Tag: scholarship

The Winds of Change: Investing in Floating Offshore Wind Development

The Winds of Change: Investing in Floating Offshore Wind Development

By Cole Jermyn, Editor-in-Chief at Harvard Environmental Law Review.  This post is part of the Environmental Law Review Syndicate. Read the original here and leave a comment.  Introduction The offshore wind power industry in the United States is at an inflection point. Only two projects…

The Origins of Federal Wildlife Regulation Under the Commerce Clause

The Origins of Federal Wildlife Regulation Under the Commerce Clause

By Kathryn E. Kovacs, Professor at Rutgers Law School, The State University of New Jersey. This post is part of the Environmental Law Review Syndicate. Read the original here and leave a comment. June 8, 2020, marked the eightieth anniversary of the Bald Eagle Protection…

Flying the Coop: The Trump Administration’s (Mis)Interpretation of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act

Flying the Coop: The Trump Administration’s (Mis)Interpretation of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act

By Alexander Liguori, Managing Editor at N.Y.U. Environmental Law Journal.

This post is part of the Environmental Law Review Syndicate.


Introduction

Any good survey of our nation’s bedrock environmental laws will likely cover the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act, but hardly any would find time for the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (“MBTA”). Passed in 1918 to curb exploding commercial trade in bird feathers, the MBTA’s strict liability regime makes it one of the nation’s strictest environmental laws. While the MBTA is the product of a bygone era of bipartisan cooperation to protect the environment, it is still on the books, serving a key role not only in the protection of birds but in the responsible development of land throughout the country. In late 2017, the Trump administration proposed a new interpretation of the MBTA that threatened to strip the law of its protective powers, by limiting prosecution under the Act to affirmative and intentional efforts to kill birds.[1] Environmental groups sued, and recently won a powerful victory in the Southern District of New York vacating the administration’s interpretation.[2] However, the threat of future appeal and efforts to undermine the Act still loom.

This Essay agrees with the recent SDNY opinion and provides further arguments that the Trump administration’s revised interpretation of the MBTA was illogical, illegal, and contrary to public policy. In Part I, I will provide a brief overview of how the MBTA works and its enforcement history. In Part II, I will summarize and refute the Trump administration’s arguments in favor of its new enforcement scheme. The administration claims that (1) the new scheme aligns better with the text of the statute, (2) the new reading is more consistent with the MBTA’s legislative history, and (3) the new interpretation is required by the Constitution and (4) by prior precedent. In Part III, I will conclude by offering recommendations about how the Biden administration could preserve the MBTA’s enforcement scheme, which has successfully protected birds while allowing responsible land use.

The Migratory Bird Treaty Act Protects Birds Through a Strict Liability Regime

 The MBTA prohibits “by any means or in any manner,” the hunting, taking, capturing, killing or otherwise harming of listed species, of which there are more than a thousand.[3] Historically, the Fish & Wildlife Service (“FWS”) has applied the Act using strict liability, meaning parties can be held responsible for killing birds whether or not they intended to do so.[4] With penalties of up to $15,000 per bird death, the law’s potential for preserving the environment and punishing those who harm it is almost unprecedented in the scope of American environmental regulation.

Applying the law as written would create an untenable situation where daily activities like driving or owning a house become criminalized in the event of an accidental bird death. To avoid this result, the FWS has typically only enforced the criminal provisions of the law during egregious violations like oil spills.[5] In all other situations, the law has served both a deterring and mitigating function by encouraging developers to avoid actions that threaten birds and undertake remedial actions when deaths are inevitable.[6] For example, when building a bridge, the state of Virginia sought to mitigate the destruction of seabird nesting grounds by building an artificial island where birds could return in the warmer months.[7]

This reliance on prosecutorial discretion and voluntary mitigation has worked, creating a rare state of relative harmony for industry, environmental advocates and wildlife.[8] The National Audubon Society’s (NAS) position on wind power effectively illustrates this equilibrium. NAS recognizes the threat that a proliferation of wind turbines poses to the nation’s birds but supports the transition to renewable energy.[9] To that end, they advocate for “properly sited wind power” that minimizes harm to birds and other wildlife.[10] In the past, NAS has had success working with developers, and has made clear that proper enforcement of the nation’s wildlife protection laws, including the MBTA, is essential to get companies to play ball with environmentalists, government regulators and other advocates of responsible development.[11] Indeed, with the threat of enforcement and the increased cooperation of private actors on voluntary programs to save birds, NAS estimates the MBTA has saved millions of birds[12] while creating the potential for wind power to “generate 20 percent of the nation’s electricity.”[13] FWS’ administration of the MBTA then, has come to represent a success story of environmental law in the United .

The Trump Administration’s Proposed Reinterpretation of the MBTA

In late 2017, the Trump administration issued an opinion that reinterprets the MBTA, turning the law and its successful enforcement scheme on its head.[14] The reinterpretation concludes that “the statute’s prohibitions . . . apply only to affirmative actions,” not incidental or accidental ones.[15] This reinterpretation effectively ends the threat of prosecution for incidental bird deaths, removing any leverage the government had to work with private actors to mitigate deaths associated with development. The impact of this loss of leverage is substantial and illustrated by the outcome of the mitigation project in Virginia discussed above: following the administration’s opinion, the State halted work on the replacement habitat, depriving over twenty-five thousand birds of their summer home.[16]

The Trump administration based its reinterpretation of the MBTA on three primary arguments: the MBTA’s language, its legislative history, and constitutional issues with its enforcement scheme. Seeking to stop the new interpretation, a coalition of states and advocacy groups filed suit, alleging that the administration’s new approach is arbitrary and capricious under the Administrative Procedure Act (APA).[17] Undeterred, the administration proceeded and published a proposed rule to codify their new interpretation of the MBTA,[18] which the states and advocacy groups again challenged via the notice and comment process.[19] The following section will provide an overview of the administration’s proposed changes to the enforcement of the Act and refute them. Although the rule has already been struck down at the district court level as contrary to law,[20] the following analysis provides alternative arguments against the rule that could become important in the event the case is appealed.

Statutory Language

The Proposed Rule seizes on the MBTA’s language to argue that the enacting Congress never meant to criminalize incidental deaths. Citing the noscitur a sociis canon of construction, FWS claims that the inclusion of “deliberative action words” such as “pursue”, “hunt”, and “capture” mean that the other words in the MBTA’s preamble, including “kill” and “take” are meant only to apply to actions intended to achieve that result.[21] This reading of course, ignores the broad language of the preceding clause—“It shall be unlawful at any time, by any means or in any manner.”[22] The Proposed Rule dismisses this clause out of hand, arguing that it, “simply clarifies that activities directed at migratory birds, such as hunting and poaching, are prohibited whenever and wherever they occur and whatever manner is applied, be it a shotgun, a bow, or some other creative approach to deliberately taking birds.”[23]

The administration ostensibly bases this improbable use of the noscitur canon on the fact that there are three deliberate words that can be construed as either deliberate or incidental versus two that cannot. But this interpretation selectively avoids using another common canon, ejusdem generis, which counsels that a catchall phrase should be applied to every word in an ensuing or preceding list. Here, the FWS should apply the broad language of the opening clause to the verbs in the second clause, which would result in an all-encompassing reading of how to apply the Act. From a rational point of view, this makes far more sense than changing an entire regulatory regime based on a sentence that has three deliberate sounding words as opposed to two incidental sounding words. 

Legislative History

The administration dives deep into the legislative history of the Act to exclude incidental takings from its scope. Citing statements from legislators who supported the bill, FWS hones in on a single, narrow purpose of the MBTA: “to regulate the hunting of migratory birds in direct response to the extreme over-hunting . . . that had occurred over the years.”[24] The agency reaches this conclusion even while acknowledging that Congress understood habitat destruction, which is largely perpetuated by incidental take, to also be within the purpose of the law.[25] Instead, they claim that the passage of the Migratory Bird Conservation Act (MBCA) in 1929, which specifically allows the federal government to “purchase or rent land for migratory birds,” works in tandem with the MBTA.[26] In other words, if the MBTA covered the incidental take associated with habitat destruction, passage of the MBCA would have been “largely superfluous.”[27]

But might the acts have different means of achieving the same purpose? To that end, allowing the government to take preemptive action to conserve bird habitats reflects congressional intent to provide another, proactive way to prevent incidental bird deaths, which is hardly superfluous. Instead, both statutes reflect an overall congressional goal, which is echoed in the States’ comments on the proposed rule: “to protect migratory birds.”[28]

To be sure, the legislative history of the Act cited in the Proposed Rule does reflect an initial focus on reducing bird deaths associated with hunting,[29] but this also makes sense in light of an overall congressional purpose to protect birds. While hunting may have been the leading threat to migratory birds at the time of the MBTA’s passage, that threat has diminished as the country has transitioned to a more urban society. Now, incidental deaths that occur as a side-effect of development are the leading threat to birds in the U.S.[30] In line with the Act’s purpose, then, it is unsurprising that enforcement of the MBTA looks different now than it did in 1918. By criminalizing the killing of birds “at any time, by any means or in any manner,” Congress made an unequivocal determination that the Act’s provisions would last the test of time, even if new threats beyond hunting emerged.

