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Farm Bill Energy Issues Essential for State, Franken Says

  • Tuesday, 17 October 2017 09:45

Mankato Free Press

October 11, 2017

By Trey Mewes

As federal officials back off of the Obama-era Clean Power Plan, U.S. Sen. Al Franken believes there's going to be more work to do to ensure farmers and rural communities benefit from renewable energy sources.

The Minnesota Democrat met with regional agriculture and energy experts Wednesday at Minnesota State University to discuss energy initiatives that will be included in the 2018 farm bill.

"This is added value to our agricultural products," Franken said. "Biofuels, in terms of ethanol and biodiesel, is extremely important to our economy."

Minnesota is one of the nation's leading renewable energy producers, and about 1 in 5 Minnesotans have agriculture-related jobs.

Franken, who serves on the Senate Energy Committee, is helping to write an energy component to the farm bill that could tweak a few energy programs to better fund renewable energy efforts. The bill would, among other things, link federal funding between fire hazard reduction and reducing undergrowth in forests by removing biomass.

One of those tweaks would remove a requirement that bio-based material work needs to produce energy, which experts say could open the door to more plastics, chemicals and other products made from bio-material.

Mike Youngerberg of the Minnesota Biodiesel Council points to a new kind of asphalt sealant made from biodiesel products that works better than current oil-based sealants.

Farmers could one day be able to grow 100 bushels of corn or soybeans for every lane mile, and renewable energy representatives are pushing state officials to use the biodiesel sealant on roads, bridges and parking lots across Minnesota.

"The city of Hutchinson, Minnesota, is saving material on their road maintenance budget just by preserving what they have," Youngerberg said.

Other projects that came up included converting wood chips into biofuel to heat turkey barns, and potential energy storage improvements with renewable fuels that would decrease costs for rural and low-income areas if implemented.

Some experts even advocated for more flexibility to pursue industrial hemp products — which is different than marijuana-based products, though the two have been linked in agricultural and manufacturing discussions in the past.

"We think as a specialty crop it would open some doors for us," said Dan Skogen, a former state senator who serves as the planning and government relations director for the Agricultural Utilization Research Institute.

Yet the energy and ag experts were mainly concerned with securing enough funding to continue renewable energy initiatives such as the Rural Energy for America Program grants and loans.

"There are a lot of great products that could come out of some of these," said Joe Smentek, director of public affairs for the Minnesota Soybean Growers Association. "But if they're not fully funded, if they're not funded adequately, they're worthless."

It appears the Trump administration is souring on renewable energy, however. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt announced this week the EPA would roll back greenhouse gas regulations established under former President Barack Obama. And President Donald Trump has publicly pushed for more coal and oil energy in the past.

Franken said after the meeting that despite the president and his administration's opposition to some renewable energy issues, Congress needed to push on as more renewable energy gets produced across the U.S.

"There's no question that ethanol is much more efficient than gasoline in terms of what we're putting in and what we're getting out," Franken said.

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