Waxman – Markey set for full House vote; USDA steps in as environmental overseer

House Democrats reached a deal on the Waxman – Markey climate change and energy bill last night that will see the Agriculture Department (USDA) play a lead role in overseeing agriculture carbon offset programs. Since clearing the Energy and Commerce Committee, a little more than a month ago, Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), one of the bill’s lead authors, along with Edward Markey (D-Mass.), have been negotiating with members of their own party, mostly from farm and coal-producing states, who oppose some of the bill’s carbon-cutting measures such as cap-and-trade.

The agreement reached yesterday paves the way for a full House vote Friday, as previously reported by GER, here.

The deal reached with Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) will put the USDA in charge of carbon-offset programs that would pay landowners and farmers to construct environmentally friendly projects that offset their CO2 emissions. Under this scheme, a large farm could install methane-capturing systems to manage animal waste or support the construction of a wind or solar project; it could even plant trees to absorb CO2. In exchange, the government would pay the farmer in carbon credits that would allow it to continue emitting agreed levels of CO2. Permit holders could even trade them as part of a cap-and-trade system, another key provision of Waxman – Markey.

The bill’s original draft appointed the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as lead agency in charge of the carbon offset program. Waxman wanted it that way, as did the environmental community, both praising the EPA’s strong regulatory and scientific focus, reports ClimateWire. However, Peterson didn’t see it that way. He maintained that when it came to regulating farmers, the USDA — not the EPA — was better qualified.  “A lot of the work we did was getting this offset program so it would work. Energy and Commerce and EPA did not get what farmers do,” Peterson explained last night in announcing the deal.

According to an EPA analysis released yesterday, the U.S. offset market could be worth $4 billion per year through 2030.

So, is this latest compromise — to get the bill out of committee, Waxman also agreed to a 17 percent CO2 cut by 2020 from an original 20 percent over the same time period — watering down this crucial piece of legislation? Compromises were expected — this is Washington. The thought inside the green and scientific community was that a climate change bill officially in the book was a better outcome than none at all.

Climate Progress concedes that putting the USDA in charge of carbon offsets is probably not the best thing but was necessary to get the bill moving to a full House vote:

Indeed, I fully expect that the Obama administration will make sure EPA gets to have its say. I would add that if environmentally friendly projects are to become legitimate offsets, then the Agricultural Department was in any case going have to be heavily involved, probably funding a bunch of in situ studies to see what actually saves carbon (and N2O and methane) and what doesn’t. I am assuming that the other provisions in the bill to maintain offsets integrity are kept.

With this compromise, Peterson and a dozen other lawmakers from rural states are now expected to back Waxman – Markey. With Republicans having voted overwhelmingly against all of President Obama’s signature bills so far — climate change is one such bill– Democrats can’t count on any bipartisan goodwill, especially for this piece of legislation, likely to be a signature legacy of the Obama administration.

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