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Fill ‘Er Up … With Grass and Twigs?

Seattle-Tacoma International Airport served as a dramatic backdrop today for an announcement by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack that  delivers $136 million in research and development grants to public and  private sector partners in 22 states. In short, the grants look to make energy for autos and marine and jet crafts from plants. By unlocking that potential—known as bioenergy—Vilsack said a “next-generation of biofuels” would create new economies in rural areas across the United States. Eventually, these regional, renewable energy markets will generate sustainable jobs and decrease America’s dependence on foreign oil. And that future, said Vilsack, is closer than we think.

“This is an opportunity to take woody biomass from our forests to create fuel for jets to fly anywhere in the world,” said Vilsack. “This is a great day for our country. We’re building something new, creating jobs everywhere in the country.”

Outside, under a shimmering morning sun, planes taxied in neat rows up and down and across the airfield. Jets climbed sharply into the sky and glided smoothly down to the Sea-Tac runway. The sheer power needed to propel an aircraft into flight is staggering, but researchers from universities in Washington, Iowa, Louisiana, Tennessee and elsewhere believe they have cracked the code to harness that energy. Inside the airport, gathered with Vilsack, leaders from academia, government and businesses were excited to get this project started, which is estimated to help create 23,000 jobs across the Northwest.

Energy from plant materials may hold only vague meaning for many Americans. But biofuels, when mixed with the gas that powers our cars and trucks, saved drivers almost 90 cents per gallon at the pump last year and supported hundreds of thousands of American jobs.  Moving forward, new sources of renewable energy could be game-changers: reducing the influence that foreign nations have in setting our fuel prices, and creating thousands of good-paying new jobs, particularly in our rural communities.

Americans know that reducing our dependence on foreign oil will mean greater security for our economy and our nation.  But to squeeze the available energy from trees, tall grasses and slash—or forest waste—and turn it into usable fuel requires the efforts of our brightest scientists, our best companies, and strategic investments in research.

At USDA, we want to help regions identify if they are candidates to benefit from the bioenergy economy given their capacity to grow the plant materials needed and appropriate regional infrastructure to use it. When local communities move forward with projects to produce biofuels, it means jobs and wealth for the region. Construction workers must build the bioenergy facilities. Trained employees will operate them. And local farmers or forest-owners will be paid for the feedstocks needed to produce the fuel.

That’s what Vilsack means when he says USDA is helping to establish “regional energy markets”—he means small engines of growth dotting the rural landscape across the country.

When President Obama outlined his vision for a new energy future for the nation, he challenged Americans to cut our imports of foreign oil by one third by 2025. He understands, as does Vilsack, there is no sense in paying $300 billion a year for imported oil. We should be spending more of those hard-earned dollars right here at home, creating jobs in the process. It is an opportunity we can’t afford to miss.

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