Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack talked about climate change, renewable energy and ethanol blends during a conference call with reporters on Monday. Here are excerpts from the transcript:

From Vilsack’s opening comments on the call:

I also want this Department to be a national leader in climate change mitigation, adaptation efforts. This of course will involve conservation, greater efficiency with the energy that we have, as well as new technologies and expanded opportunities in biofuels and renewable energy. I’m going to work to advance research and development and pursue opportunities to support the development of additional biofuels, wind power, and other renewable energy sources.

We need to make sure that the biofuels industry has the necessary support to survive the recent downturn while at the same time promoting policies that will speed up the development of second and third-generation feedstocks for those biofuels that have the potential to significantly improve America’s energy security and independence.

I expect our farmers and ranchers will play a role in making progress on the great challenge of climate change and on other major environmental challenges. It’s important to me that the USDA lead efforts to incentivize management practices that promote and provide clean air, clean water, and wildlife habitat, and to help farmers participate in markets that reward them for sequestering carbon and limiting greenhouse gas emissions.

It is my hope that the Farm Bill’s provisions in terms of energy and conservation can be implemented promptly and properly and that we see the Forest Service as a new opportunity for us to engage in climate change mitigation/adaptation strategies.

We also want the USDA to be a supporter of 21st century rural communities. We’ll be looking at promoting the expansion of modern infrastructure, expanded broadband opportunities, affordable, energy-efficient housing in rural communities, expanded small business opportunities, and improving the quality of life through community facilities.

Climate and energy issues came up in the questioning:

Q Hi. President Obama has said he wants to double production of renewable energy. And I’m wondering if you can expand a little bit on what USDA’s role will be in achieving that goal. And specifically you talked about the need to make sure that ethanol producers have the support to survive this downturn. Can you speak to what you meant by that, or sort of give us some more detail about that?

SEC. VILSACK: Well, as I think it’s fairly clear, ethanol producers are under a particular strain as is the case with most elements of our economy. There will be a premium on ethanol producers who are efficient and effective in the management of the facilities. USDA has a role I believe in helping to develop and promote best practices that will increase and enhance management efficiencies which in turn will allow more of these producers of ethanol to stay in business.

Meanwhile, I think it is important for us to take a look at the fairly significant set of legislative proposals that were made in the energy title of the Farm Bill and to work very quickly to implement as many of those as possible. We need to create additional demand for advanced biofuels and renewable energy, working with farmers for example to determine how best they could change their operations to embrace renewable energy and fuel in their operations, working with rural communities to encourage the same, working with farmers to encourage them to produce biomass crops, working with the Forest Service to take a look at how the woody biomass operations may be called into play to increase the supply of second and third generation biofuels.

There are a series of tax credits, grants, and loan programs designed to expand production facilities and to convert existing production facilities to use these new fuels. All of that is in the realm, if you will, of the USDA, and I think it’s important for the USDA to aggressively promote these efforts.

I think we are in a position to begin the march which President Obama has laid out of creating new green collar jobs. It can and should and I believe ought to begin in rural America, and I think USDA is prepared to do this. That will be supplemented by two additional activities. As Congress develops the stimulus package and bill there will likely be some opportunity for USDA to work in concert with the Department of Energy and perhaps other departments of government to promote and to market aggressively the need for biofuels and renewable energy, both obviously in rural communities but also in urban centers as well.

There will also be an opportunity potentially later in the year as the President works on a larger energy package for USDA to play a role. So there are tremendous opportunities today, opportunities for leveraging resources in the private sector and other governments working with state and local governments. I’m also looking forward to the stimulus package once it’s passed by Congress and signed by the President. And I’m looking forward to participating in the formulation of an overall energy policy for the country.

Q: Thank you. Good morning, Mr. Secretary. Congratulations on your new position. I wondered if you could elaborate a bit on how you see the USDA helping farmers participate in carbon trading programs or in sequestering carbon.

SEC. VILSACK: Well, I would anticipate and expect that as the energy debate moves forward and as the climate change debate moves forward, that we will create some kind of mechanism or system in this country that will either provide offsets or credits for certain practices that will allow those who are being regulated to meet their responsibilities. I think agriculture, the Forest Service, farming and the Forest Service in particular, have opportunities. Whether it’s utilizing and being able to define more specifically precisely how much carbon is captured by agricultural production – I mean that’s one of the key challenges. Do we have sufficient data and information to know precisely how to set up an offset system.

I think USDA can be involved and engaged in that through research projects and the like. I think the Forest Service presents a very interesting and unique opportunity because right now with uncontrolled wildfires we are actually contributing to greenhouse gases instead of reducing them. And I think, if we look at a strategic plan to manage the forests and to manage wildfires more effectively, we might be able to reduce the carbon that’s going into the atmosphere through these fires by reducing either the intensity or severity of the fires or the frequency of them in certain circumstances and/or use forests as carbon sinks.

So there’s tremendous opportunity in those two areas. The issue of sequestration is one that I think is ripe for accelerated research. And I would anticipate that we’ll be working very closely with the Department of Energy to make sure that our research projects complement each other and are not necessarily contradictory.

Q: In your testimony to Congress you said that sound science and data would help guide your decisions, and obviously in the case of ethanol-and the blending cap of this will be EPA’s call-but in your view does sound science and data support an expansion of that blending cap for ethanol producers? And how might, in your view, an expanded blend of ethanol boost the industry?

SEC. VILSACK: Well, as you may know there has been a great deal of conversation and discussion about ethanol and EPA’s role in determining its contribution relative to climate change, greenhouse gases and the like. I think what we need to be doing at USDA is, first and foremost, establishing a very good working relationship and a good communications system between USDA and EPA.

I was encouraged by the fact that Alisa Jackson, who is designated as the EPA Administrator, sought me o
ut during the transition to assure me that there will be that line of communication and that level of understanding and expertise at EPA that will appreciate the challenges that agriculture generally has in the country.

I think it’s going to be important for us to recognize that there are a number of challenges to the way in which ethanol is being produced today, and we have to respond to those challenges. And one way we respond is by accelerating significantly the research that will allow us to be more efficient with the feedstocks that we have today- which is also going to help ethanol producers survive difficult times- at the same time, working on promoting second and third generation feedstocks that may be even more beneficial from a climate change perspective or could complement the current system.

And I think EPA should take some solace, if you will, in the fact that we are engaged and involved in that.

Obviously, we have a serious challenge that has been put forward by Congress to meet the various mandates for renewable fuel within our system. In order to do that, we’re going to have to figure out ways to incorporate ethanol into the fuel system at even greater levels over the course of time. And it’s also clear that within a very short number of years we are going to have to be relying on something other than solely corn-based ethanol, based on the mandates and directives.

So all of that is to say, there needs to be lines of communication; there needs to be an effort to promote and extend ethanol use in a variety of ways; and there needs to be a recognition that there are challenges to the expansion of that use, and USDA needs to help meet those challenges.

Source: Federal News Service