Lawmakers seek broader U.S. biomass-for-biofuel list

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Farm-state lawmakers on Wednesday asked the Obama administration to back a broader definition of biomass for use in renewable fuels, an issue entangled with congressional action on climate change.

Some lawmakers from rural districts say they will not support the climate bill without a more favorable treatment of biofuels, such as an expansive definition of biomass. The climate bill is a top priority for House Democratic leaders.

During a House Agriculture subcommittee hearing, Jeff Fortenberry, a Nebraska Republican, asked if the administration supported a broad definition.

“The (Agriculture) Department and the administration are still working our their position,” replied USDA deputy undersecretary Jay Jensen.

Rep Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, a South Dakota Democrat, said the administration should “take a position to meet the goal we’ve set” for producing fuel ethanol from cellulose, found in grass and wood.

Without a broad definition, she said, ethanol makers will not have enough raw material meet the goal of producing 16 billion gallons a year of cellulosic ethanol by 2022.

“I think it should be at the very least the farm bill definition,” Sandlin told reporters later.

A Congressional Research Service report says the 2008 farm law includes biomass from federal land as biofuel feedstock. The 2007 energy law excludes biomass from federal lands and crops from forested land. The CRS study says the two laws have the most comprehensive definitions for energy production purposes.

The 2008 farm law defines renewable biomass as organic material available on a recurring basis including agricultural commodities, plants and trees, algae and waste material from crops, animals and food. It also allows use of “materials, pre-commercial clippings or invasive species” from national forests and federal land.

A more restrictive definition appears in the 2007 law that mandates use of renewable fuels. It says renewable biomass is crops and crop residue from farm land in use when the law took effect; trees and tree residue from plantations on nonfederal land in use when the law took effect; and algae, yard and food waste, and biomass collected near buildings.

Meanwhile, Agriculture Committee chairman Collin Peterson told reporters that Democratic leaders are making an effort to address the farm-state complaints. The main issues are the biomass definition and how to measure if biofuels reduce green house gases sufficiently.

Peterson indicated the Agriculture Committee might not try to amend the climate bill, a potential vehicle for changing ethanol rules.

Reporting by Charles Abbott; Editing by David Gregorio