WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The climate change bill being drafted in the U.S. Senate is unlikely to succeed unless it gives farmers and ranchers a role in locking carbon into the land, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said on Tuesday.
Vilsack said a carbon-offset program that pays landowners for practices like tree-planting and reduced tillage that lock carbon into soils and vegetation could reduce greenhouse gases.
“I believe it is crucial that we engage the participation of farmers, ranchers and forest land owners,” Vilsack told the Senate Environment Committee.
U.S. farm and forest land absorbs more carbon than emitted by agricultural operations, but agriculture and deforestation are a major source of emissions in developing nations. A successful U.S. carbon-offset program would show the world how agriculture can help control emissions, he said.
While carbon offsets could be a revenue source, climate legislation also could mean higher costs in rural America.
For instance, “rural households are more likely than urban households to feel the pinch of increased gas prices” because they drive more, Vilsack said. Fuel and fertilizer costs for farmers could increase too.
Critics say climate legislation will lead to sharply higher fuel prices. The head of the Environmental Protection Agency said the average cost would be $183 per household in 2020. Vilsack said USDA was completing its own economic analysis.
Four dozen House Democrats from rural areas threatened to vote against the House climate bill out of concern about higher costs and suspicion that fuel ethanol would not be treated fairly by EPA. House leaders agreed to revisions that would give USDA a larger role on carbon controls and that would remove a potential barrier to larger ethanol production.
The House bill would have USDA oversee carbon sequestration work on farms. The bill would allow cash and futures trading in contracts to lock up carbon. Projects dating from 2001 would qualify for credit for controlling greenhouse gases.
A carbon-offset program will need the support of thousands of farmers to reduce greenhouse gases by meaningful amounts, said Vilsack. He said the Agriculture Department’s experience in running land stewardship programs nationwide proves it can handle the job of overseeing an offsets program.
“I see this as a partnership with all my partners at this table,” said Vilsack, referring to the EPA and the Energy and Interior departments.
Some large U.S. farm groups opposed the House bill on grounds it will hurt farm income. The National Pork Producers Council said energy and other input costs could rise by more than 20 percent. The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association said farm income would drop by $8 billion-$50 billion over the long term.
Reporting by Charles Abbott; editing by Jim Marshall