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Energy bill, COOL beneficial to Nebraska

(Tuesday, Nov. 25, 2003 -- CropChoice news) -- Robert Pore, Grand Island Independent: Two issues important to Nebraska farmers, ranchers and consumers could be scuttled by Congress this year.

The energy bill with its Renewable Fuels Standard that would increase national ethanol production to five billion gallons by 2012 could be stalled until next year because of Senate resistance to a controversial provision to provide legal protection to makers of MTBE, a gasoline additive found to contaminate drinking water.

Lawmakers are working on a compromise to strip the MTBE liability protection from the energy bill, but House Republicans who included the provision have so far refused to give in.

After passing the House, the energy bill became stymied in the Senate because of the MTBE provision and fell two votes short needed to advance it to final passage.

Both Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., and Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., voted for the energy bill.

"The U.S. needs a comprehensive, updated energy policy for the 21st Century," Hagel said. "Continuing debate and refusing to vote on the energy bill only delays this critical policy and neglects our energy needs. America and Nebraska deserve a vote on the energy bill."

Nelson was also disappointed that the Senate was unable to come to agreement on the energy bill.

"This legislation is critical to Nebraska and our nation," Nelson said. "It would promote energy conservation, renewable energy and fuel production and increased energy security and provide a boost to our agriculture economy. The bill before us would have more than doubled use of renewable fuels with benefits to the environment, consumers and agriculture producers, especially in Nebraska."

Keith Olsen, president of the Nebraska Farm Bureau, also expressed regret about Congress failing to come to an agreement on the energy bill. He said while delaying passage of the energy bill won't put a damper on ethanol's continued growth, it was a blow both psychologically and politically in efforts by Farm Bureau and other ag organizations to secure passage of a renewable fuels standard.

"The whole idea that we can't get together and get a national policy on energy and renewable fuels is certainly disappointing," Olsen said.

Todd Sneller, executive administrator for the Nebraska Ethanol Board, said without getting the MTBE liability protection provision out of the bill, passage of the legislation is doubtful.

"It is such an offensive provision to so many legislators, particularly in California and the Northeast," he said.

Sneller said with MTBE liability protection provision the tremendous cost of cleaning up MTBE problems could fall on cash-strapped states.

Traces of MTBE have been found in almost every state and it has the potential of becoming a serious problem in at least 28 states. The National Conference of Mayors has estimated that the cleanup bill from MTBE contamination could be as high as $29 billion.

"What happens to all of us who are trying to take a look at the opportunity created with the ethanol provisions of the bill is that we are further put in limbo and it is pretty tough to move a head with any of these projects that have been pending," Sneller said.

If passage of the energy bill is delayed by Congress until next year, Sneller said it would be the second straight year that same scenario has unfolded in a Republican controlled Congress when it comes to passing a renewable fuels standard that would help ethanol and biodiesel.

"People are going to start taking a look whether or not there is just an institutional impediment in getting these sort of things done," Sneller said. "I believe that the ramifications from an ethanol perspective is that we had hoped for some stability and some certainty and we simply don't have this in the absence of this bill."

Another issue that has strong support in Nebraska that may be in jeopardy is Country-of-Origin labeling for meat and produce.

The labeling law was approved by Congress last year as part of the 2002 farm bill. The USDA is currently working on rules and regulations on how to implement COOL.

While the Senate has passed legislation that was included in the Agricultural Appropriations Bill to fund COOL, which is supposed to become mandatory on Sept. 30, 2004, the House voted last summer to block the labeling requirement from taking effect.

The Agricultural Appropriations bill is one of five spending bills that has yet to passed Congress and is now being lumped into one larger spending bill.

According to John Hansen, president of the Nebraska Farmers Union, a deal has reportedly been struck by opponents of the labeling law to delay its implementation for two years.

COOL has strong support in Nebraska. Both Hagel and Nelson support it and recently voted to support the funding resolution for COOL and against a motion to table it. Rep. Tom Osborne, R-Neb., also supports COOL.

Along with the support of the Nebraska Farmers Union, COOL is also supported by the Nebraska Farm Bureau and the Nebraska Cattlemen.

Hansen said the delay of COOL is a victory for the Bush administration, grocery stores, meat packers and processors who have spend millions of dollars in opposing the mandatory implementation of COOL.

"This is a high-powered effort by big business muscle to set-aside the clear intent of Congress after the fact," he said. "The Bush administration, in no small part, is also responsible for trying to administratively kill a bill that was passed by Congress."

Keith Olsen, president of the Nebraska Farm Bureau, said the labeling law for meat and produce products is important for consumers so they can have the ability to identify where the food they consume comes from.

Olsen said that is especially true with the recent outbreak of hepatitis A linked to contaminated scallions imported from Mexico, which has killed three people and sickened hundreds more.

According to reports from a number of federal agencies, such as the Federal Food and Drug Administration, the number of food-borne illness from imported fruits and vegetables are on the rise and in 2000 there were as many cases of food poisoning from produce as there were from beef, poultry, fish and eggs combined.

Only an estimated 2 percent of produced coming into the United State is inspected.

Olsen also said the labeling law is also beneficial to livestock producers.

"It's a real marketing tool if we can do that," he said.