Farm bill revamps conservation programs, scuttles mandatory energy funding

Source: Amanda Peterka, E&E reporter • Posted: Monday, July 9, 2012

The farm bill draft released yesterday by the House Agriculture Committee proposes a significant restructuring of farmland conservation programs and a downsizing of rural energy initiatives.

Like the Senate version of the bill passed last month with bipartisan support, the House draft would cut the number of conservation programs from 23 down to 13. But unlike the Senate version, the House bill provides no mandatory funding for energy programs that help farmers and ranchers make energy efficiency improvements and plant biofuel crops.

Overall, the draft farm bill would reduce direct spending by $35.1 billion over the next decade, according to Congressional Budget Office scoring released yesterday. The figure is $12 billion more than the estimate for the Senate-passed version of the farm bill with the bulk of additional cuts coming out of the national food stamp program.

The bill represents a “reform-minded, fiscally responsible policy that is equitable for farmers and ranchers in all regions and will lead to improved program delivery,” Agriculture Chairman Frank Lucas (R-Okla.) said in a statement. “This bill is an investment in production agriculture and rural America.”

Interest groups this morning were still looking over the 557-page bill, which was released yesterday afternoon ahead of a scheduled markup Wednesday. While the bill is similar to the Senate-passed version in some respects, it contains deeper cuts in areas and some substantial policy differences

The bill’s conservation title is similar to the Senate version, proposing to consolidate farm conservation programs for a savings of more than $6 billion over the next decade. On the Senate side, that proposal garnered widespread support from conservation groups and bipartisan lawmakers.

Unlike the Senate version, however, the House version proposes to cut deeper into the Conservation Stewardship Program, which rewards farmers and ranchers on a tiered basis for conservation activities. The Senate limits enrollment in the program to about 10.4 million acres a year for the next decade, while the House draft would allow 9 million acres.

Conservation groups expressed concern about the cut, as well as with a change to the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, another large rural initiative that provides funding on a cost-share basis for environmental improvements. While the House draft would maintain the current funding levels of EQIP, it would also eliminate a 5 percent earmark for wildlife habitat projects that was included in the Senate-passed version.

Like the Senate version, the House draft proposes a reduction from 32 million acres to 25 million allowed in the Conservation Reserve Program, a large program that pays farmers rents to idle their lands for conservation regions. The reduction in CRP acres comes amid high crop prices that have spurred farmers to plant lands rather than set them aside for habitat and water quality reasons.

Overall, the conservation title “still provides farmers, ranchers, foresters and landowners with voluntary, incentive-based financial and technical assistance for conservation practices,” House agriculture leaders said.

Scott Faber, vice president for government affairs at the Environmental Working Group, was harshly critical of the proposal, saying “the combination of deep cuts to conservation, unprecedented price guarantees, unlimited insurance subsidies and anti-environmental riders” in the farm bill “nullifies the benefits of fully funding EQIP.”

Outside of the conservation title, the House draft includes a provision known as “sodbuster” that limits crop insurance subsidies to farmers who have planted newly converted natural prairie land.

Earlier this week, more than 60 organizations, sportsmen groups and the National Rifle Association delivered two separate letters to House agriculture leaders urging them to support legislation by Reps. Kristi Noem (R-S.D.) and Tim Walz (D-Minn.) that would mirror a sodbuster provision in the Senate farm bill.

“Most of the land that is being converted from native ecosystems to cropland is marginal, highly erodible, or prone to flooding,” one of the letters reads. “These environmentally sensitive lands and the species that depend on them are rapidly disappearing.”

In the House draft released yesterday, the provision would apply only to the Prairie Potholes region of the Upper Midwest, as opposed to wetlands nationwide.

“We think that it is critically important that sodsaver be a national rather than a regional program,” said Aviva Glaser, the National Wildlife Federation’s agriculture policy coordinator. “Native grassland is one of the most quickly declining ecosystems, and the wildlife that depend on grasslands are declining at alarming rates — we must act quickly to protect all remaining native grassland, not just some.”

Energy funding

Rural energy and biofuels groups have not yet commented on the draft farm bill, but they are likely to be critical.

The draft includes no mandatory funding for energy programs and reduces authorized discretionary spending levels by more than $500 million.

The Senate-passed version includes $800 million in mandatory funding over the next five years, added as an amendment by Sens. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) and Dick Lugar (R-Ind.) during committee markup. Rural energy groups were hoping to see a similar provision in the House bill and supported a bill introduced by Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio) late last month that would provide mandatory funding to most programs.

The legislation was introduced as a “marker bill” or one that could be inserted into the overall farm bill.

“Farm bill clean energy programs have always enjoyed bipartisan and business support,” said Andy Olsen, a senior policy advocate at the Environmental Law and Policy Center. “We hope that support continues and the House Agriculture Committee restores mandatory funding to match the Senate commitment.”

Under the House draft, the farm bill’s largest energy program, the Rural Energy for America Program, would be authorized for $45 million a year through 2017. The Biomass Crop Assistance Program, the only federal program providing money to farmers to plant advanced biofuel crops, would be authorized to receive $75 million a year.

If the last few fiscal years are any indication, appropriators would likely provide far less than those amounts.

The House draft also eliminates grant authority for biorefinery demonstration facilities and, unlike the Senate-passed version, does not expand assistance to renewable chemicals and biobased manufacturing plants.

The House draft does expand the definition of “biobased” to include forest products — a change that U.S. foresters have pushed for to allow their products to qualify for federal procurement standards.

The provision is similar to legislation introduced in May by Reps. Glenn Thompson (R-Pa.) and Kurt Schrader (D-Ore.).

“The timber and wood products industries in Oregon and across the nation are struggling to keep afloat as our nation’s economy slowly recovers,” Schrader said at the time. “Continuing to place a sustainable, American-made product at a disadvantage is unacceptable at a time when we need to be investing and creating jobs here at home, not overseas.”