Constitutional Issues

FWS further claims that its reinterpretation of the MBTA is necessary because the previous interpretation tramples on the constitutional rights of Americans.[31] Specifically, the agency worries that relying on prosecutorial discretion does little to prevent criminalizing everyday activities like driving and home-owning, that kill birds incidentally.[32] This does raise concerns of fair notice under the Fifth Amendment, but FWS’ argument completely ignores that the use of prosecutorial discretion in enforcement of the MBTA managed to both punish egregious incidental violations and deter unnecessary bird deaths, all while avoiding criminalizing Americans for living their everyday lives.[34] FWS’ inability to show their new interpretation of the Act offers a more legally sound and practically better approach means the Proposed Rule is more indicative of shifting political preferences, rather than a vital remedy for the American people as they claim.

Prior Precedent

Finally, FWS props up its statutory language and legislative history arguments on the Fifth Circuit’s opinion in United States v. CITGO Petroleum Corp., which held that “the MBTA’s ban on ‘takings’ only prohibits intentional acts (not omissions) that directly kill migratory birds.”[35] FWS argues that the only way to “reduce uncertainty and have a truly national standard,” is to follow this approach.[36] But this ignores key opinions from the Second and Tenth Circuits. The Second Circuit affirmed a conviction under the MBTA for inadvertent bird deaths caused by accidental exposure to toxic wastewater,[37] while the Tenth Circuit has upheld convictions for activities that directly and foreseeably lead to migratory bird deaths, such as leaving harmful oil field equipment exposed.[38] It also ignores the fact that the Act has been consistently interpreted to cover incidental deaths for over forty years.[39] The revised interpretation, then, attempts to resolve a circuit split in favor of one position based on language that has been interpreted to say the opposite of what FWS says it means. This dispute is beyond the scope of FWS’ responsibilities and should be left to the Supreme Court to resolve.

Conclusion and Recommendation

The real tragedy of the administration’s efforts is that their stated reasons for the reinterpretation—clarity, consistency, and adherence to congressional intent—could still be achieved while avoiding the needless killings of thousands of birds. In the Proposed Rule, FWS explains, “the MBTA does contemplate the issuance of permits authorizing the taking of wildlife.”[40] Indeed, under the prior interpretation of the Act, FWS granted permits to developers as long as projects were sited and constructed in ways that minimized bird deaths.[41] This solution simultaneously allowed for the growth of industry while protecting birds and simplifying the regulatory scheme: developers must get a permit or mitigate their impact on bird deaths or otherwise face potential prosecution.

A return to the permitting solution marks the best-case scenario for all parties, human and otherwise, and can be achieved at a low political cost. To entrench this enforcement scheme, the Biden administration should issue a regulation that codifies the previous permitting scheme. Such a move would likely find support from industry, which has asked for more clarity, as well as environmental advocates, who favor the old carrot-and-stick approach’s incentives for responsible development. In fact, some developers have continued to follow the previous scheme even as their regulatory responsibilities have been lifted.[42] Instead of implementing a workable solution that satisfies all, FWS has gone overboard, angering stakeholders such as environmental advocates and the States, and confusing industry, which now fears a public relations backlash due to preventable bird deaths. In this area of environmental law, a return to the past makes the most sense for humans and the earth they have been charged with protecting.


[1] See U.S. Dep’t of Interior, Office of the Solicitor, Opinion Letter M-37050 (Dec. 22, 2017).

[2] See Nat. Res. Def. Council, Inc. v. U.S. Dep’t of Interior, 2020 WL 4605235 (S.D.N.Y. 2020).

[3] Migratory Bird Treaty Act, 16 U.S.C.A. § 703 (1918).

[4] See David J. Hayes & Lynn Scarlett, A Free Pass to Kill Migratory Birds, N.Y. Times (Jun. 7, 2018), https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/07/opinion/a-free-pass-to-kill-migratory-birds.html.

[5]See id.

[6] See id.   

[7] See Lisa Friedman, A Trump Policy “Clarification” All but Ends Punishment for Bird Deaths, N.Y. Times (Dec. 24, 2019), https://www.nytimes.com/2019/12/24/climate/trump-bird-deaths.html.

[8] See Hayes & Scarlett, supra note 4.

[9] See Audubon’s Position on Wind Power, Nat’l Audubon Soc., https://www.audubon.org/conservation/audubons-position-wind-power.

[10] Id.

[11] See id.

[12] See The Migratory Bird Treaty Act, Explained, Nat’l Audubon Soc. (Jan. 16, 2018), https://www.audubon.org/news/the-migratory-bird-treaty-act-explained.

[13] Audubon’s Position on Wind Power, supra note 9.

[14] See U.S. Dep’t of Interior, Office of the Solicitor, Opinion Letter M-37050 (Dec. 22, 2017).

[15] Id. at 2.

[16] See Friedman, supra note 7.

[17] The cases are Nat’l Audubon Soc. v. U.S. Dep’t of Interior, No. 1:18-cv-04601-VEC (S.D.N.Y. May 24, 2018) and New York v. U.S. Dep’t of Interior, 1:18-cv-08084-VEC (S.D.N.Y Sep. 5, 2018).

[18] See Regulations Governing Take of Migratory Birds, 85 Fed. Reg. 5915 (proposed Feb. 3, 2020) (to be codified at 50 C.F.R. pt. 10).

[19] See New York et. al., Comments on Proposed Rule to Limit the Scope of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act’s Prohibitions to Actions Directed at Migratory Birds (Mar. 19, 2020), https://www.law.nyu.edu/sites/default/files/State-Comments.pdf.

[20] See Nat. Res. Def. Council, Inc., 2020 WL 4605235 at *8-*9.

[21] Regulations Governing Take of Migratory Birds, 85 Fed. Reg. at 5916.

[22] Id. at 5917.

[23] Id.

[24] Id. at 5918.

[25] See id.

[26] Id.

[27] Id. at 5918-19.

[28] New York et. al. supra note 19 at 2.

[29] See Regulations Governing Take of Migratory Birds, 85 Fed. Reg. at 5918-19.

[30] See id.  at 5921.

[31] See id. at 5920.

[32] See id. at 5921.

[33] The last interpretive guidance document issued under the old scheme was suspended and withdrawn by the Trump administration’s new guidance discussed above. See U.S. Dep’t of Interior, Office of the Solicitor, Opinion Letter M-37041 (Jan. 10, 2017) (suspended and withdrawn by Opinion Letter M-37050 (Dec. 22, 2017)). For a brief history of the FWS’ interpretation of the MBTA and its enforcement of the Act, see Jesse Greenspan, The History and Evolution of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, Nat’l Audubon Soc. (May 22, 2015), https://www.audubon.org/news/the-history-and-evolution-migratory-bird-treaty-act.

[34] See Friedman, supra note 7.

[35] 801 F.3d 477, 494 (5th Cir. 2015).

[36] Regulations Governing Take of Migratory Birds, 85 Fed. Reg. at 5923.

[37] See United States v. FMC Corp. 572 F.2d 902, 904 (2d Cir. 1978).

[38] See United States v. Apollo Energies, Inc., 611 F.3d 679, 684-90 (10th Cir. 2010).

[39] See New York et. al. supra note 19 at 1; Greenspan, supra note 33.

[40] Regulations Governing Take of Migratory Birds, 85 Fed. Reg. at 5922.

[41] See e.g. Pub. Emps. For Env’t Responsibility v. Hopper, 827 F.3d 1077, 1088 n. 11 (D.C. Cir. 2016) (declining to address claims under the MBTA because developers intended to apply for a permit).

[42] See Friedman, supra note 7.

