Letter from Langdon: Banking a Green Fire

Richard Oswald explains why the proposed energy bill's "cap and trade" spooks farmers, and why it will benefit them.

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With all the current focus on medical care, the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009 (H.R.2454) remains on hold.

So what? A lot of people think that global warming is hooey. Here on the farm where I live, we’ve had one of the coolest, wettest summers on record. It’s hard to get worked up about melting the global ice cap when night time low temperatures in August reached down to the 50s. Maybe the ice caps are relocating to Langdon?

I recall hot August evenings of my childhood, cooled only by the sweet rich treat of homemade ice cream. Before climate change was known to exist, I learned lesson number 1 about global warming from the family ice cream freezer; ice must melt quickly for the cream to freeze. Lesson number 2 was that anyone who doesn’t take a turn on the crank stands at the end of the line with an empty bowl.
 
It seems strange that the rock salt that makes ice cream cold is the same salt I put on my sidewalk to thaw January ice. Though no one is salting the ice caps, (as far as we know), could it be that melting polar ice absorbs atmospheric heat making summer days cooler?

All I really know for sure is that when the ice is all gone, ice cream will be too.

Opponents of the climate bill think it gives too much ice cream to people who didn’t turn the crank while driving up the cost for people who did. The first gallon of gas I ever bought, in 1966, cost 17 cents. My most recent gallon purchase, just last week, cost $2.35. I suppose most people have forgotten that crude oil prices went from $11 a barrel in 1998 to a record high $147.27 in 2008 even without any climate bill. Opponents of the bill say that if it passes, energy costs will continue to rise all the way out to 2050.  Given the history of energy prices up to now, I have to say it took a shrewd mind to figure that one out.

Something else that’s not too hard to figure out is that H.R.2454 does at least one important thing by keeping USDA in charge of farms instead of allowing EPA to regulate carbon dioxide, other gases, and even dust emitted by agricultural activities. As important as environmental protection is, explaining the workings of farms to a whole new set of bureaucrats is like turning an ice cream crank without the ice. You can work till you’re blue in the face but nothing will come of it.

I admit, farmers are paranoid about government control. Some of their concern is based on the fact that much of our food production has fallen into the hands of giant corporations even as the average farmer’s age has increased from 54 in 1997 up to 57 in 2007. This is in spite of the fact that the primary farm law in effect for the last 12 years is called “Freedom to Farm.”

It’s also been called Freedom to Fail.

It’s important to note that cap and trade, something that many opponents of the climate bill oppose, could be used to help farms succeed by doing the right thing.

Cap and trade has been policy in Europe for a long time. Our government opposed it when leadership perceived that it would penalize power generators and U.S. industry. Then we stood on the shores and waved good-bye as big business repaid us by exporting American jobs.

Existing and proposed coal-fired power plants in Missouri


Here in Missouri we rely on coal to provide more than 80% of our electricity. In a statewide referendum last year, Missouri voters said that it was a good idea for at least 15% of Missouri electricity to come from renewable sources by the year 2021. The results of that referendum show that we can see the problem, but worries about the cost of regulating carbon still make folks queasy about cap and trade.

All cap and trade refers to is freezing of carbon emissions at predetermined levels. If industries exceed those levels, they trade money for carbon that farmers or other businesses have sequestered through conservation or modernization of their own businesses. It’s not a tax, and credits are traded on the open market like a lot of other commodities.

Even though USDA is still in charge of farms, EPA has oversight when it comes to industrial smokestacks. If coal-fired generators can buy agricultural carbon credits to avoid paying hefty EPA fines, then they can modernize equipment as it wears out instead of tearing it all down and rebuilding.  Maintenance costs are spread out, electricity in Missouri is still a bargain, and farmers get to pocket some green.

I’m just a farmer. Thinking green is nothing new to me. But it seems to me that green is where it’s at these days. If the climate bill lets industry buy carbon credits from real farmers who use modern farming practices to maximize our food and bioenergy production at minimum risk to the environment, isn’t that a good thing? Still, some farmers like the Iowa Corn Growers are justifiably concerned that their livelihood might be affected by climate change legislation if the carbon footprint of biofuels is set at the same level as petroleum.

Carbon sequestration and conservation farming practices aren’t scams. They’re real ways to trap carbon directly from the air.

Richard Oswald
We’ve been doing no-till farming on our place for years. It’s a real way to trap carbon directly from the air.


In our fields where we’ve no-tilled for years, I can see at least three years’ worth of carbon in the crop residue lying on top of the soil. Even more carbon rests beneath the surface where minimal tillage keeps oxygen from burning it up. All that carbon was pulled from the atmosphere during growing seasons that last only about 120 days.

Anyone who’s ever cooked on a camp fire knows that stirring the coals uses them up faster than leaving them undisturbed. The more oxygen gets to the flames, the hotter the fire and the more fuel (wood) it takes to keep the fire going.

No-tilling is like banking the fire. It holds and releases stored up carbon and plant nutrients over a longer period of time. That not only holds carbon out of the atmosphere, it’s good for the crop too.

I guess you could say that for the things I grow here outside of Langdon, it’s like having our ice cream and cake—and eating it, too.

 

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