Policy Journal

July 25, 2009 12:53 PM

Analysis Still AWOL on Climate Change

Take four Cabinet-level officials and put them in a hearing, and you're bound to have something newsworthy emerge. But when USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack, Energy Secretary Stephen Chu, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Lisa Jackson appeared before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee to discuss climate change, the news was that there was no news—or at least no analysis—on the impacts of climate change and energy legislation.

This lack of analysis continues to be an underlying issue in the climate change debate—starting with House consideration and, on June 26, passage of H.R. 2454, the American Clean Energy and Security Act.

The House gave the measure a scant 5½ hours of debate before approving on a razor-thin 219–212 vote, with 44 Democrats (nearly one in five) casting a no vote along with 168 Republicans. The debate took place despite a late-filed 309-page manager's amendment that was not unveiled until the wee hours of June 26.

The bill would cut U.S. emissions 17% from 2005 levels by 2020 and to 83% below those levels by 2050, by establishing a cap-and-trade system. It would also impose a renewable electricity standard on states.

Ag extracts promises. House Ag Committee Chairman Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) withheld his vote on the plan until he got several issues addressed for agriculture and biofuels. A major concern expressed by farm-state lawmakers and agriculture groups was that USDA—not EPA—should have authority on emissions projects in rural areas, which are exempt from the bill's carbon emission reduction requirements. Under a deal brokered by Peterson with House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), USDA would have jurisdiction over these projects. Plus, the plan would provide a ½% point more in pollution emission allowances for rural electric cooperatives. Practices that do not release carbon from the soil, such as no-till farming, will earn offset credits as long as they began after 2001 and result in added greenhouse gas reduction.

On to the Senate. After the American Clean Energy and Security Act's narrow victory in the House, attention now moves to the Senate. But the path toward final approval of the measure is on a slower pace. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) says committees will have until Sept. 18 to wrap up their work on the legislation.

As the Senate began its work, USDA's Vilsack was still unable to produce any analysis by his department's economists on the impacts of climate change and legislation. That's despite labeling climate change "the most significant opportunity for rural America that I've seen in my lifetime.” When pressed to back up his contention that agriculture will be the net winner under climate change, he admitted to lawmakers that his department was "still working” on analysis. But he was not alone. None of the others testifying alongside Vilsack on July 7 were able to offer analysis of what kind of impacts to expect. EPA's Jackson even referenced analysis from the Congressional Budget Office in her testimony—not that of her own agency.

"This is amazing that none of these Cabinet officers were able to offer anything new despite Vilsack being hit on this very subject during a House Ag Committee hearing before the House vote,” says Jim Wiesemeyer of Informa Economics.

The best hope right now is that during the next several weeks the agencies that have not been able to produce analysis on how climate change will affect cities and rural areas will be able to pull together the information to back up their claims that agriculture will be a net winner under climate change. The clock is ticking.


Policy Briefs
Doug Caruso exited USDA as administrator of the Farm Service Agency (FSA) after just two months on the job, saying it was a "poor fit.” He was replaced by Jonathan Coppess, who initially served as FSA Deputy Administrator for Farm Programs.

Those whose acreage reporting deadline hadn't passed by June 30 have until Aug. 14 to file that information to FSA—the same day that sign-up for the 2009 program wraps up.

USDA and the Internal Revenue Service are finalizing a deal to share information in order to verify income for farm program eligibility.

Sign-up for the Average Crop Revenue Election (ACRE) program continues at a snail's pace, but updated USDA data from July 11 with lower price forecasts for the 2009–10 marketing year could push more farmers toward the program.


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