Op-Ed: Constructing EPA Climate Regulations to Benefit American Agriculture

By Glenn Hurowitz

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Can EPA's court-ordered efforts to cut industrial carbon pollution boost the bottom line of American agriculture?

One way to guarantee that it does is for EPA to write its climate rules in ways that allow farmers, ranchers, and timberland owners to participate in and benefit from the solutions to climate change.

How to do it? Right now, EPA is setting standards for emissions reductions at power plants and oil refineries. They need to resist the bureaucratic temptation to rely exclusively on industrial and mechanical solutions, and instead look to the vast potential for carbon sequestration in America's farms and forests.

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Forest restoration, conservation, and agricultural techniques such as no-till and organic can all suck carbon out of the air affordably and quickly - by relying on Nature's original clean air technology: photosynthesis.

The Clean Air Act includes straightforward authority for EPA to take this flexible, agriculture-friendly approach. Section 111 requires EPA to take “into account the cost of achieving such reduction and any nonair quality health and environmental impact and energy requirements the Administrator determines has been adequately demonstrated.”

With carbon sequestration through forestry and agriculture routinely clocking in at less than half the cost of technical pollution reduction techniques, it would be hard to take into account the cost of reducing carbon in the atmosphere without forests or agriculture. 

Including forests and agriculture will open up new markets for farmers and other landowners. Instead of just growing crops, farmers and landowners will have the option to also grow carbon. For instance, a utility could finance a reforestation program on marginal degraded pastureland, track the carbon sequestered, and apply it to their Clean Air Act obligation. Or they could invest in conservation of wetlands and forests. Or they can help livestock producers install methane digesters. All of these options mean significant new revenue streams for American agriculture and forestry. That will be particularly important for many agricultural families at a time when price supports are on Congress' chopping block.

For some farmers and landowners, the increased revenue from carbon projects will mean that they can keep their land in the family. For others, the benefits might not be quite as dramatic, but they will still be measureable and significant.

A 2009 University of Tennessee study found that including forestry and agriculture options in carbon reduction efforts would boost U.S. agriculture income by $364 billion though 2030 compared to purely industrial approaches. Although that figure depends on more ambitious climate action than is likely through the EPA process, the financial difference for farmers will still be very substantial. In addition, some landowners will be able to lease their land for wind turbines, which will be in greater demand as EPA regulation forces a shift away from polluting energy sources like coal. Separate or combined, these benefits will far exceed any modest additional energy costs that result from a greater demand for natural gas, wind, and solar expected from EPA regulation.  

In addition, the “nonair” benefits of agriculture and forestry improvements are enormous. Protecting and restoring forests, and switching to more sustainable carbon-sucking agriculture will also protect endangered wildlife, reduce soil erosion, and provide Americans the opportunity to enjoy the great outdoors. That's a lot more than any smokestack scrubber can offer.

To be sure, industrial solutions are warranted as well. There are simple steps that could vastly increase the efficiency of power plants and refineries. But EPA should ensure that emitters have the flexibility to invest in the techniques that deliver the biggest pollution reductions for the least amount of money. Given that level playing field, agriculture and forestry can win…and prosper.


Glenn Hurowitz is a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy, where he works on agriculture, forestry, and environmental issues.


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