The Energy 202: Two GOP senators join with Democrats to back bill to help cut emissions from farms
The Washington Post

June 4, 2020


A bipartisan group of senators is trying to make it easier for farmers and forest managers to make money from reducing greenhouse gas emissions from their land.

A new legislative proposal tackling the impact U.S. agriculture is having on rising global temperature is the latest effort from some GOP lawmakers to turn over a new, green leaf on global warming.

“This to me is timely. It makes sense. It covers a fairly large section of where we have CO2 making it into the atmosphere,” Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.), a tree farmer and a lead sponsor on the legislation, said in an interview.

In addition to Braun, the measure is sponsored by Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.).

There are many ways farmers can cut their emissions. This new bill would help them get paid for doing it.

California and 10 Northeastern states have set up markets for buying and selling credits for the right to emit carbon into the atmosphere, effectively putting a cap on those states’ contributions to climate change. Other voluntary markets let eco-conscious consumers pay money to offset emissions from airline travel and other activities.

The new bill, called the Growing Climate Solutions Act, would give farmers a leg up in selling credits into those markets by planting trees, restoring wetlands or using fertilizer more efficiently on their properties — all of which help cut the amount of carbon dioxide, methane and other climate-warming pollution emitted from their fields. Forest managers, similarly, can sequester carbon by letting more trees grow to maturity rather than regularly cutting them down.

The senators want to set up a certification program at the Department of Agriculture to sign off on experts whom farmers can turn to for advice about reducing emissions. Such a program, along with a new USDA website called for in the bill, would give farmers the confidence to start cutting emissions and know they can participate in the carbon markets, the lawmakers say.

“Something like this where they can be rewarded for their good stewardship just comes at a wonderful time,” said Braun, who noted farmers are facing hardship now due to low prices during the coronavirus pandemic.

So far, the bill has broad support in Congress and corporate America.

A wide range of groups are also backing the bill, including green organizations such as the Environmental Defense Fund and agribusiness lobbyists such as the American Farm Bureau Federation.

“I’ve seen a change over the last couple of years” when it comes to what farmers think about climate change, said Callie Eideberg, EDF’s director of government relations.

“Some people might be motivated because they’re seeing the impacts on their farm due to increased rain and flooding, she added. “Other folks, frankly, may just be wanting to make some money.”

Corporations including Microsoft and McDonald’s, each of which can use the programs to help meet their climate goals, are endorsing it, too.

“Make no mistake, this is a breakthrough,” Whitehouse said. “And in my view, it signals a broader move coming on climate in this country as corporate America starts to take up climate as a legislative issue.”

Agriculture is less-discussed source of climate-warming emissions.

Most federal and state climate policies, including the carbon markets in California and the Northeast, are designed for cutting emissions from the top two sources — transportation and power generation.

But 10 percent of all greenhouse gases in the United States come from farms, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Nitrogen in fertilizer not absorbed by crops seeps into the air as heat-trapping nitrous oxide while cattle and other livestock belch methane, a greenhouse gas more potent than carbon dioxide.

Many farmers, who are often among the hardest hit by changes in weather patterns, often don’t know where to begin when it comes to mitigating emissions.

“We heard a lot of folks saying, ‘Look, I’d like to do something. I don’t know how to get started,’” said Stabenow, who is the top Democrat on the Senate Agriculture Committee.

Their proposed certification plan, in which third-party observers approved by the USDA make sure farmers are actually taking steps to cut emissions, would be similar to how growers today qualify as organic farmers.

The farming proposal comes as younger Republicans increasingly say climate is a priority.

In a poll last summer by The Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation, nearly 7 in 10 Republican adults under 45 said that human activity is causing the climate to change.

Braun, a freshman senator and loyalist to President Trump, is one of a handful of Republican lawmakers who say they are taking those concerns seriously, even as the president repeatedly dismisses the idea humans are warming the planet.

In writing the legislation, he said he is trying to respond to “all younger generations and even our current generation more on my side of the aisle.”

Last year, Braun formed with Sen. Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.) the first Senate bipartisan caucus focused on finding solutions to climate change. Stabenow and Graham are also members.

He isn’t the only Republican putting forward a climate plan. On the other side of Capitol Hill, Rep. Bruce Westerman (R-Ark.) wants to plant a trillion trees to suck carbon dioxide from the air.

His proposal was warmly received by many other House Republicans, including House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), who included Westerman’s bill with three others in his own agenda for addressing climate change.

But those relatively modest measures don’t act quickly enough to cut carbon emissions this decade as fast as U.N. climate scientists say is needed to stop dangerous warming this century.

Braun, for one, said he is open to the idea placing a price on carbon — though he is not sure whether Congress should set up a cap-and-trade scheme or a tax on emissions.

“A lot of individuals on my side of the aisle that have been foot draggers on it,” said Braun. “And we’ve got to make the case that basically it’s so broad in its support that, why wouldn’t you do something?”

Even with bipartisan support, a bill addressing the climate impact of farms may be tough to pass with everything else the country is going through right now.

Stabenow is hopeful the bill may be include in an end-of-year spending bill or another relief package for the coronavirus pandemic.

But with the country still grappling with containing the covid-19 outbreak and approaching a presidential election, Andrew Walmsley, director of congressional relations at the American Farm Bureau Federation, said getting it across the finishing line this year will be tough.

I don’t know if there is high hope for this Congress,” he said. “I don’t think there is any expectation this will be enacted tomorrow.”