Robert Bonnie, a proponent of ag carbon markets who has been serving as Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack's chief climate adviser, will be nominated by President Joe Biden to oversee farm and conservation programs at USDA as well as federal crop insurance.
As USDA's undersecretary for farm production and conservation programs, Bonnie would be positioned to shape much of the Biden administration's climate policy when it comes to agriculture, including the possible use of the Commodity Credit Corp. to establish a carbon bank that could put a floor under carbon credit prices.
The farm production and conservation mission area includes the Farm Service Agency, which manages commodity programs and the Conservation Reserve Program; the Risk Management Agency, which handles crop insurance, and the Natural Resources Conservation Service, which administers conservation programs other than CRP, for which the agency provides some technical assistance.
Bonnie was the co-chair of the Biden administration's transition team for USDA and has previously spent time as the vice president for land conservation at the Environmental Defense Fund.
If confirmed by the Senate, Bonnie would be overseeing NRCS for the second time. During his tenure as undersecretary for natural resources and environment during the Obama administration, Bonnie oversaw that agency as well as the U.S. Forest Service. A USDA reorganization under the Trump administration shifted NRCS to the FPAC mission area, aligning it with FSA and RMA.
Bonnie has been a champion for using USDA funds to invest in carbon sequestration efforts of American farms, ranches, and forests. As a member of Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions, Bonnie co-authored the Climate21 report, a set of climate change mitigation recommendations for USDA that encouraged the department to “establish a carbon bank through administrative action by using existing authorities under the Commodity Credit Corp., which has broad authorization to support, stabilize and protect farm income and prices and to support conservation, and which has been used in similarly innovative ways in the past.”
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The idea has run into opposition among Capitol Hill Republicans, many of whom question if USDA would have the authority to use the CCC for such a purpose. Speaking at the Agri-Pulse Ag and Food Policy Summit in March, Rep. Glenn Thompson, the Pennsylvania Republican and ranking member of the House Ag Committee, said he doesn’t believe the authority exists, and “Secretary Vilsack should know better.”
At the same event, Bonnie insisted the idea was on sound legal footing. He didn’t specifically say a federal carbon bank was in the works but said USDA might play a role in the advancement of the technology by “purchasing credits and essentially retiring them.”
The carbon credit conversation could see major developments next week. Senate Ag Committee Chair Debbie Stabenow told Agri-Pulse Thursday an update to the Growing Climate Solutions Act could be released within days. That legislation, co-sponsored by fellow committee member Mike Braun, R-Ind., would create a process for USDA to certify third-party verifiers of carbon-sequestering practices. The White House is also hosting a climate summit next week, and Biden is expected to announce 2030 emissions reduction targets in advance of the event.
At this point, Vilsack is the only Senate-confirmed Biden administration official at USDA. Jewel Bronaugh, nominated to be USDA’s deputy secretary, will appear before the Senate Ag Committee for a confirmation hearing next week.
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