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Vilsack gets Senate Agriculture backing to return to USDA

Sees a role for ethanol as a transportation fuel as the nation transitions to electric vehicles

Vilsack told the Senate Agriculture Committee that ethanol would be part of administration's climate plan during his confirmation hearing.
Vilsack told the Senate Agriculture Committee that ethanol would be part of administration's climate plan during his confirmation hearing. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Tom Vilsack told senators that if confirmed as Agriculture secretary he would champion biofuels as a climate tool for the Biden administration and pursue policies to aid small farmers.

The Senate Agriculture Committee recommended by voice vote Tuesday that Vilsack be confirmed. The vote came after Vilsack, who was Agriculture secretary for eight years under President Barack Obama, testified virtually to the panel. 

Sens. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., and John Boozman, R-Ark., said they didn’t know when the nomination would go to the Senate floor. The two senators shared responsibility for running the hearing because the Senate has not approved its power-sharing agreement that would set committee ratios, chairmen and ranking members.  

During the hearing, Vilsack said he sees a role for ethanol as a transportation fuel as the nation transitions to electric vehicles.

Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, questioned the Biden administration’s executive order calling for the federal government’s car fleet to add electric vehicles as a threat to corn-based ethanol, a top product in the state and the Midwest. Ernst said the administration seemed to be setting up a choice between E85-fueled Ford F-150 trucks and Tesla electric trucks.

Vilsack, a former two-term Iowa governor, said that was a false choice since there are many people like him, the owner of a 2006 Ford Focus, that have older cars that run on gasoline blended with ethanol. He said that reliance would be part of the discussion as President Joe Biden moves ahead with his climate agenda and as Congress considers whether to reauthorize the federal mandate that ethanol and other biofuels be used as transportation fuels. 

Vilsack also noted that the Navy uses biofuels to power some of its aircraft carriers and that there may be broader markets for renewable fuels in the marine and aviation industries.

Unless Congress directs otherwise, the EPA will have the discretion starting in 2022 to set the mandate, known as the Renewable Fuel Standard, rather than be guided by required volumes set in law.

Vilsack said he plans to maintain a close relationship with the EPA administrator to offer his department’s views on how agriculture will be affected by EPA biofuel decisions and its regulations on water, air and pesticides.

Vilsack said farmers and ranchers can be part of a broader climate change plan through voluntary programs that build on practices they already use. He said he could start laying the groundwork through administrative steps to establish an advisory panel similar to one proposed in legislation by Stabenow and Sen. Mike Braun, R-Ind. The goal, Vilsack said, is to seek information and input from agriculture to create workable climate programs.   

He also said the department could begin gathering the data necessary to determine the best practices for carbon sequestration in soil and other steps farmers could take. Vilsack said any carbon sequestration bank established to oversee and manage carbon markets for agriculture should principally benefit farmers rather investors. If that doesn’t happen, Vilsack said farmers and ranchers would be unlikely to participate.

Senators also asked Vilsack how the department could help small farmers and ranchers avoid future financial hits like those they experienced when COVID-19 disrupted food supply chains they relied on to get products to customers.

Vilsack said the agency would look at ways to help expand markets and to add small meat processors to the supply chain so there are alternatives available to avoid the problems caused during the spring when large regional slaughterhouses slowed production or closed temporarily because of COVID-19 outbreaks among workers.

He also said he and the department would work to address the effects of discriminatory practices that denied Black farmers and other farmers of color access to programs often critical to building a strong farm operation. 

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