By Jim Snyder - 10/04/09 12:12 PM EDT
The Senate climate bill is receiving critical reviews from agriculture groups who have powerful friends on Capitol Hill.
Groups like The American Farm Bureau and the National Corn Growers Association say one of their biggest problems with the bill is how it addresses carbon offsets, which could be a boon to farmers that switch to farm methods that lower carbon emissions.
Offsets are projects that remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere or otherwise limit emissions outside of a regulated company’s smokestack or manufacturing facility. A project to plant trees would qualify because trees remove CO2.
Offsets are one way to keep energy costs in check by making it easier for emitters to comply with the new standards. But environmental groups worry that some won’t yield their promised climate benefits.
Rick Krause, a lobbyist at the Farm Bureau, said the Senate bill only encourages that agricultural practices be considered as offsets, whereas the House bill authored by Reps. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and Edward Markey (D-Mass.) guarantees they do.
The Senate bill “is a step backward from the House bill,” said Krause, whose group also opposed the House measure.
Another area of concern is what federal agency should define an offset – the Environmental Protection Agency or the United States Department of Agriculture.
The issue held up the House climate bill too. Eventually Waxman and Markey yielded to farm state concerns expressed by House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) and gave the authority to the USDA.
The Senate bill, though, tries to split the difference, giving the president the power to decide which agency will have ultimate authority.
It would also establish an offset integrity board that will recommend what projects can qualify. And it limits the amount of offsets that can be purchased outside the United States, although the overall number of offsets is the same in the House and Senate bill.
Jon Doggett, vice president of public policy at the National Corn Growers Association, said farmers were already worried about the impacts of the bill. He said his members would “feel more comfortable” if USDA oversaw the offset program.
Doggett said his group is working with Sen. Debbie Stabenow’s (D-Mich.) office on language to ease their concerns with climate legislation. His group also plans to release a study about the effects the House climate bill would have on agriculture.
He noted that the Senate bill leaves a placeholder for additional agriculture provisions. “This is something we are going to have to continue to push,” Doggett said.
The American Farm Bureau Federation released a statement Friday saying it “strongly opposed” the Senate bill, co-sponsored by Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.).
The Farm Bureau also objects to the fact that the Senate bill does not address its concerns that the EPA will measure so-called “indirect land use” changes when calculating the greenhouse gas emissions of corn ethanol. The calculation has the potential to raise ethanol’s carbon footprint and could hurt the fuel’s producers. The House bill calls for additional study of the land use issue.
Farmers are exempt from having to comply with the carbon caps in the bill. But they worry the cap could push energy and fertilizer prices higher.
Proponents of the legislation say offsets could be a boon for farmers. Farmers who switch to no-till farming or leave some ground fallow may be able to sell offset credits to emitters. The National Farmers Union supported the House bill.
Craig Cox, Midwest vice president at the Environmental Working Group, noted governmental studies by EPA and USDA that found the projected costs of the climate bill will be negligible.
“Climate change is going to cost farms much more than the climate bill,” Cox said, by extending droughts, raising temperatures and increasing the frequency of severe weather.