Big Agriculture, rural Dems further dilute energy bill

House lawmakers announced a deal last night on their sweeping proposal to tackle climate change, but not before the bill’s sponsors were forced to bow once more to a polluting industry that would be affected by the proposal.

Observers of this debate might recall that Reps. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and Edward Markey (D-Mass.), both ardent environmentalists, have already diluted their bill considerably in order to win the support of House Democrats from states with powerful gas, coal and auto industries. In the latest episode, it was the Democrats representing the farm states who threw the fuss, threatening to kill the American Clean Energy and Security Act if two key provisions weren’t changed.

The first involved a program allowing polluting farmers and agricultural companies to offset their emissions by planting trees or investing in green technologies. The Waxman-Markey bill proposed that the Environmental Protection Agency would oversee the program, arguing that the agency would be the most reliable monitor of an initiative designed to protect the environment.

But farm-state Democrats, rallying behind Rep. Collin Peterson (D-Minn.), who chairs the House Agriculture Committee, insisted that the U.S. Department of Agriculture be given that responsibility — a scenario opposed by environmentalists, who fear the USDA will prioritize farm industry concerns above the effectiveness of the offset program.

Indeed, The New York Times reports today of USDA’s shoddy record when it comes to overseeing environmental programs under its jurisdiction.

In particular, the department’s conservation agency “routinely ignored” compliance standards when giving out wetlands and wildlife grants, an investigator for the House Agriculture Committee found. The Government Accountability Office said there is potential for duplicative payments with the conservation programs, allowing the agency to release billions of dollars in payments to landowners who do not deserve them.

Another assessment from the USDA inspector general found shoddy accounting at the Natural Resources Conservation Service. The agency was unable to provide sufficient information on transactions and account balances.

No matter. The result of the Waxman-Peterson negotiations was to give USDA the job.

The second sticking point revolved around a controversial EPA initiative — mandated by Congress — designed to ensure that the country’s shift to biofuels like ethanol doesn’t lead to a spike in greenhouse gas emissions elsewhere around the globe. This happened in Indonesia, for example, where there was a widespread clearing of rain forest a few years ago to make way for palm plantations to feed Europe’s emerging biofuels market. The EPA proposed to take such global events into account as it pertains to the U.S. shift to food-based fuels.

For Peterson and the other agriculture-friendly Democrats, the so-called indirect land-use plan was a non-starter. The result? Under the compromise, EPA won’t be allowed to account for indirect land-use when calculating ethanol-production emissions until the USDA has signed off of the methodology.

“We have reached an agreement that works for agriculture and contributes to the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States,” Peterson said in a statement last night.

The House is planning to vote on the Waxman-Markey bill Friday.

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