Introducing a Voluntary Extended Producer Responsibility Scheme for the New Plastics Economy

Introducing a Voluntary Extended Producer Responsibility Scheme for the New Plastics Economy

By Hannah Yang, Articles Editor at N.Y.U. Environmental Law Journal. This post is part of the Environmental Law Review Syndicate. Introduction Ocean plastic pollution is a large-scale problem that stems from multiple points of the plastics life cycle, ranging from design, production, use, disposal, and…

“A Great Deal of Discretion”: <i>Bostock</i>, Plain Text, and the Future of Climate Jurisprudence

“A Great Deal of Discretion”: Bostock, Plain Text, and the Future of Climate Jurisprudence

By Grace Weatherall, Managing Editor at the Harvard Environmental Law Review. This post is part of the Environmental Law Review Syndicate. Read the original here and leave a comment. Introduction Bostock v. Clayton County was marked for a place among landmark Supreme Court jurisprudence as…

A Blooming Problem:  How Florida Could Address the Causes and Effects of Red Tide

A Blooming Problem: How Florida Could Address the Causes and Effects of Red Tide

By John Niedzwiecki, Senior Editor, Georgetown Environmental Law Review

This post is part of the Environmental Law Review Syndicate. Read the original here and leave a comment.

I. An algae bloom in the Gulf of Mexico is wreaking havoc on Florida’s economy and environment. An effective state and local response can help provide a solution.

Florida’s southwest coast, once a haven to wildlife and tourists alike, is experiencing one of the worst red tides in recent memory. Red tides, harmful algae blooms (“HABs”) which often have a red hue which affect both inland and coastal waterways, are common occurrences in Florida, but they have increased in both intensity and frequency in recent years. This blog post will discuss the problems that red tides pose to communities in Florida and the legal structures that could help provide a solution to this growing problem.

First, this blog post will discuss the background of red tides in Florida, including their historical occurrence, effect on local economies, and effect on wildlife and the environment. Second, the blog will review the natural and man-made factors that contribute to the development of red tides in Florida. Finally, I will discuss the potential legal responses to red tide. Although this blog post limits the discussion of red tides to Florida, it is important to note that red tides are not limited to Florida, and HABs occur around the world.

Red tides in Florida present a large-scale, fast-changing environmental problem. The red tide currently impacting the state is having a dramatic effect on both the state’s economy, plant life and wildlife. It is likely that, in the future, state and local governments across the country will have a larger role in finding solutions to environmental problems that are not contained to one community or state. By finding a solution to the problem of red tides in the legal system, it is possible that Floridians, and people watching in other states, can see how activism on the local level can bring about positive change that impacts individuals, businesses, and communities.

II. Red tides are a relatively common occurrence in Florida historically, and they have strong impacts on the state’s economy and environment.

Before discussing the presence of red tides in Florida, it is important to define what red tides are and how they affect the environments that they touch. “Red tide” is a term generally used “to describe many different kinds of harmful algal blooms” and can be a variety of colors, including “brown, blue, green, yellow, and more.”[1]Algal blooms are “higher-than-normal concentrations of algae [which include] toxic or nuisance algal species that may pose a serious and recurrent threat to human health, wildlife, marine ecosystems, fisheries, coastal aesthetics, and economy.”[2]

In Florida, red tides typically involve one of the most harmful species of HABs, the karenia brevis. Karenia brevis produces “neurotoxins that cause damage to nerve cells or tissues [and] kill large numbers of fish, birds, and other marine mammals.”[3] Shellfish that consume Karenia brevis become poisonous to human consumers, and people can inhale toxins released into the air by seaspray, which cause symptoms including “itchy and watery eyes, wheezing, shortness of breath, coughing, and chest tightness.”[4] Red tides are a frequent occurrence in Florida and “appear off the state’s coast almost every year.”[5] Red tides have been “documented…along Florida’s Gulf Coast since the 1840s.”[6] The ongoing red tide has been present for over 10 months, the longest duration of a red tide since 2006.[7]

Red tides in Florida have had strong social and cultural effects on local communities throughout the state. HABs, in general, can lead to “loss of recreational and commercial opportunities, disruption of…cultural practices, conflict among resource users, loss of community identity tied to using coastal resources, and social stress in affected families and communities.”[8] In Florida, red tides can mean additional stress for communities that depend on the coast both for leisure and work, and individuals have fewer opportunities to meet with other people that share their interests, which builds community bonds. For example, recreational fishers lose the chance to fish together when beaches are closed.

Red tides also have deep impacts on the economies of localities across Florida. The presence of red tides can disrupt the ability of individuals to go to work and causes an increase in the use of medical resources, because “respiratory and gastrointestinal illnesses increase during red tides” and can cause up to a 54% increase in hospital admissions for coastal residents.[9]Red tides have the unfortunate effect of depressing tourism, because beaches become “strewn…with the stinking carcasses of fish, eels, porpoises, turtles, manatees.”[10]Nationwide, HABs cost “at least $82 million per year including lost income for fisheries, lost recreational opportunities, decreased business in tourism industries, public health costs of illness, and expenses for monitoring and management.”[11]While it is difficult to estimate exactly how much of an impact red tides have on Florida’s economy every year, red tides have a significant impact on the livelihoods of individuals and communities across the state.

Finally, red tides can negatively impact the wildlife and environment across very large areas of the state. In the current red tide, “almost 300 sea turtles have been found dead since January [2018]” in just four Florida counties south of Tampa, and a biologist at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission noted that “he believed that a majority of the turtle deaths were attributable to the red tide.”[12]Additionally, the “number of manatee deaths…this year [as of August had] already exceeded the total for all of 2017” with 554 deaths in 2018 compared to 538 total in 2017.[13]The pattern of rising death rates has been observed for other threatened species across the state, and while it is difficult to attribute the new deaths entirely to the presence of red tide, the two correlate.

III. Scientific research is split on the causes of red tides, but both natural and man-made factors can contribute to the development of red tides.

There are several natural factors that contribute to the growth of red tides. The FloridaDepartment of Health reports that red tides develop “when biology (the organisms), chemistry (natural or man-made nutrients for growth), and physics (concentrating and transport mechanisms) interact to produce the algal bloom.”[14]Without all three factors present, a red tide will not develop. In addition, scientists have discovered that “oceanic and estuarine circulation and river flow greatly influence the…combined physical (e.g., currents, upwellings, etc.) – the chemical (e.g., salinity, nutrients, etc.) factors of the systems.”[15]If the factors that contribute to red tide have the ability to travel and interact with each other, the change of a red tide developing rise much higher.

The organisms chemistry, and physics that can cause red tides existed before humans developed Florida, but man-made factors can also contribute to the development and growth of red tides. Humans contribute to red tides by increasing the amount of nutrients in the ecosystem, development, increasing the surface temperature of the Gulf of Mexico, and rolling back environmental protections. The “dumping of fertilizer and human waste” into Florida’s waters contributes to red tides, because the “excess nutrients” give the organisms even more energy to grow than what is naturally present in the ecosystem.[16] Fertilizers, along with human and animal wastes, contain large amounts of nutrients that help the algae grow much faster than they otherwise would. As Florida continues to grow its population and its industrial base develops, the problem of excess man-made nutrients in the environment will likely only get worse. In the past few decades, Florida’s “landscape and the flow of water has been radically altered by agriculture, canals, ditches, dikes, levees, and the sprawling housing developments that have sprouted as the state’s population has boomed.”[17]This development has contributed to the rise of red tides, because the wetlands that previously flowered runoff into aquifers or estuaries now “rushes rapidly, unfiltered, into rivers and bays and into the gulf, typically loaded with agricultural nutrients.”[18]

While climate change’s effects on red tides and the rising of sea temperatures is still uncertain, it appears that “the incidences of red tides…have increased since the 1950s and1960s [and] climate change could be a factor [because] warmer waters…are congenial to growth.”[19]As the effects of climate change become more pronounced in the decades to come, researchers will have more data to see if there is a connection between ride tides and rising water temperatures.

Politically, it appears that governments, at all levels, have been unable to respond effectively to the problem. Some political groups in Florida blame GovernorRick Scott “for weakening the state’s water quality requirements and monitoring Scott blames Sen. Bill Nelson…for not doing something before now to stop” red tides.[20]At the very least, it looks like political actors in both parties have been unable or unwilling to cooperate across different levels of government or across the aisle to come up with a solution. The political gridlock does not appear to be coming to an end any time soon, but there are several potential solutions to the problem of red tide.

IV. There are several potential legal responses to red tide in Florida. State and local governments can and should take an active role in fighting the effects of red tide.

