Senate Agriculture Chairwoman Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) today said her panel "very likely" will hold a markup to consider portions of the comprehensive climate bill sponsored by Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) that could affect agriculture, food prices and carbon markets.
"I visited with [Environment and Public Works] Chairman Boxer a week or so ago and indicated to her, when I took over the chairmanship, that we would definitely want to -- that we feel very strongly that agriculture is going to have a very large role to play in this issue and in the efforts, and we certainly want to make sure that the committee played its role and was able to put its mark on the language that would impact agriculture," Lincoln said today.
But when that markup would occur is unclear. Lincoln questioned whether committees could complete work on the bill and move it to the Senate floor by the end of the year.
"It's going to be tough," Lincoln said.
Lincoln officially took over the Agriculture gavel today from former Chairman Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), who left to helm the Health Committee.
The position on the climate measure is a change in approach for Lincoln, who had previously said she did not expect to hold a markup on farm-related issues in the bill.
Today the senator said that agriculture, including both crops and forestry, already plays a "tremendous role" in carbon sequestration.
"Depending on how we designed a cap-and-trade system -- I'm just saying I reserve the right to certainly make sure that anything that is designed is going to meet the needs of agriculture, whether it's what they contribute, or whether it's the allowances they're going to be given, or the input costs they're going to see, or the consequences they may see in terms of their ability to produce," Lincoln said. "Not just because I represent growers, and cattlemen and ranchers and a whole host of others, but there's also the issue of the impact on overall consumers in terms of the cost of food."
Another major issue for Lincoln's panel is a national carbon market that would be created under the climate change legislation and could be regulated by the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, which her committee oversees. The Senate measure does not provide details on how to regulate such a market, instead including only a broad statement that there should be a "single, integrated carbon market oversight program." It would ensure market liquidity and prevent "excessive speculation" through position limits, among the other goals, the bill states.
Filling in the blanks likely will fall to the Agriculture Committee. Today, Lincoln said she still harbors concerns about how the market would work, especially given that three CFTC commissioner nominees had just testified before the committee about the "unbelievable" additional work they face if they regulate over-the-counter derivative contracts.
"Giving them an entirely new [carbon] market to oversee, as well, is going to be a big undertaking," Lincoln said. "That's not to say they're not up to the task, it's just to say that we're doing an awful lot."
The committee's ranking member, Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), said he would support a markup and that the panel would look through the bill "item by item" to assess its potential effects on farmers.
"We're just not going to have a bill come out of the Ag Committee that is going to be negative from a climate change standpoint, to farmers," Chambliss said. "I think you'll see a bipartisan effort to make sure that doesn't happen."
The agriculture portion of the bill may take a course in the Senate similar to the one it took in the House, where House Agriculture Chairman Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) negotiated with the bill's authors to tack onto the legislation a number of farm-friendly provisions before it went to the House floor.
"The ag part of it was basically a holder, understanding that either the Ag Committee or members involved in agriculture, like myself, would want to have a say," said Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), a member of the EPW and Agriculture committees.
For her part, Klobuchar -- who has been in discussions with Boxer on the bill -- said she wants to make sure the Senate bill includes all the measures Peterson negotiated for the House. Peterson's amendments, widely hailed by farm state lawmakers, would carve out a bigger role for farmers to participate in offsets and give more authority to the Agriculture Department.
Senate Agriculture Committee members from both sides of the aisle have said they want to build on Peterson's provisions. But even with the Peterson amendments, they say, cap and trade might hurt the bottom line for farmers. Lincoln herself said that while she is "not necessarily" against a cap-and-trade system, she does not believe that what was designed in the House bill works. She added that a measure approved by the Senate Energy Committee earlier this year, combined with a tax incentive, might be sufficient.
The National Farmers Union, which has been one of the biggest advocates for climate legislation among agriculture groups, also called for changes to the bill. "It is important the U.S. Senate begin the process of developing climate change and renewable energy legislation. However, the language unveiled today fails to address the unique role agriculture can play," said NFU President Roger Johnson.
As for the carbon market, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said she spoke with Lincoln today about adopting an oversight bill, S. 1399, that she and Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) floated last summer. Feinstein described Lincoln as "open" to the measure.
The Feinstein-Snowe plan would put CFTC in charge of all carbon trading markets, encompassing both the cash allowance and derivative markets. The plan also lays out rules to govern the markets -- such as position limits, margin requirements and safeguards against manipulation -- and generally routes trades through special carbon-trading facilities.
Senior reporter Ben Geman contributed.