WASHINGTON, D.C. — It’s not on the books yet, but farmers in Minnesota are worried about a proposal by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that would allow the government to regulate greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act — and cost farmers big bucks.
In Washington parlance, the agency has issued an “advanced notice of proposed rulemaking” on its ability to police emissions — an early warning shot demonstrating the government’s intent to impose a new regulation. The document is a response to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that dealt with a petition to regulate vehicle emissions, and essentially requires the EPA to determine whether greenhouse gases endanger public health.
The EPA’s document notes that regulating gases from cars would trigger the regulation of stationary sources as well. Under the new rule, farms that emit more than 100 tons of a pollutant each year could be forced to get a permit, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
That means even small agricultural facilities — such as dairy operations with over 25 cows, hog farms with over 200 hogs, and farms with over 500 acres of corn that emit such pollutants as nitrous oxide and methane — would require a permit, agriculture department officials said.
Using EPA data and agriculture department statistics, the Minnesota Farm Bureau estimates that permits could annually cost farmers up to $175 per cow, $87.50 per head of beef and around $20 per hog.
In Minnesota, where more than half of agricultural production involves livestock production, the repercussions could be far-reaching. About 98 percent of total dairy production, 89 percent of beef production and over 97 percent of all hog production would fall under these thresholds, said Staci Bohlen, who is the national issues specialist for the Minnesota Farm Bureau.
Because of the pressure of competition, farmers could not easily pass permit costs on to consumers, Bohlen added. “Farmers are generally price takers, not price makers,” she said.
The worry doesn’t end there. Farm groups say that the rule could set a precedent for regulating all aspects of agriculture, including carbon dioxide emitted from tractors and other farm equipment.
“We’re just staying tuned for that,” Bohlen said.
The agriculture sector is responsible for relatively little greenhouse gas emissions in the United States — about 8 percent, according to a report by the Pew Center on Global Climate Change. Most pollutants come from power plants and industry.
Instead, farm groups are advocating that agriculture help offset greenhouse gases by “trapping” carbon and other green house gases in their soil and trees. Under this plan, farmers could get credit for planning trees on their land and not tilling their soil. (Turning over soil releases carbon, nitrogen and other gases into the air.)
“Broadly speaking, in the U.S., agriculture is not a huge amount of emissions,” said Judi Greenwald, vice president of innovative solutions for the Pew Center. “But there is potentially a huge amount of mitigation they could do.”
Credit for trapping greenhouse gases in soil, through biofuel production or methane capture, could come in the form of government subsidies, Greenwald suggested. All those are practices that could result in cutting overall greenhouse gas emissions by 5 to 14 percent. (PDF)
EPA’s plans remain murky. On one hand it can take years for the government to revise and implement a new regulation, and there is no guarantee that the EPA would move include farming operations in its new rules.
Nevertheless, President-elect Barack Obama is signaling he’s serious about regulating carbon dioxide under the Clean Air Act, and the agricultural industry isn’t taking any chances.
“We see this advance notice as us needing to be on notice,” said Tara Smith, who is director of congressional relations for the American Farm Bureau Federation. “I don’t think agriculture wants to be caught two years down the road not having paid attention to it.”
Catharine Richert reports on developments in Congress, agriculture issues and other topics. She can be reached at crichert [at] minnpost [dot] com.