First in a series

Editor’s note

Charlie Stenholm and Barry Flinchbaugh don’t always agree on issues political and economic. But each agrees that Stenholm, former ranking member of the U.S. House of Representatives Agricultural Committee and a devout Democrat, and Flinchbaugh, professor of agricultural economics and farm policy at Kansas State University and a registered Independent, agree more often than not. And when they don’t, they do so in an enlightening, enthusiastic and often entertaining manner.

The two squared off last week in a good natured debate at the annual American Agricultural Editors’ Association Ag Media Summit in Forth Worth, Texas. Following is the first in a series of articles reflecting Stenholm’s and Flinchbaugh’s views on four issues they view as critical to U.S. agriculture. The two champions of American agriculture discussed renewable fuels and climate change, WTO and bi-lateral trade agreements, the future of farm programs and farm cultural wars emerging in U.S. agriculture.

Part one

The issues of renewable fuels and climate change cannot be separated, says Barry Flinchbaugh, professor of agricultural economics and farm policy at Kansas State University.

Flinchbaugh and Charlie Stenholm, former ranking member of the U.S. Representatives Agricultural Committee, debated pressing agricultural issues last week in Fort Worth, Texas, during the opening session of the Ag Media Summit, the annual conference of the American Agricultural Editors’ Association.

“We need to enact climate legislation,” Flinchbaugh said, “or EPA will carry it out through an edict given them by a conservative Supreme Court. Who should farmers prefer to craft legislation, EPA or congress?” he asked.

He supports the 25 by 25 mandate: 25 percent of U.S. energy should come from renewable fuels by 2025. Stenholm is a bit more cautious and thinks that goal is more attainable by 2030. But he admits to a changing attitude on the 25 by 25 group. “I’ve come to realize that this is not an advocacy group but an educational effort,” he said.

“I don’t necessarily disagree (with Flinchbaugh),” he said. ‘But I have problems with groups who believe that a substitute will magically appear to replace fossil fuels. At some time we will replace it; it will run out.”

Stenholm said, in the spirit of full disclosure, in his current role as a Washington consultant and adviser he represents agriculture as well as “big oil, little oil and Texas oil.” He also said that ethanol will need the oil industry to succeed. “Oil companies have the pumps.”

Both Stenholm and Flinchbaugh support efforts to expand the U.S. energy supply with other sources. “I advocate production of supplemental energy including wind, biofuels, geothermal, solar and nuclear,” Stenholm said.

“Nuclear waste seems to be a big obstacle but we’re talking about hundreds of pounds of waste versus thousands of tons of carbon.”

Flinchbaugh said the debate over food or fuel from cropland is a senseless argument. “The 25 by 25 initiative is good for agriculture and is good for the climate,” he said. “It will work. Corn yield is irrelevant. We have the capacity to get to 25 by 25 and feed the world without tearing down rain forests in Brazil.”

He said agriculture accounts for 7 percent of the carbon released into the atmosphere. “We can mitigate that by 20 percent to 25 percent. And farmers should be paid for the difference.”

“We no longer have the debate over biofuels versus fossil fuels,” Stenholm said. “Now it’s food versus fuel production. With a decreasing amount of arable land should more go into fuel production?”

He said advancements such as biotechnology will allow farmers to produce more on every acre. But he said that if he were still in the U.S. Congress he would have “strongly opposed cap and trade legislation.”

The balance is off, he said. “With 44 percent of the carbon emissions oil and gas gets only 2 percent of the carbon credits. Also, anyone who uses fertilizer and diesel will have to pay.” He said that to be effective, climate legislation also must involve other nations, such as China and India.

“Where can we find the elusive middle ground? If the United States does what it’s been called on to do, we will see more expense and more loss of jobs.”

Flinchbaugh says the issue should b renewable fuels and climate change, not food versus fuel. “Have a little faith in the scientific community. By 2012 or 2015 we will see 300 bushel per acre corn. That will happen.”

He also said that 25 by 25 “is in the best interest of big oil. Stenholm said big oil supports the overall concept of expanding the energy supply and that the broad-based anti-ethanol bloc in the oil industry is diminishing. “We still see a little of it. Now we have to get renewable fuels and fossil fuels to sit down together and consider all options. At $140 a barrel for oil, ethanol is profitable; at $40 a barrel, ethanol plants are bankrupt. In the long run, if alternatives cost more they will be less competitive. Sooner or later (renewable fuels) must be market oriented.”

Flinchbaugh said that 20 years from now renewable fuels will be competitive with fossil fuel. “We need to get big oil to the table,” he said.

Neither Flinchbaugh nor Stenholm believe the climate change bill passed by the House will become law. “It will not pass as written,” Flinchbaugh said. “Without the amendments (initiated by Colin Peterson, chairman of the House Agriculture Committee) it would have been much worse. Agriculture owes a big debt to Congressman Peterson.”

He said the Senate will mark up its version of climate control legislation when it returns from recess. “I think they will pass climate change legislation by early next year,” he said. “They have to understand what the Supreme Court gave to EPA.”

Stenholm said the Senate will not have 60 votes to pass the House version of the climate change bill. “But they will pass something. They know they need to do something about carbon.”

Stenholm said the United States uses a lot of energy. “But that’s why we have the strongest GDP in the world. The rest of the world wants to emulate our energy use to create jobs.”

email: rsmith@farmpress.com