Opinion: Op-Eds

Federal biofuels panel packed with 'green' subsidy winners

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Lachlan Markay,Op-Eds

Members of a federal interagency biofuel advisory committee have seen millions in taxpayer dollars funneled to their companies in grants and contracts since being appointed to the panel, an investigation by the Heritage Foundation has revealed.

The synergy between the committee's membership and the financing decisions of the Energy and Agriculture departments, which lead the federal biofuel effort and whose representatives co-chair the committee, raise serious conflict of interest questions, and further fuel perceptions of insider dealing within the administration's "green energy" push.

The Biomass Research and Development Board was created by the Biomass Research and Development Act of 2000. The Board coordinates the federal government's policy with respect to biofuels in, among other products, an annual report to the Secretaries of Agriculture and Energy containing its recommendations. The Board includes a Technical Advisory Committee with representatives from industry and academia.

The San Francisco-based company Solazyme made headlines in December when the Navy and the Ag Department jointly announced that the former would purchase biofuels from the company for up to $15 a gallon. Less reported was the presence of Solazyme Co-founder and President Harrison Dillon on the panel advising Agriculture on the adoption of biofuels.

Solazyme denied that Dillon's work on the committee had any impact on the contract award. And while a spokesman for the company noted that the contract came not from Agriculture but from the Department of Defense, DOD is in fact one of eight "participating agencies" behind the biomass board. The Pentagon describes its push to adopt biofuels as "a joint initiative" between the Defense, Agriculture and Energy departments.

The Navy biofuels deal also steered federal dollars to a company called Dynamic Fuels, which manufactures biofuels from used cooking oil. Dynamic is a joint venture of Syntroleum Corp. and Tyson Foods. Sitting on the biofuel advisory committee is Robert Ames. Ames was Tyson's vice president in charge of commercializing the company's renewable energy projects, including Dynamic Fuels, when the contract went through. In January 2012, Solazyme hired him as its vice president of fuels commercialization.

Advisory committee member William Provine, now the director of Science and Technology External Affairs at DuPont, was until April 2012 a board member at Butamax Advanced Biofuels, a joint venture of DuPont and BP. In 2010, Butamax announced an $8.8 million cost-sharing agreement with DOE for the production of a sugar-based biofuel called isobutanol.

DOE has steered massive sums to Archer Daniels Midland for biofuel-related projects since the committee's creation. ADM landed a $99.2 million contract in 2010, for carbon sequestration technology for biofuel producers. The year before, it got a $24.8 million grant to develop and commercialize advanced biofuels. Meanwhile, Todd Werpy, ADM's vice president for Biofuels and Biochemical Research, sat on the advisory committee.

In October 2011, DOE announced up to $4 million in grants for LanzaTech, whose CEO sits on the advisory committee, to develop a biofuel called butadiene. The same month, ArborGen, whose then-vice president of product development had a seat on the committee, got $6.3 million from DOE to develop wood-based biofuels.

None of the companies involved responded to my queries, with the exceptions of Solazyme and ArborGen, which noted that the employee in question had left in February.

Lachlan Markay is an investigative reporter for the Heritage Foundation's Center for Media and Public Policy.

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