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Published May 10, 2009, 09:00 PM

North Dakota Farmers Union President Robert Carlson: Farming can ease climate change

Certain farming practices have been proven to “offset” or capture carbon dioxide in the soil — in effect, removing a greenhouse gas from the atmosphere.

By Robert Carlson

BISMARCK — Climate change and renewable fuels are leading topics of discussion in local coffee shops, at Capitol Hill hearings and at international conferences. We can be grateful that North Dakota agriculture is well positioned to play an instrumental role in securing solutions to today’s pressing challenges.

Right now, climate change is a dominant policy issue in Washington. Recently, the Environmental Protection Association announced greenhouse gas emissions are a threat to public health. The U.S. Supreme Court gave EPA a directive to regulate greenhouse gas emissions.

At the same time, Congress is considering a bill that would more clearly define the nation’s climate change policies, including which federal departments will have responsibility to implement programs.

Our nation’s climate change policy will affect everyone. Because of this, it is critical that federal policy be designed to work for the overall good of America.

I have asked North Dakota’s congressional delegation to make sure agricultural offsets are included in any climate change legislation moving through Congress. Certain farming practices have been proven to “offset” or capture carbon dioxide in the soil — in effect, removing a greenhouse gas from the atmosphere.

If EPA alone is responsible for addressing greenhouse gases, the agency may well create a regulatory scheme that would not factor in the agricultural carbon credit benefits available (and already in use) and instead employ policies that would only increase production costs. EPA by its nature is geared toward penalties and fines to obtain compliance.

North Dakota Farmers Union members have long been concerned with the effects of climate change on agriculture and recognize the need to act. While multiple options exist for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, the flexibility of a cap and trade program holds the most promise in making actual reductions while minimizing, to the extent possible, overall energy cost increases.

A cap-and-trade effort with an appropriately designed agricultural offset program would provide farmers and ranchers a means to contribute to overall greenhouse gas emission reductions through carbon sequestration and reduction of emissions from livestock operations, while at the same time providing income to producers. That income turns over in local communities.

Since launching the Farmers Union Carbon Credit Program in 2006, Farmers Union has become the largest aggregator of carbon credits on the Chicago Climate Exchange. To date, almost $9.5 million has been earned for the nearly 4,000 Farmers Union members nationwide who have voluntarily committed to a legally-binding contract to perform certain projects that are scientifically and independently verified.

By using specific agricultural practices and prescribed land management, farmers and ranchers are being recognized for their achievements in capturing greenhouse gases in the soil.

Our organization has learned valuable lessons on how to properly construct an offset program and hope Congress will take advantage of this hard work.

Carbon sequestration projects on agricultural lands are the cheapest, easiest and most readily available means of reducing greenhouse gas emissions on a meaningful scale.

With an aggressive timetable to move climate change legislation through Congress, all of us need to urge lawmakers to support the following to ensure agriculture is allowed to play a significant role in helping reduce greenhouse gas emissions:

** Give the U.S. Department of Agriculture authority to determine the parameters, promulgate regulations and serve as the administrator of an agricultural and forestry offset program.

** Recognize the early programs to sequester carbon dioxide and let those programs be eligible under a mandated cap-and-trade system.

** Avoid putting artificial limits on the use of domestic agricultural offsets;

** Base carbon sequestration rates upon science.

The time is now to enact an effective and intelligent climate change policy. Agriculture needs to be an integral component of the policy solutions we already have at hand.

Carlson is president of North Dakota Farmers Union, the largest general farm organization in North Dakota.