The climate change legislation now before the Senate has succeeded in doing something neither the nation’s environmental groups or the Bush administration could do: create fault lines in the farm bloc.

The American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009, also known as the Waxman-Markey bill, H.R. 2454, is drawing decidedly mixed reviews from farm organizations. Some are condemning the bill outright, some seeking significant changes and others are behind it all the way.

The American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF)has taken dead aim at the legislation, which passed the House by a narrow margin (219-212), with AFBF President Bob Stallman recently characterizing it as “embarking on a fool’s errand,” if the U.S. tries to go it alone on solving the problem.

On the other side of the spectrum, the National Farmers Union (NFU) and American Farmland Trust (AFT) have been throwing their lobbying efforts behind the legislation, with the AFT claiming its passage would “usher in a new agricultural era.”
More mainstream commodity groups like the National Corn Growers Association (NCGA), on the other hand, have more cautious. NCGA President Bob Dickey recently issued a statement saying his organization wants to be “at the table and not on the table” during deliberations.

All of those stood shoulder to shoulder during the nearly two years of debate on the 2008 Farm Bill despite efforts by environmental groups and Bush administration officials to pit them against each other. While they seemingly remain united on most issues, their leaders are staking out tough positions on Waxman-Markey.

That was evident in the testimony by Stallman during testimony at a recent hearing by the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works on the Senate version of the climate change legislation.

“Unilateral cap-and-trade legislation will have little or no impact on the climate because greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions require a global response,” said Stallman. “A ton of GHG emitted in China is the same as a ton of GHG emitted in Virginia. Regulating emissions in Virginia without regulating emissions in China will have little or no effect on the environment.”

Stallman also told the committee most experts agree that if the House-passed legislation worked exactly as planned, it would not lower temperatures by more than a few tenths of a degree by 2050.

Besides that, AFBF leaders have been saying the bill will raise food prices for consumers unless an offset program is put into place to defray production input costs. An agricultural offsets program administered by USDA is an essential cost containment measure, but revenues from offsets will only partially defray increased costs and not all agriculture sectors will benefit from offset opportunities.

“Inclusion of an offset program is not the complete answer,” said Stallman. “Even with a robust agricultural offset program, the bill still does not make economic sense for producers because a number of sectors will be not able to participate.”

Participating in an offset program will depend to a great degree on where the producer is located, what he or she grows and if his or her business can take advantage of the program, Stallman noted. Not every dairy farmer can afford to capture methane. Not every farmer lives in a region where wind turbines are an option. Not every farmer can take advantage of no-till. And not every farmer has the land to set aside to plant trees, according to Stallman.

“Yet, these producers will incur the same increased fuel, fertilizer and energy costs as their counterparts who can benefit from the offsets market,” said Stallman.

Another contention AFBF has with H.R. 2454 is that it would reduce the use of fossil fuels such as coal and oil, but does not specify what energy source will plug the hole left by these reductions. This could lead to energy shortages and much higher energy prices.

“We remain very concerned about the many broad potential adverse impacts of H.R. 2454 and cap-and-trade in general,” concluded Stallman.

Acknowledging the climate change issue evokes “extreme reactions;” Dickey listed a number of reasons why the NCGA has decided it will work on the side of passage of a climate change bill rather than opposing it.

Those include the facts that the Supreme Court’s ruling on carbon dioxide in April 2007 has opened the door for EPA to regulate GHG, the Obama administration has set climate change legislation as a top priority and Congress has done likewise.

“The art of public policy, in which NCGA has a pretty good track record, requires the ability to compromise and assess positions of strength and weaknesses,” Dickey says. “If one does not like a particular piece of proposed legislation, one can choose to oppose and hope to kill or weigh in and hope to change and make it more palatable.

“After hearing and assessing the facts surrounding the Waxman-Markey bill during its early days, the NCGA corn board determined that this legislation had a head of steam and high probability of passage.”

Most farm groups, including AFBF, have expressed gratitude for the efforts of House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson (D-MN) to include the nine principles farm groups have laid out as being necessary for the bill.

But AFBF and the National Cotton Council have indicated they cannot support the bill even with the Peterson amendment because of its impact on farmers and the rural economy in areas that cannot benefit from some of the alternative energy sources such as wind and solar power.

The NFU continues to speak out for passage of climate change legislation but with provisions such as granting USDA control and administration of the agricultural and forestry offset program and basing offset credits for carbon sequestration on sound science.

“NFU urged members of the House to vote in favor of climate change legislation and in doing so hopes to have demonstrated a constructive approach to working with leadership to pass a bill that works for farmers, ranchers and rural communities,” NFU President Roger Johnson said.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has also been pushing for giving farmers and ranchers a role in “crafting the solution” to the issue of climate change.

“Climate change is one of the great challenges facing the U.S. and the world,” he said in testimony to the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. “The science is clear that the planet is already warming, and there are particular vulnerabilities and challenges for farmers.

“I believe it is crucial that we engage the participation of farmers, ranchers, and forest landowners. This issue is too important for agriculture and forestry to sit on the sidelines. A viable carbon offsets market – one that rewards farmers, ranchers, and forest landowners for stewardship activities – has the potential to play a very important role in helping America wean itself from foreign oil.”