Opinion Extra

White: Farmers need climate bill

As a farmer, I've been discouraged over the past few weeks to see special interest groups portraying the current climate and energy legislation in Congress as threatening to agriculture. Even a quick study of the American Clean Energy and Security Act shows that this legislation would be a tremendous help to struggling farmers in South Carolina.

Rather than undermining farmers, the bill helps us do what we already do: preserve our country's vital agricultural lands. After all, the centerpiece of this legislation involves carbon offsets, a program in which those who generate harmful greenhouse gases compensate others to offset their emissions through practices that reduce carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

This is where farming and forestry come in. Our farmland, forests and crops make an ideal "carbon-sink" for the emissions that our power plants and major industries produce. Farming practices already gaining widespread use, including direct seeding, the planting of cover crops and no-till farming only enhance the role of our lands in lowering the carbon footprint of our nation's industrial sector.

Under the current legislation, there will be incentives available for agriculture projects that result in reducing or avoiding greenhouse gas emissions or sequestering greenhouse gases in soils and trees. Farmers are eligible as offset providers if they integrate soil conservation or methane capture from manure practices into their operations.

Furthermore, the legislation provides important incentives for the conversion of cellulosic plant material into biomass and the production of biofuels like ethanol. As South Carolina has no coal reserves, we spend more than $1 billion a year to buy coal from other states and countries. But we have the technology right now to convert our own biomass into material suitable for co-firing in our state's coal plants.

The picture for ethanol is even more promising. Our country sends billions of dollars a year to the petro-dictators in Venezuela and the Middle East, where some of it ends up funding our nation's enemies. Here in South Carolina, we have perfect soil and weather conditions for growing switch grass, which can be converted to ethanol and used to run our cars, trucks, buses and tractors.

Right now, the United States produces the majority of its ethanol from corn, which is not an ideal situation. Corn is an energy-intensive crop that is hard on the soil. Moreover, its use in ethanol production has impacted food prices worldwide, to the determent of the developing world. But our switch grass is a drought-tolerant crop and has a much higher energy yield than corn. Encouraging S.C. switch grass to compete with Iowa corn is a win-win for our state's economy and the environment.

The American Clean Energy and Security Act also contains key incentives for converting landfills and animal waste to methane gas. As a free range cattle farmer, I've never favored large confined animal feeding operations, but at least here we have an opportunity to tap a potential energy source that until now has too frequently ended up only contaminating our soil and water supply.

The main argument used by Big Oil and the coal lobby to fight this legislation is that capping emissions will drive up energy prices. But energy prices already are rising and will only continue to rise for petroleum and petroleum-based products such as fertilizer. This is because the era of cheap, abundant oil is over. Business-as-usual is simply no longer viable.

Indeed, it is worth noting that if Congress fails to act this session, the Environmental Protection Agency will. Two years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that carbon dioxide is a harmful pollutant and subject to regulation under the Clean Air Act. Do the industrial and agriculture sectors really want to see a government agency putting a cap on carbon emissions? Or would we rather see a market-based approach that spurs efficiency and clean energy alternatives through innovation and conservation?

For generations, farmers have been the backbone, and the breadbasket, of the American economy. With this climate and energy legislation, we have an opportunity to help lead our country toward energy independence, economic growth and a cleaner environment.