Climate Policies Announced on Earth Day

Goal to Halve Emissions Before End of 2030 Pledged as Ag Climate Bill Advances

Chris Clayton
By  Chris Clayton , DTN Ag Policy Editor
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Cover crops such as cereal rye and no-till planting increase soil carbon. More farmers would be able to get technical assistance and be certified for a carbon credit program under the Growing Climate Solutions Act, which advanced out of committee in the Senate on Thursday. The Biden administration also used a climate summit on Earth Day to promote plans that would reduce U.S. emissions by 50%. (DTN photo by Pamela Smith)

OMAHA (DTN) -- With President Joe Biden pledging Thursday to cut U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in half by the end of the decade, roles continue to be carved out for biofuels, landowners, foresters and farmers along several parallel paths.

Some key specifics:

-- Biofuel groups are feeling better after seeing the president's plan mention "very low carbon, new generation renewable fuels" to help achieve rapid emission reductions in both the auto fleet and aviation. USDA also announced $18.4 million for 20 states to increase sales of higher biofuel blend volumes.

-- The Senate Agriculture Committee quickly advanced on a voice vote Thursday the Growing Climate Solutions Act, a bill that will create a certification program at USDA to set standards and help farmers qualify for a private carbon-market program.

-- While touting plans to increase Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) enrollment by 4 million acres, USDA leaders are also defending against criticisms a Biden plan called 30 x 30 -- conserving 30% of land and water by 2030. Republicans are increasingly raising complaints about federal land expansion, but U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack insisted the plan is not "a land grab."

BIOFUEL FORTUNES

After expressing fears the president's infrastructure plan leans too heavily on electric vehicles, biofuels groups said they were pleased the Biden administration included renewable fuels as part of a strategy to reduce carbon emissions by at least 50% before the end of 2030. The White House said the U.S. could reduce emissions by moving toward "very low carbon, new generation renewable fuels" for aviation, for instance.

Renewable Fuels Association President and CEO Geoff Cooper said biofuels already have made their mark on carbon reduction. Cooper said biofuels have helped lower emissions by nearly 1 billion tons since 2008.

"Renewable fuels can do far more than decarbonize aviation and other off-road markets," he said.

Emily Skor, CEO of Growth Energy, also said the industry deserves more credit for its ability to reduce emissions.

"Plant-based biofuels, like ethanol, have long been a key part of the nation's strategy to reduce carbon emissions," she said.

Brian Jennings, CEO of the American Coalition for Ethanol, said the Biden administration's initiative has the potential to expand biofuels markets around the world for U.S. producers. Ethanol and advanced biofuels can cut emissions by 50% compared to gasoline.

"Other countries have initiated national ethanol policies as part of their countries' global initiatives to decarbonize transportation fuels, and U.S. biofuel producers are ready to play a larger role in meeting these targets here and around the world."

Vilsack told reporters Thursday biofuels will help reduce emissions "on several levels." Beyond the Renewable Fuel Standard, for instance, the Department of Energy is setting a goal of using 36 billion gallons of bio-based fuels in aviation.

"The reality is we're going to continue to see combustion engines for quite some time in the future," Vilsack said. "Biofuels, we know, have a better greenhouse-gas impact or footprint than petroleum-based fuels. So, to the extent we can increase our blends of biofuels, that's going to have a benefit towards climate change and towards our reduction goals."

CLIMATE SOLUTIONS ACT

The Senate Agriculture Committee wasted little time Thursday passing the Growing Climate Solutions Act before holding a nomination hearing for Jewel Bronaugh to be USDA's deputy secretary. Senator Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., chair of the committee, said the bill now has 42 co-sponsors evenly split between the two parties. The bill, if it passes, could be among the first bipartisan climate-related bills to move through Congress.

The bill also helps "reduce emissions from forest and agriculture and enhance carbon sinks" as mentioned in the president's emissions pledge.

Dozens of agricultural groups back the bill.

Daren Coppock, president of the Agricultural Retailer Association, said the ag retailers can play a role in helping customers sort through the growing carbon marketplace to decide what's best for their farms. Coppock -- like many others in agriculture -- stressed that carbon credits should be voluntary and incentive-based.

"Agricultural practices will continue to play a key role in climate policy discussions, and it is essential that the ag retail industry is included in any climate-smart ag sustainability solutions," Coppock said.

For more details on the legislation, see "Groups Support Ag Carbon Credit Bill" at https://www.dtnpf.com/….

Even as the Senate Agriculture Committee cleared its bill, the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition and the Union of Concerned Scientists each praised another bill, the Agriculture Resilience Act, introduced by Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, and Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., and 16 House co-sponsors. That bill would increase investments in research and science, as well as conservation.

The National Association of Wheat Growers also announced a new "Special Climate and Sustainability Committee." The committee will report to NAWG's board with policy recommendations and options, the group stated.

30 X 30 CHALLENGES AND QUESTIONS

On a call touting some of USDA's initial climate initiatives, Secretary Vilsack pushed back on suggestions that the idea of conserving 30% of land and water in the country would lead to "land grabs." The 30 x 30 plan was initially mentioned in Biden's executive order on climate change in January. It requires USDA and the Department of Interior to form a task force to consult with stakeholders on how to do it.

Vilsack said USDA is doing a series of outreach efforts on conservation, including a public comment period going on now. Vilsack also stressed 30 x 30 can mean increasing conservation working lands.

"The president's executive order began this process and directed us to do outreach," Vilsack said. "And that's really what we're doing right now. And over a period of time following that outreach, this will give us the ability to understand how to best structure this. But I can assure you there is no intention of a land grab. There's no intention to take something away from folks. It's really designed to figure out creative and innovative ways to encourage folks to participate in what I think many farmers and ranchers have already been doing and may be inclined to do more if the right incentives are in place."

He added, "I can assure there is no intention to have a land grab."

In a hearing with Bronaugh, the nominee for deputy secretary, Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., told Bronaugh that farmers and ranchers in South Dakota are concerned that the Biden administration may use 30 x 30 to acquire more federal land or increase regulation.

Bronaugh replied in a similar fashion as Vilsack, stating that 30 x 30 would also apply to private working lands -- on a voluntary basis. "We need to keep working lands working," she said.

Thune responded, "Land acquisition shouldn't be part of this conversation."

A group of Republican governors this week also wrote Biden with their concerns about 30 x 30. To read more about that, see "Western Drought Task Force and 30 x 30 Skepticism from GOP Governors" at https://www.dtnpf.com/….

Vilsack also talked Thursday about USDA's plans to increase CRP enrollment by 4 million acres, as DTN highlighted here: https://www.dtnpf.com/….

CCC DEBATE REMAINS

Sen. Mike Braun, R-Ind., an initial co-sponsor of the Growing Climate Solutions Act, also told Bronaugh in the hearing that bipartisanship on climate change would break down if USDA moved ahead with plans to create a carbon bank using Commodity Credit Corp. funds.

"It would set us back significantly," Braun said.

Speaking again to reporters, Vilsack said USDA would "take a look at other tools" such as CCC funds to expand conservation programs. In doing so, USDA would ensure any program would boost support for farmers or ranchers without compromising funding for traditional farm bill programs. Vilsack pointed to the Western drought as an area where CCC funds could address climate resiliency and conservation.

"So, whatever is done, it needs to be done in a way that doesn't compromise our capacity to do our job and to make sure that the farm bill programs that are in place are adequately and fully funded and available for farmers," Vilsack said.

DTN Reporter Todd Neeley contributed to this report.

Chris Clayton can be reached at Chris.Clayton@dtn.com

Follow him on Twitter @ChrisClaytonDTN

Chris Clayton