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The Energy 202: Two GOP senators join with Democrats to back bill to help cut emissions from farms

with Paulina Firozi

A bipartisan group of senators is trying to make it easier for farmers and forest managers to make money from reducing greenhouse gas emissions from their land.

A new legislative proposal tackling the impact U.S. agriculture is having on rising global temperature is the latest effort from some GOP lawmakers to turn over a new, green leaf on global warming.

“This to me is timely. It makes sense. It covers a fairly large section of where we have CO2 making it into the atmosphere,” Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.), a tree farmer and a lead sponsor on the legislation, said in an interview.

In addition to Braun, the measure is sponsored by Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.). 

There are many ways farmers can cut their emissions. This new bill would help them get paid for doing it. 

California and 10 Northeastern states have set up markets for buying and selling credits for the right to emit carbon into the atmosphere, effectively putting a cap on those states’ contributions to climate change. Other voluntary markets let eco-conscious consumers pay money to offset emissions from airline travel and other activities.

The new bill, called the Growing Climate Solutions Act, would give farmers a leg up in selling credits into those markets by planting trees, restoring wetlands or using fertilizer more efficiently on their properties — all of which help cut the amount of carbon dioxide, methane and other climate-warming pollution emitted from their fields. Forest managers, similarly, can sequester carbon by letting more trees grow to maturity rather than regularly cutting them down.

The senators want to set up a certification program at the Department of Agriculture to sign off on experts whom farmers can turn to for advice about reducing emissions. Such a program, along with a new USDA website called for in the bill, would give farmers the confidence to start cutting emissions and know they can participate in the carbon markets, the lawmakers say.

“Something like this where they can be rewarded for their good stewardship just comes at a wonderful time,” said Braun, who noted farmers are facing hardship now due to low prices during the coronavirus pandemic.

So far, the bill has broad support in Congress and corporate America.

A wide range of groups are also backing the bill, including green organizations such as the Environmental Defense Fund and agribusiness lobbyists such as the American Farm Bureau Federation. 

“I've seen a change over the last couple of years” when it comes to what farmers think about climate change, said Callie Eideberg, EDF's director of government relations.

“Some people might be motivated because they're seeing the impacts on their farm due to increased rain and flooding, she added. "Other folks, frankly, may just be wanting to make some money.”

Corporations including Microsoft and McDonald’s, each of which can use the programs to help meet their climate goals, are endorsing it, too.

“Make no mistake, this is a breakthrough,” Whitehouse said. “And in my view, it signals a broader move coming on climate in this country as corporate America starts to take up climate as a legislative issue.”

Agriculture is less-discussed source of climate-warming emissions.

Most federal and state climate policies, including the carbon markets in California and the Northeast, are designed for cutting emissions from the top two sources — transportation and power generation.

But 10 percent of all greenhouse gases in the United States come from farms, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Nitrogen in fertilizer not absorbed by crops seeps into the air as heat-trapping nitrous oxide while cattle and other livestock belch methane, a greenhouse gas more potent than carbon dioxide.

Many farmers, who are often among the hardest hit by changes in weather patterns, often don't know where to begin when it comes to mitigating emissions.

“We heard a lot of folks saying, ‘Look, I’d like to do something. I don’t know how to get started,’” said Stabenow, who is the top Democrat on the Senate Agriculture Committee.

Their proposed certification plan, in which third-party observers approved by the USDA make sure farmers are actually taking steps to cut emissions, would be similar to how growers today qualify as organic farmers.

The farming proposal comes as younger Republicans increasingly say climate is a priority.

In a poll last summer by The Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation, nearly 7 in 10 Republican adults under 45 said that human activity is causing the climate to change.

Braun, a freshman senator and loyalist to President Trump, is one of a handful of Republican lawmakers who say they are taking those concerns seriously, even as the president repeatedly dismisses the idea humans are warming the planet. 

In writing the legislation, he said he is trying to respond to “all younger generations and even our current generation more on my side of the aisle.”

Last year, Braun formed with Sen. Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.) the first Senate bipartisan caucus focused on finding solutions to climate change. Stabenow and Graham are also members.

He isn't the only Republican putting forward a climate plan. On the other side of Capitol Hill, Rep. Bruce Westerman (R-Ark.) wants to plant a trillion trees to suck carbon dioxide from the air. 

His proposal was warmly received by many other House Republicans, including House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), who included Westerman's bill with three others in his own agenda for addressing climate change.

But those relatively modest measures don't act quickly enough to cut carbon emissions this decade as fast as U.N. climate scientists say is needed to stop dangerous warming this century. 

Braun, for one, said he is open to the idea placing a price on carbon — though he is not sure whether Congress should set up a cap-and-trade scheme or a tax on emissions.

"A lot of individuals on my side of the aisle that have been foot draggers on it," said Braun. “And we've got to make the case that basically it's so broad in its support that, why wouldn't you do something?"

Even with bipartisan support, a bill addressing the climate impact of farms may be tough to pass with everything else the country is going through right now.

Stabenow is hopeful the bill may be include in an end-of-year spending bill or another relief package for the coronavirus pandemic. 

But with the country still grappling with containing the covid-19 outbreak and approaching a presidential election, Andrew Walmsley, director of congressional relations at the American Farm Bureau Federation, said getting it across the finishing line this year will be tough.

“I don't know if there is high hope for this Congress,” he said. “I don't think there is any expectation this will be enacted tomorrow.” 

