AGRICULTURE:

Appropriators vote to slash conservation, biofuels and nutrition programs

Farm bill biofuels and conservation programs take a big hit in the agriculture appropriations bill approved yesterday by a House subpanel.

The fiscal 2012 appropriations bill would completely eliminate the Biomass Crop Assistance Program (BCAP) and the Rural Energy for America Program (REAP). It would also cut mandatory farm bill conservation spending by more than $1 billion.

The appropriations bill on a whole would cut the Department of Agriculture by $2.6 billion relative to fiscal 2011 and $5 billion relative to what the Obama administration requested. The bill puts USDA's funding even below 2008 levels.

By voice vote yesterday, the Agriculture, Rural Development, FDA and Related Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee passed the bill along for a full committee markup.

Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) commended the bill, saying it "works to put agencies funded by this bill on a sustainable budget path, while continuing to fund assistance to farmers, rural communities and low-income families."

The bill is part of the House Republican plan released on May 11 to cut a net $30 billion from 2012 department budgets relative to the recently passed fiscal 2011 measure.

"We have taken spending to below pre-stimulus, pre-bailout levels while ensuring USDA ... and other agencies are provided the necessary resources to fulfill their duties," Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.), the subpanel's chairman, told a packed room at yesterday's markup. "Our members have worked to root out waste and duplication and, where they have strayed from their core mission, we rein in agencies."

Environmental groups decried the elimination of REAP and BCAP.

"Congress should not cut off implementation of these programs before they have a chance to succeed," said Brent Erickson, executive vice president of the Biotechnology Industry Organization.

BCAP was created in the 2008 farm bill and is only just getting off the ground -- last month, USDA issued the first major project award. The program provides matching payments for materials sold to biomass conversion facilities and pays producers to grow renewable biomass crops.

"Killing BCAP is a huge mistake," said John Moore, senior attorney at the Environmental Law and Policy Center. "It's the only program that helps break the chicken-and-egg cycle of developing advanced biofuels and crops."

But BCAP came under scrutiny in December after USDA's Office of the Inspector General found that it "suffered from hasty implementation" to comply with a deadline set by the president.

"We found wide-ranging problems with BCAP, including inequitable treatment of program participants and improper payments," said Agriculture Inspector General Phyllis Fong at a hearing earlier this year (E&E Daily, March 3).

The bill would also severely cut the Bioenergy Program for Advanced Biofuels, which gives payment to biofuels producers.

Conservation programs, some of which were reduced deeply in the fiscal 2011 spending bill, were also not spared this time around.

The Conservation Stewardship Program would be cut $171 million relative to the level mandated by the farm bill, after it was slashed by $39 million in the final 2011 budget.

The Environmental Quality Incentives Program, which gives farmers help with making environmental improvements, would be cut by $350 million. The Wetlands Reserve Program and Grasslands Reserve Program would be reduced by 64,200 acres and 96,000 acres, respectively.

"These radical cuts could not come at a worse time," said Aviva Glaser, agriculture policy coordinator for the National Wildlife Federation. "With increased pressures on working lands to produce food, fuel and fiber for our nation and world, farm bill conservation programs are needed now more than ever."

House appropriators yesterday were silent for the most part on the cuts to biofuels and conservation programs, focusing instead on cuts to the Women, Infants and Children supplemental nutrition program.

Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), the most outspoken critic of the bill, said that while she understood the need to cut the deficit, the bill is starting in the wrong place.

"It does nothing, nothing about the oil subsidies," said DeLauro, who led the subpanel in the previous Congress. "The companies are making money hand over fist. The CEO of Exxon, $21.5 million. He eats well. He eats very well. None of his family have to worry about the Women, Infants and Children program."

DeLauro, who voted against the appropriations bill, said she was also worried about the proposed cut to the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission. The commission is currently working on rules under last year's financial reform act that would regulate excessive speculation that has been blamed at least partly for high gas prices.

Under the bill, CFTC's budget would be cut 15 percent from the final fiscal 2011 budget. Commissioners had asked for $308 billion, an 87 percent increase from current levels, to deal with implementing the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act.

Subpanel ranking member Sam Farr (D-Calif.) also said he opposed the cut to CFTC.

"If there was ever a place not to cut it would be reform on Wall Street," he said.

Reporter Allison Winter contributed.