FarmPolicy

November 15, 2019

Biofuels; Climate Change; and Senate Hearing on OMB Nomination

Biofuels

Richard Harris reported on Sunday at National Public Radio Online that, “Getting fuel from green plants seems like a great idea. But scientific research over the last few years shows that biofuels aren’t necessarily helpful in combating global warming. Based on this data, the EPA has drafted new, tighter regulations that could make it harder for the biofuels industry to grow.

“In theory, biofuels themselves don’t add any extra carbon to the atmosphere. Green plants take carbon dioxide out of the air, so when you burn them, the carbon dioxide just goes back to where it came from.

“But an industry based on this idea turns out not to be so green. For one thing, when the ethanol industry took off in the United States, so did the price of its main raw material — corn. So farmers in places like Brazil planted corn on their pasturelands to cash in, but they still needed land to graze their animals on.”

The NPR item noted that, “The EPA attempted to factor global deforestation into its regulations on biofuels. The agency’s analysis found that in general, deforestation driven by high corn prices actually makes biofuels look bad from the standpoint of climate change. And, the 2007 law that the new regulations are based on says biofuels must do more good than harm — both globally and domestically.

“But [Bruce Babcock from Iowa State University], along with the biofuels industry, is arguing that the effects of biofuels on forests around the world are being exaggerated. Proponents say the industry is actually better for the climate than the EPA analysis suggests.

“[Babcock] acknowledges that there’s been a lot of deforestation in Brazil, but disagrees with EPA findings: ‘There’s scant evidence that increased production of crops has been the primarily culprit in the loss of Amazon forest. Certainly cattle and pasture have increased in the Amazon since 1996. But was that due to the 36 percent increase in Brazilian cropland, or the 30 percent increase in the cattle herd in Brazil?’”

In related news on this issue, an update posted yesterday at The SugarCaneBlog stated that, “The Brazilian newspaper, Folha de Sao Paulo, is reporting that, according to an internal government report, the government’s own policy to push agrarian reform is causing deforestation. The report is said to conclude that 21% of all deforestation in the Amazon region is in areas where the government has implemented agrarian reform.”

Matthew L. Wald noted yesterday at The Green Inc. Blog (The New York Times) that, “According to a study by three California researchers, an acre planted with corn for ethanol will provide far fewer miles of transportation fuel as the same acre growing trees or switchgrass, which are then burned in power plants that provide the power to charge the batteries of electric cars.

“In fact, even ethanol made from cellulose, a technology that does not now exist in commercial form, is not as efficient a use of biomass as burning it in a power plant would be, the researchers found.

“In a paper published in the current issue of Science magazine, Chris Field, a professor of biology at Stanford and director of the Department of Global Ecology at the Carnegie Institution, Elliott Campbell of the University of California, Merced, and David Lobell of Stanford’s Program on Food Security and the Environment, write that the size of the advantage would depend on many factors.”

Mr. Wald also indicated that, “[T]he researchers estimated that a small battery-powered S.U.V. would go nearly 14,000 miles on the highway on the energy from an acre of switchgrass burned to make electricity, compared to about 9,000 miles on ethanol.”

Meanwhile, with respect to EPA’s consideration of whether to allow a higher level of ethanol to be blended into gasoline, Julie Harker reported yesterday at Brownfield that, “While saying he’s a ‘strong supporter of renewable fuels,’ Congressman Bob Goodlatte of Virginia last week urged President Obama, Ag Secretary Vilsack and EPA administrator Lisa Jackson not to approve the current ethanol blend increase request. Goodlatte, the ranking member of the House Ag Committee [CORRECTED-Ranking Member of the Subcommittee on Conservation, Credit, Energy, and Research], says ‘many other members of Congress’ have joined him in a letter saying an ethanol blend above 10 percent in gasoline could ‘result in serious economic consequences that could negatively affect already struggling Americans.’

“Goodlatte asserts that raising the blend would decrease fuel efficiency in automobiles and ‘increase food costs for all Americans.’”

