Farm Bill Environmental Provisions May Escape Most House Scrutiny

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By David Schultz

The environmental provisions in the farm bill may fly under the radar, observers say, as House lawmakers take up April 18 the first version of this legislation under the Trump administration.

The bill (H.R. 2) contains provisions intended to help farmers preserve wetlands and improve rural water infrastructure, as well as a measure that renews the EPA’s authority to regulate pesticides.

But the debate on Capitol Hill over the more than 600-page legislative package will likely focus on more contentious provisions, such as crop subsidies or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as food stamps.

And even those provisions may not warrant much discussion.

Alyssa Charney, a policy specialist with the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, said neither Democrats nor Republicans are expected to offer many amendments to the farm bill during its April 18 markup in the House Agriculture Committee.

“There’s definitely a chance that it could go pretty quickly,” Charney told Bloomberg Environment. “The Democratic position will be, ‘We can’t support this bill, so we’re not even going to try to make it better.’”

Conservation

Charney’s group is most concerned about the provisions of the bill meant to encourage farmers to protect the environment on their land. These include incentives for farmers who preserve wetlands on their property or who take steps to protect nearby drinking water sources from fertilizer runoff.

Charney said the bill would eliminate an initiative called the Conservation Stewardship Program, which provides funding to farmers who change their daily operations to become more environmentally sustainable. And only part of the program’s money would move into a separate program that reimburses farmers for capital investments in cover crops, fertilizer storage, and other environmental projects.

Eliminating this program would be unwise, Charney said, because it ensures farmers make continual investments in the conservation of their land, rather than one-time infusions of cash.

But, ultimately, she said it’s very uncertain whether the provision eliminating the program winds up in whatever eventually goes to the president’s desk.

“The Senate definitely wants to write its own draft,” Charney said. “If this bill does make it out of the House, from there we’re looking at a conference.”

Rural Infrastructure

In addition to incentives for conservation, the farm bill also reaffirms the Agriculture Department’s role in subsidizing water infrastructure in rural communities.

It would extend programs that offer grants and loans to small water utilities to upgrade their drinking water and wastewater treatment facilities. The bill also would continue a program that pays for experts to travel to small utilities to assist with highly technical problems.

Mike Keegan, a legislative and regulatory analyst with the National Rural Water Association, said the bill’s reauthorization of the USDA’s water infrastructure programs is by far its most important aspect for his members.

The inclusion of this reauthorization sends a message to the Trump administration, which has twice proposed eliminating it outright on the grounds that it duplicates similar programs at the Environmental Protection Agency.

“That is the seminal water program in the farm bill,” Keegan told Bloomberg Environment.

Pesticides

Additionally, the farm bill contains a number of provisions that would affect pesticide regulation, even though that role is typically the purview of the Environmental Protection Agency, not the USDA.

A section of the bill would pare back requirements that EPA conduct interagency reviews to make sure pesticides don’t harm endangered species. Pesticides are often in legal limbo while these years-long reviews unfold and Republicans have frequently targeted the legal requirements that force the EPA to do them—though Democrats have consistently blocked these efforts.

Another part of the farm bill would renew the EPA’s authority to collect fees from the makers of pesticides. These fees allow the agency to run much faster safety evaluations on pesticides, evaluations that legally must occur before the products can be sold.

A stand-alone version of this fee authority provision (H.R. 1029) passed the House easily last year and subsequently was approved by the Senate agriculture committee. But a group of Democrats led by Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) has blocked the bill from moving to the Senate floor in protest of EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s rollbacks of several Obama-era pesticide regulations.

The EPA’s authority expired at the end of the last fiscal year and has been skating by on short-term extensions ever since. If the farm bill makes it to the Senate floor with this provision intact, Udall could be put in the tough position of having to block the entire bill to maintain leverage over the regulatory rollback issue he’s concerned about.

Udall spokeswoman Jennifer Talhelm told Bloomberg Environment in an email that the senator opposes the House’s version of the farm bill but didn’t say whether he would try to block it if the pesticide provision remains in.

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