Energy & Environment

Democrats face big decision on agriculture in climate change fight

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Democrats face a tough choice in their efforts to reduce methane emissions, one of the most harmful greenhouse gases.

Their dilemma? Whether to impose any new restrictions on agriculture.

State economies in places like Iowa and Wisconsin are heavily reliant on the agriculture industry, and voters in rural areas have largely backed Republicans.

An aggressive move against agricultural emissions could benefit GOP candidates heading into the midterm elections, and Democrats will be hard pressed not to tackle methane emissions if they’re serious about reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

At the same time, some environmental advocates who align with Democrats say they are more focused on targeting the oil and gas industry, characterizing the efforts to reduce methane emissions in that sector as “low-hanging fruit.”

According to the EPA, methane is 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide when it comes to trapping heat in the atmosphere. But since it doesn’t linger as long as carbon dioxide, some environmentalists argue that focusing on methane could help the country meet its climate goals faster.

Methane is garnering fresh attention following a report by the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change which called for “strong, rapid and sustained reductions” in methane emissions to limit global warming.

A major climate component of Democrats’ $3.5 trillion reconciliation package will focus on reducing methane emissions, but instead of addressing agriculture, the provision is expected to focus on oil and gas. 

A spokesperson for Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) confirmed to The Hill that the “methane polluter fee” that’s slated to be part of the spending bill is likely to be similar to legislation the senator and other lawmakers introduced aiming to penalize oil and gas companies for excess emissions.

That approach would account for 9 percent of overall greenhouse gas emissions reductions in the $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill and $3.5 trillion Democratic-only measure.

Overall, Democrats say, the two bills would reduce emissions by 45 percent over the next decade when compared to 2005 levels.

At the regulatory level, the Environmental Protection Agency is expected to soon propose more comprehensive regulations on the use of methane by the oil and gas sector.

“Methane from the oil and gas sector is the low-hanging fruit. It’s so cost effective to reduce methane emissions from such a significant source that I think that it’s common sense for us to be looking at those emissions as ways to reduce greenhouse gas pollution,” said Dan Grossman, senior director for regulatory and legislative affairs at the Environmental Defense Fund.

“It is the cheapest, most effective, most certain way to achieve methane reductions…the reason for that is pretty simple and that is that methane — the pernicious greenhouse gas that it is —  is also the product that these companies are selling and so it makes methane mitigation all the most cost-effective if they can add more resources,” Grossman said.

Methane is the largest component of natural gas.

But, some argue that the government should be doing more to tackle methane emissions from various agricultural activities, which together make up the greatest share of U.S. methane emissions.

“[Agriculture] gets a pass and gets a loophole so much of the time, but industrial agriculture should be regulated like every other industry, especially when it comes to methane emissions,” said Amy van Saun, senior attorney at the Center for Food Safety, an advocacy group that opposes industrial agriculture.

“They’ve done a really good job at seeming like this old-timey pastoral can’t-do-any-wrong type industry. And there are plenty of farmers…who are doing things right, but Big Ag is certainly just as guilty as any other industry,” van Saun said.

From a political standpoint, though, imposing penalties on agricultural pollution is unpopular in many battleground states.

“Penalties on farmers whether it’s Ohio, or Wisconsin or Pennsylvania or Iowa is a political nonstarter for both parties,” said Sean Bagniewski, chair of Iowa’s Polk County Democrats. “If you want to talk about incentivizing better practices, that gets a lot more traction.”

Even if penalties were geared just toward factory farms, Bagniewski said, it could be difficult to draw a distinction between different types of farms.

“It’s hard to distinguish,” he said. “Agricultural policy in itself is, how do you distinguish what is a conglomerate of little farms or what’s a small farm, what’s a big farm, what’s a family farm, what’s a factory farm. It gets very tricky very quickly.”

Former Lt. Gov. Patty Judge (D), who unsuccessfully challenged Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) in 2016, said she didn’t think restrictions on factory farms would necessarily win any votes in a state like Iowa.

“Any time we are talking about more regulation you have to keep those issues in mind too and make certain that we don’t put our family farmers out of business,” she said, citing cost as a concern. “We want to make certain family farmers have the tools to succeed and that they are financially able to participate in programs to conserve soil and clean up the water.”

Democrats hope to reclaim two Iowa House seats that they lost last year, after winning them in 2018. They’re also looking to protect Rep. Cindy Axne, who won by just 1.4 percentage points in 2020.

In addition to those House seats, Democrats are also hoping to flip the Senate seat held by Grassley.

Judge said that Democrats next year will “need to work very, very hard in the rural parts of our state to make up some margins.”

Asked about the party’s prospects in the Senate race, she said, “I think it’s an uphill battle but that it’s doable.”

Tags Agriculture Chuck Grassley Cindy Axne Climate change Greenhouse gas emissions Iowa Methane methane emissions Ohio Pennsylvania Sheldon Whitehouse Wisconsin

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