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AgMag BLOG

Feeding your mind, saving the planet >>

Addition to climate bill: Cash for no-till farming

Friday, September 18, 2009

By PHILIP BRASHER pbrasher@dmreg.com

June 29, 2009 15:16 PM

Washington, D.C. - Some growers could get payments just to keep farming the way they already are, under changes being made to a House climate bill. Farm groups won provisions in the legislation that are intended to make it easier for farmers to qualify for a new carbon offset program that would be established by the bill.

Farmers who already conserve carbon in the soil by not plowing it could qualify for the new credits to keep them from breaking up the land and releasing the carbon into the air. About 1.2 million of the 25 million acres of Iowa land planted to corn and soybeans each year are continually farmed without tillage, the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation said. The money that farmers would get would come from utilities, refiners and other companies willing to make such payments in lieu of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The bill would impose caps on emissions but allow polluters to meet them through buying credits rather than changing their operations.

Environmentalists have long fought against providing credits for existing farm practices, arguing that they would do nothing to reduce future greenhouse gas emissions, which is the bill's goal. Don Carr, a spokesman for the Environmental Working Group, said Congress was opening "a huge loophole to allow farmers to do what they are already doing while letting polluters off the hook." But without the provision, no-till farmers would have an incentive to break up their land temporarily and then resume their conservation practices later to qualify for the carbon credits, said Dave Miller, who follows climate policy for the Iowa Farm Bureau.

The size of the payments would vary according to the farming practice and the value of the credits. At a rate of $15 a ton, payments for no-till farming in Iowa could be about $9 an acre, Miller said. The credit provision is contained in an amendment worked out between House Democratic leaders and House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson, D-Minn. The amendment also would put the Agriculture Department, rather than the Environmental Protection Agency, in charge of the offset program.

Other provisions would at least temporarily ease emissions standards for biofuels. Biodiesel producers would be exempted from the standards entirely for the first billion gallons of annual production, the amount mandated under existing law. Democratic leaders were still struggling to find the votes to push the bill through the House before next week's congressional recess. As of late Thursday, Rep. Leonard Boswell was supporting the bill and Rep. Dave Loebsack remained undecided, aides said. Both are Iowa Democrats.

The struggle over the bill extended to farm groups. The American Soybean Association issued a news release opposing the legislation, only to rescind the statement later Thursday. The association's executive committee planned discussions today. The American Farm Bureau Federation remained opposed to the bill, citing the potential increases in production costs. Several major environmental groups, including Carr's, still supported the bill despite their complaints about the farm and biofuels provisions.

Even with the changes sought by farm groups, it is unclear how many credits farmers would claim if the legislation was enacted. An analysis of the bill released this week by the EPA before the changes were made for farm interests estimated that few farms would receive credits other than for planting trees on pasture and cropland. In 2020, landowners in Brazil and other foreign countries would receive about 1.1 billion tons worth of credits, compared with an estimated 176 million tons of U.S.-generated credits, most of which would go for forestry operations, EPA found.

The international credits would be cheaper than domestic offsets for U.S. polluters because of the lower cost of land overseas, said Bruce Babcock, an Iowa State University economist.

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