The Senate overwhelmingly passed a bill on Thursday to help shore up private agriculture and forestry carbon markets. The vote was 92-8.
The bill — a rare example of bipartisan action on climate — asks the Agriculture Department to create a certification program to help farmers, ranchers and foresters navigate a growing array of private-sector programs and make money by selling carbon credits. Such landowners can generate the credits by changing their operations to cut emissions or pull more carbon dioxide from the air into soil or trees.
The proliferation of carbon offset markets positions landowners to bring in additional revenue, as many major corporations, from Microsoft to McDonald’s, are increasingly looking to buy credits to help offset their emissions as they look to meet their environmental pledges.
The bill, named the Growing Climate Solutions Act, S. 1251 (117), aims to bring some clarity to a growing number of carbon credit programs that have cropped up, which has created a confusing landscape for farmers who voluntarily participate in them. The bill allocates $4 million over four years to help the effort.
“It allows USDA to provide legitimacy to the trustworthy actors in the marketplace,” Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.), co-author of the bill, said on the Senate floor Thursday.
Senate Agriculture Chair Debbie Stabenow, a primary backer of the bill, had been working around the clock to resolve a handful of holds on the bill in recent days. She said Thursday the overall goal is to get farmers to work with USDA “to design a carbon market that works for them, not Wall Street.”
By the time the bill hit the floor Thursday, it had 55 co-sponsors — an unusually large and bipartisan roster that was almost evenly split between Democrats and Republicans.
In a news conference after the passage, Braun highlighted the input he said he received from young conservatives, faith groups and various farmers interested in helping address climate change.
The voluntary trading programs show “you that people are ready, willing to put their money where their mouths have been to try to reverse what’s happening to environment, to our atmosphere and to climate in general,” Braun said. “We’re in a good place, and I think it’s a start.”
The legislation is backed by a broad coalition of outside groups, including the American Farm Bureau Federation, an organization with a long history of opposing federal climate legislation, and major environmental groups like the Environmental Defense Fund and the Nature Conservancy.
While the bill has broad support, it has also been criticized by some on the left for focusing on offsets instead of mandating emissions cuts or other changes to farming. Such critics have argued that without any real regulations, carbon markets will ultimately be a greenwashing exercise for major corporations.
Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) was one of the few who voted against the bill, but his office said he would work with Stabenow on how to implement the program.
“There are some small farmer and environmental justice concerns with the bill as-is,” said Veronica Duron, Booker’s chief of staff.
Key amendment tanks: A controversial amendment by Sen. Mike Lee that sought to cut the creation of a certification program at USDA and strip language aimed at helping socially disadvantaged and underserved farmers failed 89 to 11.
On the floor, Lee argued that the legislation would ultimately end up hampering the private-sector markets that are emerging. “The federal government ought to get out of the way,” he said.
What’s next: There is a companion bill in the House sponsored by Reps. Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.) and Don Bacon (R-Neb.), but it has so far not had traction and the path forward is not clear.
Rep. G.T. Thompson (R-Pa.), ranking member of the House Agriculture Committee, criticized the legislation, calling it “a big-government solution in search of a problem.”
“The consequences of government intrusion into voluntary carbon markets have not been adequately explored and Congress should continue educating itself and vetting these issues before legislating,” he said in a statement after the bill passed the Senate.
Stabenow told reporters that she had been focused mostly on passage in the Senate and hadn’t had conversations with her House counterparts yet. She added that she will start those discussions and was “confident” it can be passed by the lower chamber.