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Gulf of Mexico spill is a reminder that U.S. needs to develop more renewable fuels

Tom Vilsack, U.S. Agriculture Secretary

The U.S. needs a strong, vibrant rural economy. Unfortunately, over the past several decades there have been times when it was neither strong nor vibrant. Persistent high unemployment and poverty encouraged many to leave their rural communities. A majority of rural counties lost population, and with it, came a loss of political representation.

President Obama refuses to accept the notion that Rural America’s past predicts its future. He recognizes that the source of America’s innovative spirit and our enduring values remain rooted in our rural areas.

The President’s vision for a revitalized rural economy that creates real opportunity for growth and prosperity centers on our ability to add innovative technologies, open new markets for crops, and better utilize our natural resources. The President has ordered the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to make that vision a reality.

The approach at the heart of the President’s vision—which combines new technologies, new markets, and better use of our natural resources—is our nation’s capacity to reduce its dependence on imported oil and fossil fuels through the increased production and use of biofuels and renewable energy.

No one can dispute that we remain too dependent on imported oil. That dependency, absent action now, will grow as our need for more energy grows. The Energy Information Administration estimates that by 2035, U.S. energy consumption will have increased by another 50 percent.

Thirty years ago, 28 percent of the oil consumed in the United States was imported. Today that figure is closer to 60 percent—some of which comes from countries that neither like us nor support us. Today, we still send a billion dollars a day outside our shores helping other countries’ economies to grow while our economy recovers from a deep recession.

With the disastrous oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, we are also reminded that the development of our own oil resources is not without environmental and economic risk.

We can do better. We have to do better. Rural America is where we will do better.

The Renewable Fuel Standard, known as RFS2, reaffirmed the goal of producing by 2022: 36 billion gallons of biofuels, including 21 billion gallons of advanced biofuels.

Reaching that goal means importing less oil—at least, according to a recent industry study, a $350 billion cumulative total value of avoided petroleum imports over the 2010-2022 period.

This means $350 billion that we can keep here, in this country. This means less fossil fuels releasing fewer toxins and having cleaner air to breathe and, according to that same industry study, creating up to a million new jobs with investments of $95 billion in new biorefineries.

To meet the 36 billion gallon goal, we need to work harder and faster.

Incentives helped build the biofuel industry and incentives need to continue.

Our effort must include identifying additional feedstocks available throughout the country and discovering more efficient production processes. Research and development must intensify.

Production of 36 billion gallons of biodiesel will require that biorefineries dot the rural landscape. The Farm Bill of 2008 authorized investments to assist in the construction of new biorefineries. Today, I am directing the Rural Development mission area of USDA within

60 days to announce funding under the current Biorefinery Assistance Program for the construction (to commence in 2011) of a biorefinery or bioenergy plant in each of the regions serviced by the regional centers. In doing so, the entire country can begin to see the economic benefit to producers and job creation potential of the biofuel/bioenergy industry.

I recognize that some may doubt our capacity to meet the challenge of expanding the biofuels industry. I do not underestimate the challenges, but I have seen Rural America rise again and again to continually meet the large challenge of providing food, feed, and fiber for the country—and the world.

Belief and action remain powerful forces to affect change. I believe the President’s vision for rural America compels us to action. I believe the goals

articulated within the RFS2 mandate action. And I believe the need for energy security, a cleaner environment, and better economic opportunity in rural America, make the case for immediate action.


For the Record is an edited excerpt of a speech by U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to the National Press Club, Washington, D.C., in October 2010.

January/February 2011