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DES MOINES (DTN) -- Demonstrating some of the complications involved in agriculture and climate change, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack disputed Republican views on the Obama administration's work with dairy producers to reduce methane while the secretary also dismissed a study raising doubts about carbon emissions from cellulosic biofuels.
Vilsack spoke at an Earth Day forum on climate change held at Drake University and co-sponsored by the magazine New Republic and the League of Women Voters.
USDA also used the forum to announce $6 million in grants to 10 universities to study the effects of climate change on agriculture. The universities are designated as USDA's "climate hubs" to help producers adapt to changing climate conditions.
"The questions we pose to these hubs are 'What are the vulnerabilities of American agriculture and forestry as we have changes in climate and, as these vulnerabilities are identified, what steps can be taken to mitigate or adapt to the changing climate?'" Vilsack said.
The dairy industry has been proactive in reducing greenhouse gas emissions throughout the entire supply chain by 25% by 2020. USDA made a financial commitment to invest more in anaerobic digesters to reduce methane from dairy production while also producing electricity from the digesters. USDA has financed 92 such digesters and has a goal to fund one a week.
The work with the dairy sector was highlighted by the White House Climate Action plan last month that was labeled as a biogas roadmap for the dairy industry. That prompted press releases and multiple letters by some Senate Republicans urging USDA to put in writing that the department is not going to regulate methane from livestock. Vilsack reiterated USDA continues to support the work done by the dairy industry.
"I think it's important to note what the administration is proposing in the roadmap is initially a voluntary effort, and the reason being is we have already started down that road with the dairy industry for a number of years," Vilsack said. "They have been proactive and responsive."
The secretary said his view is that as long as voluntary measures are working, such as the dairy-industry's program, then USDA wants to encourage that. Mandatory programs for the dairy industry aren't necessary at this point, he said. A better approach is to capture the methane, generate electricity for the farm and sell the rest back to the electrical grid.
Later, in a brief interview, Vilsack indicated he thinks lawmakers are stoking fires over regulatory threats because of the mid-term election season.
"This is a political year, so people are using every opportunity -- it's like the Clean Water (Act) waters of the U.S. rule from EPA -- it's easy to twist and confuse folks," Vilsack said. "So we at USDA have to do a better job making people understand this is not mandatory, this is voluntary. And in fact, producers across the country are accepting the challenge, particularly in the dairy industry. We have a terrific relationship with them, so we have to do a better job of educating people."
Vilsack said during the forum that agriculture accounts for 9% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. Actually, EPA released a report this month updating emissions by various sectors of the economy from 1990-2012. Agriculture accounted for 10% of emissions during that period. Electricity production took up 32% of emissions, transportation accounted for 28%, industry accounted for 20%, and commercial and residential buildings accounted for 10%.