Lawmakers can take action to limit the growth of red tides by encouraging scientific breakthroughs, improving coordination among governments, researchers, and businesses, and tightening fertilizer ordinances. The responsibility for addressing the problems caused by red tides has fallen on the Florida’s state and local governments. The legal system could provide a solution to the red tide problem by supporting scientific solutions, encouraging coordination of mitigation activity across governments, and enacting stricter fertilizer ordinances. Finding scientific responses to red tides are complex because scientists are uncertain of “what effects [the methods] could have on the ecosystem,”[21]and because the geographic extent of the red tides covers “hundreds to thousands of square kilometers of shelf waters and extending down to 50.”[22] The state and local governments could support the effort that scientists are making by providing scientists researching the problem with additional funding, expertise, and data.

In general, coordination and information-sharing on red tides is improving among governments, private parties, and scientists, but there is still much work to be done. While “some of the [current] coordination is formal, most of it consists of informal regional partnerships with common interests.”[23]Florida should formalize the coordination system among localities across the state. If each locality was able to look at the data available from other areas in the state and responses were coordinated across large regions, there would likely be an overall more effective response. Localities and the state as a whole only stand to gain from deeper coordination, but only the state legislature and governor can create the legal structures that are necessary. It was possible for Florida to respond to the threat of hurricanes by developing state-wide emergency response plans, and it should be no different for red tides and other environmental problems.

Finally, the legal system in Florida can respond to the threat of red tides by developing stricter fertilizer ordinances that would deprive the ecosystem of the man-made nutrients that contribute to the growth of red tides. While simply depriving waterways of man-made nutrients will not be enough to stop all red tides, researchers argue that it could help slow down the growth of red tide.[24]However, current restrictions on fertilizers “differ as to type and extent” which limits their effectiveness and make it difficult for individuals and businesses to comply with the laws.[25]By creating a uniform standard that applied throughout the state, lawmakers could “lower the costs of compliance” while ensuring that firms in the fertilizer industry are not “geographically disadvantaged.”[26]While some argue that having a single, uniform standard would lead to an overall weaker set of ordinances, it is likely that having at least some standard statewide that all organizations comply with would have an impact on red tides.[27]

V. Conclusion: The legal system can rise to meet the red tide threat.

Red tides are a problem that threatens the cultural life, economy, and environment of Florida. While red tides have impacted Florida’s coastlines since at least the mid-1800s, recent red tides have grown in strength, duration, and frequency, and as the climate changes, it is likely that red tides will change as well. Researchers have found that while both natural or man-made factors can create red tides, the legal system can respond to this growing problem. If the legal system supports the work of scientists, improves coordination amongst stakeholders, and creates stricter fertilizer ordinances, it is possible that communities throughout the state can respond in an effective way to red tides. Scientists and lawmakers certainly do not have all the answers to the problem of red tides, but by taking firm action today, Florida can become a more environmentally resilient state that leads the way as other states face their own environmental problems.


[1] The Red Tide Control & Mitigation Program, Report to Stakeholders 4 (2010).

[2] Id. at 4.

[3] Id. at 5.

[4] Id.

[5] Tryggvi Adalbjornsson and Melissa Gomez, A Toxic Tide is Killing Florida Wildlife, N.Y. Times, July 30, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/07/30/climate/florida-red-tide-algae.html.

[6] Florida Dept. of Health, Frequently Asked Questions: Red Tide 1 (2014).

[7]Adalbjornsson, supra note 5.

[8] Lorraine Backer, Impacts of Florida red tides on coastal communities, 8 Harmful Algae 618, 620-21 (2009).

[9] Michael Nedelman, Florida’s Toxic Algae Problem: ‘Red tide’ and ‘green slime’, CNN (Aug. 18, 2018), https://www.cnn.com/2018/08/16/health/toxic-algae-bloom-health/index.html.

[10] Joel Achenbach, Kate Furby, and Alex Horton, Florida declares a state of emergency as red tide kills animals and disrupts tourism, The Wash. Post, Aug. 14, 2018, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/speaking-of-science/wp/2018/08/14/red-tide-algaes-deadly-trail-of-marine-animals-has-triggered-a-state-of-emergency-in-florida/?noredirect=on.

[11] E.B. Jewett, et al., Interagency Working Group on Harmful Algal Blooms, Hypoxia, and Human Health of the Joint Subcommittee on Ocean Science and Technology, Harmful Algal Bloom Management and Response: Assessment and Plan 1 (2008).

[12] Adalbjornsson, supra note 5.

[13] Craig Pittman, More manatees have died in Florida so far this year than in all of 2017. Here’s why, Tampa Bay Times, Aug. 21, 2018, https://www.tampabay.com/news/environment/wildlife/Red-Tide-s-continuing-toll-The-554-dead-manatees-in-2018-already-surpasses-last-year-s-total-_171056483.

[14] Florida Dept. of Health, supra note 6, at 1.

[15] Kevin Sellner, et al., Harmful Algal Blooms: Causes, Impacts and Detection, 30 J. of Industrial Microbiology & Biotechnology 383, 386 (2003).

[16] Nedelman, supra note 9.

[17] Achenbach, supra note 10.

[18] Id.

[19] Id.

[20] Pittman, supra note 13.

[21] Achenbach, supra note 10.

[22] Karen Steidinger, Historical perspective on Karenia brevis red tide research in the Gulf of Mexico, 8 Harmful Algae 549, 556 (2009).

[23] Jewett, supra note 11, at 3.

[24] Barbara Kirkpatrick, et al., Human responses to Florida red tides: Policy awareness and adherence to local fertilizer ordinances, 493 Science of the Total Environment 898, 898-909.

[25] Kirkpatrick, supra note 24, at 903.

[26] Id.

[27] Id.

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Sara Dewey,[1] Liz Hanson,[2] & Claire Horan[3]

This post is part of the Environmental Law Review Syndicate. Read the original here and leave a comment.


Introduction

The Farm Bill affects nearly every aspect of agriculture and forestry in the United States. Therefore, its next reauthorization offers an important opportunity to better manage the risks of climate change on farms, forests, and ranches by supporting resilience practices that also offer greenhouse gas (GHG) emission reductions.

Agriculture is vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, including rising temperatures, changes in rainfall and pest migration patterns, extreme weather events, and drought. In addition to being heavily affected by climate change, agriculture is also a significant contributor to climate change. Agricultural practices are responsible for about eight percent of U.S. GHG emissions.[4] Estimates of total food system emissions, which include the CO2 emissions from energy use and transportation, increase the agricultural industry’s proportion of U.S. GHG emissions to between 19 and 29 percent.[5]

To better align their practices with their long-term interests, farmers and ranchers can adopt practices that enhance their resilience, while also reducing GHG emissions, and increasing carbon sequestration. Many of these practices improve the long-term productivity and profitability of farms. For example, farmers are already adopting practices that reduce emissions or sequester carbon in the soil and in woody biomass while also improving productivity and resilience on their land.

This paper proposes a suite of practices that should be considered during the next authorization of the Farm Bill to improve on-farm efforts to adapt to and mitigate climate impacts. It is organized into four main sections. Part I provides background on the Farm Bill and the ways that the U.S. agricultural system contributes to GHG emissions. Part II provides an overview of opportunities for on-farm mitigation and adaptation. Many of the practices we recommend can reduce on-farm emissions and build a more resilient agricultural system. Part III identifies a set of metrics that we used to assess potential proposals. Lastly, Part IV summarizes how climate practices can be incorporated across titles and highlights three policy options.

I.                             Background

A.                         Agricultural Sources of GHG Emissions

Greenhouse gases trap heat in the atmosphere and contribute to increases in global temperatures. Although this a natural process, increased greenhouse gas emissions since the industrial revolution have increased atmospheric greenhouse gases to levels never before recorded. Agriculture, including raising crops and animals as well as resulting land use changes and farm equipment usage, is a source of three GHGs: methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O), and carbon dioxide (CO2).[6]

Figure 1. GHG Profiles[7]

Globally, emissions from food systems are responsible for nearly a third of all GHG emissions.[8] Domestically, EPA’s Inventory of U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks divides up agriculture-related emissions into different categories. N2O and CH4 emissions are categorized as “Agricultural,” and accounted for 8.3 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions in the United States in 2014.[9] In 2014, N2O emissions were 336 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (MMT CO2 Eq.); these emissions were caused primarily by soil management such as the use of synthetic fertilizers, tillage, and organic soil amendments.[10] Manure management, and biomass burning, also contribute to N2O emissions. CH4 emissions were 238 MMT CO2 Eq. and were produced by enteric fermentation during ruminant digestion (164 MMT CO2 Eq.), manure management (61 MMT CO2 Eq.), and the wetland cultivation of rice (12 MMT CO2 Eq.)[11]

CO2 emissions from agriculture-related land use changes and equipment usage are accounted for in the “Land Use, Land-Use Change, and Forestry” and the “Energy” categories, respectively. Estimates of total food system emissions, which include the CO2 emissions from energy use and transportation, increase the agricultural industry’s proportion of U.S. GHG emissions to between 19 and 29%.[12]

II.                         Strategies for Managing Climate Risk through Mitigation and Adaptation

Given agriculture’s contributions to GHG emissions that are contributing to climate change, which in turn affects agricultural productivity, it is appropriate to consider how climate change can be incorporated across the titles of the Farm Bill. The anticipated reauthorization in 2018 can play a critical role in addressing climate change in the United States by promoting practices that encourage mitigation and adaptation practices on farms.

