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Vilsack reassures Growth Energy on ethanol support

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack gave a ringing endorsement of corn-based ethanol and other biofuels early today, saying that he has stressed the positive aspects of ethanol to Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson, who is considering a petition to waive Renewable Fuel Standard ethanol requirements because feed prices are high.

“I don’t want anybody to leave here today thinking that at USDA there is any waiver in our support for this industry,” Vilsack told members of Growth Energy, a group that represents ethanol plant builders and operators.

Vilsack later noted to reporters that he is “not involved” in making the decision on the EPA waiver, but that the law requires the EPA administrator to consult with the Agriculture secretary and the Energy secretary while considering the petition from several governors from meat producing states to waive the requirement.

Jackson has 90 days to consider the petition, which means she is unlikely to make a decision before the election.

But Vilsack said in his speech that he had advised Jackson that the corn market is responding to conditions this year, that exports will be down and feed use for livestock will be down, and that the country will also produce less ethanol. He said he has also noted that the RFS standard has flexibility within it, and that even if a waiver is granted it does not mean that the price of crops is going to come down or that less ethanol is going to be produced. Meanwhile, he added, ethanol creates jobs and consumer choice and reduces U.S. reliance on foreign oil.

Vilsack also said he believes the American Petroleum Institute has been “schizophrenic” on the RFS because it has called for changes to it, but also asked EPA not to grant the waiver.

After asking for a moment of silence to honor the victims of the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, Vilsack said New York’s World Trade Center was attacked as a symbol of U.S. financial might, but that the true power of the country “is represented by the people in this room. It’s the entrepreneurs, it is the risk-takers that define in many ways the strength of our great country.”

The development of ethanol and the biofuels industries has been “one of the great opportunities” in rural America,” Vilsack said. “It is an amazing story and it represents the best of America, and I want you to know that you have a partner at USDA.”

Vilsack noted that USDA engages in biofuels research, has paid farmers to grow crops that provide the raw materials for renewable fuels that they otherwise would not have grown, and is also providing loan guarantees on 9 separate projects.

Increasing oil drilling will create only a few jobs compared to the wide variety of jobs that can come from renewable fuels and the use of farm commodities to make products ranging from soda bottles to cars, he said.

Responding to questions about how the ethanol industry can maintain its position, Vilsack urged the industry officials to make sure that local newspapers and radio stations know that the industry does not want the waiver granted and to make sure that suppliers to the industry also understand the importance of the RFS and make their positions known.

“You have to make sure that all the people in the supply chain are also vocal — the trucker, the person who makes the pumps, that they join you in this message,” Vilsack said, adding that they need to understand there must be opportunities for renewable fuels in every region of the country and that they must reach out to politicians they do not know. “You can’t just depend on the Midwestern senators,” he said.

“You have got to be passionate about this,” Vilsack added, saying that the benefits of renewable fuels go far beyond their own industry.

The secretary also urged the officials to urge Congress to pass a farm bill, and noted that the Senate-passed farm bill contains an energy title while the House Agriculture Committee-passed bill does not.

Vilsack repeated previous statements that for the House to say it cannot pass a farm bill because it is in session only eight days in September is like a farmer not working during harvest.

“They could work on Saturday,” Vilsack said of the House. He also repeated his view that, while House Republicans say the issue is cuts to nutrition, they really plan cuts to farm programs.

Vilsack did not ask the Growth Energy members to vote for President Barack Obama in his re-election campaign, but said, “As long as I am secretary, as long as I have a voice, I will continue to use it to make sure you get your acknowledgement and appreciation.”