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Cap, trade legislation will take back seat to health care reform, congressional leaders say

With President Barack Obama and Congress tackling many big issues this year -- health care reform, education, climate change -- the effort on climate change could be delayed, along with possible legislation to cap greenhouse gasses and allow trading of offsets.

That's what two influential Democrats in Congress told Agriculture Online Thursday. Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa, chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, said he doubts that cap and trade legislation will be completed in the Senate this year.

"Our number one priority right now is health care reform," Harkin said.

Harkin, who has long favored farm programs that make "green payments" for long term practices such as planting trees and grasses, said he still has questions about exactly how a cap and trade program would work. Under cap and trade, large factories and power plants that put out greenhouse gasses would be required to buy offsets. Europe already has mandatory cap and trade legislation that allows big sources of greenhouse gases to buy offsets from industries that are reducing greenhouse gas pollution. But that system does not include offsets like capturing carbon in soils on farms and in forests, something that advocates say has the potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 20% or more.

Harkin said he still has questions about how a cap and trade law would work.

"The sticking point is the inspection regime. How do you make sure people are actually complying?" Harkin wondered Thursday. "If you're going to have agricultural offsets, you've got to make sure they're complying. Whoever sequesters carbon, you've got to make sure it's actually happening."

Harkin said that the best way to capture carbon may be in pastures and trees, practices that take a commitment of many years.

In the Senate, Californian Barbara Boxer, head of the Environment and Public Works Committee, has indicated interest in getting a climate change bill passed this year. In the House, Representative Henry Waxman, another Californian who heads the Energy and Environment Committee, has outlined a goal of getting a bill out of his committee by Memorial Day.

Representative Stephanie Herseth Sandlin of South Dakota told Agriculture Online Thursday, "I think that’s a very aggressive schedule."

Herseth Sandlin repeated an assertion made earlier this week that she would not support cap and trade if it doesn't include agricultural offsets that would be paid to farmers and landowners under the program. And she's concerned about how caps on emissions might affect coal-fired power plants that supply electricity to rural areas.

Besides serving on the House Agriculture Committee, Herseth Sandlin is on a the Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, which was formed by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in 2007.

"I would agree with Senator Harkin's assessment that it's not likely that climate change legislation would be signed into law before the end of the year," she said Thursday.

According to published reports, other congressional leaders, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, still want to get climate change legislation passed this year.

That makes this issue crucial for agriculture, says Laura Sands, coordinator of the Ag Carbon Market Working Group, which represents a coalition of farm leaders from commodity groups.

In an e-mail message to Agriculture Online, Sands said, "Farmers know that it is critical that members of Congress with agricultural interests are stepping up to ensure that the interests of their constituents are represented and protected. We realize that some in the leadership of Congress have established an aggressive schedule for cap and trade. We think a bill will pass in the next several years and what happens to offset proposals this year could set the precedent for any type of cap and trade policy that evolves in the future. What is important right now for farmers is that agricultural and rural members of Congress establish a strong offsets provision that reduces the cost to the economy and develops a significant, multi-billion dollar carbon market for farmers."

With President Barack Obama and Congress tackling many big issues this year -- health care reform, education, climate change -- the effort on climate change could be delayed, along with possible legislation to cap greenhouse gasses and allow trading of offsets.

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