Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Farm groups, rural electrics, ethanol and Vilsack prevail in talks that move climate-change bill

Farm groups, rural electric cooperatives, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and ethanol producers came out the winners in negotiations that have scheduled the bill to fight climate change for a Friday vote in the House.

The co-ops, which get 80 percent of their electricity by burning coal, will get a break on emission allowances, though not as much as they and other small, coal-dependent utilities wanted. "The bill gives 0.5 percent of all emission allowances to small utilities that produce less than 4 million megawatt hours of electricity annually," reports Darren Goode of Congress Daily. "The concern has been that these smaller utilities would have to purchase surplus emission allocations given to larger, cleaner utilities on the coasts. But now the bill distributes excess allowances to all local electricity distribution companies based on their emissions."

The part of the deal that got the most media attention will give Vilsack's Department of Agriculture the authority to award carbon credits to farmers and landowners for agricultural and forestry practices that leave more carbon in the ground and thus prevent emission of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas blamed for global warming. Farm groups and Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson of Minnesota pushed hard for the change, which Vilsack also wanted. "Environmentalists and the bill's main sponsors feared that the Agriculture Department might use lax standards, which would blow a hole through the nationwide cap on carbon dioxide emissions," reports Steven Mufson of The Washington Post.

Allison Winter's story for ClimateWire and The New York Times reflected the same concerns in greater detail, but also the other side. "Some advocates for farmland conservation programs say that USDA's work in the field and its relationships with farmers could make the difference in actually getting a carbon offset program off the ground," she wrote, quoting American Farmland Trust lobbyist Dennis Nuxoll: "If the objective is to sequester carbon and turn around the situation on the planet, if that is the objective ... then we have to get practical, and one of the practical things is to encourage that behavior," said "We have got to have people that farmers trust, in all honesty, that is the U.S. Department of Agriculture, not the Environmental Protection Agency."

As part of their anti-EPA push, Peterson and farm groups objected to "a recent EPA proposal to take international land-use changes into account when determining the greenhouse gas emissions of corn-based ethanol," Goode notes. The bill's chief sponsor, Rep. Henry Waxman of California, "agreed to suspend that proposal for five years to allow for a federal study on the issue and time for Congress to weigh in. That study -- likely to be done by the National Academy of Sciences -- would have to be approved by EPA and the Energy and Agriculture departments. But the heart of the deal for Peterson is that USDA would have veto power 'if they didn't agree where that study was heading,' he said." (Read more)

Looking ahead to debate in the Senate, where rural states have more influence, Majority Leader Harry Reid has added Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin to talks among Democrats about the bill. "Agriculture is going to have a seat at the table," Harkin told Alexander Bolton of The Hill, who also quotes Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska: “Every farm-state senator is aware of what the cap-and-trade proposals could do to their agriculture base. ... Agriculture is a big user of electricity. There’s a recognition that when electricity costs go up it can add, in some cases, tens of thousands of dollars in costs at a time when commodity prices are not what they were. So we have to be very concerned.” (Read more)

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