Adopting new agricultural practices can be challenging, especially for small farmers or operations without access to large amounts of capital or information about adaptation opportunities. However, doing so will not only assist the U.S. farmers and ranchers confront shifting seasons, more severe storm events, new pests, drought, and other challenges,[13] it will also reduce the Farm Bill’s fiscal burden on taxpayers.[14] A number of land managers are already adopting strategies that not only reduce emissions or sequester carbon in the soil, but also have the important co-benefits of improving productivity and resilience.[15]

A.       Mitigation Measures

Land managers can mitigate GHG emissions by offsetting current emissions, sequestering carbon, and/or preventing future emissions.[16] Figure 2 describes these strategies and the practices to achieve them.

First, land managers can reduce the GHG emissions of their farming practices in a number of ways. Practices such as conservation tillage reduce soil disturbance, and prevent some erosion, which can lower soil carbon loss. Precision agriculture strategies can reduce fertilizer inputs on cropland, which in turn reduces GHG emissions from fertilizer production and application.[17] Reincorporating livestock manure onto cropland as well as improved management of liquid manure using anaerobic digesters or other on-farm technology can reduce methane emissions from livestock waste by capturing it rather than emitting it.[18]

Second, land managers can sequester additional carbon through on-farm practices. Soil carbon can be increased by incorporating cover crops, including legumes, into crop rotations, reducing tillage, and agroforestry practices.[19] In addition, planting perennial crops or incorporating trees into farms through alley cropping, hedgerows, and riparian forest buffers can lead to long-term sequestration of carbon in woody biomass.

Finally, land managers can take steps to avoid future emissions. The most critical way to avoid new on-farm emissions is to avoid land conversion, which releases carbon that was previously sequestered in the soil and in woody biomass.

Figure 2. Practices for agricultural greenhouse gas mitigation[20]

B.       Adaptation Measures

Adapting to a changing climate will require farmers, foresters, and ranchers to prepare for and respond to new risks, including extreme weather events, shifts in growing seasons, and different pests and plant diseases. Figure 3 provides an overview of the range of practices that farmers can undertake to adapt to climate change.

To make farming operations more resilient, farmers can enhance soil health, which will make agricultural systems better able to withstand extreme weather, drought, and erosion due to high winds or flooding.[21] Strategies for enhancing soil health include adjusting production inputs, timing of planting and soil amendments, cover crops, tillage, new crop species, and diversified crop rotations.[22]

Farmers can also take additional steps to make their farms more resilient to other climate risks. For example, to prepare for flooding, heavy rainfall, and other risks, farmers can implement resilient farm landscapes that include buffer strips and the return of marginal cropland to native vegetation. To prepare for new pests and diseases, farmers can diversify their crop selection and alter crop rotations. To adjust to changing seasons and a warming climate, farmers can plant different crops; crop scientists can also develop more heat- and drought-resistant crop varieties. Resilience planning is also important on the community level, as rural communities can ensure that new infrastructure investments supported by the Farm Bill, such as rural water and energy systems, are resilient to climate change effects.

Figure 3. Practices for agricultural adaptation to climate change[23]

C.       Opportunities for Complementary Mitigation and Adaptation

Importantly, many on-farm practices can help with both climate adaptation and mitigation.[24] For example, improving soil health not only mitigates climate change, it also makes farms more resilient and better able to withstand the shifting, and at times extreme, conditions of a changing climate. Efficient fertilizer application will reduce GHG emissions while enhancing soil resilience. Similarly, cover cropping, diversified crops, and other practices that stabilize the soil will reduce GHG emissions from the soil while building soil health. It is important to note that the efficiency of these on-farm practices will vary by region, impacting the ways they can and should be implemented.[25]

Mitigation and adaptation strategies for agricultural systems often require long-term planning to strengthen “climate-sensitive assets,” such as soil and water, over time and in changing conditions.[26] Developing better regionally specific agricultural climate and conservation practice adoption data is required for this long-term planning to be successful. From those baseline data, regional efforts will be critical to identify mitigation opportunities, develop strategic adaptation planning, and implement enhanced soil and livestock management practices.[27]

III.                     Metrics for Prioritizing Reform Proposals

As the summary above indicates, there are many actions that can promote climate change mitigation or adaptation in agriculture. In addition, changes can be made to every Title of the Farm Bill that would promote one or more of these mitigation and adaptation strategies. Given this complexity, the uncertainties associated with quantitative estimates of the mitigation potential of different strategies, and the qualitative differences between mitigation and adaptation as goals, we developed a range of qualitative metrics that we used to analyze potential reforms. In particular, we considered:

  • Potential magnitude of climate impact: Priority was given to proposals that had proven climate benefits, did not require significant additional research, and targeted the largest sources of agricultural GHG emissions.
  • Co-benefits: Priority was given to proposals that could increase resiliency or economic benefits of farms.
  • Equity: Priority was given to programs that could benefit small and large farms in all regions.
  • Scalability: Priority was given to proposals that seemed replicable and applicable to farms across the country or where Climate Hubs could facilitate regional diversity.
  • Enforceability/Administrability: Priority was given to proposals that could be tied in with or build upon existing requirements or programs in the Farm Bill.
  • Feasibility: Feasibility considerations included ease of implementation technically, economically, and politically. Because any legislative change will need to be passed in Congress, political feasibility was determined to be one of the most important considerations. Accordingly, we prioritized proposals that seemed, based on stakeholder engagement, suitable for the next Farm Bill, given competing interests for funding and stakeholder sentiment towards climate action.

An analysis of these metrics is included throughout our recommendations. However, these should be considered as only a first step. While we have attempted to target the largest sources of GHG emissions, more detailed proposals will be required before there can be precise estimates of the potential for emission reductions. The USDA’s COMET-Farm, an online farm and ranch GHG accounting tool, can likely facilitate this effort.[28] Similarly, determining the economic feasibility of specific reform proposals has been difficult because of taxpayer subsidization, the uncertainty of how appropriations may be allocated, and the varying degrees of stringency that reforms could encompass (e.g. mandate vs. incentive). Finally, while previous Farm Bill reauthorizations can serve as a guide, the ongoing transitions at U.S. federal agencies engaged in Farm Bill programs will likely have impacts on the political feasibility of proposals that cannot be appropriately assessed at this time. For these reasons, we recommend that additional research measure the climate impact of proposals, outline the benefits and co-benefits for farmers and the public, articulate the administrability of the program, and gather stakeholder input and support for proposals.

IV.                     Pathways for Addressing Climate Change in the Farm Bill

To determine how the Farm Bill could better address climate change, we first categorized the range of mitigation and adaptation practices identified in Figures 2 and 3, above, in terms of their potential applicability to the Farm Bill. We then examined how these practices mapped onto the current titles in the Farm Bill. Finally, we assessed how the upcoming Farm Bill could better incentivize these actions across titles, with an eye toward win-win practices with both mitigation and adaptation benefits.

Figure 4 contains the range of possibilities we identified for addressing climate mitigation and adaptation by title. To fully assess the impact of each of these policy options – and its interaction with other policies and programs –requires additional research and outreach to stakeholders affected. We discuss in more detail below a set of recommendations that best fit our metrics, indicated by bold font in this table.

Figure 4. Options for Addressing Climate Change by Farm Bill Title

All of these areas for reform have the potential to advance climate-ready agricultural practices through the Farm Bill. Many of these areas for reform also have wide-ranging benefits beyond climate change mitigation or adaptation such as enhancing on-farm productivity and more efficiently using taxpayer dollars. We elected to focus on three recommendations we judged to be particularly important based on the metrics we established in Part III).

  • Recommendation 1: Incorporate climate measures into crop insurance and conservation compliance to better manage on-farm climate risks under Title II (Conservation) and Title XI (Crop Insurance).
  • Recommendation 2: Ensure the best available science and research—including the outcome of pilot programs—are incorporated into Farm Bill programs; support dissemination of downscaled climate data through USDA regional offices and land grant universities to develop agricultural climate mitigation and adaptation capacity under Title VII.
  • Recommendation 3: Advance manure management collection and storage methods, as well as biogas development under Title IX to mitigate GHG contributions from livestock.

