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Tina Casey headshot

Petroleum Losing Its Luster for Agriculture Sector, Too

Just yesterday, we noted that auto manufacturers are beginning to shed their century-old love affair with petroleum, and now it seems that the agriculture sector is ready to move on, too.

On Tuesday, a coalition of more than 100 major agriculture associations, advocacy groups, government agencies and research institutions issued an open letter calling for increased federal funding for alternative energy and energy efficiency projects in the 2013 farm bill. The letter was organized by the Agriculture Energy Coalition along with the clean energy group 25 x 25 Alliance, the Midwest advocacy organization, Environmental Law & Policy Center, and the National Farmers Union.

A letter in support of clean agriculture energy

The letter, dated April 29, was addressed to Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), Senator Thad Cochran (R-MS), Rep. Frank Lucas (R-OK) and Rep. Collin C. Peterson (D-MN), and it cuts straight to the mustard in the opening paragraph:
...diverse agricultural energy technologies such as advanced biofuels, biogas, bioproducts, biopower, energy crops, wind, solar and energy efficiency are poised for further strong growth. These technologies already make great contributions to the nation's economic, environmental and energy security and will continue to do so in the coming years, provided that Congress maintains stable and successful policies that support their continued development and commercialization.

As would be expected, among the signatories are many with direct ties to the energy production sector, including the American Wind Energy Association and various trade associations focusing on biofuel crops.

Also well represented are mainstream rural electric cooperatives and general agriculture trade groups such as the Alabama Agribusiness Council, the North Carolina Association of Professional Loggers, the Missouri Dairy Association, and the Mississippi Cattlemen's Association.

Parallels with the Climate Declaration

With its emphasis on new opportunities for economic development, the letter closely parallels the Climate Declaration, a project of the Ceres green leadership group under its BICEP initiative.

Forty leading U.S. companies have signed onto the Climate Declaration so far. It confronts the old jobs vs. pollution argument with the counterclaim that far from killing jobs, aggressive action on climate change will drive economic growth:

...we have to confront this challenge, and we have to win. And in doing this right, by saving money when we use less electricity, by driving a more efficient car, by choosing clean energy, by inventing new technologies that other countries buy, and creating jobs here at home, we will maintain our way of life and remain a true superpower in a competitive world.

Ag and auto sectors quitting petroleum

When you look at the agriculture and auto sectors in terms of green job creation, the parallels are even closer.

Clean energy has provided farmers with the means to squeeze more value out of their property by using marginal land to grow hardy biofuel crops or as sites for wind turbines, and by using barns and other facilities as platforms for rooftop solar installations.

In addition, manure-to-biogas technology has provided livestock farmers with the opportunity to transform a significant waste disposal liability into another cash stream.

Similarly, electric vehicle (EV) technology has provided the automobile industry with a whole new generation of partnerships with renewable energy companies and charging station installers as well as the building, IT, and home appliance sectors, all aimed at taking advantage of the fact that for the first time in automotive history, cars and homes can run on the same fuel.

For both the agriculture and automotive industries, these kinds of opportunities are simply not available on the petroleum platform.

Future power for American farmers

U.S. farmers have already gotten a taste for the benefits of renewable energy through private sector wind and solar power projects, as well as hundreds of renewable energy and energy efficiency projects funded through the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The Obama Administration has also been heavily promoting the AgStar manure-to-biogas program, and it has used the federal Rural Energy for America program to leverage expansion of the domestic biofuel industry.

Cross-industry biofuel partnerships are another part of the Administration's biofuel strategy, such as the "Farm to Fly" initiative under the U.S. Department of Agriculture, pairing agriculture with the aviation industry.

Farm equipment manufacturers are also playing a role, John Deere being a notable example of the transition to electric technology for tractors and other farm machinery.

The tipping point is still years away, but it looks like the U.S. agriculture industry is slowly but steadily learning how to get along without petroleum.

To top it off, when you consider the hazards to land and water resources posed by high risk projects like the Keystone XL Pipeline, the affection for petroleum by the agriculture industry really does begin to look a little frayed around the edges.

[Image: Farm with wind turbines courtesy of Idaho National Laboratory]

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Tina Casey headshotTina Casey

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.

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