I’ve written several times criticizing the efforts of the House on the farm bill, highlighting the myriad ways in which the House’s agriculture supports are far too generous, coming in even higher than the figures in the Senate bill. But one title of the House bill deserves praise: the energy title, where the House has all but eliminated funding for numerous misguided programs that encourage the adoption of renewable energy projects (wind and solar power) and the production of biofuels (mostly at this point corn ethanol).
Despite what appear to be admirable environmental goals, the main effect of USDA’s energy agenda has been both environmental and fiscal havoc as corn has become the main ingredient in ethanol production. This incentivizes risky planting decisions that lead to environmental degradation and distorted food prices for close to zero reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. While the last farm bill tried to steer away from corn and toward other biofuel sources, the landscape hasn’t dramatically changed, due to the way farm bill agriculture supports interact with the EPA’s misguided ethanol mandate. Both fiscal conservatives and environmental watchdogs decry ethanol’s consequences, but as a whole, the title garners support from the green energy and agriculture industries.
But outside of research funding, the various programs are simply an example of the government once again misdirecting dollars into a costly and unsustainable market. Encouraging agencies, communities, and consumers to switch to biofuels and biobased products creates false demand, removing incentives for smarter renewable production. So while industry may enjoy the subsidies, it isn’t a win for the taxpayer. The negative effects of corn ethanol are so widely accepted that today the EPA announced a reduced ethanol target for the first time — clearly a sign that the farm bill could stand trimming in the energy title as well.
While a few programs are eliminated in both bills and some are tweaked, the main difference moving forward is the House’s decision to withhold mandatory funding from the title. The House bill does authorize $281 million to be appropriated annually for the various provisions, but the loss of mandatory funding represents a significant blow for the programs. The appropriations process is often difficult, so without mandatory funding, the programs are on unstable footing, or as the Environmental Law & Policy Center states, “the House farm bill would most likely end the programs.” The Senate version, on the other hand, provides $180 million in mandatory funding annually, with an additional $238 million in discretionary funding available.
Per usual when writing on the farm bill, it unfortunately appears that the conference committee will cede to the Senate language. Earlier this week a group of 14 senators penned a letter to the committee encouraging a well-funded energy title. Additionally, House Democrat Dave Loebsack (Iowa) planned to offer a Motion to Instruct encouraging conferees to adopt the Senate’s version, but ended up withdrawing the motion. None of this bodes well for advocates of a more sensible, market-based energy policy. Having given up so much already in concessions to big agriculture, House Republican conferees should stand up for the gains they’ve fought for and won in the energy title.