Recommendation 1: Incorporate Climate into Crop Insurance and Conservation Compliance

  1. Reform crop insurance to incentivize climate risk management and eliminate disincentives for adopting climate-friendly practices

Crop insurance, Title XI, makes government-subsidized crop insurance available to producers who purchase a policy covering losses in yield, crop revenue, or whole farm revenue. Farmers can select and combine several types of crop insurance policies: catastrophic coverage, “buy-up” coverage, and a supplemental coverage option for selected crops. USDA’s Risk Management Agency (RMA) sets insurance premium subsidy rates and develops specific contracts,[29] working with 18 insurance companies to administer the program.[30]

Crop insurance is deeply subsidized by the federal government, and it represents the single largest federal outlay in the farm safety net.[31] On average, taxpayers cover 62 percent of crop insurance premiums.[32] The insurance companies’ losses are reinsured by USDA, and the government also reimburses their administrative and operating costs.[33] The Congressional Budget Office anticipates that this program will cost taxpayers over $40 billion from 2016 to 2020.[34]

These subsidies disproportionately benefit large farms: while only about 15 percent of farms use crop insurance, insured farms account for 70 percent of U.S. cropland.[35] Small farmers struggle to utilize crop insurance because of the high administrative burden and challenges of insuring specialty crops.[36] In addition to clear equity concerns involving access to crop insurance, this situation is problematic from a climate perspective because larger farms are more likely to grow monocultures, which are both more vulnerable to pests and extreme weather events and can degrade soil health. Indeed, just four crops—corn, cotton, soybeans, and wheat—make up about 70 percent of total acres enrolled in crop insurance.[37]

The current loss coverage policies in the crop insurance program can discourage farmers from proactively reducing their risks by taking steps to enhance soil health and resilience. Because farmers with crop insurance are protected against losses incurred from impacts likely to increase with climate change, farmers may not be properly incentivized to respond to the changing conditions.[38] Some environmental organizations have even raised concerns that in response to the crop insurance transfer of risk, some farmers may be more willing to engage in unsustainable practices, such as aggressive expansion, irresponsible management, and use of marginal land.[39] In addition, farmers may make planting decisions based on the insurance program incentives rather than market-based signals.[40] In these ways, crop insurance can push farmers towards practices that pose risks to both their operations and taxpayer obligations.[41] It is therefore important that the crop insurance program better align farmers’ risk management incentives with the real and growing risks they face from climate change.

One way to achieve this objective is through incentivizing or requiring farmers to undertake actions to improve soil management and promote soil health. Some specific changes to the crop insurance program that could promote these practices include:

  • Incorporating climate projections to account for changing growing seasons and planting dates.
  • Providing insurance premium rebates for farmers who voluntarily undertake beneficial practices.
  • Incentivizing improved soil management practices, diversified crops, and manure management.
  • Adjusting the length of policies to better reflect the value added from changes that improve long-term soil health.
  • Writing soil health requirements into insurance policies.

More generally, changes to the crop insurance program that reduce the magnitude of the subsidy offered to farmers, such as setting a dollar-per-acre cap, could reduce the moral hazard that current policies create.[42] The methodology used to set premiums could also be adjusted to be based more on the projected frequency and intensity of events such as droughts and floods rather than on backward-looking data. RMA has started to incorporate climate-related risk metrics into annual rates by weighting recent loss experience more heavily, thereby more accurately reflecting the risks that growers face. However, it is important to consider future risks from climate change as well.

Requirements of the crop insurance program that act as disincentives to climate-friendly farming practices should be updated to account for growing climate risks farmers face. For example, RMA has guidelines in place about the termination of cover crops, because of concerns that these crops will scavenge water from the commodity crops.[43] This requirement can act as a disincentive to farmers’ adoption of cover cropping, a practice that builds the soil and reduces runoff in the non-growing season.[44] The next Farm Bill could specify that there should be no specific termination requirements for cover crops.

Insurance policies may also serve to incentivize some environmentally harmful practices, such as early and excess fertilizer application and cultivation of environmentally sensitive land.[45] Because early application maximizes crops’ uptake of nitrogen, it can increase yield in the short term, but it contributes to nitrous oxide emissions, unhealthy soils that become less able to fix nitrogen and must rely increasingly on fertilizer, and polluted runoff. In addition, synthetic fertilizers, which are made from non-renewable materials, including petroleum and potash, are produced at a huge energy cost.[46] Some studies have suggested that crop insurance may incent some farmers to convert highly erodible or wetlands to farmland.[47] Therefore, the next Farm Bill could also indicate this type of practice is not required to be eligible for crop insurance. This change could be complemented by an increase in the length of insurance policies, as discussed above, because insurance companies would benefit from the longer-term improvements in soil health.

  1. Tie crop insurance to a new conservation compliance provision for building soil health for climate ready agriculture

Currently, in order to qualify for crop insurance, farmers must satisfy two conservation compliance requirements, the Wetland Conservation (“Swampbuster”) and Highly Erodible Land Conservation (“Sodbuster”) provisions.[48] These provisions ensure, respectively, that farmers do not convert a wetland or plant crops on highly erodible land or a previously converted wetland.[49] While these current conservation requirements are beneficial in addressing some climate impacts, adding a conservation compliance requirement directly targeted at climate-related practices would improve upon them.

With 70 percent of farmland in the crop insurance program, changes in conservation compliance through the next Farm Bill or through RMA’s policies can drive big climate change benefits. Under Title II, Congress could create an additional conservation compliance requirement for climate-friendly agricultural practices, which could either be required to obtain crop insurance or could make farmers eligible for rebates. The types of on-farm practices that could mitigate risk and enhance climate resilience include more precise irrigation and fertilizer application, reduced tillage of the soil, cover cropping, altering crop rotations, and building buffer strips and riparian buffers. Particularly beneficial practices for building resilient soil include cover cropping, diversified crop rotations, reducing tillage, and efficient irrigation.[50]

In addition, enforcement gaps have limited the success of the existing conservation compliance requirements. To make the mechanism effective, it will be important to establish simple and effective enforcement, for example by using remote sensing, and to ensure that Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) offices have sufficient resources to carry out enforcement efforts.

First, these proposals could produce significant climate benefits from increasing soil health, in terms of both mitigation and adaptation. Reform of the crop insurance and conservation titles could also help address some of the equity issues that currently exist between small and large farms. Existing USDA programs, described in the next section, could help with scalability and administrability. Finally, in terms of feasibility, while any change may be difficult, our stakeholder engagement indicated that farmers are open to programs that target soil health, given the potential economic benefits to their farms. While the actual on-farm impacts will vary based on how the program is designed and constructed, building more resilient, healthy soil can help improve environmental outcomes and decrease the risk of crop loss.[51]

Recommendation 2: Ensure Best Available Science and Research Guides Farm Bill Programs

Agricultural practices that promote climate change mitigation and adaptation, including those described above, are often regionally specific in their implementation. For many new climate-ready practices to be included in conservation compliance or crop insurance, the USDA would need to account for this regional specificity. For example, the benefits of many of the on-farm practices that improve soil health, including more precise irrigation and fertilizer application, reduced tillage of the soil, and altering crop rotations, vary by region and soil type. In some areas, no-till methods may be infeasible; farmers who try to implement no-till in these areas would likely continue to till to some degree or after a short period of time, resulting in quick reversal of the achieved carbon sequestration benefits. Furthermore, the technical specificity of choosing among these practices and correctly implementing them requires guidance at a local level.

To address these types of knowledge gaps and to provide technical assistance to states and farmers, the USDA has created a range of programs, including Climate Hubs, which were established at public land-grant universities in 2014.[52] The Hubs deliver science-based knowledge, practical information, and program support for farmers to engage in “climate-informed decision-making” by farmers.[53]

Increasing funding in the 2018 Farm Bill in Title VII, the Research title, could solidify and expand USDA’s ability to administer and scale climate research and outreach efforts across all regions of the country. Additionally, creating systems to collect and analyze regional data on pilot programs and ensure best practices are adopted could assist long-term efforts to incorporate climate policies into Farm Bill programs.[54] For these reasons the Farm Bill should provide additional funding for climate research and monitoring, especially focused on regional resilience.

