A few more strange bedfellows have recently been coaxed into the sack with the enviros, hawks, and labor advocates pushing for a smarter U.S. energy strategy. The newbies include growers of corn, soy, wheat, trees, and even dairy cows, all of which could play a role in cultivating homegrown energy sources.

Farmers have gotten wind of a new idea.

Photo: NREL.

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Earlier this month, some 70 agriculture and forestry groups and companies endorsed a campaign dubbed “25 x ’25,” which advocates that 25 percent of energy in the U.S. come from “America’s working lands” by 2025. That means biofuels like ethanol, bioenergy from processed animal manure and agricultural waste, and wind and solar power produced on agricultural lands. At the moment, these sources make up less than 4 percent of America’s energy mix. Backers of the campaign, many of them generally right-leaning, include the American Farm Bureau Federation, the National Corn Growers Association, the National Milk Producers Federation, the Association of Consulting Foresters of America, and the farm equipment giant Deere & Co.

“We don’t see this as big, we see it as enormous,” said Ernest Shea, a longtime agriculture and conservation lobbyist who is spearheading the 25 x ’25 coalition. “Land managers inherently understand how soil, water, air, and sunlight can be harnessed and harvested, be it for nourishment or fuel. We see this as something that will dramatically expand agriculture’s role — as a producer not just of food and fiber, but also energy for America.”

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Reid Detchon, executive director of the Energy Future Coalition, a nonpartisan group of business, security, and environment experts that is funding the 25 x ’25 campaign with support from private foundations, freely admits that the 25 percent target is a stretch: “As an energy wonk, I swallowed hard when [Shea and other agriculture leaders] presented this goal to me, because I know how aggressive it is.” But, he says, it’s doable, particularly given the tremendous amount of political capital agriculture interests bring to the table.

According to Kevin Curtis, a vice president at National Environmental Trust, there are more than 30 senators who consistently vote in favor of agriculture interests, most of whom have not traditionally supported clean-energy initiatives. Said Detchon, “If you look at the map last year of the [congressional] support for renewable fuels, it was in the center of the country, and the support for renewable electricity was stronger in coastal states. We’re trying to bring those two together.”

Already, the 25 x ’25 coalition boasts an impressive roster of backers from both sides of the aisle, including former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R), former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D), Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer (D), and Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels (R). Gingrich, speaking at the March 8 press conference where 25 x ’25 was unveiled, hailed the campaign as “urgent … one of the major building blocks of creating a national security [plan],” and said there was no time to spare in turning its goals into legislative reality: “I urge you to go to Congress to get a resolution this year on a bipartisan basis that directs the congressional committees and the budget committees to develop a 25 x ’25 strategy.”

Given that no such strategy has yet begun to be mapped out, however, the chances of enacting any meaningful 25 x ’25 legislation this year are slim. The coalition has rallied an array of interests around a broad goal, the symbolic importance of which cannot be underestimated, but hasn’t put forward a plan for actually attaining that goal.

“There isn’t much there there yet,” said Nathanael Greene, a renewable-energy expert at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “We’re supportive of the concept, of course, and applaud the Energy Future Coalition’s success in bringing new allies to the table, but the real challenge is getting them to commit to a plan that can actually get us to 25 by ’25.” In other words, a plan that includes not just subsidies for so-called energy crops, but actual federal mandates such as a renewable portfolio standard requiring a certain percentage of the electricity produced in the U.S. to come from renewable sources, and a renewable fuels standard requiring a similar target for the use of biofuels.

Strange bedfellows are ready for a roll in the hay — make that the switchgrass.

Photo: NREL.

Pork It Over

While NRDC and Environmental Defense are among the motley groups that have endorsed the 25 x ’25 campaign, some enviros are concerned that the driving force behind the alliance is the heavy scent of pork, not a commitment to a clean-energy future nor to the kind of serious, binding policies that could help such a vision materialize.

Sure enough, there’s good reason why agricultural interests would be hungry for new subsidies. The World Trade Organization is negotiating highly contentious rules that farmers fear could considerably constrain U.S. subsidies for agriculture. For years, the green community has been trying to get agriculture leaders to back renewables, and it’s no coincidence that now is the moment they’ve decided to jump on board, some environmental activists say.

“There’s a perfect storm of dynamics that is pushing the ag community toward renewables,” says David Waskow, international program director for Friends of the Earth. “First, the pressure on their subsidies from the WTO. Second, the oversupply in the market that has caused their crop prices to bottom out. Third, high oil prices have made biofuels far more cost-competitive.”

