Washington Insider -- Thursday

USDA Denies Climate Change Censorship

Here’s a quick monitor of Washington farm and trade policy issues from DTN’s well-placed observer.

Farm Bill Timing is Moving Target

When we'll have the next farm bill remains uncertain as key farm-state senators continue to offer many timelines for when it will be ready.

The timeline is particularly murky when one views recent farm bill action, or inaction. House Agriculture Committee Chairman Mike Conaway, R., Texas, initially said he wants a new farm bill in place by the end of this year, but recently has noted it could take into the first quarter of 2018. The Senate has suggested it wants to finish a bill by the end of the year, with Sen. Chuck Grassley, R., Iowa, saying his talks with farm bill leaders signal a bill "by Christmas" this year.

However, with funding needs growing for requested changes to the 2014 Farm Bill, some are upping their odds of a significant impasse among some key farm-state lawmakers. If so, they say, there could be a need for a one-year extension of the current farm bill in order for a new farm bill to be completed later.

The later-rather-than-sooner timeline argument usually points to what Senate Agriculture Committee Ranking Member Debbie Stabenow, D., Mich., will do during the farm bill debate. “If she does not get what she wants,” one veteran farm bill watcher said, “she will make that an issue in her upcoming re-election” and thus “the farm bill timeline would linger.”

EPA Counters Criticism of WOTUS Economic Analysis

An economic analysis of the Obama-era Waters of the U.S. (WOTUS) rule undertaken by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) relied on permitting data from years after the economic recession ended, the agency said, countering accusations its analysis was limited to the period when the downturn was taking place.

EPA's study of the 2015 rule's costs and benefits was more comprehensive than critics claimed, Al McGartland, head of the agency's National Center for Environmental Economics, told Bloomberg BNA. Critics have alleged EPA relied on permitting data from two years during the economic recession, when construction and manufacturing would have been at their lowest, in its study of costs and benefits of the rule. EPA used that same data when it issued the rule in 2015 and again this year as the Trump administration proposed reworking the rule.

EPA did use permitting data from Fiscal 2009 and 2010 when it initially proposed the rule, McGartland acknowledged. But the agency relied on five years of data for the economic analysis of the final rule. The updated analysis for the 2015 final rule came in response to criticism from the Waters Advocacy Coalition, an industry-led coalition of manufacturers, farmers, miners, road builders and businesses that had hired David Sunding, of the University of California, Berkeley, to critique the analysis of the proposal.

"In fact, to ensure EPA did not understate permit activity, EPA looked at the range of permitting activity from 2009 through 2014 and used the maximum number of permits in any given year," McGartland said. Specifically, the analysis calculated the overall impact by using the maximum number of individual permits to dredge and fill wetlands and streams that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers issued in Fiscal 2009 and the maximum number of general permits issued in 2013, McGartland added.

Washington Insider: USDA Denies Climate Change Censorship

New administrations are notoriously sensitive about what is being said by the big work forces they now command—sort of. For example, Politico is reporting that two headlines on Monday centered on the climate change debate have generated fears of government censorship.

The first, published Monday morning by The Guardian, suggested USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service has instructed staff to avoid using the term "climate change." The report drew an immediate repudiation from USDA.

The second was the unpublished government report on climate change leaked to and published by The New York Times this week. That report "placed human activity at the center of a rise in temperatures in the U.S. since 1980 that has made recent decades the warmest in the past 1,500 years," Politico said.

Politico seems to think this controversy may have legs, in part because the Guardian published a series of emails by career conservation service officials indicating the term "climate change" was a no-no and that "weather extremes" should be used instead. The phrase "build organic soil matter," the emails revealed, was preferred to "reduce greenhouse gases."

In addition, the Feb. 16 memo from Bianca Moebius-Clune, director of NRCS’ soil health division, also instructed staff to talk about how soil health increases opportunities for economic and business growth and production efficiency.

USDA officials were quick to push back, Politico says. USDA spokesman Tim Murtaugh claimed that “there has never been a directive to NRCS regarding the term ‘climate change’" and that it was unclear why the career officials behind the memos had raised the issue with its staff. A spokesman for NRCS backed Murtaugh and argued that "The Natural Resources Conservation Service has not received direction from USDA or the administration to modify its communications on climate change or any other topic."

Politico reported that an internet check did not clear up "whether NRCS officials have curbed use of certain sensitive terms since earlier this year." It observes that USDA’s conservation arm still has a web site page on climate change that highlights adaptation and mitigation efforts. “Climate change poses environmental, social, and agricultural challenges that require adaptation measures to help human and natural systems adjust to new or changing climatic patterns,” NRCS says on the site.

Politico also thinks there likely are more language-related, "climate change eggshells" facing government agencies and that the Trump administration’s stance on climate change and actions on scientific issues has the environmental and scientific community

"permanently on edge." As a result, "it’s not surprising that the emails, which don’t seem to include any transition officials, would cause a stir."

President Trump has long questioned the existence of climate change and has been mum on whether he thinks it is caused by humans. The administration also has changed climate-change-related webpages for EPA and other government agencies to reflect skepticism about the science.

In that context, Politico notes that the interagency report published by the New York Times Monday night concluded that Americans are already seeing serious effects of climate change and that human activity is a significant contributor to rising temperatures--findings that seem to “run counter to the Trump administration’s position.”

It is true that the new climate report is being watched intently by the press to determine the administration’s reaction. Clearly, both key findings and conclusions that run contrary to administration views should be watched closely by producers, as well as by USDA climate related agencies, Washington Insider believes.

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