Recommendation 3: Address the Significant GHG Contributions of Livestock Management

Improving livestock management, especially manure management, is a significant opportunity for mitigating emissions of methane and achieving several co-benefits for the public and farmers. There is currently very little regulation of livestock manure management. Manure is sometimes stored—uncovered—in a single collection site, which causes the methane to be released directly into the atmosphere. In addition to being a major GHG emissions source, it can cause a range of considerable environmental harms.[55]

  1. Require improved manure management, including the covering of lagoons

First, the upcoming Farm Bill could address manure management collection and storage methods. Practices can be improved through actions such as allowing livestock to roam,[56] covering manure lagoons, flaring the methane produced, or producing biogas for use. Simply covering a manure lagoon results in significant decreases in methane emissions, as well as decreased odors. Flaring is the combustion of methane, which yields water and carbon dioxide. Although flaring still emits GHGs, carbon dioxide is a less potent GHG than methane.

The Farm Bill could promote these practices either through incentives or mandates in the Conservation or Crop Insurance titles. For example, the Farm Bill could mandate or incentivize farmers with a threshold number of cattle, swine, or poultry cover manure and flare the produced methane to be eligible for crop insurance. Such a mandate would have the greatest impact at Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), which may also be better able to bear the high capital costs associated with biogas production.

  1. Pursue strategies to decrease methane emissions, including biogas and other on-farm renewable energy production

Second, the Energy Title could incentivize on-farm biogas. On farms, many different substrates may be used to produce biogas, including animal excrements (including that of cattle, swine, poultry,[57] and horse), food waste, milling by-products, and catch crops (such as clover grass on farms without livestock).[58] Farmers can realize substantial savings from biogas production, including through substituting biogas for other energy sources, through substituting digestate[59] for commercial fertilizers,[60] and by avoiding disposal and treatment of substrates (such as for waste-water treatment). Farmers may also be able to sell carbon offsets.[61] In addition, farmers producing biogas can avoid some of the worst problems with animal agriculture: farmers must do something with the manure, and its storage can produce strong odors,[62] unhealthy conditions for workers and families,[63] and pollution through runoff in the worst scenarios.[64]

Farmers have two main options for biogas use: (1) generation of electricity for on-site use or sale to the grid; and (2) direct use of biogas locally, either on-site or nearby.[65] Using the biogas to fuel a generator to produce electricity is considered the most profitable use for most farms.[66] Another use is to upgrade the biogas, then called biomethane, to be injected into the national natural gas pipeline network as a substitute for extracted natural gas.

Because farmers could benefit financially from on-farm use or the sale of biogas, the Farm Bill should continue and expand funding for the Rural Energy for America Program, which offers cost-sharing grants and loans for renewable energy improvements. [67] However, these programs are most likely to benefit large farms because anaerobic digesters are expensive and require a large and constant supply of substrate to produce a return on investment. We therefore suggest the Farm Bill also fund pilot programs to assist small farm communities to form cooperatives so that they are also able to utilize this technology and participate in the grant or loan program.

Even with the available grants and loans, farmers are still taking a substantial financial risk. USDA or land-grant universities should actively help communities or cooperatives with the planning and application process. Large farms or cooperatives who are unable or unwilling to operate and maintain anaerobic digesters themselves could hire a company to lease the equipment and manage the biogas production process.[68] USDA Rural Development Agencies could be a valuable liaison between biogas management companies and farmers.

CAFOs could be part of a voluntary program or required to use anaerobic digesters due to their greater contribution to climate change and other environmental harms. Because CAFOs are responsible for high levels of greenhouse gas emissions and because anaerobic digesters are economically feasible for large operations, there is reason to consider the benefits that could be achieved by requiring these practices for large CAFOs in the Farm Bill.

Livestock management is a critical area for addressing climate impacts, and biogas has the potential to be a win-win for farmers willing to invest in alternative energy production.

Conclusion

The U.S. agricultural system must evolve to mitigate climate change and adapt to the effects of a changing climate. Opportunities for climate change mitigation and adaptation exist across the Farm Bill titles, from bolstering climate resilient infrastructure in the Rural Development title to incentivizing sustainable forest management in the Forestry Title. Taking action on climate measures in the next Farm Bill reauthorization will help farmers better plan for changing conditions, protect taxpayers from increasing risks, and assist the United States in meeting its global climate commitments. The next Farm Bill should incorporate climate risk management provisions, and state and local actors should consider ways to support these efforts.


[1] J.D., Harvard Law School, Class of 2017.

[2] M.P.P. Candidate, Harvard Kennedy School, Class of 2018.

[3] J.D. Candidate, Harvard Law School, Class of 2018.

[4] EPA, Inventory of U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks: 1990-2015, at ES-21 (2017).

[5] Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture, and Food Safety, Food Emissions (2016), https://perma.cc/YYL8-YSPM.

[6] EPA, Inventory of U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks: 1990 – 2014, at 5-1 (2016) [hereinafter EPA, Inventory], https://perma.cc/HQ9B-BJYP.

[7] EPA, Overview of Greenhouse Gas Emissions [hereinafter EPA, Overview], https://perma.cc/7WS6-JXQY. The two to three percent of emissions unaccounted for are fluorinated gases, which are synthesized during industrial processes. Id.

[8] Natasha Gilbert, One-third of our Greenhouse Gas Emissions Come from Agriculture, Nature (Oct. 31, 2012), https://perma.cc/2GF7-ASMM.

[9] EPA, Inventory, supra note 7, at 5-1.

[10] Id.

[11] Id.

[12] Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture, and Food Safety, Food Emissions (2016), https://perma.cc/YYL8-YSPM.

[13] See U.S. Dep’t of Agric., USDA Agriculture Climate Change Adaptation Plan 9 (2014) [hereinafter USDA, Adaptation Plan], https://perma.cc/8SM9-5NDX; Louise Jackson & Susan Ellsworth, Scope of Agricultural Adaptation in the United States: The Need for Agricultural Adaptation, in The State of Adaptation in the United States (2012), https://perma.cc/HS57-K35T.

[14] For example, a recent report from the Office of Management and Budget and the Council of Economic Advisers estimates that the annual cost of the crop insurance program will increase by $4 billion per year in 2080 as a result of the impacts of climate change. OMB & CEA, Climate Change: The Fiscal Risks Facing the Federal Government 6 (Nov. 2016), https://perma.cc/4Y22-P85V; see also USDA, Adaptation Plan, supra note 14, at 9.

[15] U.S. Dep’t of Agric., Climate Change and Agriculture in the United States: Effects and Adaptation 126–27 (2013) [hereinafter USDA, Effects and Adaptation], https://perma.cc/QW8T-Y4RL.

[16] M. McLeod et al., Cost-Effectiveness of Greenhouse Gas Mitigation Measures for Agriculture: A Literature Review, OECD Food, Agriculture and Fisheries Papers, No. 89, at 26 (2015).

[17] Peter Lehner & Nathan Rosenberg, Legal Pathways to Carbon-Neutral Agriculture, 47 Envtl. L. Rep. 10,845, 10,849 (2018).

[18] Id. at 19–21.

[19] For a more detailed review of how carbon sequestration can be increased in agriculture, see Daniel Kane, Nat’l Sustainable Agric. Coal., Carbon Sequestration Potential on Agricultural Lands: A Review of Current Science and Available Practices (2015), https://perma.cc/R4WA-2PPK.

[20] Adapted from P. Smith et al., Greenhouse Gas Mitigation in Agriculture, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, 363, 789–813 (2008).

[21] Alexandra Bot & José Benites, Food & Agric. Org. Of the United Nations, FAO Soils Bulletin 80, The Importance of Soil Organic Matter: Key to Drought-Resistant Soil and Sustained Food and Production 19 (2005), https://perma.cc/6VE8-6KG7.

[22] USDA, Effects and Adaptation, supra note 16, at 123; see also Nat’l Sustainable Agric. Coal., Climate Change and Agriculture Recommendations for Farm Bill Conservation Program Implementation 2 (2014), https://perma.cc/2JKC-AXSY.

[23] While these practices may generally lead to better resilience on farms, adaptation practices are highly region-specific.

[24] USDA, Effects and Adaptation, supra note 16, at 126–27 (2013).

[25] For example, in the Central Valley of California, an adaptation plan that included integrated changes in crop mix and altered irrigation, fertilization, and tillage practices, was found to be most effective for managing climate risk. Id. Along with the USDA Climate Hubs, the following organizations have undertaken projects related to regional agricultural adaptation research and planning: California Healthy Soils Initiative; Wisconsin Initiative on Climate Change Impacts; Southeast Florida Regional Climate Change Compact; The Mid-Atlantic Water Program; U.S. Midwest Field Research Network for Climate Adaptation.

[26] Id. at 126.

[27] Id.

[28] See COMET-Farm, https://perma.cc/4GR3-DHJH.

