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Offsets and Big Ag: Does the climate bill give away too much to the farm sector?

Erica Gies, Grist
The compliance market for offsets proposed under the House’s American Clean Energy and Security Act would not just mean more opportunity for companies already in the business of selling carbon offsets. It would also result in a major realignment in the types of offsets offered, shifting away from renewable energy to offsets derived largely from land use, land use change, and forestry projects (otherwise referred to by the clunky acronym LULUCF).

That’s because Waxman-Markey, as the House bill is known, excludes all forms of energy production, including renewable sources, from the huge carbon offset program it would create.

“Since fossil fuels used to make electricity are capped, there is an automatic ‘credit’ from purchasing renewable energy due to the need to hold fewer allowances,” said David Hawkins, director of the Natural Resource Defense Council’s climate center. “Creating an offset credit for those renewable kilowatt hours would be double counting.”

Aside from the carbon price, which would help to level the playing field for clean energy, as Hawkins noted, other mechanisms will also drive renewable energy development, including the renewable electricity standard, which specifies that the United States should get 20 percent of its electricity from renewable sources or energy efficiency by 2020; CAFE standards that regulate auto emissions; and already-approved federal stimulus money for research and development.

But the prospect of agricultural and forestry offsets presented an irresistible opportunity for Big Ag, and just days before the House passed Waxman-Markey on June 26, the House Agriculture Committee, led by Rep. Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) and supported by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, won some key victories for their constituency that critics argue would impede the country’s ability to actually reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

One of the reasons corn ethanol and, to a lesser extent, soy biodiesel, have fallen out of favor in many circles is because of the international leakage issue. When American farmland is turned over to growing crops for biofuel production, that reduces food availability on the international market, pushing prices higher. People in developing countries can’t afford corn and soy at these prices, so they cut down rainforests to increase local supplies. When the resulting loss of carbon sequestration from deforestation is calculated, biofuels typically do not show a net reduction in CO2 emissions over fossil fuels.

Many people in agriculture regard biofuels as an economic godsend that can help save struggling farms (witness the huge boom in biofuel production in the first half of this decade as oil prices reached historic highs). And they have been dismayed by carbon accounting reports that have shown their product to have an about equal warming effect as fossil fuels, information that led California to exclude corn ethanol from its renewable energy fuel standard.

…Environmentalists argue that there is no point to growing biofuels if there is no net climate benefit, and increased water consumption and fertilizer runoff associated with these crops could make them an environmental net negative…
(11 August 2009)

US Still Paying Blackwater Millions

Jeremy Scahill, The Nation
Just days before two former Blackwater employees alleged in sworn statements filed in federal court that the company’s owner, Erik Prince, “views himself as a Christian crusader tasked with eliminating Muslims and the Islamic faith from the globe,” the Obama administration extended a contract with Blackwater for more than $20 million for “security services” in Iraq, according to federal contract data obtained by The Nation. The State Department contract is scheduled to run through September 3. In May, the State Department announced it was not renewing Blackwater’s Iraq contract, and the Iraqi government has refused to issue the company an operating license.

“They are still there, but we are transitioning them out,” a State Department official told The Nation. According to the State Department, the $20 million represents an increase on an aviation contract that predates the Obama administration.

Despite its scandal-plagued track record, Blackwater (which has rebranded itself as Xe) continues to have a presence in Iraq, trains Afghan forces on US contracts and provides government-funded training for military and law enforcement inside the United States. The company is also actively bidding on other government contracts, including in Afghanistan, where the number of private contractors is swelling. According to federal contracting records reviewed by The Nation, since President Barack Obama took office in January the State Department has contracted with Blackwater for more than $174 million in “security services” alone in Iraq and Afghanistan and tens of millions more in “aviation services.” Much of this money stems from existing contracts from the Bush era that have been continued by the Obama administration. While Obama certainly inherited a mess when it came to Blackwater’s entrenchment in Iraq and Afghanistan, he has continued the widespread use of armed private contractors in both countries. Blackwater’s role may be slowly shrinking, but its work is continuing through companies such as DynCorp and Triple Canopy.

“These contracts with Blackwater need to stop,” says Representative Jan Schakowsky, an Illinois Democrat and a member of the House Select Committee on Intelligence. “There’s already enough evidence of gross misconduct and serious additional allegations against the company and its owner to negate any possibility that this company should have a presence in Iraq, Afghanistan or any conflict zone–or any contract with the US government.”

