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Yankton Press and Dakotan, April 27, 2009

EPA Edict Stirs Debate About Rural Emissions
By Lisa Hare

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently issued its proposed finding that greenhouse gases may be an endangerment to public health. Since that report was released April 17, the atmosphere has definitely heated up in the debate over which emissions should be regulated and how it should be done.

“This finding confirms that greenhouse gas pollution is a serious problem now and for future generations,” newly appointed EPA administrator Lisa Jackson stated in a recent press release.

In 2007, the Supreme Court ordered the EPA to determine whether carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases qualify as pollutants under the Clean Air Act.

According to an EPA news release, the proposed endangerment finding is based on rigorous, peer-reviewed scientific analysis of six gases — carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, hydrofluorocarbons, perfluorocarbons and sulfur hexafluoride — that have been the subject of intensive analysis by scientists around the world.

The report indicates “science clearly shows that concentrations of these gases are at unprecedented levels as a result of human emissions, and these high levels are very likely the cause of the increase in average temperatures and other changes in our climate.”

This declaration could set the stage for tighter regulations on vehicles, power plants, factories and — according to Sen. John Thune, (R-S.D.) and some farm organization leaders — cattle.

The EPA estimates that U.S. cattle emit about 5.5 million metric tons of methane per year into the atmosphere, accounting for 20 percent of U.S. methane emissions.

According to Thune, the EPA’s new declaration could set the government down a “slippery slope” toward a permit process for methane emissions of cattle and other livestock. The permit process, which is actually a cap-and-trade system, according to Thune, would amount to a “cow tax.”

A cap-and-trade system sets an emissions limit — or cap- for each emitter or company. The emitter must have an “emissions permit” for every ton of carbon dioxide it releases into the atmosphere. These permits set an enforceable cap on the amount of pollution it is allowed to emit. Over time, the limits become stricter, allowing less and less pollution, until the ultimate reduction goal is met.

The “trade” comes into play when emitters that can more easily reduce their emissions below their required limit sell their extra permits to companies that are not able to make reductions as easily.

“It would be absolutely disastrous to South Dakota and our economy,” Thune said during a recent press conference.

Based on the amount of emissions produced by large livestock facilities, producers are concerned purchasing the required permits would be cost-prohibitive to their operation.

On Friday, Sen. Mike Johanns (R-Neb.) co-sponsored legislation designed to protect the U.S. livestock industry from any future “cow tax” arising from livestock emissions.

Johanns wants the Clean Air Act amended to preclude regulation of “naturally occurring” livestock emissions.

Johanns, who served as agriculture secretary during the second term of President George W. Bush, said that for a state like Nebraska, which ranks first in the nation in commercial red meat production, this EPA proposal could have “devastating consequences.”

While Thune and some are seeing red, other farm organizations are thinking green — and not just environmentally speaking.

In a recent response to the U.S. House of Representatives Agriculture Committee questionnaire on climate change, National Farmers Union President Roger Johnson said that NFU supports a national, mandatory carbon emission cap-and-trade system.

“Because agriculture and forestry lands have the potential to sequester nearly 25 percent of all annual greenhouse gas emissions in the United States, it is critical that a flexible offset program, that ensures maximum voluntary participation by the agricultural and forestry communities, is developed,” Johnson said.

He added that offset projects would be meaningful revenue streams for producers who would experience “some increase in agricultural input costs as a result of climate legislation.”

Johnson said is important for climate change legislation to allow the USDA to develop and administer the standards and verification system for an agricultural offset program, establish carbon sequestration rates based on science, and allow early actors to be eligible to participate in a new offset program.

The Farmers Union Carbon Credit Program launched in 2006 has enrolled 4.7 million acres across the country, offsetting the annual emissions of 320,000 automobiles.

Julianne Fisher, spokeswoman for Sen. Tim Johnson, (D-S.D.) said the most recent EPA findings on greenhouse gases “in no way propose a tax on livestock emissions.”

Fisher added that the new greenhouse gas declaration does not trigger, mandate or propose any new regulation, and that Congress should be responsible for any action that could be taken under the Clean Air Act.

But Thune considers the EPA declaration a back-door approach to expanding the reach of the Clean Air Act.

“If the Obama administration wants to implement climate-change legislation, they should work with Congress to do this and not find a way to go around the legislative process and use the EPA to implement these new regulations,” he said.

Johanns agrees that the EPA finding moves the potential for a cow tax “one step closer to becoming reality.”

Thune added, “The Clean Air Act was written to curb pollution from smokestack industries, not to regulate livestock production in South Dakota or elsewhere.”

The EPA’s proposed endangerment finding now enters the public comment period, which is the next step in the deliberative process EPA must undertake before issuing final findings. The proposed finding does not include any proposed regulations, though both President Obama and Administrator Jackson have repeatedly pressed the urgency for legislation to address the emissions issue.

Copyright © 2009 Yankton Press & Dakotan

Photo © Paul S. Hamilton