WASHINGTON – Today, at the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry Committee hearing to confirm Thomas J. Vilsack as U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) focused on how she will work with Vilsack and the Biden administration to encourage the use of renewable fuels and invest in research and data related to farming and agriculture. During the hearing, Vilsack discussed his intention to prioritize animal health to ensure the health and safety of Americans and their livestock, and to take a detailed look at every tool the Department of Agriculture has available to it to ensure more openness, fairness, and transparency in agricultural markets. This Congress, Senator Klobuchar will continue to advance legislation to encourage competition in agricultural markets.
Sen. Klobuchar: Thank you very much Senator Stabenow and thank you for your service Secretary Vilsack and thank you for returning to service as well.
I wanted to start by asking about our renewable fuels, something near and dear to the hearts of the people in your home state of Iowa as well as in Minnesota, and just what’s happening. As you know, at the end of last year, there were some very -- in the last administration -- there were some very bad decisions made from my perspective by the administration about waivers to oil companies. And we’ve had 150 ethanol plants that are shut down in our country, or operate at a lesser capacity. Could you talk about what your plans are in a little more detail when it comes to biofuels? And, also, I introduced the Renewable Fuel Infrastructure Act in December with Senator Ernst to build upon the infrastructure program. We’re going to reintroduce the bill next week. And I think that could be helpful as well. So, your comments on biofuels and what you’ll do as Secretary, including about the refinery exemptions and how the past administration interpreted them.
Vilsack: There are a number of [inaudible] related to biofuels. First and foremost, our own vehicles, the vehiclization of biofuels, in the various, the vehicle fleet the USDA has. Certainly I want to make sure that’s occurring. And encouraging our sister agencies as they look at vehicles, as they look at green fuels, as they look at jet fuels, to look at ways they can use biofuels appropriately and effectively and to spur the industry. And secondly, working with the…
Sen. Klobuchar: A time out, Secretary that above you are, or Secretary to be, your four Naval hats, do you want to describe that to people, what those hats are?
Vilsack: Well three of the hats are from ships I was on that were being refueled with biofuel. And it was an amazing experience to be in the middle of the pacific ocean and watch the refueling process. And the Navy was basically in with their new green fleet, making a commitment to biofuels. I think marine and aviation fuel are the future for biofuels, and I think we need to figure out ways that we can encourage that.
But the USDA Secretary works closely with his or her partner at EPA to make sure that folks at EPA fully understand and appreciate the benefits of this industry in terms of jobs, in terms of the environment, in terms of life cycle analysis. This industry has made great strides, it’s becoming much more environmentally friendly than it was at the beginning. But sometimes I fear that we’re still working off of old research. New research would suggest and indicate that this is an industry that is providing environmental benefits, cleaner air for example. And making sure that as they make decisions relative to the renewable fuel standard, that they are consistent. That they are consistent with the rule, they are consistent with the law. The way our system was designed for small refineries that were having trouble and difficulty. It was not designed for large-scale refineries that are owned by Exxon and Chevron to receive a waiver. So I would hope, and would strongly urge the EPA, to go back to a day when those waivers are very, very, very infrequently granted.
And then finally I think there’s a way in which we can utilize USDA resources and work with Congress to increase those resources. To build out the infrastructure, to make it easier for higher blends to be available to consumers. Why? Because at the end of the day consumers benefit, they have less expensive fuel, they have a cleaner burning fuel, they have a fuel that’s better for the environment. As we look at the future, I think biofuels continue to play a role in reducing emissions and providing job opportunities in all parts of the country.
Sen. Klobuchar: Thank you. I now just have two last questions here. You earlier discussed some issues with Sen. Stabenow about climate and environmental issues. I know it’s going to be one of your focuses. I believe, like so many on the committee do, that farmers should be a major part of this. And one of the ways you do that, in addition to the sequestration that I heard you talk about, is getting the data and making sure we know how best practices work, things like cover crops. I happen to know having spent some time in Iowa that there was a pilot program in your state about that. Could you -- Senator Thune and I have this bill called the Agriculture Data Act to better get more information and data for our farmers. Do you agree that research and data are important tools, and can you commit to finish the pilot program in examining the additional research opportunities that we could use data. And the USDA is so important on that front.
Vilsack: Certainly we agree that data and research is important and as I said earlier, I think we need to up our game as it relates to the data and research in this area. I’m happy to take a look at the pilot and figure out ways in which I can be assisting and ways in which the benefits or the information from that pilot can be distributed throughout the countryside and to the extent replicated. One of the keys with cover crops is creating market opportunities to discover crops. It’s one thing to ask farmers to essentially put the cover crop on there for soil health, it’s another thing when we’re asking them to incur an additional expense. So I would hope we’d be able to figure out ways in which we could mitigate the impact financially by creating new markets or creating ways they can be incented or encouraged to do more cover cropping.
Sen. Klobuchar: Thank you. And last, Senator Cornyn and I included a provision in the 2018 Farm Bill creating a National Animal Vaccine and Veterinary Countermeasures Vaccine Bank and a program involving preparedness. As we’ve seen from this pandemic, which hasn’t hit our animals in any big way but it sure hit a lot of people. What are your plans for implementing and improving animal disease preparedness and response policies at USDA?
Vilsack: I think it’s fair to say there’s a connection -- that animal health and human health are connected. And we have to understand this is a one health system, and we need to make sure we are in a position to first and foremost be able to detect more quickly at the farmgate when there’s a problem so we can respond more quickly. We need to make sure we have in place appropriate quarantine efforts, we need to have in place the ability to identify the problem as quickly as possible. And to your point there needs to be the capacity to produce and/or store the vaccine to be able to respond quickly. Because the reality is if we don’t respond quickly, there is not just the risk to animals and to the markets, but there’s also a risk to people. And I think we have to understand the interconnection between the two.
Sen. Klobuchar: Thank you very much. And I’ll ask my questions on the record here too, on Cuba, you and I share an interest in continuing to work on production issues and trade with Cuba, as well as broadband and the CRP program. So thank you very much.
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