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Climate Change; Biofuels; Sec. Vilsack; Budget; Mexico Truck Issue; Peanut Issues; and Senate Hearing for OMB Nominee

(Correction: Yesterday’s FarmPolicy.com update incorrectly identified Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) as the Ranking Member of the House Ag Committee. Rep. Goodlatte is the Ranking Member of the Subcommittee on Conservation, Credit, Energy, and Research, not the full committee).

Climate Change

Ian Talley reported in today’s Wall Street Journal that, “The head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said Tuesday a finding that carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases are a public health danger won’t necessarily lead to government regulation of emissions, an apparent about-face for the Obama administration.

“The comments follow revelations of an administration document warning the EPA of potential economically harmful consequences from an agency finding last month that proposes declaring greenhouse gases a danger to the public. The document represents comments from various federal agencies, prepared by the Office of Management and Budget for EPA rule-making.

“An OMB spokesman said, however, that the document doesn’t represent administration policy. And statements in the document are at odds with the EPA’s reasoning for the ‘endangerment’ proposal.”

The Journal article explained that, “EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson previously has said that such a decision ‘will indeed trigger the beginning of regulation of CO2,’ echoing similar remarks by White House climate czar Carol Browner.

“But speaking before the U.S. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, Ms. Jackson said Tuesday: ‘The endangerment finding is a scientific finding mandated by law…It does not mean regulation.’

“EPA spokeswoman Adora Andy later said Jackson was referring to the proposal, and not a final endangerment designation. ‘No news here,’ Ms. Adora said, adding: ‘The proposed finding does not mean instant regulations.’”

John M. Broder reported yesterday at the Green Inc. Blog (The New York Times) that, “The Environmental Protection Agency ignored major economic and scientific questions in its April proposal to regulate carbon dioxide and other climate-altering gases, according to an internal government critique.

“The undated and unsigned government memo, prepared by the White House Office of Management and Budget, said that the proposed finding that greenhouse gases endanger public health and welfare was not based on a systematic analysis of costs and benefits and fell short of scientific rigor on a number of issues.”

Mr. Broder indicated that, “Senator John Barrasso, Republican of Wyoming, waved the nine-page document at Lisa P. Jackson at a hearing of the Environment and Public Works committee this morning [see six minute video]. He called it a ‘smoking gun’ that proved the proposed finding was based on politics, not science.”

The Green Inc. update also stated that, “[I]n a message posted on the Web this afternoon, O.M.B.’s director, Peter R. Orszag, emphasized that the views expressed in the memo were ‘disparate comments from various agencies during the inter-agency review process of the proposed finding,’ and that they ‘do not necessarily represent the views of either O.M.B. or the Administration.’

“Mr. Orszag also noted, as he had on April 17th, that he considered the E.P.A. proposal to be ‘carefully rooted in both law and science.’”

Jim Tankersley reported in today’s Los Angeles Times that, “In ruling last month that greenhouse gases posed health and safety risks, the Environmental Protection Agency brushed aside warnings from Bush administration holdovers who said the move was ‘likely to have serious economic consequences’ for small businesses and the economy overall, according to documents obtained Tuesday.

“Obama administration officials said the warnings, contained in memos from the Small Business Administration’s Office of Advocacy, didn’t reflect current White House policy. The office is still stocked with Bush appointees, the administration officials said.

“Nevertheless, Republicans hailed the memos as a sign of internal dissent over the EPA finding, which was considered an important step toward the Obama administration’s goal of taking major action against carbon dioxide and other emissions that scientists say contribute to global warming.”

Meanwhile, with respect to legislative branch activity on potential climate change legislation, Stephen Power and Siobhan Hughes reported in today’s Wall Street Journal that, “House Democratic leaders said Tuesday evening they had reached agreement within their caucus on climate-change legislation that sets easier targets for emissions reductions and renewable-energy requirements than originally proposed.

“House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry A. Waxman (D., Calif.) has been negotiating with a group of Southern and Midwestern Democrats on his committee who have withheld support for his bill because they feared it would hurt the economies in their states.”

The Journal writers explained that, “If the bill can get passed by his [Waxman’s] panel, which is among the largest and most ideologically and geographically diverse in Congress, the legislation is widely seen as having a strong chance of passing the full House and possibly the Senate as well.