Don Villwock, a board member of the American Farm Bureau Federation, which represents 5 million farmers in the United States, admits that international trade negotiations have motivated his organization’s support for the 25 x ’25 plan. “We see it as a way to replace those dollars [from agriculture subsidies],” Villwock said. He hopes that the departments of energy and defense will pitch in alongside the USDA to subsidize “energy crops.”

More important than subsidies, though, says Villwock, is the greater demand for crops that could come from the renewable-energy sector, driving up prices. He sees this happening already: After an ethanol plant was built near his farm in Indiana, the corn in his area started selling for 15 cents more a bushel.

“I see this as a very rare win-win-win-win opportunity,” Villwock said of 25 x ’25. He argues that in addition to benefiting farmers, the environment, and national security, it would give a boost to rural communities by creating jobs at wind farms and alternative-fuel plants, most of which are being built in non-urban areas.

How Green Is My Biofuel?

Enviros are not necessarily convinced, however, that the planet would be among the winners. Some have raised concerns that large-scale biofuel production could promote the development of monocultures — vast tracts of switchgrass, for instance — that could threaten wildlife habitat and biodiversity. But the main concern, according to NRDC’s Greene, “is not so much the total number of acres that must be farmed, but the way those acres are cultivated.”

Greene was lead author on a 2004 report, “Growing Energy,” which concluded that biofuels could displace nearly 8 million barrels of oil a day by 2050, roughly equivalent to the current daily demand for gasoline in the U.S., without putting any additional acres under cultivation or displacing food production (assuming that agricultural practices become more efficient). But, he says, there are legitimate concerns about the amount of resources — pesticides, fertilizers, water, gasoline for farm equipment — that would be used to grow and harvest those crops. “If these plans aren’t drafted with sustainable guidelines, clearly that could be a problem,” said Greene. “We have to get the incentives structured right so that farmers are rewarded for being sustainable.”

Party of 25

Also, because the 25 x ’25 campaign would “let the market choose which renewable resources to prioritize,” according to Detchon, the initial emphasis would likely be on more market-ready sources such as corn-derived ethanol and, to some extent, wind power, rather than eco-friendly but still relatively high-priced solar power.

Enviros also point out that the 25 x ’25 strategy would only be a potent weapon against global warming if the emphasis were on cellulosic ethanol, because the corn-derived variety offers negligible reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions compared to gasoline. Furthermore, they say, if timber is included in the plan and characterized as a renewable energy resource, it could become an excuse for the timber industry to manage and harvest more wildlands.

The leaders of 25 x ’25 have made it clear that while the campaign welcomes environmental allies, it is not primarily designed as an environmental initiative. “Its beating heart is with agricultural groups,” says Kalee Kreider, communications director for 25 x ’25.

That said, aggies may very well be supportive of the kind of regulatory standards that enviros have long been hankering for. Villwock, for instance, was unabashedly enthusiastic about the prospect of renewable fuel and electricity standards and requirements for Detroit to manufacture flexible-fuel vehicles that can run on gas-ethanol blends — and why wouldn’t he be? While it would impose costs on utilities, fuel providers, and auto manufacturers, it would only increase demand for agricultural crops such as corn and soy and waste products such as cattle manure and woodchips. (Bringing the energy industry and automakers on board, though, will be no small feat.)

According to Detchon, the current strategy is to roll 25 x ’25 out in three legislative phases. Stage one, already under way, aims to get 50 percent of Congress members to endorse, in principle, the goals of the coalition by the end of this year. Stage two, also in the works, would get legislatures in 20 states to endorse the 25 x ’25 target (the Colorado legislature has already done so, and Indiana, Kansas, and Pennsylvania are considering similar resolutions).

Both of these phases, Detchon hopes, will get the ball rolling on stage three: drafting detailed, binding national legislation that would put the campaign into action, either to be passed as a stand-alone bill or as amendments to farm, appropriations, energy, and tax bills. He hopes to work with a bipartisan coalition of farm-state senators to usher these initiatives through next year. While he won’t name names, obvious candidates include Sens. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), Barack Obama (D-Ill.), and Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa).

Despite some reservations, many in the environmental community can be expected to help rally support for any such legislation. In a recent Wall Street Journal article, Sierra Club President Carl Pope spoke to the political advantages of having agriculture interests support a clean-energy agenda: “The environmental chorus was never big enough to sing this song. We needed a bigger chorus, so now we’re adding the bass section.”