Scientists speak out on racial injustice

Groups representing meteorologists, climate scientists and astronomers are highlighting racial injustices and discrimination.

Theyre speaking out as protests continue across the country over George Floyds death in Minneapolis police custody. 

The scientific organizations — including the American Meteorological Society, the American Geophysical Union and the American Association for the Advancement of Science — represent fields in which African American and other minority groups have long been underrepresented, Jason Samenow and Andrew Freedman report.

“These groups have at various times spoken out about the need to ensure more diversity to their ranks and to improve their record on sexual harassment. But this is among the first times they have been so vocal in addressing racism and its impacts nationally,” they add. “ … For Tevin Wooten, an on-camera meteorologist at the Weather Channel, the recent events underscore ‘the lack of attention or care we’ve historically provided to the issues of the African American community; and how they’re disproportionately weighed.’”

“I work on one existential crisis, but these days I can’t concentrate because of another,” this black climate expert says. 

Marine biologist Ayana Elizabeth Johnson writes about the numerous ways racism obstructs her work on climate solutions. 

She writes about the need for people of color to be meaningfully involved in addressing climate change, in part because “more than 23 million black Americans already care deeply about the environment and could make a huge contribution to the massive amount of climate work that needs doing.”

“The sheer magnitude of transforming our energy, transportation, buildings and food systems within a decade, while striving to reach net zero greenhouse gas emissions shortly thereafter, is already overwhelming,” she writes. “ … How can we expect black Americans to focus on climate when we are so at risk on our streets, in our communities, and even within our own homes? How can people of color effectively lead their communities on climate solutions when faced with pervasive and life-shortening racism?” 

These Democrats want to know what role the Park Police played in dispersing crowds outside the White House. 

Natural Resources Committee Chairman Raúl M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.) and Rep. Deb Haaland (D-N.M.), chair of the natural parks subcommittee, wrote a letter asking for a “briefing, to be conducted remotely, for members of the committee to examine the role of the U.S. Park Police during the June 1 incident.” 

“We require further information about alarming reports indicating that U.S. Park Police were among the law enforcement officers who launched the violent attack on peaceful protesters in Lafayette Park to clear the way for President Trump’s photo opportunity at St. John’s Episcopal Church,” they wrote.

Coronavirus latest

Dozens of Democrats in both chambers want to boost renewable energy in the next coronavirus stimulus package. 

“As Congress works to help the American economy recover, we must ensure robust investments are made to spur growth in renewable energy, energy storage, energy efficiency, clean vehicles, clean and efficient infrastructure, clean fuels, and workforce development,” lawmakers wrote in a letter led by Rep. Paul Tonko (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.). 

“These investments should both spur national growth and include funding opportunities for community-level adoption. Smart investments in these areas can help America decarbonize, put people back to work, and help our national, state, and local economies recover, they add. 

The lawmakers’ call for action also cited the nearly 600,000 clean-energy jobs that have been lost amid the pandemic. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revised a guidance that called on people to commute alone. 

After issuing guidelines that recommended driving alone to curb the spread of the coronavirus, the agency adjusted its language. 

“The original version of the guidance, which E&E News accessed using an internet archive, encouraged Americans to commute to work in single-occupancy cars rather than take mass transit,” the publication reports. That suggestion irked advocates, who point out that many low-income people may not have their own vehicle and that emissions from cars are especially harmful to the planet. 

E&E adds: “Over the weekend, the agency responded by tweaking the line to say: ‘If feasible, offer employees incentives to use forms of transportation that minimize close contact with others (e.g., biking, walking, driving or riding by car either alone or with household members).’”

Power plays

Billionaire Tom Steyer is set to host a virtual fundraiser for Joe Biden. 

“The video call is billed as a San Francisco ‘climate leaders for Biden’ fundraiser,” Forbes reports. “Contributions will go toward Biden’s joint fundraising committee, Biden Action Fund. To register to attend the event, contribution amounts start at $100,000.”

Steyer spokesperson Ben Gerdes told Forbes: “At a time when Trump is using race to divide our country and Covid-19 is exposing the economic and public health disparities in our democracy, it’s never been more important to fight for environmental justice, a cornerstone of Tom’s and Vice President Biden’s shared vision for a better world.” 

The Bureau of Land Management has yet to fill a number of top posts amid its headquarters move.

That’s according to an analysis by the Hill that pointed to the unfilled positions just a month before the agency plans to complete its relocation from Washington to Colorado, even as the Interior Department said the move would help with recruitment. 

“BLM has yet to hire four of the agency’s seven division directors. Each of the positions has been reposted after failing to hire a candidate,” the Hill reports, citing a review of more than 100 job postings. “Other top postings, like a division chief to manage the wild horse and burro program in Reno, Nev., have been reposted twice.” 

Oil check

New research examines how living near oil drilling impacts health. 

Pregnant women who lived within a kilometer of high-producing oil wells were 40 percent more likely to give birth to babies with low birth weights compared with women who lived farther away, according to a paper published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

A team led by Rachel Morello-Frosch, an environmental health and justice researcher at the University of California at Berkeley, examined “records of nearly 3 million births to women living within 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) of at least one oil or gas well, active or inactive, between 2006 and 2015,” Bloomberg News reports. “In rural areas near the most active wells, they found, women were 20% more likely to give birth to babies relatively small for their gestational age, even if they didn’t reach the threshold for low birth weight.”