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Rural America Would Win Big with Senate Climate Action

Rural America Would Win Big with Senate Climate Action

Senate climate legislation includes key benefits for rural America that would allow farmers to take the lead in the clean-energy economy, writes Jake Caldwell.

Senate climate legislation includes key benefits for rural America that would allow farmers to take the lead in the clean-energy economy. (AP/Seth Perlman)
Senate climate legislation includes key benefits for rural America that would allow farmers to take the lead in the clean-energy economy. (AP/Seth Perlman)

Today the U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture conducts a welcome hearing on comprehensive clean energy and climate change legislation. Rural America has a great deal to gain from Senate action on comprehensive clean energy and climate change. It represents an opportunity to raise incomes, create jobs, reduce dependence on foreign oil, stabilize volatile input prices, and reduce the threat posed by extreme weather to rural livelihoods and the nation’s food and energy supplies.

Little or no action is a huge gamble. It places the fate of U.S. agriculture in a byzantine administrative process of federal regulation led by the Environmental Protection Agency under the Clean Air Act.

What’s more, opposition to clean energy and climate change legislation could forever erase any of the benefits secured for farmers in the House version of the legislation. Senate action on clean energy and climate change legislation is necessary in order to ensure the benefits of these provisions survive and are delivered to rural America.

And inaction on clean energy and global warming represents ongoing adherence to a status quo of roller coaster energy prices, extreme weather events, and increasing dependence on disaster assistance.

The key benefits and gains for rural America secured in the House bill include:

Cap-and-trade exemptions for agriculture and forestry. The agricultural and forestry sectors are fully exempt from carbon emissions caps under the House and Senate climate legislation’s longstanding cap-and-trade approach. This means that these industries do not have to buy pollution allowances.

Incentives for farms and forests to sequester more global warming pollution. U.S. agricultural and forest lands sequester 246 million metric tons of carbon annually, absorbing 13 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. Appropriate incentives could enable these lands to ultimately absorb 50 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. Clean energy and climate change legislation promotes U.S. agricultural lands as a “carbon sink” by encouraging a whole range of good practices that many farmers are already doing, including: modest tillage practices, tree and perennial planting, erosion prevention, rotational grazing, and winter cover cropping.

The opportunity for farmers to earn real money selling carbon offsets. Clean energy and climate change legislation would establish a carbon offsets market that would allow farmers to create and sell carbon offsets to polluting entities in lieu of reductions by polluters. This would reduce the cost of emissions reductions for polluters. Farmers would be paid and rewarded for their longstanding carbon sequestration and land stewardship efforts. The Energy Information Administration has estimated the value of agricultural offsets to be close to $24 billion annually.

USDA has the lead. House bill provisions shift oversight of the offsets program from EPA to USDA. The legislation would create a Greenhouse Gas Reduction and Sequestration Advisory Committee that consists of nine individuals, plus a chairperson and vice chairperson appointed by the Secretary of Agriculture. USDA’s expertise and presence in nearly every state should assist in the development of measurement methodologies to determine scientifically rigorous high-quality offsets.

The House bill recommends a minimum and wide ranging list of practices eligible for offsets, including altered tillage practices, reduction in carbon emissions from organic soils, winter cover cropping, continuous cropping and other means to increase biomass returned to soil, and reduction in nitrogen fertilizer use or increase in nitrogen use efficiency.

Clean energy investment with facilities sited in rural America. A U.S. market-based global warming pollution reduction plan will drive demand for renewable energy in rural America. Renewable electricity standards in legislation require retail electricity suppliers to generate a percentage of their electricity from renewable resources.

Farmers would become both the direct providers of renewable energy and the beneficiaries of our economy’s low-carbon transformation as an increasing number of wind, solar, sustainable biomass, methane capture, and other energy facilities—and the jobs that accompany them—are sited in rural America.

The Department of Energy estimates that if 5 percent of the nation’s energy comes from wind power by 2020, rural America could see $60 billion in capital investment. Leasing land for a single utility-scale wind turbine could provide a farmer with about $3,000 a year in income. Farmers and rural landowners would derive $1.2 billion in new income and see 80,000 new jobs created over the next two decades.

Investment in clean fuels of the future, produced by American farms. The current renewable fuels standard establishes ambitious targets and strives to produce advanced biofuels that deliver measurable lifecycle greenhouse gas reductions, minimize the use of food-based feed stocks, and adhere to certifiable environmental and land use safeguards. Clean energy and climate change legislation works with the RFS to promote advanced biofuels grown and produced in rural America.

House bill provisions suspends the EPA’s life cycle assessment of greenhouse gas emissions attributed to indirect land use changes globally while the National Academy of Sciences reviews the methodologies and scientific basis of indirect land use assessments. It also expands the definition of renewable biomass to include broader availability of woody biomass on federal and non-federal lands.

The RFS has a production target of 21 billion gallons of advanced biofuels by 2022. It provides appropriate flexibility to allow producers to meet the RFS mandate with significant contributions from third generation biofuels without dictating a specific type of biofuel product or technology. The approximately 15 billion gallons of existing and future conventional ethanol production capacity and 1 billion gallons of biodiesel would be exempt from greenhouse gas reduction targets.

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