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US: Farm lobby divided over climate bill

Cracks are emerging within the powerful farm lobby, as the agriculture community fractures over the sweeping climate and energy bill expected to be taken up by the Senate this fall.

Splits among farm advocates exploded into the open last week during a Senate Agriculture Committee hearing about climate legislation.

In testimony before the committee last Wednesday, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said the benefits of the legislation would eventually outweigh the costs and that annual returns to farmers who participate in programs to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions could reach almost $20 billion by 2050.

"I believe there are significant opportunities for landowners in a cap-and-trade program that can help revitalize rural America through the creation of jobs and wealth," Vilsack told the committee.

But Sen. Mike Johanns (R-Neb.), who was agriculture secretary during the Bush administration, had a different take on the legislation.

"Different studies come up with varying numbers, but they all paint the same picture: Agriculture loses," Johanns said in a speech on the Senate floor last week.

That divide is echoed among farm lobbying groups, which are split over climate and energy legislation that would create a cap-and-trade system to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

"Splits over farm policy are becoming deeper and more intense and more passionately fought," said Craig Cox, the Midwest vice president of the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit environmental research group. "Issues outside of the traditional realm of farm policy, like energy and climate change, are exacerbating or multiplying the splits."

The climate and energy bill passed by the House in late June allows polluters to buy "offsets," essentially paying to implement carbon-reduction programs on farms or forests. The offsets reduce the total greenhouse gas emissions of the polluters, allowing them to stay under the emissions cap, and give farmers an additional revenue stream. Under a deal negotiated by Rep. Collin Peterson (D-Minn.), chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, the USDA, instead of the Environmental Protection Agency, would oversee the offset program.

The House legislation would cap the annual amount of domestic offsets, but, in the Senate, Peterson and farm lobbyists are pushing to include unlimited offsets. They'd like to increase opportunities for farmers to earn offset credits for programs they already have in place, a practice that supporters call "stacking credits" and that opponents deride as double-dipping. Farm lobbyists are also pushing the Senate to provide a percentage of free allowances to the agricultural sector to help cushion the economic impact on farmers and to fund the development of new technologies to increase production efficiencies.

"It's got a long ways to go," said Peterson, who has been meeting with other senators in a bid to strengthen the agricultural provisions in the Senate version of the legislation. "They're going to take everything I did and try to build on it some."

Though most farm lobbyists see offsets as a lucrative revenue stream for at least some agriculture producers, not all back the legislation. The divide largely stems from whether farm groups believe global warming is a major threat to agriculture. One key group -- the American Farm Bureau Federation -- believes that higher fuel, fertilizer and other costs resulting from climate legislation could hurt farmers more than higher temperatures. "We just don't think that the costs are going to outweigh any money that you get from offsets," said Rick Krause, senior director of congressional relations for the AFBF.

But the National Farmers Union, which represents roughly 250,000 farm families, believes that changed weather patterns stemming from global warming could have a significant impact on farmers' livelihoods.

"Models of climate change scenarios demonstrate increased frequency of heat stress, droughts and flooding events that will reduce crop yield and livestock productivity," NFU President Roger Johnson said in testimony before the Senate Agriculture Committee. "Today is an opportunity to emphasize that America's farmers and ranchers can be, and want to be, part of the solution to global climate change."

Smaller groups are split over how the offsets would affect their industries.

Cotton, potato, fruit and vegetable growers might see less benefit from offsets than would wheat and corn growers, farm lobbyists say.

"If there are certain significant segments that aren't going to be included in this thing, that's part of our decision-making process," Kraus said.

The NFU is lobbying for the legislation to include resources for farmers who have a tougher time participating in offset programs.

Other differences have arisen over a proposal that would increase the minimum amount of ethanol mixed into gasoline from 10 percent per gallon to 15 percent. Farmers are pushing the proposal, which would increase the market for ethanol, but ranchers fear higher feed and fuel costs.

Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), chairman of the Agriculture Committee, is considering inserting language in the climate bill that would raise the minimum blend to 15 percent -- even if that means overriding a decision by EPA, which is currently reviewing the proposal.

"It is my feeling that EPA has a strong bias against ethanol," he told reporters earlier this month. "But we can also legislate it. We can legislate a change."

Source: www.mysouthwestga.com

Publication date: 7/30/2009


 


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