WASHINGTON The climate change bill being drafted in the U.S. House is ripe for improvement, said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack on Thursday, but he vowed farms and forests will play a central role in controlling greenhouse gases despite skepticism among lawmakers.
U.S. farm groups, along with Democrats and Republicans on the House Agriculture Committee, have been sharply critical of the bill they say threatens to leave farmers in the lurch.
Representative Collin Peterson, the chairman of the farm panel, met late on Thursday with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other leading Democrats to air his concerns.
Peterson left the 90-minute meeting telling reporters, "We made some good progress in a number of areas and we still have a few things to work through."
He did not provide details.
Representative Henry Waxman, a main backer of the climate change legislation, added, "There's a desire to bridge the differences and I'm hopeful we can do that."
The agriculture industry is seeking protections for corn-based ethanol as an alternative fuel and prefers to have the Department of Agriculture, rather than the Environmental Protection Agency, oversee its contributions to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
"There is obviously work yet to be done on this bill," said Vilsack, when asked at an Agriculture Committee hearing if he supported the measure. "I believe at the end of the day that agriculture and forestry's role in cap and trade will be recognized and appreciated."
The climate change bill has been criticized as slapdash legislation that does not consider the impact on rural areas.
Vilsack said while "it is fair to say there may be additional costs associated with a farming operation" from the bill that "if we do this right" it would create more choices and opportunities for farmers over the long term.
USDA has not conducted a cost estimate. It awaits a report from the Environmental Protection Agency.
The House climate change bill does not specify which projects would qualify for carbon offsets, and instead would leave that to the EPA. Skeptics say unless USDA plays an active role agriculture may not get a shot at programs that pay farmers and ranchers to capture carbon.
Several members of the committee said USDA is best positioned to oversee the offsets, citing its experience, resources and extensive rural network of offices. "Leaving these offsets at the discretion of the EPA makes me nervous," said Bob Goodlatte, a Virginia Republican.
But Vilsack said it was premature to hand the responsibilities solely to USDA and insisted the program was better positioned to be shared by the EPA, USDA and other departments.
"I think it is unrealistic to think the EPA's going to have no role in cap and trade. I would think it would be unwise for USDA not to have a role," Vilsack said. "We need to figure out how to integrate such roles to take advantage of each agency."
Agriculture is one of eight committees with the right to review the measure passed by the House Energy and Commerce committee three weeks ago. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi wants a floor vote later this month or in July.
"As this bill stands today, I can't vote for it," said Leonard Boswell, an Iowa Democrat. "I don't know anyone else here who can. We've got a lineup of people ... who are very uneasy."
Rural lawmakers say they will not support the bill without more favorable treatment to biofuels. Peterson and others have filed a bill to change biofuel regulations, such as expanding the 2007 energy law to include material from federal lands and crops from forested areas as renewable biomass.
If the U.S. biomass supply is larger, there will be less need to expand crop land overseas.
Farm groups, including wheat, corn and milk producers, say the climate bill should be modified to allow farmers and ranchers to earn money for steps that reduce carbon emissions.
When asked if he would support the bill in its current form, Bob Stallman, president of the 6-million-member American Farm Bureau Federation, said: "Easiest question I've ever been asked, a 'no' vote."
(Additional reporting by Richard Cowan; Editing by Christian Wiessner)