Energy policy on minds of farm leaders as they storm the Hill

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WASHINGTON – Against the backdrop of a possible war with Iraq, energy and renewable fuels dominated discussions when the Ohio Farm Bureau county presidents visited Washington D.C. March 11-13.

The current political climate, in addition to America’s desire for greater energy independence after Sept. 11, is bolstering support for ethanol and biodiesel.

Renewable fuels. A stand-alone renewable fuels bill has been introduced in the Senate that mirrors last year’s measure that ultimately gained the support of 69 senators and President Bush. The measure, however, became part of a larger energy bill that was never enacted.

The new bipartisan bill, the Fuels Security Act of 2003 (S. 385) was introduced Feb. 13 by Sens. Tom Daschle, D-S.D., and Richard Lugar, R-Ind. Twelve additional senators, including Ohio’s George Voinovich, immediately signed on as co-sponsors.

Boost for ethanol. The legislation would amend the Clean Air Act to require use of renewable fuels like ethanol and biodiesel to reach 5 billion pounds per year by 2012, up from approximately 1.7 billion gallons.

Currently, less than 1 percent of U.S. transportation fuel comes from renewable sources.

In 2002, the United States bought 2.5 million barrels of oil a day from the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC).

A House source said 58 percent of U.S. energy comes from outside sources.

The Senate bill bans the gasoline additive methyl tertiary butyl ether (MTBE) nationally in four years, which would also create a larger ethanol market.

Introducing the bill, Daschle said ethanol holds “great promise.”

“Ethanol comes from American farmers and producers, passes through American refiners and fuels American energy needs,” Daschle said. “No soldier has to fight overseas to protect it. And no international cartel could turn off the spigot.”

Co-sponsor Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., estimates the bill’s measures could boost U.S. farm income by more than $6 billion per year.

Voinovich, who served on an energy bill task force last year, told the Farm Bureau presidents March 12 the energy bill is “long overdue.”

“It’ll stimulate our economy more than anything else we could ever do,” said Voinovich, who is a staunch ethanol supporter.

Last year’s measure included a tax incentive for ethanol use and created a tax credit for the use of biodiesel and tax incentives for energy production from renewable sources.

In the House, Rep. Collin Peterson introduced similar legislation (H.R. 837) Feb. 13. It was referred to the Subcommittee on Energy and Air Quality March 10.

American Farm Bureau Federation staffer Rebeckah Freeman told the Ohio group the current energy bills could be rolled into a larger energy legislation.

Although both President George Bush and Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., who chairs the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, have expressed a desire to push this legislation through this year, Freeman cautioned patience.

“We’re just starting a two-year cycle of legislation,” she said.

Getting closer. Over in the House, Rep. John Boehner told the Ohio farm leaders that legislators are “getting closer” to a national energy policy.

“I think by the end of the year we will have an energy bill and we will have a plan,” the Ohio Republican said.

His counterpart from Kansas, Rep. Jerry Moran, compared the lack of national energy independence to reaching the moon, saying we have all the technology to push an energy plan but, “this nation doesn’t have a policy or a drive to attain the goal.”

“If we can’t do it now, when?” Moran asked the Ohio delegation. “This is as close as we’ve come.”

Hits home. When he came to Washington, Mahoning County Farm Bureau President Tom Koch said energy and renewable fuel issues were on his mind, and upon leaving D.C., he said the issues are now even more important to him.

“It’s just common sense for the farmer,” Koch said. “Ethanol helps make a market for our corn.”

Koch said he will be watching the energy legislation and will push for the renewable fuels mandate in the hopes an ethanol plant will be built in Ohio.

“They’re not going to build a plant unless they have that market,” he said.

Businesses who currently blend ethanol receive an excise tax exemption. The tax incentive, set to expire in 2007, would be extended to 2010 under the Bush fiscal 2004 proposed budget.

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