Ag Climate Bill Crushes Senate Vote

Senators Overwhelmingly Approve Climate Bill for Ag Carbon Program

Chris Clayton
By  Chris Clayton , DTN Ag Policy Editor
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USDA would set up conservation programs to provide technical support for farmers to sign up for carbon markets under a bipartisan bill that passed the Senate on Wednesday. The carbon programs would reward farmers for implementing climate-smart practices such as cover crops. (DTN file photo)

OMAHA (DTN) -- The U.S. Senate on Thursday voted 92-8 to pass legislation that will create a carbon-credit certification program at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The vote demonstrated high support among lawmakers to help farmers qualify for carbon sequestration markets that reduce emissions and sequester carbon in the soil.

The Growing Climate Solutions Act will create a USDA certification program to provide technical assistance for farmers, ranchers and forest owners to enroll in a carbon-credit program. The department will provide guidance to farmers on how to qualify for carbon programs as well as establish protocols for carbon markets.

The legislation comes as a growing number of companies have started enrolling farmers in carbon sequestration programs to pay for farming practices that minimize tillage and increase organic matters in the soil. Other programs help famers reduce their inputs such as fertilizer to lower a farm's carbon footprint.

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The bill also includes an advisory committee USDA will set up, with farmers and ranchers making up the majority of members. The bill also includes $4 million in startup funds for USDA's program.

A companion bill has been introduced in the House, but that chamber has not acted on the legislation. The large bipartisan vote in the Senate will likely help accelerate movement in the House. As if to indicate USDA is up to the task for such a program, the department on Thursday announced a $10 million pilot project through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) to help famers in 10 states implement practices to sequester carbon and reduce emissions. Farmers and livestock producers in Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Montana, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin would be eligible to enroll.

"Farmers, ranchers and forest landowners are the best stewards of our lands and waters, and they play a critical role in climate change mitigation," said Gloria Montano Greene, USDA's deputy undersecretary for farm production and conservation. "We will use this EQIP signup to deliver support for implementing critical climate-smart conservation practices to producers in key states, with plans to leverage lessons learned and further support national climate change mitigation efforts later this calendar year."

The Growing Climate Solutions Act passed after an attempt by Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, to amend the bill on the Senate floor. Lee sought to stem USDA's authority to get involved in carbon markets, saying the legislation would "insert the federal government into a market by imposing burdensome regulation and picking winners and losers in the carbon credit marketplace." Still, Lee's amendment failed in an 11-89 vote before final passage of the bill.

After passage, Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, talked about creating a bipartisan focus that led to what she called "a landmark piece of legislation to address the climate crisis by lifting our farmers and ranchers, our foresters, to give them new tools to be able to lead in addressing this crisis."

Stabenow said talk about creating carbon offsets in agriculture had been going on since at least 2009. Actually, senators had introduced pilot carbon credit programs for agriculture going back at least as far as work on the farm bill in 2001. In 2019, an economywide cap-and-trade emissions bill included carbon credits, but Stabenow noted "there was a lot of concern and resistance in agriculture and forestry" to carbon programs. That attitude has changed, she said. "Fast forward to today, they are all in," she said. "They're experiencing this every day in droughts, wildfires -- 90% of Michigan is involved in drought right now -- flooding, hurricanes, tornadoes. And they are the ones at the front end of having to address all of this while sustaining a reliable, affordable food supply for this country."

Stabenow was aided by Sen. Mike Braun, R-Ind., a tree farmer who had taken the lead on the GOP side to work on the bill. Braun said climate change "is one of the most critical issues out there," also pointing to the effect climate change can have on farmers. The legislation will showcase and reward farmers for stewardship through the voluntary markets that are already developing. Agriculture is already a high-risk enterprise, but such carbon programs will help producers add a little more value to their bottom line, he said. Braun also pointed to a shift in mindset among producer groups.

"Now it's relevant where I think, seven to 10 years ago, it never had a chance of coalescing," Braun said. While the last year or two have been more profitable for farmers than much of the last decade, Braun added, "This will give them a steady stream of income over those lean years."

Reflecting the decade of change in perceptions, the American Farm Bureau Federation had focused on "Don't cap our future" in the group's resistance to an economywide cap-and-trade program. Yet AFBF helped form an alliance of 75 different agricultural and environmental groups -- the Food and Agriculture Climate Alliance -- that endorsed the Growing Climate Solutions Act.

"The Growing Climate Solutions Act demonstrates how far we've come in climate policy over the past decade," said Zippy Duvall, a Georgia farmer and president of the American Farm Bureau Federation. "Farm Bureau has worked tirelessly through the Food and Agriculture Climate Alliance and directly with lawmakers to help them understand the importance of working with America's farmers and ranchers to ensure climate policy remains voluntary and market-driven. We encourage members of the House to follow the Senate's lead and work in a bipartisan manner to create responsible policy that protects the environment and protects the farmers and ranchers who rely on clean air and water to feed the nation."

Carbon markets will help farmers apply more climate-smart practices on their farms to build resiliency to extreme weather events. Among agricultural groups, the National Farmers Union has been a leader in calling for Congress to take climate action. NFU endorsed the early versions of the bill as well.

Rob Larew, president of NFU, called on the House to act. "The urgent threat of climate change -- and the need for immediate action to mitigate and adapt -- is irrefutable. Last year, our country saw both its most active hurricane season and its most active wildfire season, and the years ahead are expected to be even more catastrophic," Larew said.

Other groups issued statements after passage, praising the act, including the American Soybean Association, the Biotechnology Innovation Organization (BIO), the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives and Environmental Defense Fund.

"Agricultural carbon markets are developing quickly, creating opportunities for producers to generate revenue from reducing emissions or sequestering carbon. But without any defined guardrails for high-quality credits, it can be risky for them to participate in markets and hard to determine whether credits represent net positive climate impacts," said Elizabeth Gore, senior vice president of political affairs for EDF. "The U.S. Department of Agriculture is perfectly positioned to define science-based best practices for measuring, reporting and verifying agricultural carbon credits and to certify third-party verifiers who can help farmers validate and sell credits."

Still, Rep. Glenn "GT" Thompson, R-Pa., ranking member of the House Agriculture Committee, continued to promote a House GOP package for a climate-related bill that creates incentive payments for producers, USDA involvement in forest management projects, Forest Service assessment of wildfire risks and incentives to use USDA conservation programs to offset the costs of precision agriculture technology. In a statement, Thompson indicated his continued opposition to the Senate bill. "This bill is a big-government solution in search of a problem," Thompson said. "The consequences of government intrusion into voluntary carbon markets have not been adequately explored and Congress should continue educating itself and vetting these issues before legislating."

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Chris Clayton