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Pro: Senate must eliminate farm lobby’s free ride as it labors to fix flawed House bill

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David A. Ridenour
August 1, 2009
EDITOR’S NOTE: The writer is addressing the question, Should the Senate require big agriculture to reduce more of its carbon footprint in pending climate change legislation?

Farm-belt congressmen voting for the Waxman-Markey cap-and-trade bill recently passed by the House committed—to borrow from The New York Times’ columnist Paul Krugman—a form of treason. In this instance, treason against the agricultural communities they represent.


Sure, they got a few payoffs in return, including a provision designed to preserve the indefensible corn ethanol subsidy program, but they also planted the seeds of the agricultural sector’s destruction.


Led by Congressman Collin Peterson, D-Minn., farm-state congressmen persuaded sponsors to include a provision blocking the Environmental Protection Agency from measuring the true carbon footprint of ethanol.


The EPA wanted to count carbon emissions from changes in land use—such as clearing rain forests to produce food farmers grew before becoming intoxicated by ethanol—as a cost of production.


Princeton University researcher Tim Searchinger estimates that in their first 30 years of production, bio-fuels such as ethanol contribute nearly double the carbon as gasoline. It takes years to offset the carbon released when grasslands and forests are converted for ethanol-related agriculture.


Had the EPA been allowed to implement its plan, it might have spelled doom for the lucrative corn ethanol industry in this country. By law, ethanol produced in plants built after 2007 must produce 20 percent less carbon than gasoline, not double.


Ethanol producers can’t meet this target if they must count their entire carbon contribution, so, thanks to Peterson, they won’t have to. Wouldn’t all of us like the same deal in reporting our income to the IRS?


Increased emissions are only one of the ethanol program’s costs. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that between April 2007 and April 2008, ethanol production accounted for 10 percent to 15 percent of food inflation, costing consumers between $5.5 billion and $8.8 billion. Other estimates put the costs much higher.


Despite such higher costs—or perhaps because of them—the farm lobby applauded Peterson’s efforts.


The American Farm Bureau Federation, which continues to oppose the Waxman bill, heaped praise on Peterson for his “stellar efforts” to “win vital changes for America’s farm and ranch families.”


Since the Farm Bureau represents livestock producers as well as farmers, the group might have found something more appropriate to heap on the congressman. After all, if not for Peterson, the economy crushing Waxman-Markey cap-and-trade bill likely would have died in the House.


Peterson’s “stellar efforts” gave farm state congressmen political cover to vote against constituents’ interests. Yes, they voted for the bill, but in a John Kerryesque fashion: They can argue they were against it before they were for it.


But the Waxman-Markey climate change bill—or perhaps more aptly, economic climate change bill—would be a disaster for farmers.


According to the Heritage Foundation, higher energy costs resulting from the regulations would push farm incomes down 28 percent by 2012, 60 percent by 2024 and 94 percent by 2050. Many farms and ranches, already operating on razor thin margins, would be forced to buy the proverbial farm.


The damage wouldn’t be limited to farmers. Heritage economists estimate this energy rationing would destroy an average of 1.15 million jobs per year and cost a family of four an average $8.16 per day between 2012 and 2035.


The farm lobby may think it won a free ride in the first round of the cap-and-trade debate. Instead, it advanced regulations that may devastate American agriculture.


When cap-and-trade causes fuel prices to soar, no ride will be free. The Senate could do family farmers a real service by scrapping this wasteful provision from its pending climate change legislation.


David A. Ridenour is vice president of the National Center for Public Policy Research, a conservative think tank. Readers may write to him at NCPPR, 501 Capitol Court NE, Washington, D.C. 20002; Web site: www.nationalcenter.org.

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