Fights in Washington continue over climate change and energy policy

Mar 22, 2013

Standing with a group of conservative leaders on Capitol Hill earlier this month, the president of the Fertilizer Institute took his turn at the podium to caution against the risks facing farmers if the country imposed a nationwide carbon tax.

“In production agriculture, a carbon tax is very simply a farmer tax,” said Ford West, president of the Fertilizer Institute. “Farmers will bear the brunt of a carbon tax through increased input costs, increased cost of fuel on the farm, increased cost of transportation and getting their product into the market in a global environment. They will be the ones who have to pay the carbon tax.”

Much like they are on fiscal issues, conservatives and their allies on Capitol Hill— including some key agricultural groups—remain on the opposite side of liberals and the Obama administration on energy policy and climate change. Conservatives and business groups want to nip in the bud any talk of climate legislation. Speakers at the press conference last week emphasized the effects that a carbon tax would have on manufacturing jobs and energy prices for American families and small businesses.

“So at a time when we are trying to kick-start our economy and increase energy production, the last thing our economy needs or families need is a tax on carbon,” said Rep. Steve Scalise, R- LA, chairman of the Republican Study Committee.

The Republican Study Committee wants the House to pass a resolution specifically to oppose any kind of carbon tax. Scalise said 85 Republicans had signed on as co-sponsors of the legislation.

While a carbon tax in the near future is unlikely, President Obama is forging ahead in trying to shift energy policy away from fossil fuels. In a recent speech, the president proposed taking $200 million annually that the federal government collects for oil and gas companies and investing it to create vehicles with lower greenhouse-gas emissions. The president continues to advocate that the country must reduce its reliance on oil.

“The only way to break this cycle of spiking gas prices, the only way to break that cycle for good, is to shift our cars entirely, our cars and trucks, off oil,” the president said at a research lab in Illinois.

Biofuel supporters, facing a lobbying effort in Congress by the petroleum industry, praised the president’s focus on alternatives to oil. Adam Monroe, president of Novozymes, a company that produces enzymes used in conventional and advanced biofuels, said biofuel policies such as the Renewable Fuels Standard, provide certainty for investors to continue creating green jobs.

“America is ready for more renewable fuel. It’s being made in American cities, reinvigorating our local economies and the nation’s, too. It is being made by American workers, offering them good-paying, stable jobs in a growing industry. It’s also fighting climate change,” Monroe said in response to the president’s speech.

A recently released annual White House economic report cited climate change as the most significant longterm pollution problem facing the country. The report cited the “social costs of carbon,” including “health, property damage, agricultural impacts, the value of ecosystem services and other welfare costs of climate change. The report cited the need for switching to fuels that reduce emissions, including energy such as wind and solar.

Bloomberg News also reported that Obama was about to follow through on his State of the Union promise to take further action to deal with climate change since Congress is failing to act. While the Environmental Protection Agency continues increasing regulations on major greenhouse-gas emitters, the Obama administration is now planning to require federal agencies to factor in the impact of climate change when approving projects such as oil pipelines, roads or other major projects. Obama would do so through a Nixon-era law, the National Environmental Policy Act.

After metaphorically heading for the hills following the failure to pass climate legislation in 2010, some Democrats in Congress are again becoming more vocal about the need to pass legislation. Senate Environment and Public Works Chairwoman Barbara Boxer, D-CA, is proposing legislation, but no such measures will pass the House where Republicans continue to question both the science and the costs.

In a bill that has no chance of moving out of committee, Rep. Henry Waxman, D-CA, has proposed a carbon tax, which was one of the rallying points for Scalise to hold his press conference. Rep. Joe Barton, R-TX, former chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said, “A carbon tax is a bad idea whose time still has not come, and hopefully never will come,” adding shortly later “We will do everything possible to prevent it from happening.”

Republicans, and industries that rely heavily on energy, caution that these green efforts will continue to put a fragile economy at risk. The American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers President Charles Drevna wondered why such policies are being considered as the country is on the verge of a manufacturing renaissance.

“The only thing that will prevent us from having that are inane policies like a carbon tax that will debilitate any kind of ability or opportunity that middle America has to grow or develop,” Drevna said.

Also supporting the Republican position were manufacturers and anti-tax leaders such as Grover Norquist, who stressed that middleclass families would feel the pinch. “First of all, this is not a tax on carbon,” Norquist said. “Carbon does pay taxes. Carbon does not have bank accounts you can loot.”

American Farm Bureau President Bob Stallman didn’t attend the Republican Study Committee press conference but sent a statement supporting the GOP position. “As an industry that depends on affordable energy in the production and transport of its commodities, agriculture would be especially disadvantaged by a carbon tax,” Stallman said. “One of the toughest challenges growers face is dealing with the obstacles and variability that Mother Nature often hands us. Our grassroot members, comprised of hard-working farmers and ranchers, have clearly stated in our policy that we are opposed to taxes on carbon uses or emissions.”

Ford said farmers are working to reduce their environmental footprint through efficiency, technology such as precision agriculture, and fertilizer management. “They are reducing their fertilizer use on a peracre basis as they get more efficient and I think the efficiency is what is driving them to be more profitable and, at the same time, reducing CO2, NO2 (nitrous oxide) emissions and agriculture’s role on climate change.”

“That is what some of the scientists are predicting and I know a lot of people are looking at that, but is very difficult for a farmer today to focus on 25 years out,” West said. “The best thing he can do is improve his efficiency and crop production.” — Chris Clayton, DTN