by Ashley McDonald, NCBA Deputy Environmental Counsel
Always a hot topic in Washington, D.C. is “regulatory overreach.” This phrase has been the battle cry for many industries over the past few years, and the cattle industry is no exception. As one of the top two enforcement priorities for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the cattle industry has seen an attack from all sides. We are fighting issues from dust and greenhouse gas regulation to preventing your ditches and dry washes from becoming a “water of the United States.” EPA is a power hungry bureaucratic machine, and it is in their own self-interest to continue to stretch their authority and gain power over every aspect of our operations. War has no doubt been declared on both sides, but while EPA may have won a few battles, NCBA will fight to ensure the cattle industry wins the war.
Let’s examine where the agency has gone over the past few years. Immediately upon arrival, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson declared carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases a direct threat to human health and she went on to promulgate three major rules that will raise input costs to farmers and ranchers and subject them to permitting requirements for their emissions starting in 2016. That year as well, the agency published staff recommendations that the dust standard should be lowered to double the stringency of the current standard, subjecting cattle producers across the country to expensive regulations and fines for driving down a dirt road or cattle moving in pens.
Next the agency dropped another bomb, usurping states’ rights in the Chesapeake Bay watershed by taking over all aspects of the Clean Water Act and setting a TMDL (total maximum daily load) for the 64,000 square mile watershed. While the usurpation of the states’ rights is atrocious, it pales in comparison to the economic impact this rule will have. Nutrient loadings have been set so low that only completely idling land is an option. Not only will municipal ratepayers in the region pay more for their water bill, but a 20 percent reduction in the amount of farmland in the watershed is relied upon by EPA in order for states to meet their obligations under the TMDL. Bad data and false assumptions plague the EPA “model” that developed the nutrient loadings, so much so that NCBA and other agricultural groups had an analysis done on these assumptions and found that not only was EPA’s model wrong in the amount of nitrogen and phosphorus that came from agriculture, but the model simply would not count many of the conservation measures producers had put on the ground.
The agency next instituted the Florida numeric nutrient criteria (NNC) rule, again railroading the state’s rights under the Clean Water Act. That rule too will come with a heavy price tag, with estimates that the federal rule will cost the state more than 14,000 in job losses and cost agriculture over $3 billion in implementation costs. The list of overreaching federal regulations that directly hurt cattle operations continues, with ammonia regulation under the Clean Air Act, pressure on states to develop more nutrient reduction regulations, a guidance document expanding “waters of the U.S.,” and new reporting rules.
While the cattle industry is bruised and bloody from these actions, the agency has also felt the sting of defeat, and NCBA’s win column is increasing. In the face of a tough re-election campaign, the Administration has decided to pull back in its war against farmers and ranchers. You will remember the heat the agency took over their consideration of lowering the dust standard, and eventually NCBA was successful in getting the Administrator to promise she would not propose to lower the standard. EPA also decided not to move forward with its plan for regulating ammonia under a Clean Air Act standard for oxides of Nitrogen. And just this month, EPA withdrew a controversial reporting rule it had proposed back in October of 2011 that would have put our industry at risk of increased attacks from animal rights activists and terrorists.
The war is not yet won. The number of people involved in agriculture and living in rural America continues to decrease, while the knowledge gap about our industry continues to widen. Cattle producers must be outspoken about the measures we have put in place to protect the environment and how the U.S. cattle industry is more sustainable than anywhere else in the world. The knowledge gap does not reside with consumers alone. It is prevalent with regulators, congressmen and senators. NCBA works every day to close this gap and limit the number of harebrained regulations that seem to flow so easily out of the capitol city. While NCBA will not win every battle, we intend to win the war and keep ranching a viable way of life.