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Farm energy programs do double duty

The Senate and House agriculture committees' attempt to integrate a "secret" $250 billion Farm Bill within the supercommittee's package of recommendations collapsed last month with the deficit panel's failure to reach agreement on how to cut federal spending and raise new revenues. As a result, agriculture policymakers are back to square one in crafting a new Farm Bill that will determine much of our nation's food, fiber, conservation and energy policies for the next five years, if not longer.

In writing the next Farm Bill, Washington needs to exercise fiscal responsibility, especially in these tough economic times. We have a serious budget crisis at hand. But we also have another serious crisis hanging just as ominously over our nation: unresolved energy challenges that directly threaten both our economic security and our national security. This is a problem that farmers in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed can help solve while at the same time addressing another great challenge: cleaning up and restoring the bay.

Here in the Chesapeake watershed, excess nutrients from animal operations are a significant source of pollution. More than 40 percent of the nitrogen and phosphorus introduced into the bay come from agriculture, and half of these nutrients come from animal manure. The good news is that by deploying new and evolving technologies such as gasification systems and anaerobic digesters, farmers can convert animal manure into much-needed bio-gas and electricity while simultaneously reducing nutrient loads that degrade water quality. And by growing bio-energy crops like perennial grasses and fast-growing trees, which don't require annual tilling of the soil or the application of fertilizer, farmers can significantly reduce the amount of sediment and nutrients that might otherwise end up in streams, lakes and estuaries that feed into the bay.

Farm energy programs, such as those authorized in the Energy Title of the Farm Bill, help farmers put these technologies into place and can be a critical tool in turning liabilities into high-value assets. They offset costs to repower biorefineries with biomass feedstocks and low-carbon fuels; construct solar, wind and bio-gas electricity generation systems; and retrofit equipment, barns and other farm infrastructure to improve energy efficiency. Collectively, these projects unlock hundreds of millions of dollars in private investment that in turn diversify our economy, create jobs and generate new streams of revenue. And in an era of fiscal contraction for environmental programs, they can be important new vehicles for improving soil, water and air quality and wildlife habitat.

These same programs also support the production of the feedstocks and build the energy systems that reduce our dependency on foreign oil, thereby enhancing our national security. To grasp the importance of these initiatives, one need look no further than the Pentagon, which understands the urgency and necessity of reducing our dependence on fossil fuels, especially foreign oil. The federal government consumes 2 percent of all fossil fuel used in this country, and the military burns about 90 percent of that. From their vantage point as the ultimate consumers of fossil fuels, Pentagon officials have long called for alternative solutions to extended oil supply lines that undermine military readiness.

The Air Force has a 2016 deadline for being able to get half its fuel needs from 50/50 alternative fuel blends. And the Navy is committed to getting 50 percent of the fuel it needs for aircraft and surface ships from renewable and alternative sources by 2020. Farm Bill energy programs are helping to accelerate the commercial-scale development of alternative fuels, and their national security benefits are of paramount importance.

Although we know better, and have known better for some time, we continue to operate in "business as usual" mode, remaining a hostage to imported oil from unfriendly foreign regimes. We stay stuck in a stalled economy, hungry for a new engine to pull us out of the mire of our dependence on finite fossil resources. And we continue to search for cost-effective ways to restore the national treasure we know as the Chesapeake Bay. Fortunately, on-farm energy production can help solve each of these mega-challenges. It is in our national interest that the Farm Bill Energy Title be renewed and properly funded.

Dennis McGinn, a Lexington Park resident and retired Navy vice admiral, is president of the American Council on Renewable Energy. Ernest Shea (eshea@25x25.org), a Lutherville resident and former Maryland assistant secretary of agriculture, is president of Natural Resource Solutions LLC. Both are leaders of the 25x25 Alliance, a coalition committed to America securing 25 percent of its energy from renewable sources by the year 2025.

Copyright © 2016, The Baltimore Sun
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