OLYMPIA — Climate-change legislation to encourage farmers to shrink their carbon footprint is running into opposition from farm groups.
Advocated by Seattle-based Carbon Washington, Senate Bill 5947 would award grants to farmers to convert to lower-emission equipment and adopt cultivation practices that store carbon in the ground.
Carbon Washington developed the policy without consulting farm groups, which argue a new program could detract from ongoing efforts to conserve land while maintaining food and fiber production.
Farm groups have suggested Carbon Washington’s proposal be studied over the next year. Carbon Washington policy chairman Greg Rock said Monday he opposes delaying action.
“The studies are in. We’re a climate-change organization. We’re not a climate-study organization,” he said.
SB 5947 was introduced more than a month into this year’s session. It moved quickly through committees and passed the Senate on a 32-15 vote March 6. Four Republicans joined Democrats in voting yes. The bill has been sent to the House Agriculture and Natural Resource Committee.
The bill directs the state Department of Agriculture to consult with Washington State University and the Washington State Conservation Commission to draw up a program to fund carbon-cutting agricultural projects.
The bill doesn’t specify how much money would be available — that would be decided by budget writers. WSU and several state agencies would be involved in setting up and running the program. Over two years, the government’s administrative costs would total more than $900,000, according to a fiscal analysis of the bill.
Washington Farm Bureau director of government relations Tom Davis said there already are several similar conservation programs, such as the Voluntary Stewardship Program.
“There has been no input in the design of this bill from anyone in the ag industry,” Davis said.
“It’s a distraction from other existing programs,” he said. “There are only so many small pots available for conservation programs.”
Carbon Washington sponsored a 2016 ballot measure that would have imposed a carbon tax offset by cutting other taxes. Some environmental groups opposed the initiative because of the tax cuts. It failed.
“Our uniqueness is that we are very focused on bipartisan climate-change action,” Rock said. “We thought that maybe this was a way to engage (the agricultural) community.”
The Washington Association of Conservation Districts endorsed the legislation. The bill initially attracted bipartisan support and some interest from farm groups. The support and interest may be waning.
The top-ranking Republican on the Senate agriculture committee, Judy Warnick of Moses Lake, co-sponsored the bill and voted for it, but said her support was “tepid.”
If the House amends the bill and passes it, it will come back to the Senate. Warnick said she wants to make sure a final bill doesn’t undercut what conservation districts are already doing. “I don’t want to see those very successful programs lose out to a new one,” she said.
The bill holds out the possibility of money for measures such as no-till or low-till farming, and planting trees and cover crops. It does not set goals for reducing carbon emissions. Rock said the program would allow farmers to innovate and experiment.
Washington State Dairy Federation policy director Jay Gordon said he was concerned about unintended consequences, such as idling farmland.
“You just have to be careful with this,” he said. “This bill, as much as any bill I’ve seen, merits an interim discussion.”