…The sworn affidavits from the former Blackwater employees, first reported by The Nation on August 3, have sparked renewed calls on Capitol Hill for the Obama administration to cancel all business with Blackwater. “I believe that the behavior of Xe, its leadership, and many of its employees, puts our government and military personnel, as well as our military and diplomatic objectives, at serious risk,” Schakowsky wrote in an August 6 letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. “Given this company’s history of abuse and in light of recent allegations, I urge you not to award further contracts to Xe and its affiliates and to review all existing contracts with this company.” Schakowsky sent a similar letter to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates.

Meanwhile,, a leading veterans’ organization, has called on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to investigate the allegations contained in the sworn declarations submitted in the Eastern District of Virginia on August 3., which has more than 100,000 members, also appealed to the House and Senate Judiciary Committees to “immediately hold hearings, and make recommendations on a new legal structure” to hold private military contractors accountable for alleged crimes.

“Given the charges made against Xe and Erik Prince in these sworn statements, which include smuggling and use of illegal arms inside of Iraq, as well as the encouraged murder of innocent Iraqis, it is essential that these loopholes be closed, retroactively, so that Xe, Prince, and his employees cannot escape proper prosecution in the United States now or in the future,” wrote the group’s chair Jon Soltz, an Iraq War veteran, in a letter to Senator John Kerry and other lawmakers. “It is absolutely crucial that we show Iraqis and the rest of the world that no matter who you are or how big your company is, you will be held accountable for your conduct–especially when in a war zone. Failure to do so only emboldens our enemy, and gives them yet another tool to recruit more insurgents and terrorists that target our men and women in harm’s way.”…
(7 August 2009)

Steinbeck’s Descendants

Jessica Ramirez, Newsweek
Twice a week Sharon Risner pulls out of her driveway on White Lane and heads south on Highway 99. Around the five-mile mark she takes the Pumpkin Center exit. It’s not the quickest route to work, but it does offer the best view of the land. This is the place where the sun kisses the soil and provides enough to feed and clothe a man. Everything here has a purpose, she says. Take the patches of winter wheat. When the farmers come in with their machines, they cut off the top and sell it to companies that make products like flour, then use the bottom for hay. Those fields are followed by expansive dairy farms with hundreds of black-and-white dots off in the distance—dairy cows. Then there is the cotton.

Sharon used to work at the Kern Delta Weedpatch cotton gin. The building—a tin beige shell—houses the first supergin built in the United States. For 28 years it processed 5,400 bales of raw cotton per week during harvest season. That ended last December, when it closed, one more victim of this epic recession. Sharon—who is 62, with sun-hardened skin and a faint Southern drawl—had kept the books here since the place opened. Her daughter Suzanne, 32, who weighed the cotton, worked here for eight years. Even today, Sharon still shows up at least two times a week. She understands she won’t be paid. She knows that the gin will soon be sold off in parts to cotton growers in countries like Peru. Still, she feels responsible because Sharon Risner has cotton in her blood. It was passed down by her parents, Vergie Bonds and Atwood Risner, Oklahoma natives who in the 1930s joined the mass migration of desperate souls heading to California looking for financial redemption. The Risners found theirs in the cotton fields at the southern tip of the San Joaquin Valley. Here is where they first settled into tents and eventually moved into the Arvin/Weedpatch federal migrant camp.

In this recession, however, the region that once served as destination for economic refugees is now one of the most depressed in the country. Compared with the rest of the United States, high unemployment and poverty rates are not abnormal in the San Joaquin Valley. But California’s ongoing budget problems, the housing meltdown, and the downturn have made an already bad situation worse. This has left the area in a very vulnerable position, says Mark Keppler, executive director of the Maddy Institute. So even though the Valley is the largest agricultural producer in the country, if this eight-county region were a state, it would currently have the highest unemployment rate in the nation, at 15.4 percent, and the highest percentage of people living below the poverty line, at 17.8 percent. There’s even been a sporadic resurgence of tent cities—Hoovervilles—in towns like Fresno. And while the downturn may be bottoming out, economic indicators like the unemployment rate will continue to go up. And places like California may bear that brunt. Comparisons between our economic time and the Great Depression have spurred renewed interest in the era in which the Risner’s forbears settled in the Valley. Check your local library shelves: there’s a good chance David Kennedy’s Freedom From Fear and Studs Terkel’s Hard Times are already checked out. But those nonfiction accounts aren’t nearly as beloved as John Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath. So, NEWSWEEK revisited the iconic region, where Steinbeck came to understand the lives of the real people he fictionalized, in order to see how their descendants are weathering today’s great recession.
(4 August 2009)
Thanks to kalpa once again for pointing to this article. -KS