“Bowing to members of his party whose states depend heavily on cheap, coal-fired electricity, Mr. Waxman told reporters late Tuesday that he has agreed to amend the legislation so that it requires a cut in U.S. greenhouse-gas emissions of 17% below 2005 levels by 2020, rather than a 20% cut in that time frame, as called for in the original version of his proposal.

“Mr. Waxman said Tuesday he has agreed to give away to electric utilities 35% of the emissions permits that would be created by the bill, at least initially, rather than require them to pay for the permits.”

David A. Fahrenthold reported on this development in today’s Washington Post and explained that, “The basic structure of the bill remains unchanged: It calls for a ‘cap and trade’ system, in which the federal government sets a national limit on greenhouse gas pollution and ratchets that limit down over time. The ‘trade’ part of the system would allow some polluters to buy pollution credits, from the government or from others, to cover their emissions…[B]ut last night’s compromise said that some of the credits would be given out free — and that 35 percent of those would be given to local electricity-distribution companies.”

Jared Allen reported last night at The Hill Online that, “House Energy and Commerce Committee leaders on Tuesday night announced a new agreement on a contentious climate change bill, assuaging the concerns of enough committee Democrats to get the bill out of committee, they said.

“‘We’re going to go to markup on Monday with an expectation that we’re going to finish at the end of next week our energy bill,’ Energy and Commerce Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) announced on Tuesday night. ‘I expect that we’re going to have the votes in committee next week to pass this bill out.’”

Biofuels

Dan Looker reported yesterday at Agriculture Online that, “The Environmental Protection Agency has responded to an Iowa senator who says it shouldn’t be rating the carbon footprint of ethanol based on estimates of how farmers are planting virgin timber and grasslands in other nations.”

Mr. Looker indicated that, “[Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa)] was among a dozen senators from both parties who wrote EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson in March, urging her not to use the so-called indirect land use test when estimating how much greenhouse gas is put out when biofuels are made and burned. Under the 2007 energy law, the Energy Independence and Security Act, biofuels must put out less carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases than fossil fuels, in order to qualify for a federal mandate that forces the oil industry to use them. Under the rules that EPA is writing this year, ethanol has to be 20% greener than gasoline and soybean-based biodiesel has to have a 50% smaller carbon footprint than diesel fuel. So far, the preliminary estimate of ethanol is that it averages only a 16% cut in greenhouse gases and biodiesel is only 22% better on average. This would cut out new ethanol plants and all biodiesel plants from mandates and tax credits, unless they’re able to increase their energy efficiency enough to lower greenhouse gas output.

Grassley said Tuesday that in order to get a higher mandate for biofuel use, up to 36 billion gallons by 2022, the Senate had to agree to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s insistence that the indirect land use be part of calculating greenhouse gas output of biofuels. When land is cleared to produce more crops in other parts of the world, burning off timber or plowing grasslands also releases large amounts of carbon dioxide. Environmentalists argue that the carbon dioxide released offsets any benefits from biofuels for decades.

“In a letter that Grassley received late last week, EPA’s acting assistant administrator, Elizabeth Craig, said that the agency had no choice but to include indirect land use in its estimates of the carbon footprint of biofuels.”

Michael Grunwald, in an item posted on Tuesday at Time.com, discussed the EPA decision regarding indirect land use and noted that, “Some environmentalists and journalists have portrayed this as a courageous rebuke to the powerful agro-fuels lobby, while some advocates for farmers have complained that the stress tests were too tough. At a hearing after the announcement, House Agriculture Committee chairman Collin Peterson, a Minnesota Democrat, accused the EPA of attacking corn and soybean farmers. ‘You’re going to kill off the biofuels industry before it even gets started,’ Peterson said. ‘You are in bed with the oil industry!’” (Audio available here, MP3-3:13).

Mr. Grunwald stated that, “It’s hard to see how. Earlier studies exposed corn ethanol as a carbon catastrophe; the EPA had to use extremely generous assumptions to produce scenarios in which it’s even remotely attractive as a fuel alternative. In any case, the heavily subsidized corn-ethanol industries won’t really be penalized for promoting deforestation and accelerating global warming; Congress exempted its existing plants from any consequences in the 2007 law requiring the stress tests. At her May 5 news conference with Energy Secretary Steven Chu and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, Jackson suggested this was a good thing, because corn ethanol is an ‘important bridge’ to better biofuels. The Administration also announced that it plans to push the auto industry to make flex-fuel vehicles that run on 85% ethanol blends — and since ethanol plants have been slammed by a combination of high corn prices, the rise of cleaner technologies and the lousy economy, Washington will help them get credit.”

