Michigan Climate News Policy Insights: The Farm Bill

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Discussions have commenced for the 2023 Farm Bill, legislation covering everything from food aid to forestry to, yes, farming. 

The bill is a historically bipartisan enterprise because of the diversity of issues dealt with and the necessity to pass it and fund crucial things like crop insurance and commodity price supports. 

But the arrival of a divided government in D.C. and some Republican lawmakers’ promises to engage in constant investigations and score-settling could also influence the Farm Bill. Food aid, which makes up 75% of the Farm Bill and includes things like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), could be a target for Republicans. Glen “GT” Thompson (R-PA), who’s set to chair the House Agriculture Committee, has previously supported restrictions on food benefits. 

Bentley Johnson, federal government affairs director for the Michigan League of Conservation Voters, says agriculture has the potential to shift from being a significant producer of greenhouse gas emissions to offering solutions. U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack is pushing “climate-smart commodities” to fund pilot projects that encourage more efficient fertilizer use or reduce methane emissions from dairy cows. Conservation programs associated with the Farm Bill could also help reduce emissions from farms and sequester carbon on farmland. 

Yet, Republicans may use the Farm Bill to claw back the $20 million in “climate-smart agriculture” provisions from the Inflation Reduction Act. This money largely funds existing programs like the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP). These programs pay farmers to set aside land or engage in other soil and water conservation practices that can sequester carbon and improve regional water quality. 

While climate change remains a contentious topic in some areas, these programs are quite popular. The United States Department of Agriculture has accepted less than half of the applicants who wish to enroll in them.

The Farm Bill contains money for these programs and other conservation initiatives, but they’ve been cut in the past, and more changes could dampen their appeal. 

“When the funding gets whipped back and forth in these conservation programs, farmers don’t have the certainty that they’ll be supported in making those changes,” Johnson said. “They might put in a lot of work, but if they don’t have the confidence or the money goes away…they put that back into production.”

The Farm Bill could also advance renewable energy through the Rural Energy for America Program (REAP), which provides loans for renewable energy and efficiency upgrades for farmers and rural small businesses. The Inflation Reduction Act also set aside billions to help rural energy cooperatives transition to renewable energy, funding that could rise or fall with negotiations over the Farm Bill. 

It’s possible that the bipartisan nature of the Farm Bill could make it one of the few pieces of climate-related legislation to move forward over the next two years. Democratic control of the Senate could help protect agricultural funding in the Inflation Reduction Act. And Johnson notes that Republicans will have a narrow majority in the House, and some GOP lawmakers from swing districts could have an outsize impact on the legislation, potentially making compromise more likely. 

The Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill from 2021 also offers some hope for action. It passed with at least some support from House and Senate Republicans, showing that, even in the current climate, lawmakers can still act on big issues that affect nearly everyone. 

State policy updates:

Heating help: On Nov. 4, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced that around 210,000 residents receiving Home Heating Tax Credits in 2021 would receive additional credits this year. Households with disabled people, seniors, or children under five will receive $575, while all others will get $380. These credits could be especially important this year as high energy costs are expected to combine with a forecasted “Triple Dip La Niña” weather pattern to create an especially cold and expensive winter. (MLive)

Rural water: Nine communities in Michigan will receive $15 million in community development block grants to improve existing water, sewer and wastewater systems. Clare, Hillsdale, Lapeer and Reed City are all receiving $2 million in grants. All the recipients are rural communities with a majority of low or moderate-income residents. 

Brownfield bucks: Michigan’s Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) awarded $2.1 million in brownfield grants to redevelop contaminated sites in Northern Michigan and the Upper Peninsula. This includes money for redeveloping a historic bank building in Marquette, which had been used as an automobile garage, and funding to clean up contamination at the site of a new gas station and convenience store in Honor.

Federal policy updates:

City-wide air monitoring: The Biden administration is sending Michigan $1.2 million for community air monitoring projects in Michigan. Recipients include the Asthma & Allergy Foundation of America Michigan Chapter, the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians in southwest Michigan, the city of Detroit, and the Detroit-based Green Door Initiative. “The EPA grants to establish a city-wide air pollution monitoring system will equip residents with data that backs up their lived experience and educate policymakers on the cumulative impacts of pollution on our frontline communities,” said Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Detroit). 

Limiting SO2 in Detroit: The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released an implementation plan last month to lower sulfur dioxide (SO2) emissions in the Detroit area, some of which are in non-attainment areas for the pollutant. The plan will limit emissions from U.S. Steel on Zug Island. The EPA expects reduced emissions from this source and DTE’s closure of the Rouge and Trenton Channel coal-fired power plant to lower pollution in the area. 

Legacy pollution: The cleanup of a Superfund site in St. Louis, Michigan, has entered its next phase, with EGLE and the EPA preparing to excavate 100,000 tons of contaminated soil at the former Velsicol Chemical Corporation. The 2021 federal infrastructure bill provided money for the Superfund program, which has accelerated the cleanup at the site where the soil is contaminated with xylene, oily waste, chlorobenzene, and bromated phosphates. (MI Radio, MLive)

Justice40: In October, the Biden administration announced $212 million would be made available for water infrastructure in Michigan through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. The money will be available through the Michigan State Revolving Funds (SRF) program, which is part of the president’s Justice40 initiative. This seeks to send 40% of certain federal funds to underserved communities. 

Bus money: Michigan school districts will get 138 zero-emissions school buses because of the federal infrastructure law. 25 school districts will benefit from the $50 million investment, including Pontiac, Ypsilanti, Dearborn, and Jackson schools. (MLive)

At the Michigan Public Service Commission:

Rate hike reduction: The Michigan Public Service Commission (MPSC) approved a $30.5 million rate hike for DTE Energy customers, substantially less than the $388 million or 8.8% increase the utility had asked for. People had recently packed a public meeting to protest power outages following storms and already high energy costs. (Freep)

New rules: After receiving public feedback in Lansing and Marquette, the MPSC changed its parameters for integrated resource plans, which are long-range plans where utilities show how they will generate electricity. The MPSC says the new rules are intended to enable the transition to renewable energy and distributed generation and incorporate carbon reduction goals from the state climate plan. 
Help available: A new web page is available for utility, telephone, and broadband customers to access assistance programs. The page consolidates state assistance for heating and federal help for phone and internet service. It also links to community and social services organizations that offer assistance.

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