CLIMATE:

Boxer courts farmers to seek 'rare opportunity' for cap-and-trade bill

Senate Environment and Public Works Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) vowed yesterday to include a major role for agriculture in her climate bill despite mounting criticism from some farm groups and Republicans.

At a hearing on the opportunities for agriculture in the climate bill, Boxer indicated she has no intention of stepping down as she fought back against critics of the bill. The powerful Senate chairwoman, who noted that she represents the top farm producing state, also tried to strike down any notion that the costs of the bill might be too high for agriculture.

"If we do nothing and argue over this to the point of stalling everything, the farmers in my state will be desperate, as they see more droughts and more warming," Boxer said. "This is a rare time, we have the confluence of a recession that is deep and global and the issue of climate change -- it creates an exceptional opportunity, if we can just get over our fearmongering and get over the naysayers."

Her remarks came as Republicans on the EPW Committee and the president of one of the largest farm lobbies, the American Farm Bureau Federation, criticized the House cap-and-trade bill (H.R. 2454), which Boxer has said will be her starting point for the Senate legislation.

"I have strong concerns about whether this legislation will in the end result in higher costs for farmers," said Sen. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho). "But I would like to find a win-win situation for everyone."

Farm interests are likely to be a major factor in the Senate debate. Senate Agriculture Chairman Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) has said he wants the Senate to include all of the farm-friendly provisions that were in the House bill. His panel will hold a hearing on the issue next week, with testimony from Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, the Farm Bureau and other farm groups that support cap-and-trade legislation.

The Farm Bureau and GOP lawmakers on Boxer's committee yesterday listed the potential harm to the rural economy among their grievances against the bill. Boxer also shot back at some high-profile criticism from retiring Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R), who joined the climate debate yesterday by blasting the cap-and-trade proposal as "an enormous threat to our economy." Boxer said such critiques are to be expected with such a wide-ranging bill.

"I would just tell the American people to take a look at history," said Boxer. "Every single time we've moved forward to go after pollution, the naysayers have been wrong about their predicted costs, about the gloom and doom, and we have in fact led the way."

As Boxer searches for the elusive 60 votes she will need to pass the bill, she said that everyone will have to compromise in order to craft a bill that could pass in the Senate.

"I am going to have to walk away from some things I believe should be in the bill," Boxer said.

'This could transform agriculture'

Farm groups are divided on the bill. The National Farmer's Union, an influential left-leaning group, supported the House measure, along with farmland conservation groups, such as the American Farmland Trust. But the proposal has met opposition from the Farm Bureau and some major commodity groups, including the National Cattlemen's Beef Association and the National Chicken Council.

Supporters of the bill say it could provide tremendous opportunities to rural landowners. The House-passed bill would allow regulated industries that cannot meet greenhouse gas reductions at the smokestack to buy offset credits by investing in green energy or greenhouse gas reduction projects. The provision could significantly reduce compliance costs for some industries.

The offset market could be a boon to farmers and other landowners who plant extra trees to absorb carbon dioxide, use new technology to feed livestock, install methane capture systems over animal waste lagoons or practice no-till farming to store carbon in the soil.

The offsets could pose some challenges in the Senate bill, as some environmental groups have begun to question whether these projects will measurable reduce carbon dioxide overall. But most groups insist some form of offsets will be vital for the bill to gain political traction and work on the ground.

"An effective climate solution must include offsets," Fred Krupp, president of Environmental Defense Fund, told the panel yesterday. "I know the topic of carbon offsets can be controversial and advocates all have very strong opinions. But the climate program we all want just doesn't work without these things."

Krupp added: "These [offsets] aren't just important cost-saving devices, these are vital."

Democratic panel members indicated yesterday they want to include a robust offset system, so long as it has environmental checks.

"There is a tremendous amount of sequestering potential, but we have to have it work," said Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.). "It has to have a high level of integrity, if there is too much of a loophole it will be irrelevant and ineffective."

But the potential profit to farmers from offsets is still not enough to win over the Farm Bureau, Stallman said yesterday. He said that not every type of farmer in every region will be able to participate. Meanwhile, his group is concerned the bill will lead to higher energy and fertilizer costs for farmers.

"Every farmer has production costs to meet, and we know our costs will rise and the concern is for our livelihood," Stallman said.

William Hohenstein, director of the Agriculture Department's global change program, agreed that the agriculture sector will face higher energy and input costs due to their reliance on products that are included under the cap. But he said the bill could provide "significant economic opportunities."

H.R. 2454 includes a billion-ton limit on the use of domestic greenhouse gas offsets. The offsets would likely go toward a wide-range of activities, but Hohenstein said it would be roughly the equivalent to planting 170 million acres of trees or switching to no-till farming on 1.5 billion acres of cropland -- three times the total cropland in the United States.

"What I am trying to say is that this thing is really significant," Hohenstein told reporters after the hearing. "This could transform agriculture, and to do that we will have to engage tens of thousands of acres of land."

Boxer said she will keep promoting those opportunities for agriculture -- which she thinks should far outweigh some of the potential problems the farm sector could face from environmental changes resulting from higher temperatures.

"We need to factor in the cost of doing nothing -- I think if we can get over the mindset of 'no,' we can do something," Boxer said.

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