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Another Climate Bill Hurdle--the Farm Lobby?

According to The Washington Post, the House Energy and Commerce Committee will hold a final vote on the Waxman-Markey climate bill this evening. All signs intimate that Waxman has enough votes to roll the bill out of committee. (There's even a slim chance he could nab a Republican vote—California's Mary Bono, whose aides told Reuters that she's a "potential yes and a potential no.") This could be the biggest obstacle the bill faces in the House, since the energy committee tends to have more members representing polluting industries than the House as a whole—which means that if this committee's okay with it, the broader Democratic caucus should be, too.

Then again, maybe it won't be so simple. Recently, Charlie Rangel has been warning that his Ways & Means Committee may mark up the legislation, which could mean a whole new set of changes and compromises. And now Collin Peterson, head of the agriculture committee, says he wants a whack at the bill, too. For the past few weeks, Peterson has been fuming over the EPA's proposed rules cracking down on corn ethanol's carbon footprint (even though the administration has, on the whole, been incredibly friendly to ethanol producers). He's threatened to bottle up the climate bill unless this issue gets addressed. And, given that there's little overlap between the House energy and agriculture committees, a mark-up will mean a whole different set of compromises and alterations.

So what does Big Ag want, anyway? Well, for one, Peterson wants to relax restrictions on biofuels. But there may be more. It's not that the farm industry is terribly worried about regulations in the bill—the cap-and-trade program explicitly exempts agriculture from coverage, so farmers don't have to agonize over how to curb greenhouse gases emanating from their manure lagoons, tractors, or cows (even though these are all a fairly hefty source of emissions). And true, farms may face higher costs for certain supplies, fertilizer, and equipment, but this doesn't appear to be the main issue. Mostly, it seems agricultural producers want to qualify for carbon offsets, so that they can (potentially) profit off the bill:

Agriculture interests also want the legislation to include a bigger role for USDA and better opportunities for farmers to profit from changing their soil management practices and selling the resulting estimated emission cuts as a carbon credit.

Unlike a cap-and-trade bill the Senate debated last year, the Waxman-Markey plan does not specify that agricultural practices, such as idling former cropland, can count as offsets.

It's hard to know what to make of this. Sure, there are certain soil- and land-management practices that help reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. But the current bill already authorizes the EPA to determine what sorts of offset projects will actually reduce global-warming pollution, and allows those projects to qualify for offsets. Unless I'm mistaken, any farming practice that stands up to scrutiny should get approved in the current bill. It sounds here like the farm lobby wants to circumvent that process and ensure certain farm activities get included no matter what. Not encouraging....

--Bradford Plumer