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Ethanol, Biogas & Carbon Banking: Three False Solutions Vilsack Brings to Biden-Harris Climate Policy

On January 27, 2021, President Joe Biden signed his “Executive Order on Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad.” This historic action commited the U.S. to achieving “significant short-term global reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and net-zero global emissions by mid-century or before.”

Biden’s climate EO was immediately likened to the Green New Deal resolution championed by the Sunrise Movement.  

One big difference between the two is, while the Green New Deal sticks to direct government investment in proven climate solutions, Biden’s climate EO relies, in part, on “market-based mechanisms” and “robust standards for the market ... to catalyze private sector investment.”

Another difference is that the Green New Deal sets transformative goals for social justice that go beyond merely surviving the climate crisis, like “building a more sustainable food system that ensures universal access to healthy food.” By contrast, Biden’s climate EO doesn’t mention “food” even as it recognizes that “America’s farmers, ranchers, and forest landowners have an important role to play in combating the climate crisis and reducing greenhouse gas emissions, by sequestering carbon in soils, grasses, trees, and other vegetation and sourcing sustainable bioproducts and fuels.” Are “sustainable bioproducts” edible? They don’t sound very appetizing―or nourishing.

These two differences between the Green New Deal and Biden’s climate EO wouldn’t have us so concerned if it weren’t for the support for three dangerous false solutions that his Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack brings to the Biden-Harris Cabinet.

1. Biofuels from Greenhouse-Gas-Polluting Industrial Agriculture 

Vilsack is “a major supporter of ethanol from corn, despite increasing evidence that it isn’t as environmentally safe as once thought,” writes Emily Berch in her article for The Nation, “Biden’s Buddy Tom Vilsack Is No Friend to Farmers.” “[T]he pollution, chemical use, and soil degradation associated with growing more corn outweighs any benefits of replacing oil with ethanol,” says The Intercept’s Claire Kelloway in “Tom Vilsack for Agriculture Secretary Is Everything That’s Wrong With the Democratic Party.”  

C. Ford Runge calls ethanol “a bad idea whose time has passed,” in his Yale Environment 360 report, “The Case Against More Ethanol: It’s Simply Bad for Environment.” The same could be said for Biden’s decision to ask Vilsack to reprise his Obama administration role as Agriculture Secretary. Thanks to Vilsack, 40 percent of American corn is now produced for ethanol refineries. Returning him to USDA means “doubling down” (in Biden’s words) on fuels from agriculture systems that are destroying our environment and climate.

2. Electricity from Greenhouse-Gas-Polluting Factory Farms

In 2009, Vilsack said he’d cut U.S. dairy emissions by 25 percent by spending $20 million on anaerobic digesters. But, only for farms with more than 700 dairy cows, the top 10 percent of the largest factory farms. “An alternative would be to put in place environmental regulations that compel agriculture producers with high greenhouse gas emissions to fund their own manure management solutions,” writes Jessica McKenzie in her report for The Counter, “The misbegotten promise of anaerobic digesters.” Instead, as Family Farm Defenders leader John Peck told her, Vilsack chose to “subsidize the worst actors to clean up their mess.” 

And, of course, it didn’t work. U.S. dairy emissions weren’t cut. They increased, because Vilsack’s waste-to-energy subsidies created what McKenzie calls “perverse incentives for more and bigger factory farms.” She cites a Food & Water Watch issue brief, “Biogas From Factory Farm Waste Has No Place in a Clean Energy Future,” which found, “Biogas digesters are a false solution that do nothing to actually mitigate emissions from agriculture.” As a result of Vilsack’s perverse incentives, factory farms grew in number and size during the Obama Administration.

Vilsack was rewarded for his support of the factory farm dairy industry with a million-dollar job. As Republican strategists looking to win the next elections are quick to point out, Vilsack’s salary was paid by the dairy check-off. This means, as Fox News put it in a headline, “Biden agricultural secretary pick made $1M a year off struggling farmers.”

3. Markets in Hot Air Where Farmers & Ranchers “Offset” the Emissions of the Worst Greenhouse Gas Polluters: 

Biden’s climate EO tasks Vilsack with figuring out the best way to “encourage the voluntary adoption of climate-smart agricultural and forestry practices that decrease wildfire risk fueled by climate change and result in additional, measurable, and verifiable carbon reductions and sequestration and that source sustainable bioproducts and fuels.”

Vilsack still supports the tired old cap-and-trade idea that the Democrats failed to push through Congress in 2009. He called it cap-and-trade when he spoke to Art Cullen of the Storm Lake Times, but in his confirmation hearing and elsewhere he rebranded this effort as “carbon banking” and said he could create a carbon bank with the $30 billion fund available from the Commodity Credit Corporation.

Farmers should definitely be given the tools they need to transition to climate-beneficial regenerative organic agriculture, but not through a cap and trade scheme which would tie them to what the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy and the National Family Farm Coalition call “a volatile market that could make farming [even] more economically unstable.”

Just like with ethanol and digesters, we know what Vilsack would do with carbon trading, because he did it during the Obama Administration. In 2014, he helped Chevrolet buy credits from North Dakota ranchers promising not to plow prairie. The agreement put no additional requirements on the ranchers to use regenerative grazing, or sequester more (or even as much) carbon, or promise not to sell their beef to a feedlot. The climate benefit was speculative and hypothetical, based only on the climate benefit of conserving prairie.

We can help ranchers protect prairie without giving polluters rights to the same amount of emissions that would be released if that prairie were destroyed. I listed good alternatives to Vilsack’s schemes in my article about what climate activists are asking of Interior Secretary Deb Haaland. The best opportunity is the Climate Stewardship Act, sponsored by Haaland when she was in the House, alongside Senator Cory Booker.

It’s easy to see, even from vapid industry puff pieces (especially those featuring agribusiness villains like Bayer), that Vilsack’s carbon credit schemes are about corporate profit, not climate, and not farmers. Agriculture land values soaring is an additional benefit for vulture capitalists.

Carbon banking is how Vilsack tricks farmers to cede even more power to corporations. You know it’s a false solution when it's championed by Bill Gates and the Great Reset wizards of the World Economic Forum.

Vilsack’s effort to make “carbon farming” synonymous with “carbon banking” is giving regenerative organic agriculture a bad name. It is sad to see headlines like “President Biden, Please Don't Get Into Carbon Farming: This is not the solution to our climate problems; it's a sweetheart deal for Big Ag,” and even worse to see ones like "We’re told that healthy soil sequesters huge amounts of carbon from the atmosphere. Scientists are finding that’s not always the case." The second headline is hugely misleading. Scientists continue to refine our understanding of the carbon cycle, but no one disputes the fact that regenerative organic agriculture, including management intensive grazing, can maximize the soil’s natural capacity for sequestering carbon.

Vilsack’s Carbon Bank could quickly turn the promise of regenerative organic agriculture into a false solution.

The regenerative organic agriculture movement must come together now to 1) draw the line against any type of carbon market or banking that allows polluters to buy offsets, and 2) put our muscle behind the Climate Stewardship Act.

Vilsack's Carbon Bank puts a narrow focus on soil carbon sequestration, but with the Climate Stewardship Act we could address climate change while realizing the multiple benefits of regenerative organic agriculture, including realizing the Green New Deal’s goal of “a more sustainable food system that ensures universal access to healthy food.”

Alexis Baden-Mayer is political director for the Organic Consumers Association (OCA). To keep up with OCA’s news and alerts, sign up here.