Nearly a year after the Senate overwhelmingly passed a bipartisan bill aimed at jump-starting ag climate markets, the legislation remains mired in the House Agriculture Committee, raising the possibility it could be punted to the farm bill debate in the next Congress.
The committee’s ranking Republican, Glenn “GT” Thompson, has raised objections to the core objective of the Growing Climate Solutions Act — authorizing USDA to set up a system to certify technical service advisers and credit verification services. The Senate passed the bill, 92-8, last June.
Thompson last week received formal input from USDA that he believes supports his concerns. The committee won’t release the USDA document, but GOP staffers say USDA shares their concerns that the self-certification process would give the technical advisers and credit verifiers an implicit government endorsement.
Thompson’s concerns include a fear that the certification, while relatively easy to get, would allow entities to charge farmers more
“You’ve got to have a level of confidence based on the information the USDA has,” Thompson said.
Thompson said he worries the bill “would be more beneficial to the people inside the Beltway than the people providing food and fiber outside the Beltway.”
A USDA official speaking on condition of anonymity told Agri-Pulse the department provided the committee with formal comments, known in congressional parlance as “technical assistance,” on the Senate bill, but none of the input “should be construed as providing concerns” about the legislation.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has repeatedly expressed support for the legislation.
The certification program is supposed to lay the groundwork for the development of ag carbon markets by making it easier for farmers to qualify and market credits for practices they undertake that can reduce greenhouse gas emissions and protect soil, water and air quality.
Under the bill, USDA would create a Greenhouse Gas Technical Assistance Provider and Third-Party Verifier Certification Program along with a website that entities could use to self-certify themselves. USDA also would be required to annually audit a sample of both the technical assistance providers and verification services.
USDA’s responsibilities also would include developing a list of recognized protocols for environmental credit markets, including details related to sampling methodologies and systems for credit verification, monitoring, measurement and reporting.
An alternative to the certification program that’s under consideration is to have USDA maintain a simpler registry for technical advisers and verification services.
Whether that’s enough to make the bill worth passing for its main supporters remains to be seen. And time is running short for Congress to pass any form of the legislation; there are few legislative days left after July because of the long August recess and the mid-term elections looming in November. If the bill doesn't clear Congress before then, the last chance may be the post-election, lame-duck session.
A statement from the office of the bill’s lead Democratic sponsor, Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D-Va., said her staff was “not aware of any major concerns” that the department has with the legislation.
“This bipartisan bill is clearly a priority for the administration — as well as for nearly every major farm organization and commodity group across America, many prominent environmental groups, and dozens of major corporations,” the statement said.
“This seems to be another effort to hold up small, technical concerns as a way to delay action — instead of working with both parties to move this popular bill forward and answering to the many producers across the country who need help navigating voluntary carbon markets and implementing on-farm conservation.”
“Republicans don't want to just have a blank check. And then Democrats don't want to tie USDA hands. So it's all about compromise on what's going to be most beneficial for farmers, ranchers and the industry,” said Andrew Walmsley, a senior director of government affairs for the American Farm Bureau Federation.
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Something short of a USDA certification program could be useful to farmers as long as there is “at least some transparency and some steps for a private entity (to take) to live up to the commitments that they are making to farmers,” he said.
AFBF is a founding member of the Food and Agriculture Climate Alliance, a broad coalition of agriculture and conservation groups that supports the legislation.
Randy Russell, a lobbyist who represents FACA, said he was still cautiously optimistic the bill would pass Congress before the end of the year.
“I certainly heard Mr. Thompson and his team talk about a registry,” Russell said. “We would have to look at that in whatever language that is that they offered. I'd also like to hear what (House Ag Committee) Chairman (David) Scott and their team says about it and go back to our Senate sponsors to talk about it.”
Debbie Reed, executive director of the Ecosystem Services Market Consortium, also a FACA member, said given Thompson's objections the issue "might just get merged into the farm bill." Congress is due to write a new farm bill next year; elements of the 2018 bill are set to expire Sept. 30, 2023.
She also believes that verification services already are already starting to ramp up without the help of the bill. The need may be more acute for farm technical advisers and there is less controversy about having USDA involved in certifying them, she said. The climate provisions in the administration’s stalled Build Back Better bill include $1 billion in increased funding for USDA technical assistance.
The bill’s “original intent was to make sure we had enough technical assistance and enough verifiers and … I think the latter is probably straightening itself out due to increased market activity and interest,” she said.
Still, she agrees it may be useful to farmers to authorize USDA to create a registry listing organizations or companies that provide verification services.
USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service currently maintains an online registry of USDA-approved technical service providers, both businesses and individuals, who assist farmers and landowners with planning and designing conservation practices. NRCS may reimburse the cost of the services if that is covered in an Environmental Quality Incentives Program contract.
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