USDA Releases Long-Awaited Biomass Crop Proposal

(February 8) On February 8, 2010, USDA issued its proposed rule to implement the 2008 Farm Bill’s Biomass Crop Assistance Program (BCAP).  In the same proposal USDA also terminated an interim funding program under BCAP which has cost the government far more than expected.

USDA is accepting public comments on its BCAP proposal through April 9, 2010. Here is a copy of the proposal (opens in new window); otherwise, read on for more information on the proposal.

Short Summary

BCAP has become controversial in the last several months because of its exploding costs and other impacts. Congress had expected that BCAP would cost only about $70 million through 2012. Yet the program may ultimately cost more than $2 billion, in part because of an expensive interim matching payment program USDA initiated last summer. USDA is now proposing to rein in BCAP’s costs somewhat, largely through some restrictions in the types of renewable biomass materials that will qualify for BCAP funding.

As proposed, BCAP would promote two types of activities:

  • Funding for farm and forest owners and others to receive matching payments for eligible crops and agriculture and forestry wastes sold to facilities which produce advanced biofuels, heat, power and bioproducts. These matching payments help offset the costs of collecting these materials and delivering them to the processing facility. Matching payments may continue for up to two years after USDA issues the first payment.
  • Funding for farmers and other producers of eligible renewable biomass crops to receive establishment and annual payments to help offset the costs of establishing and producing these crops. Establishment payments may offset up to 75% of the cost of establishing eligible crops, and annual payments may run between 5 and 15 years for crop production.

Matching Payments

USDA’s implementation of BCAP has gotten off to a rocky start. In June 2009 USDA began to issue matching payments for the delivery of renewable biomass material through an interim notice of funds availability (NOFA).  Most of these payments were for ag wastes such as corn stover and forest product wastes such as sawmill dust. Most of the material is being used as a substitute for fossil fuels in boilers. The financial impact of the matching payments program is major, with payments under this interim program expected to exceed $300 million in the next two years.

Apart from financial costs, an unintended consequence of USDA’s interim matching payments program was in restricting the availability of cheap sawdust and other mill residues for the wood products and paper and pulp industries. Responding to their concern, and the unexpectedly high cost for a program that was supposed to cost only $70 million through 2012, USDA has terminated the  matching payments interim program and will replace it with the program proposed in this rule.

No Payments for Woody Biomass Materials with Higher-Value Uses

To avoid this problem in the future, USDA is proposing to disallow matching payments for wood wastes and mill residues typically used to produce higher value-added products such as particle board. USDA also is proposing several options to further restrict matching payments for all forms of eligible renewable biomass material. For example, for facilities that convert wood wastes into heat and power, USDA might allow payments only for eligible materials used to make heat or power above the facility’s historical baseline production of heat or power. USDA is seeking comment on all of these options.

In another departure from its June 2009 matching payments NOFA, USDA is dropping the 20% cap on Farm Bill Title I commodity crop agricultural residues (for example, corn stover and straw), on the basis that that the cap is inconsistent with the 2008 Farm Bill.

Establishment and Annual Payments

USDA’s proposal is the Department’s first effort to create a framework for establishment and annual payments. As required by the 2008 Farm Bill, USDA will make eligible payments only for eligible crops within a specified BCAP “project area.” Either producers or “biomass conversion facilities” can propose BCAP project areas to the Farm Service Administration (acting on behalf of the federal Commodity Credit Corporation).

Key requirements/conditions for project areas include:

  • Long-term economic viability.
  • Specific geographic boundaries.
  • Compliance with other criteria in the 2008 Farm Bill, including consideration of impact on soil, water and related resources.

Notably, several types of land are not eligible to receive payments, including government-owned land and land already enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program, Wetlands Reserve Program, or Grassland Reserve Program.

Payment Amounts

USDA is proposing to pay for up to 75 percent of the establishment costs for perennial crops, including woody biomass. (Annual crops do not qualify for establishment cost payments.)

For annual payments, USDA proposes to calculate payments on a per-acre basis and based on market-based rental rates sufficient to ensure producer participation in a project area. USDA also is proposing additional incentive payments for biomass crops that are especially likely to produce highly efficient bioenergy or biofuels, that preserve natural resources or that address specific resource conservation needs.

Annual payments would last up to 15 years for woody perennial crops and 5 years for annual and non-woody perennial crops.

The Bigger Picture

Congress intended BCAP to help solve the “chicken and egg” dilemma blocking development of sustainable biomass energy sources. Without an assured feedstock supply, many producers of advanced biofuels, bioproducts and bioenergy could not invest in new biomass energy plants. By the same token, farmers would not incur the substantial costs and risks of growing new biomass crops (like switchgrass) without the assurance of a market from a production facility. By paying farmers and others to establish, grow and deliver energy crops, BCAP overcomes these obstacles, reducing financial risk for both farmers and biomass energy plants.

BCAP Will Help Biopower First, Then Biofuels

USDA expects that most BCAP payments in the early years will support existing biomass conversion facilities using woody biomass as a feedstock (presumably to produce heat and power). BCAP expires in 2012, and according to USDA most biomass conversion facilities need to be in the pipeline now in order to qualify for BCAP benefits.

Reflecting these projections, USDA also expects that matching payments will consume most of the BCAP funds. Of the total expected $2.636 billion cost of BCAP, USDA projects that $2.1 billion will be for matching payments:

These projected costs are far higher than Congress’ expected $70 million cost for the BCAP program. Notably, Congress did not explicitly limit BCAP funding in the 2008 Farm Bill, so if BCAP costs as much as USDA predicts, it will become the highest-funded program in the 2008 Farm Bill’s Energy Title.

Environmental Considerations

BCAP’s environmental impacts, for both better and worse, will depend largely on how USDA implements the BCAP program. By emphasizing such factors as species diversity, habitat and natural resources protection, USDA would increase BCAP’s long-term success and public support. USDA is especially interested in how it takes environmental factors into account in implementing BCAP, and it is seeking comments on this issue in a number of different ways.

For Additional Information