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Barry Flinchbaugh: Kansas farmers deserve capable leadership in environment office

An Andale grain elevator can be see from Dennis Gruenbacher farm near Colwich.
An Andale grain elevator can be see from Dennis Gruenbacher farm near Colwich. File photo

Critical to any success in U.S. agriculture is the policy leadership that promotes sustainable production systems and valuable ecosystem services that benefit both farming operations and the environment on which farmers depend. It provides the means to diversify farming and ranching operations and develop additional uses for what is grown. The more that can be sustainably done with what is produced by agriculture – food, feed, fiber and energy – the wider the economic benefit to growers and to rural America.

For this reason, it is imperative that key policy adviser positions be filled with individuals who understand the economic and environmental realities of farming and ranching, and who recognize the need for policies that give rural America the best long-term chance to not only survive, but thrive.

As an agricultural economist who has spent a lifetime working hand-in-hand with Kansas farmers and ranchers and federal, state and local policy makers, I have significant concerns about Kathleen Hartnett White, President Trump’s nominee to chair the White House Council on Environmental Quality. If her nomination is approved by the U.S. Senate, Hartnett White, a former Texas regulator, would coordinate the administration’s environmental policy agenda and lead the implementation of Trump executive orders on energy and the environment.

A Senate Environment and Public Works committee vote on her nomination is expected this week, despite serious questions as to whether Hartnett White has the credentials, the foresight and the ability to think beyond ideology to help meet the energy, environmental, not to mention broader agricultural challenges this nation faces, including less predictable and often more extreme weather. She will be asked to help forge policies in areas critical to rural communities – especially renewable energy.

However, as recently as 2014, the former energy and environmental director at a conservative Texas think tank, said that fossil fuels were “superior to present alternatives,” and that “energy sources are not readily interchangeable.”

Her devotion to fossil fuels has led her to dismiss the growing role of renewable energy sources, calling the shift across much of the country “green folly” and “a false hope.” And Hartnett White has called for the repeal of the federal Renewable Fuel Standard, which sets biofuel blending requirements in the nation’s transportation fuel supply, and described the standard as “counterproductive and ethically dubious.”

During her confirmation hearing before the Senate committee earlier this month, she backed away from those condemnations of the RFS. But committee members remain suspicious, suggesting she’s telling them what she thinks they want to hear.

Given Hartnett White’s ideological history, the skepticism is well earned. The committee has the task of approving someone who will have a direct influence on the formulation of policy that will have a major impact on a growing U.S. renewable energy sector.

In Kansas, nearly a third of the state’s electricity comes from renewable energy, ranking the state third in the nation in its clean energy production. Kansas is also among the top 10 ethanol-producing states, with 14 ethanol plants with 500 million gallons of capacity that use locally grown corn and grain sorghum as primary feedstocks. Kansas farmers receive more than $13 million in lease payments for wind turbines on their property without having to displace crops. Over the past decade, renewable energy growth as generated more than $10 billion in capital investment in the state.

These are significant and necessary economic benefits for a rural America that has been rocked for four years by low commodity prices. The Senate committee needs to keep those small-town farm communities in mind before confirming someone with no real understanding of how a viable renewable energy contributes to our economy and our security.

Barry Flinchbaugh is a professor of Agricultural Economic at Kansas State University,