From a scientific perspective, the deal Waxman made with the aggies is not optimal. From the perspective of consequences in the real world, however, I just don’t see how this deal changes any of the major outcomes of the bill much, if at all.
UPDATE: I’ve added comments on the deal from Dr. Michael MacCracken, a top U.S. climate scientist.
E&E News (subs. req’d) reports on what it took to secure the farm vote:
Two powerful House Democratic committee chairmen announced terms of a deal this evening on a comprehensive global warming bill, paving the way for a vote later this week.
Agriculture Chairman Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) told reporters today he would vote for the House climate bill – and bring dozens of rural lawmakers with him – after Energy and Commerce Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) agreed to make a number of concessions that had drawn the ire of farm state members….
“We have something that I think works for agriculture,” Peterson said. “We have a couple of areas that may get resolved down the line, but I think we have a meeting of the minds about where we are generally headed.”
Like the bill as a whole, the deal is imperfect. But in the real world, I think the compromises are unlikely to have much if any overall impact on the bill’s key outcomes. Let me start with the deal on the life-cycle analysis of biofuels:
Waxman also consented to block EPA from calculating “indirect” greenhouse gas emissions from land-use changes when implementing the federal biofuels mandate. The Democrats will impose a five-year moratorium to allow further study of the issue, with consultation from Congress, EPA, the Energy Department and USDA instrumental in restarting the measurements in the biofuels rules.
From a scientific perspective, this is certainly not a great idea since the indirect emissions from land use can be quite large (see “About those two studies dissing biofuels“). That said, how exactly was anyone going to calculate these indirect emissions anyway? How exactly does one know how much extra deforestation occurred because some farmer in Iowa planted more corn or switchgrass? As Dr. MacCracken, Chief Scientist for Climate Change Programs with the Climate Institute, emailed me tonight:
Now, on the question of indirect effects of switching to biofuels, my understanding is that this is a pretty controversial issue-saying that if a US farmer converts acreage from soybeans to corn for biofuels and this makes the price of soybeans go up so Brazilian farmers clear Amazon forest and this counts against the biofuels. If you get started down this line, then anytime any farmer changes anything could become subject to an indirect C fee, etc.-how can one possibly be sure that this is happening because of that-maybe the Afghan farmer will switch from growing opium to growing soybeans and that will help the drug problem. I just don’t see how such counting could work-when one uses coal-fired electricity, does one just count the C in the coal, or also the C in the gas the worker used to get to work, or also the C used to produce the food the worker and his family eat. This indirect stuff could get really complicated-so, if putting indirect accounting off for five years to get a better sense of this sounds like a reasonable compromise if that is what it takes to get the bill passed.
This is doubly complicated by the fact that the nation and the world have to solve the deforestation problem in any case – and this bill has major provisions to direct substantial sums of money toward national-accounting based efforts (see discussion here). So if in 2020 we are, as most people expect, simultaneously reducing deforestation and increasing biofuels, then demonstrating an indirect land-use effect from the biomass is going to be difficult.
Moreover, in the real world, this part of the agreement will probably have very little consequence. Why? Well, as I noted before, the enviros made a terrible deal back in the 2007 Energy Bill where they agreed to allow the corn ethanol industry a mandate for 15 billion gallons with a full exemption from lifecycle analysis in return for a mandate of 22 billion gallons of nonexistent cellulosic biofuels. If they thought they could undo that deal, they were wrong.
And that 15 billion gallons of corn ethanol is pretty much all of the corn ethanol one could imagine US producing – I think it would take us to more than 40% of the corn crop. Now I have no idea when (if ever) we’re going to get substantial amounts of cellulosic biofuels, but it won’t be for well past 5 years from now, and probably not until 2020 or beyond (see “Are biofuels a core climate solution?“).
Waxman has kicked the can down the road for 5 years (on an issue that was probably going to take years to resolve scientifically anyway) and not given up anything of much actual consequence. Hard to lose any sleep over this one.
Waxman agreed to put the Agriculture Department – rather than U.S. EPA – in the lead for management of the offset program that pays farmers and other landowners to conduct environmentally friendly projects. Congress will turn to the Obama administration for guidance on how to fold in EPA.
The devil is in the details on this one, and I’ll need to see the actual language before passing final judgment. I probably wouldn’t have agreed to put Agriculture in charge here. This sounds to me like the result of Waxman being in too much of a hurry to get a vote this week. But I basically agree with Dr. MacCracken that “I would not react negatively on this point without knowing a lot more about what is going on and how it is to work.”
Indeed, I fully expect that the Obama administration will make sure EPA gets to have its say. I would add that if environmentally friendly projects are to become legitimate offsets, then the Agricultural Department was in any case going have to be heavily involved, probably funding a bunch of in situ studies to see what actually saves carbon (and N2O and methane) and what doesn’t. I am assuming that the other provisions in the bill to maintain offsets integrity are kept.
Finally, CBO had modeled that the some 300 million domestic offsets would be used in 2020, of which about half were from tree planting and soil/farming practices. That is triple what I expect – see “Game changer, Part 2: Why unconventional natural gas makes the 2020 Waxman-Markey target so damn easy and cheap to meet” – but still leads to a 12% emission reduction in 2020 in capped sectors. Interestingly, EPA’s new analysis (here) finds a “50% increase in the percent of cropland using conservation-tillage and no-till by 2020 in response to a $15/ton CO2 incentive payment.” And yet EPA finds that only about 170 million total domestic offsets would be used in 2020.
The point is, even with assuming a fairly large amount of domestic offsets, even with a significant change in domestic tillage practices driven by Waxman-Markey, the overall impact on the 2020 target is pretty small. And the relative impact on the 2030 target would be far smaller.
Bottom Line: If you supported the bill before, nothing in this deal is a game-changer. If you didn’t, you’ve got more to gripe about. Finally, I would like to see the Senate and Obama toughen up the offsets’ oversight and integrity issue.