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The Midwest could produce more biofuels and bio-based products. A federal bill aims to help

 A view of the Volatiles Room at the Integrated Bioprocessing Research Laboratory at the University of Illinois at Urbana.
University of Illinois IBRL
A view of the Volatiles Room at the Integrated Bioprocessing Research Laboratory at the University of Illinois at Urbana.

A Congressional bill proposed by Midwestern representatives from both parties is aimed at spurring innovation in biofuel technology and increasing its production.

The Agriculture Biorefinery Innovation and Opportunity Act, or Ag BIO Act, would increase funding for innovation in the biofuels and bioproducts industry. Reps. Zach Nunn, R–Iowa, and Nikki Budzinski, D–Illinois, introduced the legislation in November.

The proposed bill would revise an existing grant and loan program for biobased manufacturing run by the USDA’s Rural Development office, and in the House version of the bill, increase its annual funding to $100 million a year for the next five years from its current $75 million a year.

“The Ag BIO Act will eliminate bureaucratic red tape that is driving up energy costs by making it harder for biofuels producers to innovate and expand their manufacturing capacity,” said Rep. Nunn, the bill’s chief House sponsor in a news release.

Iowa is the nation’s top producer of biofuels. Nunn said that industry is an economic driver for his state and “critical to our nation’s energy security.”

Rep. Budzinski emphasizes what the legislation could do for other biomanufacturing that is still in the research and development phase. She said it could help finance the development of new crop-based products, from plastics to detergents, providing an alternative to their petroleum-based counterparts.

“It's products being processed out of organic material to create new products,” Budzinski said, “that's why I think this is a really unique opportunity for us to create new markets for our family farmers.”

The Integrated Bioprocessing Research Laboratory at the University of Illinois provides support for startup firms looking to develop their own bioengineered products. Associate Director for Business Development Beth Conerty said the Ag BIO Act could help these firms develop their own production capacities and help the U.S. better compete with other countries in the developing field of biomanufacturing.

“If you’re looking at the more traditional manufacturing processes, a lot of that has been off-shored,” said Conerty. “But using biology as a manufacturing tool, I wouldn’t say that anybody has won that yet. And it is an opportunity for the U.S.”

The bill has the support of industry and farming organizations, such as the Agriculture Energy Coalition, a Washington D.C.-based group representing both agriculture and manufacturing in the field of biotechnology.

AgEC’s Executive Director Lloyd Ritter said the proposed bill, along with other similar pending legislation, could help the U.S. produce more biofuels and other crop-based alternatives to products now made from petroleum.

Anything that we produce or have produced from traditional refineries for the last hundred years or so can be made by our farmers and our clean technology and biotechnology companies in rural America,” he said.

Yet others worry that relying on biofuels and other biomanufactured products won’t move the needle far enough on climate change, even if lowering the reliance on fossil fuels. Brett Hartl is governmental affairs director for the Tucson, Arizona-based Center for Biological Diversity, which focuses on the protection of endangered species from environmental hazards, among other things.

Hartl said while his group is neither supporting nor opposing the Ag BIO Act, he believes current biofuels still have too large an environmental impact in both their manufacture and use when compared with electric power.

“If you have to think about what to do over the next 10 to 20 years, we don't think that traditional biofuels really get us where we need to be,” said Hartl. “That does not foreclose any of the potential for advanced biofuels doing something great. We don't know yet.”

A Senate companion version of the bill was introduced in October by Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D–Minnesota and co-sponsor Sen. Jerry Moran, R–Kansas.

Jim Meadows is a reporter for Illinois Public Media. This story was produced in partnership with Harvest Public Media, a collaboration of public media newsrooms in the Midwest. It reports on food systems, agriculture and rural issues.

Copyright 2024 KCUR 89.3. To see more, visit KCUR 89.3.

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