Earlier this summer, after changes to the benefit of agriculture, a climate change bill passed the House. Even with the changes, however, rumblings about the climate legislation continued.

At the time — facing questions about several provisions and the rapid vote to pass the bill — Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., House Agriculture Committee chairman, predicted the Senate would provide legislation even more favorable to agriculture.

The House bill “isn’t becoming law,” he said. “I can guarantee you this will be further refined in the Senate in a way that will be beneficial to (rural states). I have no doubt about that.”

However, after a July 22 Senate Agriculture Committee hearing it is unclear if the climate legislation is being refined or set up for the kill. Several senators on the committee claimed their constituents hope for the latter.

Late in the hearing, Sen. Mike Johanns, R-Neb., — who headed the USDA under President George W. Bush — had a revealing exchange with Tom Vilsack, USDA secretary, and Lisa Jackson, EPA administrator. When Vilsack repeatedly attempted to talk around Johann’s concerns, the senator was unwilling to drop his line of questioning.

“If the United States passes this bill (without China and India), we’re not going to impact temperatures to any significant degree. Isn’t that correct?” asked Johanns.

Jackson acknowledged that the United States alone can’t “get to a significant enough level to solve the climate change problem. … We need others to join.”

At that answer, Johanns expressed sympathy for Vilsack. “Here’s the problem: Poor Tom Vilsack has to go out with that testimony and try to convince farmers, on a hope and prayer, somehow this will work out.”

Johanns then wanted to know if cap and trade passes and money is to be made from planting trees, how much farmland will be lost?

Vilsack tried to dodge. “It’s funny you would mention that. I was speaking to state foresters yesterday and asked them to define a forest. You and I would normally think of a national forest. Their view was if you have trees on your farm — as I do on my farm with roughly 90 acres of timber — that’s a forest. …There’s a definitional issue here.

“You asked how many acres (of farmland) will be displaced. EPA estimated a number — millions — of acres of farmland…”

Johanns, on the clock, interrupted. “I know your point. Just how many acres? How many acres go out of farm production?”

Vilsack: “The problem with that question is it assumes that there’s no increase in productivity in farming. If you increase productivity and have the opportunity to take marginal land and create offset opportunities, you’ve increased the possible income for farmers as we’re doing with conservation programs.

“Then the question becomes what about CRP (the Conservation Reserve Program) in terms of the options people have? So it’s difficult to answer your question because I’m unwilling to concede there will be a lack of productivity or that we’ll take land in CRP and use it for forests.”

Johanns pressed further. “I’m not asking you about productivity. I’m asking you — or maybe (Jackson) — to tell me in your forecasts how many productive acres of farmland will go out of production. We’ll start there. Then, I’ll ask other questions.”

Jackson, too, claimed not to have such a number. “I have heard numbers that are being attributed to EPA’s modeling efforts that are on the order of tens of millions of acres. We’re looking into that. But what EPA’s models show and the conclusion you can draw is that if an offset is geared around aforestation, many farmers will choose to do that. But we don’t have a firm estimate.”

Johanns then read EPA-produced analysis from late June. “‘Because overall land area and crops decline due to aforestation, the modeling indicates a net decrease in total agricultural soil carbon storage as carbon is transferred from agricultural soils to the aforestation pool.’

“The whole purpose of this hearing is just to be honest with people. So, what’s going out of production? The important thing about that is it affects the pork producer, the cattle guy — it beats the living daylights out of them. Why? Because prices will go up. They’re out there saying, ‘Look, my input costs are going to go up with electricity, natural gas, fertilizer.’

“Just tell them: how many acres are going out of production?”

Vilsack, still unwilling to cede any ground, claimed Johann’s entire question was a “qualifier” that “assumes the forests will be planted on land that is ‘in production.’ What I’m trying to suggest is you’re providing another option to conservation programs. It may be that farmers choose not to take the acres where they’re growing corn out of production. Instead, they’ll take the acre that’s in the CRP.”

Johanns: “I know what you’re saying. But I’m reading this language. I didn’t write it. I’m only trying to get to the bottom of it. Acres are going to go out of production. You used some number in your model. What is that number?”

Again, Jackson passed.

“Many of the offsets (Vilsack) speaks about wouldn’t go to the row crop person to offset his higher energy, fertilizer and other costs,” Johanns continued. “It would go to the person who is planting the forestland.

“But, again, unless you can quantify this, you can’t sell this plan. It becomes the ‘hope and a prayer’ plan for agriculture because you can’t tell farmers and ranchers what they’ll be exposed to in terms of input costs. That’s a huge issue.”

It’s no consolation “to stand with one foot in the campfire and one in the ice bucket and say, ‘on average, I’m in good shape,’” said Johanns. “It’s no consolation to tell farmers and ranchers, ‘you’re going to be in good shape, on average,’ if you don’t know the regional differences, the crop differences, if you can’t tell them how much land will go out of production.

“And yet we have a House bill (Waxman/Markey) that passed. I find that shocking. I find it amazingly shocking that could happen without the aforementioned information being available.”

e-mail: dbennett@farmpress.com