Washington Editor

WASHINGTON - For the second straight year, President Bush boosted the biofuels sector during his State of the Union Address.

Calling on the country to "continue investing in new methods of producing ethanol" through wood chips, grasses and agricultural waste, he laid out a few specific goals that he said would "diversify America's energy supply." Among them, Bush called on Congress to require 35 billion gallons of renewable and alternative fuels by 2017 - almost five times the currently mandated 2012 target - and reduce gasoline usage by 20 percent in that same timeframe.

Biofuel backers at the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) said the president's continuing endorsements would encourage private investment into those efforts. Its executive vice president, Brent Erickson, said Bush's words send "a dramatically positive signal" to myriad interests.

Companies in the space are seeking various forms of government support, such as research and development funding, loan guarantees for building plants and help in creating market demand. Mechanisms for developing the latter include renewable fuel standards and an off-take agreement in which the government would buy the first billion gallons of cellulosic ethanol.

Much of that remains unfunded, though, because of Congress' failure last year to pass a new budget, which included money for the 2005 Energy Policy Act that incorporated such provisions. It's not expected to be funded this year either - Congress is likely to maintain a continuing resolution that's floating government operations at last year's levels - so attention is turning to the coming budget proposal.

But a number of critics have charged that increased American biofuel consumption would be paralleled by more and more use of fossil fuels in the U.S., arguing that government biofuel subsidies wouldn't pay off. Instead, many said tighter energy economy standards are a more appropriate answer to oil import dependence.

Nevertheless, two cellulosic ethanol plants are being built in the Midwest and should be operating by 2009 to produce a combined 125 million gallons of the fuel. In addition, at least four demonstration plants are in the works. BIO has said that all 50 states can produce some form of cellulosic ethanol feedstock.

FDA Shuffles Upper Management

The FDA made a pair of high-level personnel changes, naming Janet Woodcock to head the newly created office of chief medical officer and appointing John Dyer its deputy commissioner for operations and the agency's chief operating officer.

Woodcock, who most recently had been the FDA's deputy commissioner for operations, will in her new capacity oversee scientific and planning-related operations. She has been with the agency for more than 20 years.

Dyer, who most recently served as the chief operating officer at the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, will focus on strengthening the FDA's management, business processes and information technology.

Ex-Rep Joins Lobbying Group

Former Rep. Nancy Johnson (R-Conn.), who most recently chaired the health subcommittee of the House Ways and Means Committee before losing in last November's election, has been hired by the firm Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz PC. A 12-term congresswoman held in high regard on Medicare matters, she will focus primarily on health care issues.