Farm groups want offsets on emissions

Behind the House Agriculture Committee’s criticism of the climate change bill are farmers and ranchers who want more assurance they’ll get credit — and money — for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

A key issue is who values so-called carbon offsets: the farm-friendly U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) or the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), a federal body that farmers say is often antagonistic to their interests. Offsets are carbon-reducing efforts designed to counterbalance emissions at the smokestack or tailpipe.

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Committee Chairman Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) wants USDA to decide what offsets qualify and could be sold in the carbon market. He claims he can deliver up to 45 votes against the bill unless his concerns are addressed, a potentially steep hurdle for the measure, which was authored by House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.).

Rick Krause of the American Farm Bureau Federation said determining which federal agency measures offsets is critical to his group.

“The Ag Department really understands agriculture and farmers. They work with people. EPA has had more of a confrontational approach with farmers,” he said.

Under the bill, a utility could invest in a reforestation project to help it meet emissions targets because trees suck carbon dioxide out the air. The EPA would certify the carbon savings offered by an offset. That credit could then be traded in the marketplace alongside emissions allowances, and could potentially be another commodity farmers sell, just like corn or soybeans.

Environmental groups, many of which already are skeptical that offsets will provide the promised carbon savings, oppose the push by ag groups.

Erich Pica of Friends of the Earth said USDA has functioned as a “captured agency by the farm lobby” and wouldn’t provide sufficient oversight. EPA is much more likely to apply a tough standard to offset programs, he said.

The farm lobby has already won one battle in the climate bill. Emissions on the farm — from tractors to methane-spewing waste lagoons — are not covered in the legislation.

Still, the Farm Bureau, the National Corn Growers Association and other ag groups worry the climate bill will increase energy and supply costs on the farm. Money from the sale of offsets could help make up for those higher costs, Krause said.

Farmers say no-till farming, a practice that doesn’t disturb the soil, should be recognized. No-till farming reduces the amount of erosion, and because soils also contain carbon, should be valued as an offset, Krause said.

But an EPA estimate of the costs of the Waxman-Markey bill included no revenues for no-till farming practices, according to Krause, which leads him to believe the EPA would not recognize no-till farming as an offset. Some research has found that no-till farming does not save carbon.

Farmers want a generous offset market because they fear rising energy costs will be particularly hard on them, given the energy-intensive nature of farming. A climate change bill is also likely to increase demand for natural gas, which is not as carbon-intensive as coal. That could raise the costs for fertilizer, which is made from a natural gas feedstock.

Krause said his group has yet to make significant progress in getting its concerns about the climate bill addressed.

“We hope that the Ag Committee will help us out on these issues,” he said.