Ag Role in House Climate Plan

Biofuel Groups See Positives in Push for Low-Carbon Fuels Standard, But Criticism and Silence Remain

Chris Clayton
By  Chris Clayton , DTN Ag Policy Editor
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A report released by House Democrats on plans to address climate change would focus on investment in utility infrastructure as well as carbon sequestration through farm practices in rural America. Agricultural groups responding to the plan are divided on the benefits and impacts. (DTN file photo by Elaine Shein)

GLENWOOD, Iowa (DTN) -- Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives released a plan on Tuesday to address climate change through extensive investment in renewable energy that also includes ways agriculture and rural America would play roles in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

The plan drew mixed reactions in agriculture as some groups did not offer any comment. Biofuel groups largely praised the plan, but groups representing cattle producers and the fertilizer industry criticized the House proposals. The responses reflected agriculture is still locked in some of the same conflicts over climate legislation that divided the industry more than a decade ago when Democrats last made an aggressive push to pass national legislation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

After months of hearings, the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis released the 547-page report that focuses on "rapid development of wind, solar, energy efficiency and other zero-carbon energy sources," which includes heavy investment in new transmission infrastructure as well. The ambitious goal of the plan would be an economy with 100% net-zero emissions by 2050.

The report is an essential marker for Democrats, recognizing that the U.S. Senate would not take up any climate legislation passed by the House, and President Donald Trump would veto any such bill. But several of the recommendations are already included in a massive $1.5 trillion infrastructure bill House Democrats are planning to vote on as early as this week.

The infrastructure bill includes language promoting extensive investment in electric vehicles, which prompted pushback from a coalition of groups, including the American Farm Bureau Federation. Farm Bureau and others, including the American Petroleum Institute, state the focus on electric cars benefits "a small and affluent segment of the driving public" at the expense of all drivers.

Still, the House climate plan drew praise from biofuel groups because of the inclusion of a "feedstock-neutral Low-Carbon Fuel Standard." While planning to move the U.S. auto industry to zero emissions, the committee recognizes the need for continuing the use of liquid fuels in the coming decades.

The Renewable Fuels Association, Growth Energy and American Coalition for Ethanol each released statements on the report and the inclusion of a low-carbon fuels standard that could boost ethanol demand in coming years to lower emissions.

"It is gratifying so many in Congress are recognizing that increasing the use of ethanol is part of the solution to further reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions," said Brian Jennings, CEO of the American Coalition for Ethanol. "Properly crafted low-carbon fuel policy built on top of the Renewable Fuel Standard's success in beginning to break our country's reliance on petroleum is one of the most meaningful things Congress can do to address climate change."

In a related move on Tuesday, a coalition of groups led by the National Farmers Union, its state affiliates and the Governors' Biofuels Coalition filed a lawsuit in federal court against EPA against the Safer Affordable Fuel Efficiency Vehicle Rule. The groups argue EPA's rule to dial back future fuel-efficiency standards for vehicles will minimize the benefits of mid-level ethanol blends to provide higher-octane fuels.

The House plan has an entire chapter on agriculture, calling for more funding for USDA's major conservation programs such as the Conservation Stewardship Program and Environmental Quality Incentives Program to increase "climate-smart" agriculture to help adapt to more extreme climate conditions and offset greenhouse-gas emissions. The plan recognizes that with 900 million acres in agriculture, "The United States has the potential to sequester a substantial amount of carbon in agricultural soils."

Just last week, the Senate Agriculture Committee held a hearing on a bill that would provide technical assistance and certification through USDA for farmers and forestland owners to participate in carbon markets. A bipartisan group of House members introduced a similar bill as well.

Also, to protect water and land, the House plan calls for reestablishing the New Deal-era Civilian Conservation Corps, a program that ran from 1933-42. That program once focused on building rural infrastructure such as bridges and dams, as well as planting trees and creating public parks.

Yet, the plan calls for reducing nitrous oxide emissions from synthetic fertilizer, "accounting for almost half of all greenhouse-gas emissions from the agriculture sector." The plan calls for more "efficient and precise nitrogen fertilizer application" to improve water quality, increase yields and provide cost savings to farmers.

The Fertilizer Institute issued a statement pointing to the importance of the industry for "global food security, supply and sustainable agriculture production." The group stated any policy that puts a price on carbon risks increasing fertilizer production costs and "would likely lead the industry to reconsider any additional investments in the U.S. and could force production overseas."

The House plan also details proposals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from livestock and again would turn to USDA to provide more resources for livestock producers to curb emissions in different ways. The plan also touts more investment in strategies that can convert livestock emissions into renewable natural gas.

Still, the National Cattlemen's Beef Association called the report "unfortunately the product of partisan discussions" that did not take into consideration constituencies from across the country. NCBA cited that beef cattle emissions account only 2% of U.S. emissions, but the beef supply chain can "play a necessary role in ensuring that beef consumption is a climate solution."

The House Agriculture Committee issued a news release with comments of praise from three subcommittee chairs who pointed to ongoing climate-related work by the Agriculture Committee.

"It is encouraging to see both the Select Committee and the larger House Democratic Caucus recognize that agriculture and forestry can be a collaborative part of the solution to the climate crisis," said Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D-Va., chair of the Conservation and Forestry Subcommittee. She added, "Already in this Congress, we have as a Subcommittee that explored important climate issues, including voluntary private land conservation programs within the farm bill, precision agriculture and conservation, soil health, national forests, and more."

Notably absent from commentary on the report was House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson, D-Minn. In 2009, Peterson worked with agricultural groups to produce a two-volume book on agricultural views on climate change. He then helped draft language for a cap-and-trade bill that eventually passed the House in a partisan vote but failed to move in the Senate. Peterson has hardly uttered the words climate change since then, and the Agriculture Committee has not held a full committee hearing on issues related to climate change over the past decade.

National Farmers Union, now led by one of Peterson's former staffers, Rob Larew, issued a statement calling climate change "the single greatest threat facing family farmers and ranchers and the global food supply. However, farmers are uniquely positioned to mitigate the effects of climate change and sequester carbon."

Larew, the president of NFU, said the organization is encouraged by the House work and focus on how to use USDA programs for conservation, research and energy.

"National Farmers Union supports climate policies that build upon voluntary, incentive-based USDA conservation programs, encourage on farm energy production and biofuels, and market-based solutions that will give farmers the tools to make the best decisions for their land," Larew said.

Ernie Shea, president of Solutions from the Land, also praised the committee report. A leader in climate-smart agriculture, Shea said his group "is particularly encouraged by the report's advocacy of farmer-to-farmer education as a principal building block to support the role of agriculture in addressing climate change."

American Farmland Trust stated the House report "underscores agriculture's unique role as a 'natural climate solution' critical to limiting the effects of global warming."

Eric Deeble, policy director for the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, also reiterated farmers and ranchers "hold a unique position to sequester carbon in our country's soils through best management practices for soil health, crop and livestock integration, and agroforestry."

House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis…

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Chris Clayton