[29] U.S. Dep’t of Agric., About the Risk Management Agency, https://perma.cc/N49E-KQ3H.

[30] Dennis A. Shields, Cong. Research Serv., Crop Insurance Provisions in the 2014 Farm Bill 3 (2015).

[31] Id.

[32] Id.

[33] Dennis Shields, Cong. Research Serv., Federal Crop Insurance: Background 2 (2015).

[34] Cong. Budget Office, March 2016 Baseline for Farm Programs (2016), https://perma.cc/896T-TUJ9; see also Heritage Found., Addressing Risk in Agriculture (2016).

[35] U.S. Dep’t of Agric., Structure and Finances of U.S. Farms: Family Farm Report, 2014 Edition 32–33 (2014), https://perma.cc/S9YP-P6CY.

[36] Generally, the more diverse or specialized crops and livestock a farmer produces, the harder it is to obtain insurance. These policies are not designed to support small producers and the policies are administratively complex and burdensome for small farmers, with high premiums for small farmers. On the one hand, if small farmers used yield-based or revenue-based insurance policies, those farmers would need to purchase insurance for each crop, which requires producing a significant volume of each single crop to justify the paperwork and setting up a contracted purchase price from a processor. On the other hand, whole farm insurance policies base policies on average adjusted gross revenue of the farm, regardless of the variety of products the farmer grows. This type of policy is more appropriate for diversified farmers, but may still be too cumbersome for small farms to participate. See Jeff Schahczenski, Nat’l Sustainable Agric. Info. Serv., Crop Insurance Options for Specialty, Diversified, and Organic Farmers (2012), https://perma.cc/64P6-CTRC; Nat’l Sustainable Agric. Coal., Have Access Improvements to the Federal Crop Insurance Program Gone Far Enough?, NSAC’s Blog (July 28, 2016), https://perma.cc/PT37-RNNL.

[37] Shields, Federal Crop Insurance: Background, supra note 35, at 1.

[38] Linda Prokopy et al., Farmers and Climate Change: A Cross-National Comparison of Beliefs and Risk Perceptions in High-Income Countries, 56 Envtl. Mgmt. 492, 497 (2015).

[39] Bruce Babcock, Environmental Working Group, Cutting Waste in the Crop Insurance Program 10 (2013).

[40] Id.

[41] C. O’Connor, NRDC Issue Paper 13-04-A, Soil Matters: How the Federal Crop Insurance Program Could Be Reformed to Encourage Low-risk Farming Methods with High-reward Environmental Outcomes (2013).

[42] See, e.g., Heritage Found., Addressing Risk in Agriculture (2016).

[43] NSAC, 10 Ways USDA Can Address Climate Change in 2016, NSAC’s Blog (Dec. 30, 2015), https://perma.cc/L5AZ-NAF5.

[44] See Practical Farmers of Iowa, Cover Crops, https://perma.cc/7GHL-NVXQ.

[45] USDA’s Economic Research Service found that “[l]ands brought into or retained in cultivation due to these crop insurance subsidy increases are, on average, less productive, more vulnerable to erosion […] then cultivated cropland overall. Based on nutrient application data, these lands are also associated with higher levels of potential nutrient losses per acre.” USDA Economic Research Service, Report Summary: Environmental Effects of Agricultural Land Use Change (Aug. 2006); see also Daniel Sumner and Carl Zulauf, The Conservation Crossroads in Agriculture: Insight from Leading Economists. Economic and Environmental Effects of Agricultural Insurance Programs, The Council on Food, Agricultural and Resource Economics (2012).

[46] See Stephanie Ogburn, The Dark Side of Nitrogen, Grist (Feb. 5, 2010), https://perma.cc/9J6E-ZD9J (“About one percent of the world’s annual energy consumption is used to produce ammonia, most of which becomes nitrogen fertilizer.”).

[47] See, e.g., Anne Weir and Craig Cox, Envtl. Working Grp., Crop Insurance: An Annual Disaster (2015).

[48] Sodbuster, 16 U.S.C. § 3811 et seq.; Swampbuster, 16 U.S.C. § 3821 et seq.

[49] See Nat. Res. Conservation Serv., U.S. Dep’t of Agric., Conservation Compliance Provisions, https://perma.cc/6V9X-URBP.

[50] Id. at 7.

[51] O’Connor, Soil Matters, supra note 43, at 7.

[52] U.S. Dep’t of Agric. Climate Hubs, Mission and Vision, https://perma.cc/T46E-CSBT.

[53] Id.

[54] The existing ARS LTAR system, which conducts longterm sustainability research, could be used to inform the regional best practices communicated in outreach efforts. See Agric. Research Serv., U.S. Dep’t of Agric., Long-Term Agroecosystem Research (LTAR) Network, https://perma.cc/6XRT-FBTC.

[55] For example, manure management practices can create a public nuisance for which neighbors have little recourse. In addition, runoff from agriculture is not adequately regulated under the Clean Water Act and results in pollution to the nation’s waterways. Every year a hypoxic zone, also called a dead zone, develops where the Mississippi River dumps pollution from Midwest livestock and fertilizers into the Gulf of Mexico. See Kyle Weldon & Elizabeth Rumley, Nat’l Agric. L. Ctr., States’ Right to Farm Statutes, https://perma.cc/Y8XA-KUBR; Ada Carr, This Year’s Gulf of Mexico “Dead Zone” Will Be the Size of Connecticut, Researchers Say, Weather.com (Jun. 15, 2016), https://perma.cc/36ZZ-NKY9.

[56] Farms where the cattle range freely do not release as much methane to the atmosphere because the less consolidated manure is more likely to be absorbed into the soil rather than anaerobically digested to produce methane.

[57] Using poultry manure as a substrate can be difficult because feathers and poultry litter can clog anaerobic digesters. See Donald L. Van Dyne & J. Alan Weber, Special Article, Biogas Production from Animal Manures: What Is the Potential?, Industrial Uses/IUS-4 20, 22 (Dec. 1994).

[58] SustainGas, Sustainable Biogas Production: A Handbook for Organic Farmers 38 (2013), https://perma.cc/8354-G3A4.

[59] Digestate is the solid that is left over after biogas has been produced. Digestate can be sold or used on farm as fertilizer. It smells better than manure, is free of harmful bacteria, and contains nitrogen in a form that is more bioavailable for crops.

[60] 40 organic farms in Germany, in a region without livestock, have found it worthwhile to cooperate in supplying and transporting clover grass up to 50 km to an AD because the digestate provides them with a flexible organic fertilizer. See SustainGas, supra note 60, at 28. They find that the digestate leads to higher quality for their food crops. Id. “Biogas has to serve food production via improved nutrient supply,” one farmer says. Id.

[61] If farmers can show that they have reduced their methane emissions, they may be able to sell the carbon offsets in exchanges such as the California GHG cap and trade market. See Cal. Air Resources Bd., Compliance Offset Protocol, Livestock Projects: Capturing and Destroying Methane from Manure Management Systems (2014), https://perma.cc/68EF-2SB9.

[62] The odor-reducing benefits are viewed as especially desirable for poultry and swine farms.

[63] Biogas plants dispose of waste and sewage, making conditions healthier. Not only does the anaerobic digestion process remove pathogens, but because biogas production requires collecting manure at a central location, some unhygienic conditions are avoided. See Julia Bramley, et al., Tufts Department of Urban & Environmental Policy & Planning, Agricultural Biogas in the United States: A Market Assessment 122 (2011), https://perma.cc/Z4ER-S4SD.

[64] Livestock manure generated at cattle yards and dairy farms can contaminate surface and ground water through runoff. Anaerobic digestion sanitizes the manure to a large extent, decreasing the risk of water contamination. Id.

[65] EPA, AgSTAR Handbook: A Manual for Developing Biogas Systems at Commercial Farms in the United States, 2d. ed. 2-5 (K.F. Roos et al. eds. Feb. 2004).

[66] Id. at. 3-1. For most farms, electricity comprises 70% to 100% of energy use. Id.

[67] U.S. Dep’t of Agric., Rural Energy for America Program Renewable Energy Systems & Energy Efficiency Improvement Loans & Grants, https://perma.cc/5LE3-2QRF.

[68] This model is frequently used for wind energy production. See Agric. Research Serv., U.S. Dep’t of Agric., Wind and Sun and Farm-Based Energy Sources, Agric. Res., Aug. 2006, https://perma.cc/ZBJ9-R74Q.

Soil Conservation in California: An analysis of the Healthy Soils Initiative

Soil Conservation in California: An analysis of the Healthy Soils Initiative

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