve the bill, assuming it gains the support of all 58 Democrats, which does not seem likely. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., has said she will oppose the bill over concerns with the 6,700-plus earmarks it contains.

Meanwhile, the industry is being urged to take action immediately. “It is truly [imperative] that everyone in the biomass industry call their senatorial positions to tell them not to vote for the omnibus,” Flick said. “It does nothing for our industry; in fact, it virtually eliminates it.”  

While Congress is grappling with a Tax Bill and an omnibus bill, the USDA did manage to add a number of forms and accompanying information to the BCAP website, including Biomass Conversion Facility registration documents, BCAP project area proposal submissions and instructions, and an updated eligible materials list.

While some long-awaited information is now available, there are still smaller, instructive details that seem to be missing. “At this point, it is unclear how fuel delivered to a conversion facility will be verified as to the sustainability criteria of the eligible fuels list,” said Tom Kimmerer, senior scientist for Moore Ventures LLC. “The Sample Purchase List does not indicate how eligibility is determined, nor does the BCAP-1 form require sustainability information. For example, the final rule requires that eligible forest materials must be harvested from forests under a forest management plan or other indicator of sustainable practices. However, the forms do not indicate how to provide information to verify the sustainability criteria. In addition, the BCAP Project Area Environmental Screening Worksheet is basically a repeat of the BCAP-I form with one additional box to check off environmental consideration.”

Kimmerer said it appears that FSA posted the new documents before working through all the information that might be required. “Applicants, especially those who are applying for producer areas, should plan on spending considerable time with county or state [Farm Service Agency] agents to clarify these matters.” To see more information about the BCAP, visit Kimmerer’s blog at www.mooreventures.com/blog/.