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Environment Could Play Big Role in Farm Bill

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) today said that mounting Democratic concern over climate change is likely to spill over into the upcoming farm bill, which is expected to contain an energy title expanding biofuels use.

“The farm bill will be as much about the environment” as it will about agriculture, the Senator predicted in a meeting with CongressNow and Roll Call today.

Expanding the use of biofuels to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions as well as dependence on foreign oil is expected to be a major component of the farm bill, which the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee hopes to mark up in late May or early June.

Senate Agriculture Chairman Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) has stated that he plans to use the bill as a vehicle for expanding the use of corn for ethanol, as well as to promote research into cellulosic ethanol, a type of fuel that can be made from virtually any plant matter. President Bush in January’s State of the Union address called for increasing biofuels use in the United States by 35 million gallons by 2017 in order to reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil imports.

While Harkin is squarely supporting the president’s push on ethanol, he raised concerns this week about the level of research funding contained in the administration’s farm bill proposal.

Harkin pressed Gale Buchanan, undersecretary of Agriculture for research, education and economics, who testified about the administration proposal before the committee on March 7. He told Buchanan that tens of million of dollars in research funding was “just simply not enough.”

When Buchanan responded that the initiative was “a step in the right direction,” the Iowa Senator replied, “We’ve got to take bigger steps.”

Harkin also harbors concerns that the administration’s proposal focuses biofuel research efforts inside the Department of Energy rather than inside the Agriculture Department. Harkin told CongressNow that he raised that issue with President Bush during a meeting last week.

“Agriculture should be at the head of the table” when it comes to biofuel and biomass research, he said. “It almost seems we’re splitting things up here between the Department of Energy and the Department of Agriculture, and I’m not sure that’s healthy.”

Harkin said that USDA has “experience with loans, grants, agriculture” and called biofuel research an “absolutely minor part of [DOE’s] existence, but a very big part of the agriculture department.”

Today, Bush is in Brazil, where he signed an agreement to boost production of ethanol throughout the hemisphere.

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