04/01/12 — Ag secretary talks farm bill, gas

View Archive

Ag secretary talks farm bill, gas

By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on April 1, 2012 1:50 AM

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, speaking to North Carolina media Friday, said he's encouraged by the fact that the U.S. Senate has already begun hearings on the 2012 Farm Bill, and that he hopes it will be passed this year. But, he acknowledged, that doesn't mean there aren't some challenges that will have to be overcome -- beginning with its name.

"It's really the Food, Farm and Jobs Bill. When we only refer to it as the Farm Bill, we're focusing on a very narrow part of America -- only about 2 percent," Vilsack said in a phone interview.

The goal, he said, is to help make people aware of just how broad a reach the bill has, and one important key to that -- and one that he's worried might be on the chopping block -- are the nutrition programs it includes, such as food stamps.

He said he anticipates the bill -- and many of those programs -- will clear the Democrat-led Senate largely intact, but that the Republican majority in the U.S. House is already talking about cuts in spending. Unfortunately, he explained, cutting these safety net programs not only hurts the people who rely on them, but also the farmers who supply the food, and who make about 16 cents on every food dollar spent.

And while he expects Congress' commitment to crop insurance and conservation to remain strong, he is also worried about other programs not funded in the bill's baseline budget, such as those encouraging and helping farmers adopt energy efficient practices and equipment -- funds that he said have directly helped 276 small businesses, farmer and ranchers in North Carolina save approximately 3 million kilowatt hours.

But, he said, they know going into it that funds are likely to be limited and that the closer to the November elections they get, the harder it will be to pass a bill this year.

"It's not going to get any easier to do any of this," he said.

Vilsack also took time Friday to discuss rising gas prices and to seek to assure motorists that the administration's energy policies are not causing the increase, but rather are helping to keep costs as low as possible.

Since President Barack Obama took office, he said, the country's oil imports are at their lowest point in 13 years -- 45 percent, down from 60 percent -- with four times as many domestic oil rigs in operation and 400 additional permits approved, as well as new spaces for offshore exploration opened up off the West Coast and in the Gulf of Mexico. Such moves, he said, have kept the price of gas in the U.S. about 80 cents to $1.30 lower than it would be otherwise.

"It's important for people to understand that oil is marketed globally, so there are a lot of factors that go into its price," he said.

And, he continued, with a new blend of ethanol, E-15, having recently received federal approval, once blenders begin incorporating it, the country's gas supply can be stretched even further, potentially lowering the price of gas another 5 to 15 cents.

He also noted that in 2009, the U.S. became the world's leading producer of natural gas, and that in 2011, it became the world's leading investor in clean energy technologies.

Vilsack said he could not speak to North Carolina's potential for offshore drilling or natural gas fracking, deferring to the U.S. Departments of Energy and Interior, but said the state, with its strong agriculture economy, does stand to benefit from an increased focus on biofuels. Already, he noted, there are 94 bio-based companies operating in North Carolina.