WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Democrats in the House of Representatives on Tuesday said they had reached a deal on difficult agriculture issues in a climate change bill, clearing the way for a vote and probable passage in the chamber this week.
“We have an agreement finally,” said House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson, whose support had been widely sought by House Democratic leaders. Peterson declared he is now prepared to vote for the controversial bill.
Representative Henry Waxman, a main proponent for legislation to reduce industrial emissions of carbon dioxide associated with global warming, told reporters: “I think we will have the majority to pass the bill.”
Waxman also predicted environmental groups will remain supportive, despite new provisions to help farm states that some feared would weaken the bill.
The breakthrough came just hours after President Barack Obama, at a White House press conference, embraced the Democrats’ bill and urged the House to move quickly on it.
“It is legislation that will finally spark a clean energy transformation that will reduce our dependence on foreign oil and confront the carbon pollution that threatens our planet,” Obama said.
Earlier in the day, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said he hoped the bill would be debated by the full House, and passed, on Friday.
Last month, Waxman’s Energy and Commerce Committee easily passed a climate change bill to reduce industrial emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases by 17 percent by 2020 and 83 percent by 2050, as well as provide new incentives for producing alternative fuels.
But since then, Waxman has been in difficult negotiations with farm state Democrats and other House Democrats to gain their needed support since few Republicans are expected to vote for the bill.
In announcing the deal after briefing a group of moderate Democrats, Waxman said that the U.S. Department of Agriculture, not the Environmental Protection Agency, would be put in charge of overseeing certain steps to be taken by farmers to reduce carbon emissions.
Known as “offsets,” the program would allow farmers to claim achievements in reducing carbon pollution by planting trees or taking other environmental actions. But the agriculture community objected to EPA overseeing the program and insisted that the more sympathetic USDA do the job.
“We agreed that we would have the USDA run the program and we will seek guidance from the administration to figure out the appropriate role for EPA,” Waxman said.
Waxman announced another break for agriculture as part of the deal: The climate change bill would halt an EPA proposal that farmers feared could hold U.S. ethanol makers responsible for greenhouse gases from crops overseas.
Waxman said a “five-year moratorium” on a proposed EPA rule would be included in the legislation and USDA and Congress would have additional powers to stop the plan after the five years.
Corn-based ethanol has become a major boost to U.S. corn prices and farmers feared the EPA proposal could hurt sales.
Peterson said there also was a “meeting of the minds” on smaller details still to be worked out.
To win over farm state lawmakers, the bill also was amended to give 0.5 percent of permits, which would be issued to firms to control their emissions, to small electricity local distribution companies that serve rural areas.
The Senate has not yet crafted its version of a climate change bill and it is unclear whether it can pass a bill this year, before Obama heads to an international climate change conference in Copenhagen in December aimed at endorsing new international efforts to control global warming.
House Republicans have complained the legislation would raise energy prices and encourage manufacturers to ship more operations and jobs abroad to avoid the new pollution limits.
But Democrats counter that the climate bill would create new “green” jobs developing alternative energy and more efficient transportation and electricity systems in the United States.
Democrats also have been touting new government estimates that the climate change bill would have a negligible impact on consumer prices, challenging Republicans’ warnings that it would cost households $3,100 more a year in higher prices for energy and other goods.
Additional reporting by Charles Abbott and Tom Doggett, editing by Jackie Frank