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Senate climate bill: ag unimpressed

Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman, and California Sen. Barbara Boxer, chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, last week released a long-awaited, 800-page climate change bill that largely focuses on carbon sequestration through a cap and trade system.

While environmentalists largely embraced the new bill, agriculture advocacy groups — who had pushed successfully for a more farm-friendly House bill that passed earlier this summer — quickly derided it.

While continuing to claim cap and trade would cause energy prices to sharply rise, agriculture advocates pointed out the Senate legislation would require more robust greenhouse gas emissions cuts: 20 percent by 2020 versus the House bill’s 17 percent.

Also of great concern to agriculture is that unlike the House bill, which put clear jurisdiction over a cap and trade system under the USDA, the Kerry/Boxer offering would move that jurisdiction to the president.

The new bill calls for total allowable offsets to be set at 2 billion tons annually. Further, apparently in a nod towards preventing fraud, the bill calls for a new Justice Department office tasked with ensuring — through sanctions, if necessary — that carbon credits are actually trapping problem gasses.

In addition, the Senate bill does not include provisions included in the House bill aimed at protecting the biodiesel industry from carbon standards passed in 2007.

“America’s farmers and ranchers did not fare that well in the House-passed climate change bill and they fare even worse in the Senate bill,” said Bob Stallman, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF). “There are few benefits and even greater costs to agriculture and the American public.”

The House bill, continued Stallman, at least included credits “to farmers for carbon-storing or carbon management practices. The Senate bill does not guarantee any benefits to agriculture for carbon sequestration.”

Another major concern, according to an AFBF statement, is the Boxer/Kerry bill “would not prevent the EPA from continuing to move forward to fully regulate all greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act.

“The bill also does nothing to provide alternative sources of energy to fill the energy deficit left by the reduction in fossil fuels, nor does it prevent the EPA from using controversial indirect land use principles that penalize ethanol.”

In an interview with Farm Press shortly after the Kerry/Boxer bill was released, Arkansas Sen. Blanche Lincoln, chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, was asked about pending cap and trade legislation.

“We probably will have a few more hearings,” said Lincoln. “After the first two hearings — and before I was chairman — I felt there was a need for more. And now as chairman, I definitely feel we need a couple more. There’s an opportunity to help improve the bill.”

While she hadn’t had a chance to “dig into” the Kerry/Boxer bill, “I feel they’ll give (the Senate Agriculture Committee) an opportunity to mark up a piece of our own in terms of an ag title.”

Asked about chances of climate legislation passing this year, Lincoln said, “Our plate is awfully full. If we’re going to get it right, we need to make sure to take our time, work hard and get it right. That isn’t just for climate change (legislation) but also healthcare reform, financial regulatory reform, child nutrition and all the other things on our plate.

“I don’t think it’s a secret that the House-passed climate change bill can’t pass the Senate.”

Lincoln promised her evaluation of the Kerry/Boxer bill will be “thorough” and the Senate Agriculture Committee will “see how we can add to it in terms of improvements for agriculture and make sure it’s acceptable. Without that, it certainly won’t be acceptable to me.

“We can certainly curb greenhouse gas emissions by moving forward on legislation that focuses on renewable energy, conservation, energy efficiency. But, quite frankly, we’ve already done that — the Senate Energy Committee produced a tremendously good, bipartisan bill. If people want to shorten the distance we’ve got to run, they’d look at that bill and partner it with a companion tax incentive bill that I think could be very productive.”

It is worth noting that on the same day the Senate draft bill was released, Lisa Jackson, EPA administrator, proposed new rules to regulate power plant emissions and those from other large industrial sources.

“We’re not going to continue with business as usual any longer,” said Jackson. “We have the tools and the technology to move forward today, and we are using them.”

In many quarters, the timing of the announcement was seen as a clear message of President Obama’s desire that a climate deal in Congress be worked out quickly. The suspected reason? A major climate conference with world leaders is scheduled for December in Copenhagen.

Now, whether Congress passes climate legislation or not, by putting through new EPA emission rules the president won’t have to go to the conference with empty hands.

In a recent interview with Farm Press Bob Young, AFBF chief economist, was unmoved by those clamoring for a deal to take to Denmark.

“Why do we even have to have something to take?” said Young. “Let’s just go, sit down and have conversations. Let’s see what other countries are willing to do. If they aren’t willing to do anything that should be a strong signal to us.

“If they say, ‘We won’t do anything until the United States moves,’ then we can write legislation based on that. Something with off-ramps and things of that nature built in.

“I just don’t see that conference as being a legitimate push for us to say, ‘We’ve got to go write new law today.’”

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