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The Energy 202: What Biden's pick to run the USDA can do on climate change


with Alexandra Ellerbeck

Joe Biden just picked one of his most important — if unheralded — Cabinet members when it comes to enacting his agenda on climate change. 

Tom Vilsack, who ran the Agriculture Department for eight years under President Barack Obama, is set to reprise the role after Biden tapped him to be the next agriculture secretary, our colleagues Annie Linskey, Matt Viser and Seung Min Kim report.

The USDA is confronting the effects of a warming world like it never has. 

In the four years since Vilsack's first stint at the department, increasingly intense fires have scorched western forests — including woodlands managed by the U.S. Forest Service, a USDA agency — while farmers continue to face a heightened threat of drought and other changes in weather patterns as temperatures climb. 

“This was not necessarily a focus at the department a decade ago,” said Sasha Mackler, director of the energy project at the Bipartisan Policy Center, a think tank.

Now Biden will task the Agriculture Department to be a part of the solution to climate change.

During the campaign, the former vice president called for the federal government to play a role in “decarbonizing the food and agriculture sector” while providing financial incentives for farmers to grow in ways that “remove carbon dioxide from the air and store it in the ground.”

It will be up to Vilsack and his team to fill in the details and achieve those goals. 

Right now, agriculture is a big, but underappreciated, contributor to climate change. Farms account for a tenth of all greenhouse gases from human activity in the United States, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Those emissions come in the form of methane belched by cows and nitrous oxide given off by fertilizer that crops fail to absorb. 

Vilsack's department was one of the few in the Obama administration to complete a climate adaptation plan before he left office. His department took steps to preserve forests overseas and fund renewable energy projects.

Already policy wonks are thinking about what the USDA can do on climate.

One idea put forward by a team of former Obama administration officials is to establish a “carbon bank.” Housed under the department's Commodity Credit Corporation, the bank would either offer loans to or simply pay farms that tend to their lands in ways that lock carbon in the soil and out of the atmosphere.

Another proposal, suggested by Mackler, is lower premiums on federally subsided crop insurance for growers who farm sustainably.

“There are financial tools the department has in place that can be used to enhance the practice of farmers, ranchers and foresters that can result in greater carbon uptake,” Mackler said. The idea may have purchase in the Biden administration since another member of the think tank, Robert Bonnie, is leading Biden's USDA transition team.

And Evergreen, an environmental group the Biden campaign consulted when crafting its climate plan, is calling for the creation of a new USDA office to fund research in cutting-edge farming. 

The USDA would take cues from both the defense and energy departments, which have their own incubators for nascent technology — respectively, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E). The 2018 farm bill established a pilot program for such an office at the USDA.

“It's a proven model to incentivize innovation,” said Jared Leopold, a co-founder and communications adviser for Evergreen. “It's a winner for farmers and a winner for the climate as well.”

Vilsack's potential return to the USDA got a mixed response from environmental groups. 

Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, a hunting advocacy, praised the former agriculture secretary for being an advocate for “abundant public access, vital fish and wildlife habitat [and] greater certainty for our nation’s farmers and ranchers" during his last stint at the USDA.

But Vilsack has spent portions of his career advocating for agribusinesses seen by some climate experts and activists as part of the problem. 

During his two terms as Iowa's governor, he was a big proponent of corn-based ethanol, which is often blamed for expanding agriculture into habitats. And since 2017, he has headed the U.S. Dairy Export Council, a lobbying group for U.S. milk producers. 

Kari Hamerschlag, deputy director of the Friends of the Earth’s food and agriculture program, said she was “deeply disappointed” in the pick. She added that she hopes Vilsack “will this time take on the agribusiness lobby that dominates the agency."

Power plays

New EPA cost-benefit rules will make it harder to enact public health protections.

The newly finalized rule changes the way that the Environmental Protection Agency calculates the costs and benefits of new limits on air pollution, our colleagues Juliet Eilperin and Brady Dennis report.

“The new cost-benefit requirements, which apply to all future Clean Air Act rules, instruct the agency to weigh all the economic costs of curbing an air pollutant but disregard many of the incidental benefits that arise, such as illnesses and deaths avoided by a potential regulation. In other words, if reducing emissions from power plants also saves tens of thousands of lives each year by cutting soot, those ‘co-benefits’ should not be counted.”

EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said on Wednesday that the rule was “all about transparency” and would not prevent the EPA from factoring in indirect benefits of new rules in the future. But health groups have lambasted the rule, saying it could cause the government to ignore the benefits of clearing air pollution.

Although the incoming administration probably will overturn the rule, it can be a lengthy process to eliminate regulations. In the meantime, the rule may face legal challenges from environmental advocates. 

Biden is expected to nominate Katherine Tai to be U.S. trade representative.

Tai is the lead adviser to Democrats on the House Ways and Means Committee on international trade issues and has also spent years as a U.S. trade representative attorney focused on China, our colleagues Amy B. Wang and David J. Lynch report

“Though she would be making an unusual jump to a Cabinet-level position, Tai is well regarded by both the moderate and liberal wings of the party and is backed by prominent lawmakers, including Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio),” Wang and Lynch write.

The position will place Tai at the front of negotiations on trade deals that could be central to advancing Biden’s climate agenda. Biden has said that he intends to use trade agreement to push for reduced global emissions.

Microsoft and Unilever join Amazon’s climate pledge.

Amazon said that more than a dozen companies are joining its Climate Pledge Initiative, a high-profile initiative announced by the tech giant last year in the lead-up to a large-scale protest from workers over the company’s environmental impact, our colleague Jay Greene reports.

The goal of the pact is to meet the Paris climate targets 10 years early, but some critics have questioned its usefulness of a pledge that lacks standardized rules for disclosures or metrics for what signatories must track. Amazon did not participate in the CDP (previously the Carbon Disclosure Project), another leading framework for corporate reporting on environmental issues. (Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos also owns The Washington Post.)

California names the new head of a powerful clean air board.

Liane Randolph, a longtime state regulator, will replace outgoing chair Mary Nichols, Politico reports. Nichols is considered a front-runner to head the EPA in the incoming Biden administration.

“The Air Resources Board is an outsized force within California government and has for years remained a check on national policies, driven by a state that is aggressive on combating climate change,” Politico writes. “The board has set the mark for vehicle efficiency, forcing car manufacturers to adopt its strict emissions limits through the sheer force of the California marketplace.”

Extra mileage

Zinke's official portrait is joined by an unofficial one.

The official portrait unveiled this week shows Zinke riding on horseback in the Bears Ears National Monument. But alongside the official portrait, Zinke unveiled an unofficial one, showing him holding a sickle over a fanged snake.

Raúl M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.), the chair of the House Natural Resources Committee, said that the backdrop of the Bears Ears National Monument was offensive given Zinke's role in shrinking the size of the monument despite opposition from tribal groups. Grijalva released a statement calling the portrait a “final insult to tribes he disrespected since the moment he took office."