OMAHA (DTN) -- The U.S. Senate is ready to move ahead with an agricultural climate bill that has bipartisan support and backing from major agricultural lobbies.
The Growing Climate Solutions Act was reintroduced Tuesday in the U.S. Senate by a larger bipartisan group of senators, led by members of the Senate Agriculture Committee. Senators signed on to the bill include 17 Democrats and 17 Republicans. The chairwoman and ranking member of the Senate Agriculture Committee jointly announced they will mark up the bill in a committee meeting on Thursday.
"Addressing the climate crisis is one of the most urgent challenges we face, and our farmers and foresters are an important part of the solution," said Sen. Debbie Stabenow, chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture Committee. Stabenow called the bill, "a win-win for farmers, our economy and for our environment," she added, "Our bill is a perfect example of how we can work across the aisle and find common ground to address a critical issue affecting all of us and our future."
Sen Mike Braun, R-Ind., a lead sponsor on the Senate bill, said if the country wants to start addressing climate change then barriers have to be removed for farmers and foresters to get involved in carbon markets "so they can be rewarded for climate-smart practices."
More than 60 ag groups and some environmental organizations also back the bill.
The Growing Climate Solutions Act, which also was introduced last year, would create a certification program at USDA to provide technical assistance for farmers and forest owners to enroll in a carbon-credit market. USDA would also establish protocols for carbon markets. USDA would provide guidelines to farmers on how to qualify for carbon-credit programs. The carbon-credit program would then become "USDA certified."
The legislation comes as an array of companies have started enrolling farmers in carbon sequestration programs to quantify and pay for farming practices that minimize tillage and increase organic matter in the soil. Other programs help farmers to reduce their inputs, lowering their farm's carbon footprints in the process.
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The difference between last year's bill and this year's is a change in the advisory committee USDA will set up so farmers and ranchers make up a majority of members. The bill also would include $4 million in start-up funds, Stabenow said. Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., who helped reintroduce the bill, had pushed for changes in the advisory committee.
Iowa Republican Sens. Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst also issued a joint statement backing introduction of the legislation.
"Carbon credit markets provide our ag community with an avenue to capitalize on their ongoing commitment to sustainable farming, and it's critical that we dissolve any obstacles standing in the way of this untapped potential," Ernst said. "That's why I'm proud to support this bipartisan effort to reduce barriers for Iowa farmers looking to enter carbon credit markets and adopt climate-smart conservation practices."
The American Farm Bureau Federation and the Environmental Defense Fund participated in Tuesday's news conference, and other groups issued statements endorsing the Global Climate Solutions Act.
"AFBF welcomes the introduction of the Growing Climate Solutions Act, which builds on the strong foundation of environmental stewardship in American agriculture by providing more clarity and guidance for farmers and ranchers as they explore or expand participation in carbon markets," said Zippy Duvall, president of AFBF. "This bill is evidence lawmakers can come together in a bipartisan manner to find solutions to environmental challenges while respecting the role of farmers and ranchers as they feed families around the globe."
The support of the American Farm Bureau Federation at the outset also shows a change in policy attitudes towards climate legislation. More than a decade ago, AFBF aggressively campaigned against an economywide cap-and-trade plan that provided carbon credits for agriculture.
Elizabeth Gore, senior vice president of political affairs at the Environmental Defense Fund, said the bill "is the first major piece of bipartisan legislation to help ensure farmers, ranchers and foresters benefit from reducing their greenhouse gas emissions and building climate resilience. Agriculture has a great opportunity to measurably contribute to climate solutions, from cutting emissions of nitrous oxide, methane and carbon dioxide, to storing carbon. EDF commends the bill's co-sponsors for seeing this potential and paving the way for farmers to be part of the solution."
"For those who have declared bipartisanship dead in Congress, I point them to this bill," Gore added.
Brent Bible, an Indiana corn and soybean farmer who also participated in the news conference, said, "Farmers, at their core, are businessmen, but they are also conservationists and they are also environmentalists. Farmers want to do the right thing for their farms, their ranches, so that they can sustain those operations, not just over their lifetime, but over generations. This act gives us the opportunity to do those things and have some guidance and direction in what practices are good for the environment and there is an economic benefit for doing those particular things."
The bill's introduction received further endorsements in news releases from The Nature Conservancy; McDonald's' the Iowa Pork Producers Association; Truterra LLC, the sustainability business and subsidiary of Land O'Lakes Inc.; National Association of State Departments of Agriculture; USA Rice; the Iowa Soybean Association; the Corn Refiners Association; the Michigan Agri-Business Association; the National Milk Producers Federation; the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives; and the National Farmers Union.
Rob Larew, president of NFU, said a patchwork of carbon markets has sprung up to encourage carbon sequestration, but "there is currently no formal oversight of these markets or uniformity among them for criteria, payment rates, or measurement, which can make selecting the right one a confusing and overwhelming process. By creating a certification program, the Growing Climate Solutions Act would bring much-needed clarity and certainty to this burgeoning sector, thus making it easier for farmers to obtain the financial resources they need to invest in climate solutions."
Not everyone is on board with the idea of paying farmers to sequester carbon in the soil. Last fall, 222 environmental and social justice groups wrote Congress opposing the bill. Friends of the Earth on Tuesday reiterated those criticisms. "The bill will help power plants, refineries, and other polluters to purchase carbon credits from farmers and other agricultural entities. The legislation is being touted as an agriculture-based climate solution by incentivizing farmers to sequester carbon in the soil. However, the credit scheme will allow polluters to offset their emissions, instead of reducing and eliminating them."
Reps. Abigail Spanberger, D-Va., and Don Bacon, R-Neb., are expected to take the lead on introducing a companion bill in the House. This will compete with a handful of climate-related bills introduced last week by Republicans on the House Agriculture Committee. Braun said Tuesday at least some of the provisions in those GOP bills could become part of a final agriculture climate bill.
Chris Clayton can be reached at Chris.Clayton@dtn.com
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