Looming new carbon restrictions could speed climate regulation
By WES SANDER
The threat of looming federal restrictions on greenhouse gas emissions could cause lawmakers to move with greater urgency on climate change legislation next year.
Rick Krause, senior director of congressional relations with the American Farm Bureau Federation, said the Environmental Protection Agency's movement toward tightened emissions rules should cause lawmakers to begin finalizing legislation "in the next couple months."
"It seems like everybody's talking about the fact that they prefer legislation to regulation, including President Obama," Krause said. "So I would think that there will be more urgency."
While the Obama administration has said it supports a legislative solution, it is also moving to implement regulations. On Dec. 7, EPA released an endangerment finding, saying it had concluded that greenhouse gases threaten human health.
It was a required step in the process of implementing new automobile emissions rules, which EPA and the Department of Transportation proposed in September. EPA wants the rules in place by spring in order to give car manufacturers sufficient notice before implementing emissions controls in 2012 models.
But when the rules are implemented, they will automatically require stationary emitters to obtain permits under the Clean Air Act, EPA said. That means many agriculture facilities would be faced with a new permitting process.
"It would create a lot of hardships for agriculture, as well as for many other small entities," Krause said.
EPA said it wants to require the permits only for facilities emitting more than 25,000 tons of carbon annually. But that threshold is above what the Clean Air Act requires, and EPA would probably lose any future legal challenges to the rule, Krause said.
That's one reason climate legislation would be preferable, Krause said. Legislation currently being considered would implement the 25,000-ton threshold.
A bill must further contain language stating it supersedes any existing EPA regulation of greenhouse gases, Krause said. Without it, agriculture could be stuck with a costly permitting process on top of the increased input costs that are expected with new climate laws.
If EPA enacts its rules first, the motivation for passing legislation is likely to vaporize, Krause said.
"If EPA regulations go into effect and Congress hasn't acted, I just don't think that anybody's going to want to take that vote," he said. "It's a tough vote as it is."
Several senators have offered variations on climate legislation since Republicans said they would not support a bill by Sens. Barbara Boxer of California and John Kerry of Massachusetts. The Boxer-Kerry proposal is similar to a climate bill passed by the House of Representatives last summer.
Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska has introduced a measure to delay EPA's regulations, saying Congress can shape a better bill without the pressure of a looming deadline.
The price could be steep for both industry and consumers.
No analysis has been conducted by the EPA on costs of such broad regulations, although the agency put the price tag of its proposed climate-related car rules at $60 billion, with an estimated benefit of $250 billion.
How EPA rules could directly impact agriculture are hard to determine.
Michael Marsh, CEO of Western United Dairymen, said the industry hasn't quantified carbon emissions from the average dairy.
Marsh said the dairy industry has been urgently pursuing digester technology -- by which dairies have begun capturing methane to use as natural gas and generate electricity -- since California passed its current clean-air laws.
Thus the industry feels it's already doing everything it can, Marsh said.
Barry Bedwell, president of the California Grape and Tree Fruit League, said the specialty-crop industry has always viewed climate laws as inevitable. Bedwell said his group therefore is maintaining its focus on trying to influence the final legislation while finding ways of mitigating future costs to producers.