Dec 9, 2020 - Politics & Policy

What Vilsack as Biden's agriculture secretary means for energy and climate

Tom Vilsack

Tom Vilsack in July 2019. Photo: Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call

President-elect Joe Biden plans to nominate former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack as his agriculture secretary, giving him a role in Biden's climate agenda if confirmed to the job he also held under Barack Obama.

Why it matters: The Agriculture Department is relevant here for several reasons, including that Biden's platform calls for investing in practices that increase CO2 storage in soil and removing "regulatory roadblocks."

  • There's oil-and-gas projects and leasing on Forest Service properties, which means he would be part of Biden's (still vague) vow to ban new permitting on federal lands.
  • The department also traditionally collaborates with EPA on decisions about biofuels policy.

What we're watching: Politico reports that the chance to work on Biden's climate agenda "likely made the job more attractive for Vilsack to return."

  • Farm industry groups, after long resisting climate efforts, are becoming more interested in policies that incentivize soil carbon storage, per Politico.
  • "An idea recently gaining traction is to expand the USDA's Commodity Credit Corp. borrowing authority to create a carbon bank to help pay farmers and other landowners for carbon sequestration," their piece states.

By the numbers: "The agriculture sector accounts for about 10% of current overall U.S. emissions, while U.S forests sequester the equivalent of about 15% of carbon dioxide emissions from combustion of U.S. fossil fuels annually," according to the Climate 21 Project.

  • The group, which includes several Obama alums, is offering proposals for how a whole bunch of agencies can help address global warming.
  • Their USDA memo is here.

Yes, but: Vilsack's support for corn ethanol and his agribusiness background — he's led the U.S. Dairy Export Council since early 2017will likely rankle the left flank of the green movement.

  • Last night, Friends of the Earth said they were "deeply disappointed" with the choice.
  • "In order to implement Biden’s climate and racial justice agenda, Vilsack must be willing to transform the USDA to support a more diversified, regenerative, healthy and just food system," they said.
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