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Vilsack on the road for civil rights, biofuel, conservation

In a series of events that could be considered related to President Barack Obama’s campaign for re-election, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack traveled to Chicago on Monday to talk civil rights and promote biofuels, and continued on to St. Paul today to unveil a conservation program while the USDA released a report on rural development.

On Monday, the holiday celebrating the birth of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Vilsack spoke to the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow PUSH organization on USDA’s civil rights record and the Obama administration's settlement of the Pigford lawsuit filed by black farmers for historic discrimination, USDA said.

Vilsack later led a media roundtable at the Boeing headquarters in Chicago pointing out the Obama administration’s aviation biofuels efforts.

According to a USDA news release, Vilsack noted that during the Obama administration the agency has:
  • Invested more than $80 million in research on aviation biofuels
  • Entered into a partnership with the Energy Department and the U.S. Navy to invest up to $510 million during the next three years to produce advanced, drop-in biofuels
  • Provided $40 million to the University of Washington to focus on sustainably grown woody energy crops to produce biogasoline and renewable aviation fuel
  • Invested in a New Mexico facility to produce “green crude” oil from algae that can be refinanced into transportation fuels
  • Supported efforts to build five biorefineries to produce advanced biofuels in states ranging from Florida and Michigan to New Mexico.
John Heimlich, chief economist for Airlines for America, said there is a sustainable market among airlines for biofuels if producers can ensure stable supplies and competitive pricing, Reuters said in a story on the event Monday. Airlines pay more than $3 for each gallon of traditional jet fuel and the price is rising, Heimlich said in the Reuters report, and biofuels typically cost a few dollars more per gallon.

“There is still a significant price gap and this is why each step of progress helps begets the next efficiency gain,” Heimlich added.

The Reuters report also noted that commercial airlines have already begun experimenting with biofuels on passenger flights. United Airlines last year operated its first commercial flight — a Boeing 737 from Houston to Chicago — powered by advanced biofuel, while Alaska Airlines has made dozens of commercial fights powered by biofuels.

Global airlines may be under pressure to find alternatives to fossil fuels because the European Union has put into effect a law requiring airlines to pay for carbon emissions on flights to and from Europe, the Reuters report concluded.

Water conservation program announced in Minnesota

Today Vilsack met Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson and USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service Chief Dave White for an event with Minnesota Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton to announce a new conservation program.

Vilsack, Jackson and Dayton signed a memorandum of understanding between USDA and Minnesota to develop a new state program for farmers designed to increase the voluntary adoption of conservation practices that protect local rivers, streams and other waters by reducing fertilizer run-off and soil erosion, a news release said.

“Through this partnership, producers, who undertake a substantial level of conservation activities to reduce nutrient run-off and erosion, will receive assurance from the state that their farms will meet Minnesota’s water quality standards and goals during the life of the agreement,” the news release said.

The rare joint appearance by Vilsack and Jackson underlined the administration’s desire to counter the constant stream of Republican criticism in rural America. Republicans have said that EPA planned to regulate dust on rural roads and milk as a spilled oil, but EPA officials have repeatedly said they would not change those regulations.

Republicans have also criticized regulation of the Chesapeake Bay, saying that the Obama administration’s plans to fight pollution will damage agriculture in the area and that the bay plan will be a model for regulation in other parts of the country.

USDA said that the memorandum of understanding would provide “certainty” to the regulatory process in Minnesota.

“USDA and EPA will offer support to Minnesota in developing its certainty process for water quality improvements on private agricultural lands and eligible tribal lands in high priority watersheds,” the news release said. “While this idea is new to protection of water quality, ‘certainty agreements’ have been successful for encouraging private landowners to conserve wildlife habitat.”

Noting that USDA already has helped 11 Western states establish a certainty process to protect the sage grouse, a candidate for the Endangered Species List, the release said USDA and its partners hope to duplicate that success in addressing water quality on agricultural lands.

“Water and food are two of society’s essential resources,” Dayton said in the release. “Today, we are taking a bold step for a program which keeps agriculture a cornerstone of our economy and also protects the health of our rivers, lakes and streams. It is vital that we have both. I also want to thank President Obama, Secretary Vilsack, and Administrator Jackson for their outstanding leadership in advancing this initiative. We look forward to a strong working partnership.”

The National Farmers Union, a group whose members are Democratic-leaning, issued a statement praising the agreement and the creation of the Agriculture Water Quality Certification Program, saying the initiative will help balance the goals of producing food, fiber and fuel while preserving soil health and improving water quality.

"Farmers will have buy-in and ownership of this program and will be counted on to offer technical advice to the EPA and USDA regarding conservation practices on the landscape of Minnesota," said Minnesota Farmers Union President Doug Peterson.

Tonsager: Rural Development programs boost jobs

Meanwhile, Undersecretary for Rural Development Dallas Tonsager told reporters today that USDA’s rural development such as business and industry loans, housing, water and sewer grants and construction of high speed Internet service created or saved about 440,000 jobs in rural America in 2011.

“The Obama administration is focused on putting people back to work and putting money back into the pockets of working Americans,” said Vilsack. “At USDA we are partnering with businesses, non-profits, cooperatives, tribes and local governments to do our part to stimulate economic activity and create an environment that grows jobs in rural communities.”

Tonsager, a South Dakotan, told reporters that the number of jobs in individual communities is small, but that even the creation of five jobs in a rural community is important.

Tonsager released USDA's 2011 annual report on rural development and said that details on projects and job creation can be found in it.