Federal policy update: carbon removal pathways supported in 2018 Farm Bill

The Farm Bill is an important federal policy vehicle for supporting the development and deployment of a portfolio of land- and technology-based carbon removal strategies. With the 2018 Farm Bill heading for conference to iron out some (major) differences between the House and Senate versions, we thought now would be a good time to take a peek under the hood of each bill to see what each version has in store regarding pathways to carbon removal.

Background

Roughly every five years, the United States Congress is responsible for passing an updated Farm Bill in order to authorize technical assistance and cost sharing programs for producers and nutritional assistance programs for food insecure households. With the 2014 Farm Bill expiring this fall, both the House and the Senate have drafted new editions of the bill. This year, the Senate Bill has much broader bipartisan support, given that the Senate bill passed with 86 votes while the House Bill only passed by a margin of two votes.

While media coverage of both bills has focused heavily on reduced funding for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the introduction of novel conservation and energy programs in the Senate bill could yield significant benefits for our producers' wallets and the climate. While the 2018 House Farm Bill would combine the Conservation Stewardship and Environmental Quality Incentives Programs, reducing conservation spending by roughly $800 million over a decade, the Senate Farm Bill would allocate roughly $100 million from each program to new conservation programs, maintaining current conservation spending. Among other important changes, the Senate bill quintuples the Agriculture Advanced Research and Development Authority’s funding to $50 million over five years, earmarks funding for research and education on carbon utilization, introduces a soil health pilot program, and creates a biogas opportunities task force. Each of these programs demonstrates an innovative policy approach and offers concurrent opportunities for research and piloting of carbon removal solutions, with ongoing opportunities to increase funding in future farm bills.

Testing the Tools

Consider the advanced research amendments recommended by Senator Bennet. The Agriculture Advanced Research and Development Authority pilot program (AGARDA) now offers $50 million over five years for research on technologies intended to “enhanced management strategies, including novel chemical, biological, or cultural approaches; or diagnostic or surveillance technology.” Projects under this umbrella could include the much needed improvement of LiDAR, remote sensing, and soil sensor technologies that are vital to monitoring and quantifying carbon stocks in biomass and soils. The research tools and novel management strategies identified in this section could easily include soil amendments and management techniques intended to enhance and secure soil carbon storage, especially since these practices build resilience with regard to imminent climate volatility.

 Figure 1: An example of carbon stock evaluation using LiDAR technology. Currently the visual resolution of such mapping exercises is low, however, with significant investment in research and development, these tools could become much cheaper and more accurate, making the quantification of carbon stocks more affordable and reliable. (Source:  Remote Sensing Solutions GMBH )

Figure 1: An example of carbon stock evaluation using LiDAR technology. Currently the visual resolution of such mapping exercises is low, however, with significant investment in research and development, these tools could become much cheaper and more accurate, making the quantification of carbon stocks more affordable and reliable. (Source: Remote Sensing Solutions GMBH)

Substantiating the Substrate

Within the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), the Soil Health Pilot Program incentivizes farmers to improve overall soil health. This pilot program is also supported by the Soil Health and Income Protection Program, which offers farmers financial incentives to restore degraded soils through practices such as cover cropping. Producers and climate action advocates alike could achieve a significant policy victory here, as the Senate bill not only incentivizes farmers to increase soil carbon, but also establishes protocols for measuring carbon levels in soil. Thus, the pilot program will provide incentives to early adopters that implement carbon building practices, while also building quantification and verification protocols from their results, informed by the most recent technological improvements from AGARDA. Together, these programs could encourage widespread adoption for practices such as compost addition and conservation tillage, while also enhancing the financial incentives and compliance standards. If implemented as intended, technologies funded by AGARDA could reduce the cost and improve the ease and resolution of monitoring and verification technologies necessary to calculate EQIP and soil health payments. Moreover, it is likely that geographically distributed pilot projects will spread knowledge on carbon storing practices and incentives offered.

 Figure 2: A soybean plot converted from conventional tillage to conservation tillage through the use of EQIP funding. (Source:  @Franklin_NRCS )

Figure 2: A soybean plot converted from conventional tillage to conservation tillage through the use of EQIP funding. (Source: @Franklin_NRCS)

Digesting the Dilemma

But the carbon removal opportunities in the Senate Farm Bill also extend beyond soil health incentives and monitoring technologies. Senator Bennet’s Amendment to include a $10 million carbon utilization education program takes language directly from the Carbon Utilization Act of 2018 and provides funding for qualified organizations to educate the public and producers on the economic and emissions benefits of carbon sequestration and utilization. The Senate Bill’s Energy Title also offers support for carbontech, by educating current and prospective biogas producers about opportunities to aggregate organic wastes from multiple sources into a single biogas system, which ultimately yields both energy and fertilizer. The carbon utilization program is coincided with the creation of the Interagency Biogas Opportunities Task Force to accelerate biogas research and investment. Similar to the relationship between AGARDA and soil health programs discussed above, the education programs will support early adopters, while the task force can refine and improve the core technology.

 Figure 3: The diagram above demonstrates the manner in which an anaerobic digester can collect waste carbon from various sources on the farm to produce valuable fertilizers (bio-slurry) and energy (biogas and methane), while also reducing carbon emissions. (Source:  GLW Energy )

Figure 3: The diagram above demonstrates the manner in which an anaerobic digester can collect waste carbon from various sources on the farm to produce valuable fertilizers (bio-slurry) and energy (biogas and methane), while also reducing carbon emissions. (Source: GLW Energy)

While by no means sufficient to unlock large-scale carbon removal in rural sectors of the US economy, the Senate bill’s multiple pilot programs could have significant impacts on how farmers, researchers, and the public interact with the carbon removal field going forward. AGARDA has the potential to accelerate research on key carbon removal technologies for the land sector, in ways that farmers participating in the soil health pilot program could benefit from. Collectively, the carbon utilization education program, AGARDA, and the Interagency Biogas Opportunities Task Force will be crucial to disseminating information and technologies from federally funded research, connecting novel tools and innovative producers. Ultimately, the Senate Farm Bill represents a small-but-significant step forward in the push for carbon removal’s inclusion in public policy.

Note: updated July 8th to reflect that the carbon utilization education program is for $10M, not $1M as originally noted.