Climate Change

The “Washington Insider” section of DTN (link requires subscription) reported yesterday that, “In the search for ways to control emissions that create build-ups of greenhouse gases, the tools most often discussed include taxes on carbon in one form or another. For example, the House Energy and Commerce Committee is considering a major energy and climate-change bill that likely will include cap-and-trade provisions that would cap carbon emissions and provide an open market to trade carbon credits.

“While most producers are concerned about potential cost increases, there are those who also worry about programs that imply benefits for producers — the 20 percent of the global warming solution that Secretary Vilsack frequently talks about. The concern is that programs will emerge that pay producers more to idle farm land than they can get from the markets — resulting in economic harm to grain and oilseed handlers and processors.

“For example, the National Grain and Feed Association last week urged Congress to ‘pursue a global approach and not incentivize farmers to remove U.S. cropland from production when it begins considering climate-change legislation.’”

The DTN update added that, “NGFA President Kendell Keith wrote the Congress that U.S. emissions control programs should maintain the competitiveness of U.S. agriculture — an industry that consistently has contributed a positive balance of trade for the U.S. economy, and that ‘…Any move to reduce carbon emissions must not inadvertently incentivize U.S. farmers to take land out of production or allow carbon emitters to purchase cropland and take it out of production to earn offsets.’”

On Friday, the National Farmers Union (NFU) indicated in a news release that, “National Farmers Union President Roger Johnson outlined in a letter to House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman, D-Calif., yesterday the necessary components of a meaningful cap and trade system. Johnson urged Waxman to support legislation that would enable America’s farmers and ranchers to be key actors in combating climate change.”

The NFU release added that, “Johnson called on Waxman to ensure several provisions are addressed as Congress moves forward with the legislation: The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is granted control and administration of the agriculture offset program; Early actors are recognized; No artificial cap is placed on domestic offsets; Carbon sequestration rates are based on science; and Producers are permitted to stack environmental benefit credits.

“‘America’s farmers and ranchers stand ready, willing and able to assist in the fight against climate change, and NFU stands ready to help Congress accomplish one of the most significant policy challenges facing our nation today,’ Johnson said.”

A Dow Jones news article from yesterday (posted at DTN, link requires subscription) reported that, “U.S. regulation of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide ‘is likely to have serious economic consequences’ for businesses small and large across the economy, a White House memo warned the Environmental Protection Agency earlier this year.

“The single legal opinion, sent from the Office of Management and Budget to the EPA, is in stark contrast to the official position presented by President Barack Obama and his Cabinet officials. It’s likely to give critics of greenhouse gas regulation ammunition in their political salvos against the administration.

“Cabinet officials, including the president’s climate change czar, Carol Browner, have said the administration would prefer Congress create greenhouse gas regulations through legislation, and not through EPA’s Clean Air Act authority.”

The article added that, “But the White House has given the EPA the green light to move ahead with regulation under the Clean Air Act – a move deemed by some analysts as political leverage to push Congress to act because of the bluntness of the tool.”

And with respect to federal budget implications, Jonathan Weisman reported in today’s Wall Street Journal that, “The Obama administration said Monday that it expected even wider deficits this year and next than previously forecast, and Congress could undermine the administration’s push to narrow the gap by slashing the revenue generated by the president’s plan to curb greenhouse gases.

“On Monday, White House budget director Peter Orszag revised the fiscal 2009 deficit upward by $89 billion to $1.84 trillion, 12.9% of the economy. That is a level not seen since 1945. Next year’s deficit forecast was raised $87 billion, to $1.26 trillion.”

Mr. Weisman explained that, “Congress is debating proposals to give away to utilities and other businesses the pollution credits that would be created by a cap-and-trade system. Such a system is designed to reduce carbon-dioxide emissions by instituting caps, and requiring that businesses buy permits to pollute that they can trade like commodities.

“Beginning in 2012, the White House budget had counted on the sale of greenhouse-gas emissions permits to bring in $77 billion to $79 billion a year through 2019. Of the $624 billion in revenue, the White House allocated $504 billion to a $800-per-family tax cut for households with incomes below $150,000, in part to offset the impact of the cap-and-trade system on electricity rates. An additional $15 billion a year was dedicated to developing and deploying renewable-energy efforts to replace the fossil fuels being hit by the pollution trading system.

