AGRICULTURE:

Amendments roll in as Senate panel prepares to debate farm bill; EPA likely to be targeted

Iowa's senior senator is seeking to limit U.S. EPA's ability to release the private information of livestock producers following a series of missteps by the agency when it responded to a Freedom of Information Act request by environmental groups.

Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) has offered the provision as an amendment to the farm bill, the five-year renewal of agricultural policy that the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee is scheduled to mark up beginning this morning. It is one of more than 100 amendments that members of the committee have proposed to attach to the 1,102-page legislation.

The Congressional Budget Office last night estimated that the bill the Senate is to consider would cost $955 billion over the next decade, saving $18 billion over that time period relative to current spending. If sequestration were repealed, the bill would save $24.4 billion, the CBO determined.

Meanwhile, other committee members have offered amendments seeking to both prohibit and hone the Agriculture Department's ability to tie conservation requirements to crop insurance, eliminate pesticides permits that the agricultural community calls unnecessary and boost fisheries in the Northeast.

It's unclear yet which amendments will be included in a manager's amendment from Agriculture Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) and how much debate each will generate today. It's possible that some will be withdrawn and debated later in the process on the full Senate floor.

Grassley's amendment comes after EPA released hundreds of pages of documents to three environmental groups containing the names, contact information and geographic location of thousands of concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) in 30 states. EPA has twice retracted the data to redact personal information of producers, drawing fire from livestock producers and their representatives in Congress (Greenwire, May 3).

The release has prompted congressional investigations and was the subject of a GOP line of questioning at a recent hearing on the nomination of Gina McCarthy to be EPA administrator (E&ENews PM, April 11).

According to a list of amendments obtained by E&E Daily ahead of today's markup, Grassley's provision would limit the ability of EPA to collect private information from livestock producers but not of state governments that are collecting similar information. The amendment would allow EPA to release aggregate information on CAFOs but likely not the national inventory that environmental groups have pushed the agency to compile.

"Livestock producers are understandably concerned that the sort of information provided could be used to harass or possibly vandalize their operations," Grassley said in April after a telephone meeting with McCarthy.

Other GOP members from the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee have also questioned EPA on the matter, including Sens. John Boozman (Ark.) and Mike Johanns (Neb.). It is expected that Johanns will put forth other amendments today involving EPA regulatory activities.

Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), the former ranking member on the committee, has also filed an amendment targeting EPA. The measure would block the agency's ability to put in place a new permitting requirement for pesticide users who spray over water.

Farmers and ranchers have complained that the new permit, which was required as the result of a ruling in National Cotton Council v. EPA, duplicates requirements under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act. Legislation eliminating the new requirement last year passed both the House and the Senate Agriculture panel and has been reintroduced this year as a stand-alone measure by Roberts (E&E Daily, Jan. 31).

Likely to receive much debate at today's markup is the question of whether, and to what extent, Congress should require farmers to comply with basic conservation measures in order to receive federal subsidies for crop insurance. Stabenow's bill currently includes a provision similar to one added last year to the Senate farm bill by Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) that would require farmers to write and implement a conservation plan to receive the subsidies on highly erodible land.

The chairwoman has offered an amendment that would further codify an agreement reached last week by leading farm and conservation groups on compliance. In exchange for receiving farm groups' support for conservation compliance, conservation groups have agreed to make the program more flexible and oppose further limits on crop insurance subsidies.

A separate Stabenow amendment would then remove a limitation on crop insurance subsidies based on adjusted gross income of farm families. The chairwoman's mark currently would limit the subsidies for families earning more than $750,000 a year.

Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.) has offered an amendment opposing the farm-conservation agreement that would prevent anything in the farm bill from tying conservation compliance to crop insurance. Several other Hoeven amendments would allow producers additional time to meet conservation compliance requirements on wetlands, restructure the penalties for violations and prevent the Agriculture Department from punishing violations for more than three years.

A separate amendment by new committee member Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) seeks to prevent excessive penalties for violations by limiting penalties to five years of back payments.

Heitkamp, along with several other members, has also filed amendments that would change the farm bill's conservation programs. They include:

  • A Heitkamp amendment co-sponsored by Sens. John Thune (R-S.D.) and Boozman that attempts to address USDA's shortage of funds to carry out the programs. It would allow the department, rather than the Office of Management and Budget, to determine on its own how much it needs for conservation technical assistance based on input received from field staff and stakeholders.
  • A pair of amendments by Heitkamp to encourage USDA to consider pollinator habitats in voluntary farmer conservation plans and to require USDA to carry out a study of the wetland mitigation procedures. Another Heitkamp amendment would allow the Forest Service to reimburse states for taking actions to block wildfires outside their borders.
  • An amendment by Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) to allow states to enroll the most environmentally sensitive land into the Conservation Reserve Program, in which USDA pays farmers rent to idle their lands for conservation reasons. States had the ability to enroll lands prior to the 2008 farm bill and used the revenue mostly toward schools.
  • An amendment by Boozman and co-sponsored by Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) that would allow municipal water and wastewater entities to partner with landowners to improve water quality through the Regional Conservation Partnership Program.
  • An amendment by Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) that would boost funding for the Conservation Stewardship Program, water and waste disposal loans, the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research, and the Rural Energy for America Program.
  • An amendment by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) that would enact the same limit on funding through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program for all farmers, regardless of the type of farm. The cost-share program, through which USDA helps farmers with environmental improvements such as manure lagoons and fencing, currently has a lower cap on funding for organic producers than for conventional farmers.
  • An amendment by Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) that would create a Good Neighbor Forestry program in which a state would be allowed to hire contractors to do restoration work on national forestlands.

Sen. William "Mo" Cowan (D), the only senator from Massachusetts to serve on the Senate Agriculture panel since the 1800s, has filed a pair of amendments to help the Northeast fishing industry.

One would require the secretary of Agriculture to withhold transfers of tariffs collected on imported seafood and ocean products until the Department of Commerce can demonstrate that the tariffs will go toward research and development projects. According to Cowan, tariffs have been going toward general operations of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration rather than toward research, as the Saltonstall-Kennedy Act requires.

A second amendment by Cowan would direct USDA's Risk Management Agency to study and propose a crop insurance product for fishermen.

Committee newcomer Sen. Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.) has also filed an amendment that would compel USDA to begin providing crop insurance to bioenergy crops, such as sorghum. Biofuel producers say the lack of insurance available to bioenergy crops has created obstacles for scaling up commercial advanced biofuel technologies.

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