Members of the Senate Agriculture Committee will vet options this week for the sweeping energy and climate bill, which they are expected to play a significant role in shaping.
The panel will have a hearing Wednesday to explore the role for agriculture and forestry in climate change legislation. They are scheduled to hear from two major farm groups on opposing sides of the debate and question senior Obama administration officials: Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson and White House Office of Science and Technology Director John Holdren.
The hearing comes as senators consider their options for a massive cap-and-trade measure expected after the August recess. Senate Environment and Public Works Chairwoman Barbara Boxer, who is heading up the effort, says the measure the House passed last month, H.R. 2454, will serve as her basis for a bill.
Senate Agriculture Chairman Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and other Senate chairmen with a stake in the bill have been brought in for their contributions.
As Senate leadership aims to advance the bill this fall, agricultural interests could form a formidable coalition. Several key fence-sitters on the bill sit on the Agriculture Committee, and farm interests have wide appeal in the Senate. Each senator has some farm interests in his or her state -- unlike the House, which has more representatives from urban and suburban areas.
Boxer plans to introduce her bill the week of Sept. 8, after lawmakers return from the monthlong recess, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has set a Sept. 28 deadline for all committees to finish their work on the measure.
Harkin has said he is not sure if he will have a separate markup on the committee's contributions to the overall bill.
Harkin and other senators on the Agriculture Committee have said they want to ensure any effort at wide-ranging climate legislation in the Senate will include all of the provisions that House Agriculture Chairman Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) brokered for the House cap-and-trade bill.
House leaders compromised with Peterson and included a raft of changes he suggested in order to win his and other key votes for the bill. The changes were a major victory for farm groups but a disappointment to many environmentalists who are concerned it could weaken efforts to cut down on emissions.
The much-publicized deal put the Agriculture Department, rather than U.S. EPA, in charge of programs that would offset emissions with conservation efforts on farms, ranches and forests. Peterson's language also allowed "early actors," farmers who have been doing such conservation practices for years, to participate in the program.
The language would allow certain farm projects that date back as far as 2001 to qualify. Critics are concerned that instead of reducing carbon, the program may just pay farmers for what they are already doing.
The offset market could be a boon to farmers and other landowners who plant extra trees to absorb carbon dioxide, install methane capture systems over animal waste lagoons or practice no-till farming to store carbon in the soil. The question for some environmental groups is whether these projects will measurably reduce carbon dioxide overall.
Members of the Senate EPW panel said at a hearing last week that they want to make sure the bill is not overly generous in its offset program.
"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."
Peterson also included a set of provisions friendly to corn-based ethanol, another important issue for Harkin and other Midwestern senators. Peterson's language would temporarily block EPA from calculating a fuel's total worldwide carbon footprint before determining whether it qualifies as a biofuel eligible for incentives. It also bars EPA for five years from including emissions from indirect land-use changes abroad.
The top Republican on the Agriculture Committee wants more information on the legislation's potential economic effects. Last week he asked agency chiefs who will be testifying at the hearing to release new economic analyses of the House cap-and-trade bill.
Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) sent letters to Jackson and the chief economist at the Agriculture Department requesting the studies. Chambliss' requests came out of frustration over the lack of statistics and economic analyses on the bill at the farm-level, according to an aide for the second-term senator. He and other Republicans are likely to press the issue this week.
From EPA, Chambliss requested existing research the agency gained from a contract with Bruce McCarl of Texas A&M University. McCarl is a professor of agricultural economics and has specialized in climate change research, developing models that analyze global warming effects on farm economics from a variety of angles.
Chambliss requested McCarl's model, along with all data and supporting information. EPA officials said last week that his request will likely be satisfied. Dave Ryan, a spokesman for the agency, said the computer model is not EPA's property but that its custodian is open with the code and data.
"EPA is working to respond to Senator Chambliss's letter expeditiously," Ryan said.
Chambliss also requested a new study from USDA chief economist Joseph Glauber that would quantify the potential for the offset market and assess the effects that increased energy costs from the House bill could have on farmers and food costs.
USDA is already working on an analysis of some of the costs and benefits of the bill. William Hohenstein, director of USDA's global change program office, said the agency is examining how the bill will effect costs of fuel and fertilizer and its incentives for renewable energy, as well as the impacts and costs of climate change.
Schedule: The hearing is Wednesday, July 22, at 1 p.m. in 325 Russell.
Witnesses: Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack; EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson; John Holdren, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology; Roger Johnson, president of National Farmers Union; Bob Stallman, president of American Farm Bureau Federation; and Jo Pierce, a family tree farmer from Maine, representing the Forest Climate Working Group.