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Last-Minute Nod to Farmers Could Undermine Climate Bill

Ethanol-plant.jpg
Ethanol-plant.jpg

An ethanol production plant in South Dakota (iStockphoto)

Before the American Clean Energy and Security Act could reach the House floor for a vote on June 26, Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) took to the podium and launched an improvised filibuster in protest of last-minute additions to the bill by the Democratic leadership. For over an hour, he read passages from the more than 300 pages of amendments, lambasting provision after provision on behalf of his frustrated Republican colleagues who balk at the expansion of energy regulation.

Now, as the Senate takes up debate on the legislation, the objections to some of these late changes are coming from a very different camp: environmental advocacy groups.

Congress.jpg
Congress.jpg

Illustration by: Matt Mahurin

One of the most important amendments to the cap-and-trade bill, which seeks to lower the country’s greenhouse gas emissions and promote alternative energy sources, represents a compromise between the bill’s architects and House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson (D-Minn.), who threatened to block passage if concessions were not made to agricultural interests. The amendment significantly reduces the criteria that biofuels, such as ethanol and wood pellets, would have to meet in order to be considered “renewable” — a victory for farmers who grow these materials.

But a study by the National Resources Defense Council shows that these changes could reduce the emissions-cutting effects of the legislation by as much as a third, thereby undermining the bill’s central aim.

“The ACES bill is supposed to require a 17 percent reduction in carbon emissions by 2020,” David Hawkins, director of climate programs at the NRDC, stated in his written testimony to the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee on Tuesday. “Because of the biomass loophole in the House-passed bill, the real reduction achieved could be far less — as little as 11 percent.”

In an ideal world, biofuels would produce no net emissions, since when plants grow, they take carbon out of the environment, and when they are burned, they release that carbon back into the air. However, there can be indirect contributions to greenhouse gas emissions — for example, if the land on which crops for biofuels are planted would otherwise have been used for carbon-reducing trees, or for food that is then instead planted on a freshly cleared rainforest in South America.

The version of the bill passed by the Energy and Commerce Committee tried to enforce biofuel carbon-neutrality by factoring in these indirect effects on emissions and restricting the conditions under which biofuels would be considered renewable. The Peterson amendment stripped the bill of several of these provisions and prevented the Environmental Protection Agency from accounting for indirect land use issues outside the United States for the next five years. According to Peterson and his backers, indirect land use is difficult to calculate, and the EPA will need some time to properly assess its impact.

The legislation establishes a national cap on greenhouse gas emissions and requires polluters to purchase allowances for each ton of carbon dioxide they emit. However, Hawkins charges that under the House bill, power plants could reduce their need to buy carbon allowances without actually cutting back on emissions.

“If a coal power plant replaces half of its coal with biomass, it has to hold carbon allowances for only half of its pollution,” he said in his statement to the Senate. “This makes sense only on the assumption that 100 percent of the carbon dioxide released when the biomass is burned was taken up from the atmosphere during its production.”

Nathanael Greene, director of renewable energy policy at the NRDC, concurred with his colleague. “In a worst-case scenario,” Greene said, “you’re going out to an old-growth forest that’s sequestered carbon over hundreds of years,” he said. “You take that, you chop that down, you burn that, and from the atmosphere perspective, it’s exactly the same as burning coal. In that case, it really doesn’t matter that you’re displacing coal. You’re adding just as much carbon to the landscape.”

The NRDC study on the effects of the lower biofuel restrictions was conducted about a month ago, but the figures were not released until Hawkins’ testimony on Tuesday before the Environment and Public Works Committee**,** according to Greene, who helped produce the study. Hawkins could not be reached for comment.

The 11-percent effective emissions reduction figure invoked by Hawkins represents the low end of the potential range calculated by NRDC; more likely, the number would be around 14 percent. Both figures are below the 17-percent target recommended by President Obama and prescribed by the legislation, which itself is too low for many scientists and environmental advocates.

Rolf Skar, a senior forest campaigner at Greenpeace, worries that additional support for biofuels could reduce the incentives for cleaner energy sources, such as wind and solar. “Putting them in the mix here just means that they’re going to substitute for windmills and other true sources of renewable energy,” he said, adding that the Peterson amendment “was clearly based on politics, and not science.”

On the other side of the debate, the farm lobby has cheered Peterson’s efforts. Farmers could derive substantial income from provisions that subsidize the production of biofuels.

“As a general proposition, we support what Mr. Peterson got in the House bill,” said Paul Schlegel, director of public policy at the American Farm Bureau. But he added that the Bureau opposes cap-and-trade legislation overall due to its costs for farmers and consumers of energy.

In a statement following the passage of the House bill, Peterson said, “This bill promotes homegrown, clean burning renewable fuels, which is one of the best things we can do for the economy and the environment.” Peterson’s office did not respond to a request for further comment.

Many environmentalists still hold out hope that the biofuels provision will be changed in the Senate.

Josh Dorner of the Sierra Club is optimistic that given the relatively liberal composition of the Senate Energy and Public Works Committee’s Democratic membership, the committee might be able to strengthen the biofuels language in ways the House could not. “If you look at the EPW Committee compared to the Energy and Commerce Committee in the House, it’s a much more hospitable environment,” he said.

Still, there is already evidence that the fight to maintain the farm-friendly biofuel provisions could be bipartisan. On Wednesday, Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) stated his intent to keep all of Peterson’s provisions in the Senate version of the bill, and to add “more allocations and allowances” for agriculture.

“Farm interests probably have a stronger hand in the Senate,” Dorner conceded, “given that people in nearly every state have some sort of agricultural interest.”

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