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Worried GOP ag leader ties his hopes to a Democratic chairman

If the climate change bill working its way through the House of Representatives becomes law, Representative Frank Lucas expects his western Oklahoma district to sprout a forest of electricity generating windmills.

But that hardly means the ranking Republican on the House Agriculture Committee has bought into President Obama’s vision of a green economy, at least in the present form of the bill.

When he talks about the American Clean Energy and Security Act back home, he tells his constituents, “It simply makes everyone pay more to get less and you’re going to be hot in the summer and cold in the winter along with that.”

In an interview with Agriculture Online Friday, a day after the ag committee held a seven-hour hearing on the bill, Lucas says he’s genuinely worried about its effects on the U.S. economy.

There’s no question that the bill would make energy from petroleum and coal more expensive—that’s the whole point, to drive the nation toward greener sources of energy that put out fewer emissions believed to contribute to global warming.

But Lucas continues to believe the costs will be too high, especially for most forms of agriculture, which is an energy intensive industry. At the close of Thursday’s hearing, he learned from The Fertilizer Institute that the nation’s 29 remaining domestic nitrogen plants would likely go out of business in 10 years, leaving the U.S. entirely dependent on imports.

The Obama Administration wants a bill from the House to pressure China, India and other nations to sign on to a tough international global warming treaty after a U.N. conference in Copenhagen next December.

One of the ag group leaders who testified Thursday, National Farmers Union President Roger Johnson, said he thought that Obama could use the House bill as leverage, especially if the Senate hasn’t passed its own version and the President hasn’t actually signed a climate change bill into law.

Lucas said Friday that he doesn’t know how the Administration plans to negotiate in Copenhagen, but “If that’s what they’re up to, that’s high stakes poker playing.”

If the U.S. goes ahead with climate change legislation without getting other nations on board, it will hurt our economy, Lucas believes.

“If we raise the cost of our goods and services that we sell to the rest of the world, we’ll give up market share,” he told Agriculture Online.

At Thursday’s hearing, Lucas skillfully drew opposition to the climate change bill from every one of the farm group leaders who testified, including Bob Stallman of the American Farm Bureau Federation, Earl Garber of the National Association of Conservation Districts, Fred Yoder of the National Corn Growers Association, Ken Nobis of the National Milk Producers Federation and the Farmer’s Union’s Johnson.

He asked each one if they support the current version of the bill, which doesn’t clearly mention that agriculture will be able to sell carbon credits to capped industries such as coal-fired electric plants. All said they would not. If ag carbon credits were thrown in, would they support a bill that lets the Environmental Protection Agency run the program? Again, every one was opposed.

If any group might have been expected to support the bill, it’s Farmers Union, which traditionally has been close to the Democratic party. At its annual meeting in Washington in March, NFU drew a parade of Democratic leaders, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, House Ag Committee Chairman Collin Peterson and Senate Ag Committee Chairman Tom Harkin.

But even before Lucas polled the farm groups Thursday, NFU President Johnson made it clear that his group doesn’t like the current climate bill, either.

Some have suggested Farmers Union would roll over and accept the bill, Johnson said.

“Let me assure you that is not the case. We in the agricultural community all feel the same way about the changes that need to be made in this bill,” Johnson said.

“USDA must play a prominent role. We’re all saying that,” Johnson said of the bill’s system of capping carbon emissions and trading credits, or offsets. Right now, the bill gives all authority for running cap and trade to the EPA.

The ag groups also want farmers who’ve already had good conservation practices to be able to sell carbon credits, not be penalized by being left out of a trading system, he said. And there should not be a limit on how many credits can be traded, as the bill currently does (giving half of those limited credits to carbon offsets outside of the U.S.). Without allowing unlimited credits, “you simply drive the cost of compliance for all of society higher,” Johnson said. And, when USDA checks to see that carbon credits are real, that farmers and others are actually capturing carbon, the standards it uses should be based on science.

“There’s probably no better entity in the world than USDA” for checking on carbon credits, he added.

Some groups are more strongly opposed to a climate change bill. Farm Bureau’s Stallman said his organization wouldn’t support the bill even with ag offsets run by USDA, unless other changes are made. Farm Bureau worries that wind and solar energy won’t be enough to fill gaps in the demand for electricity and would like the bill to offer more incentives to expand nuclear energy, a fuel source that does not contribute to global warming.

The ag groups found a sympathetic audience in the ag committee, on both sides of the aisle.

“As the bill sands today, I can’t vote for it,” Representative Leonard Boswell, an Iowa Democrat, said during Thursday’s hearing. “I don’t know anybody on this committee that can.”

That leaves Lucas still nervous. Speaker Pelosi wants all of the committees who might have some jurisdiction over the climate bill to finish their work by June 19, next Friday, Lucas said. The Agriculture Committee is one of eight. Only the Energy Committee has had a markup that allows its members to vote on changes to the bill before it goes to the floor of the full House.

Lucas doesn’t think that the Ag Committee will have a chance to to anything more after Thursday’s hearing, which didn’t involve voting.

“Chairman Peterson has indicated to me that he doesn’t think there’s time to mark up the bill,” Lucas told Agriculture Online.

That means that Peterson will have to try to persuade House leaders to make changes in the bill. He met privately with Pelosi and the bill’s sponsor, House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman, Thursday while the hearing was taking place.

If he’s successful, they might allow amendments favorable to agriculture to be made on the floor of the House, Lucas said. Or the ag community’s needs might be met by adding technical changes to Waxman’s version of the bill.

Peterson, Lucas said, “within the Democratic Caucus is agriculture’s champion, and we’ll see what he can do.”

If the climate change bill working its way through the House of Representatives becomes law, Representative Frank Lucas expects his western Oklahoma district to sprout a forest of electricity generating windmills.

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