Sec. Vilsack

A news release issued by USDA on Monday stated that, “U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack today visited Northern Colorado and held a rural community forum to listen to comments and concerns of local residents. Vilsack also shared information with local residents about the work USDA is doing to revitalize and rebuild rural America through its ongoing programs and projects. Also participating in the forum were Colorado Governor Bill Ritter, Senator Michael Bennet, Senator Mark Udall, and Congresswoman Betsy Markey.”

Likewise, USDA noted yesterday that, “U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack today visited Southeast Missouri and held a rural community forum to listen to comments and concerns of local residents. Vilsack also shared information with local residents about the work USDA is doing to revitalize and rebuild rural America through its ongoing programs and projects.”

Budget

Reuters writer Charles Abbott reported yesterday that, “The Obama administration would cut nearly $700 million from land stewardship programs at the Agriculture Department, a small-farm and an environmental group said on Tuesday after examining budget proposals.

“Ferd Hoefner of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition said the proposals would cut ‘a very healthy chunk out of the $5 billion increase’ provided for stewardship programs in the 2008 farm law.

“The Environmental Working Group [EWG], which favors more money for stewardship, said the cuts ‘undermine the administration’s goals of reducing global warming, cleaning up waterways and restoring balance and integrity to environmental programs.’”

The complete EWG news release, which included a table documenting more specific budget issues for some conservation programs, is available here.

Mexico Truck Issue

An AP story which was posted on Monday at The Capital Press Online, reported that, “Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire is urging the Obama administration to quickly resolve a trucking dispute with Mexico to aid export of certain Washington farm products.

“Mexico has raised tariffs on almost 90 American products, a retaliation for a U.S. decision to cancel access to Mexican truckers on U.S. highways despite the terms of a free trade agreement.

“Washington farmers exported $87 million in goods to Mexico last year, including frozen potatoes, pears and cherries, that are now the target of the 20 percent duty. Now Mexican importers will be forced to look for supply sources from other countries, Gregoire said in a letter.”

The AP article added that, “‘In view of the economic downturn, the loss of any market for our agricultural producers is especially troubling,’ Gregoire said. Once the issue is resolved, she said, ‘There is certainly no guarantee that Mexican importers will resume their earlier trading relationship with our producers.’

Gregoire urged Obama in a letter Friday to move forward with a robust new trucking pilot program or another solution that resolves both commercial and safety issues of Mexican trucks as soon as possible.”

Peanut Issues

Jane Zhang reported in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal that, “When it comes to food safety, state lawmakers around the country seem to believe in the adage, if you want something done, you have to do it yourself.

“Frustrated by the response in Washington to the recent spate of food-borne illnesses, state and local politicians are adopting tougher safety laws independent of federal rules. The worry, say some critics, is that a patchwork of regulations will emerge, creating costly and unnecessary hassles for food makers and distributors.

“Georgia recently enacted legislation that gives food processors 24 hours to report internal tests that find tainted products. The state’s peanut industry was hit hard after a widespread salmonella outbreak was traced to a processing plant in rural Blakely, Ga.

An article posted yesterday at the Southeast Farm Press Online by Sharon Dowdy noted that, “Soybeans are the typical replacement for ground meat in patties. But patties made with black-eyed peas and peanuts could be just as good, say University of Georgia food scientists.

“Using black-eyed peas and peanuts may sound new to Americans, but in countries like Korea, they’ve been used for decades, said Manjeet Chinnan, a food engineer with the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.”

Senate Hearing for OMB Nominee

Recall that yesterday’s FarmPolicy update noted that the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs held a hearing yesterday 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).

A news item from earlier this year had indicated that Mr. Sunstein “supports outlawing sport hunting, giving animals the legal right to file lawsuits, and using government regulations to phase out meat consumption.”

These issues did come up in yesterday’s hearing; to listen to an exchange on these issues between Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Mr. Sunstien, just click here (MP3-about five minutes).

Keith Good