If Congress decides to give away permits, that would mean less money for policy ideas such as the president’s Making Work Pay tax cut and his push to wean the nation off fossil fuels, and less money for deficit reduction.”

Mike Soraghan reported yesterday at The Hill Online that, “A tin of Costco lasagna and some red wine may hold the key to solving the climate change debate — at least in the House Democratic Caucus.

Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) has been hosting lasagna dinners in the Methodist House apartment near the Capitol that he shares with Blue Dog Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.) in an effort to find common ground in the increasingly tense debate over a cap-and-trade bill.

“Welch has been inviting conservative Blue Dogs like Reps. Mike Doyle (D-Pa.) and Dennis Cardoza (D-Calif.) to meet with more liberal Democrats like Rep. Jay Inslee (D-Wash.) to talk about the details of the looming cap-and-trade bill. Some of the more environmentally inclined Democrats joked that they could be called the ‘Green Dogs.’”

The article added that, “It’s not clear how much progress Welch’s gatherings have made or if it will help jar loose the legislation from committee, but participants say they’ve each come to understand the other side a little bit better.”

Senate Hearing on OMB Nomination

The Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs will be holding a hearing this morning at 10:00 am (Eastern) to consider the nomination of Cass R. Sunstein for the position of Administrator for the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) at the Office of Management and Budget (OMB).

According to this OMB webpage, the OIRA “reviews significant proposed and final rules as well as information collection requests prior to publication in the Federal Register. Coordinated review of agency rulemaking is necessary to ensure that regulatory actions do not conflict with the policies or actions taken or planned by another agency, are consistent with applicable law [and] the President’s priorities…”

The New Republic Blog, the Vine, described the position this way back in December, “Among top officials, this is the most important position that Americans know nothing about. All major regulations—from rules on clean air to airline safety—will pass Sunstein’s desk.”

An update posted back in January at a Washington Post political blog indicated that, Sunstein is a “close friend” of President Obama and that the two became close “during their years at the University of Chicago.” Sunstien is currently a professor of law at Harvard University.

What makes this hearing of particular interest to some in the agricultural community is Sunstein’s controversial views on animal rights.

A news release issued back in January by the Center for Consumer Freedom Online indicated that, “Sunstein supports outlawing sport hunting, giving animals the legal right to file lawsuits, and using government regulations to phase out meat consumption.

“In a 2007 speech at Harvard University, [replay of the speech available here, his comments start around the 39 minute mark] Sunstein argued in favor of entirely ‘eliminating current practices such as … meat eating.’ He also proposed: ‘We ought to ban hunting, I suggest, if there isn’t a purpose other than sport and fun. That should be against the law. It’s time now.’”

Its possible that some Senators may ask Sunstein about these issues in today’s hearing.

***

In other news regarding animal agriculture, Jim Miller reported yesterday at The Press-Enterprise Online (California) that, “California’s upcoming ban on small cages for egg-laying hens would be extended to out-of-state egg producers if a bill moving through the Legislature becomes law.”

The article noted that, “‘I think there’s a general consensus out there that if our industries have to do certain things for the housing of poultry, then we don’t think it’s too much to ask the rest of the country to adhere to the same rules that we do, just to keep our folks competitive,’ said Assemblyman Tom Berryhill, R-Modesto, a co-author of AB 1437. He opposed Prop. 2.

Prop. 2 mandates that pigs, calves raised for veal and egg-laying hens have enough space to lie down, stand up, turn around and fully extend their limbs. Violators can face criminal penalties.

“Its main impact is on the egg industry, which led last year’s opposition to the initiative.”

The article pointed out that, “An Assembly committee analysis of the bill raised concerns that expanding Prop. 2’s rules to out-of-state egg producers could violate the interstate commerce clause of the U.S. Constitution meant to prevent states from restricting imports from other states.

“In addition, the new legislation has failed to placate California egg producers’ frustration with Prop. 2. The industry is forming a new group, the Association of California Egg Farmers, mainly to deal with Prop. 2’s implementation.”

Keith Good

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