OMAHA (DTN) -- The House of Representatives passed a massive energy overhaul bill Thursday largely along party lines, but a roll-call vote also demonstrated strong bipartisan support for banning Chinese ownership of U.S. farm ground.
Amid a string of largely party-line votes, the House voted 407-26 with 223 Republicans and 184 Democrats agreeing to add language to the energy bill that would prohibit the Chinese government or any agent from the Chinese Communist Party from buying interest in U.S. farmland or land used to produce renewable energy.
The House energy bill will likely not move in the Senate, but the broad support in the vote on Chinese land ownership indicates lawmakers likely could move a separate bill or add similar language to the next farm bill.
The amendment was led by Rep. Randy Feenstra, R-Iowa. "China must be banned from buying American farmland suitable for ethanol and biodiesel production," Feenstra tweeted after the vote.
Lawmakers have focused more on Chinese ownership of U.S. farmland over the past year. A controversial corn mill project by Chinese company Fufeng outside of Grand Forks, North Dakota, helped elevate the concerns into the national security debate. The Fufeng project was shelved in late January after the U.S. Air Force raised national security concerns about the proximity of the project to the Grand Forks Air Force Base. Fufeng was planning to develop 370 acres of land for the project.
Senator Tom Cotton, R-Ark., also on Thursday introduced a bill that would ban Chinese citizens and companies from purchasing any real estate in the U.S.
Members of the House Agriculture Committee earlier this week questioned Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack about USDA's handling of foreign ownership of farmland. Vilsack said USDA's knowledge of foreign ownership of farmland depends on self-reporting, and if Congress really wants to know how much farmland is foreign-owned, it would have to establish a registry that would require reporting from the nation's 3,000 counties on all deed changes.
During the hearing, Rep. Rick Crawford, R-Ark., questioned Vilsack about USDA's role on the Committee of Foreign Investment in the U.S. (CFIUS) because USDA is not a permanent member. Vilsack agreed being on the committee full time would help educate other members of CFIUS about agricultural issues. Crawford then issued a news release citing that Vilsack expressed support for his legislation, the Promoting Agriculture Safeguards and Security Act (PASS), that "would ensure USDA is fully involved in reviewing our foreign adversaries' acquisition of American agricultural land and companies in response to Communist China's threats to America's food supply."
In the U.S. Senate on Thursday, Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., and Sens. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, Thom Tillis, R-N.C., and Michael Bennet, D-Colo., introduced a bill, the "Security and Oversight of International Landholdings (SOIL) Act, that would require more disclosure of foreign land purchases, ban federal government aid for certain foreign-held real-estate holdings and would require CFIUS to review agricultural real-estate purchases by certain government entities. Senators in their news release specifically mentioned China and Russia. "While there's no question America has some of the best farmland in the world, it's doubtful China is buying it up to plant more wheat and potatoes," Risch said.
Lankford cited the bill was needed because of increases of foreign land purchases in Oklahoma specifically tied to marijuana production in the state. Oklahoma state narcotic officials believe roughly 2,000 marijuana grow operations -- often built on rural farm ground -- "have a Chinese connection," Lankford stated.
Several state legislatures also have introduced and adopted bills this year to ban ownership of land by people or businesses from China, Iran, North Korea and Russia.
According to USDA, Chinese investors own roughly 384,000 acres of U.S. farmland, or less than 1% of all foreign-held farmland. Chinese land ownership rose by about 31,000 acres from the end of 2020 to the end of 2021, according to the latest report by USDA. Those numbers might not be fully accurate because USDA doesn't have an enforcement mechanism to assure all foreign land purchases are reported.
The biggest spike in Chinese ownership of U.S. farm ground came when Chinese-based WH Group bought Smithfield Foods and its associated farm acreage and hog production facilities. Missouri lawmakers a decade ago even changed their state law to make it easier for the purchase to happen. Chinese-owned acreage also grew when ChemChina took over Syngenta's U.S. assets.
Feenstra's farmland amendment was added to the "Lower Energy Costs Act." The bill was listed as H.R. 1, making it a top priority for Republican leadership as the GOP looks to repeal several climate policies from the Inflation Reduction Act. The bill also would make it easier to increase drilling, export and get pipeline permits for oil and natural gas, as well as get mining permits for critical minerals, including those key to electric vehicles.
The bill passed 225-204 with four Democrats joining all but one Republican in supporting the bill. While the bill is unlikely to get a Senate vote, the bill makes the case for the GOP that they are championing policies to counter higher fuel prices.
"With today's passage of the Lower Energy Costs Act, House Republicans have delivered on our commitment to American energy independence," said Rep. Glenn "GT" Thompson, R-Pa., chairman of the House Agriculture Committee. "Since day one of this administration, our energy resources have been shackled, pipeline construction has ceased, and new oil and gas leases on federal lands became nonexistent. President (Joe) Biden's war on clean, American energy production undoubtedly crippled the U.S. economy -- leaving farmers, ranchers, producers, and consumers to pay the ultimate price. As I said earlier this week, a vote for H.R. 1 is a vote for food security."
The bill does not include any provisions regarding biofuels, which made it more novel that farm groups and biofuel groups on Thursday were championing the reintroduction of the Next Generation Fuels Act in the House. That bill would allow higher blends of ethanol tied to a national high-octane standard. Still, the bill was not part of the energy package, which Rep. Angie Craig, D-Minn., cited in a speech on the House floor. Craig noted the new energy bill also did not include any provisions to allow year-round E15 blends either.
"I'm proud to have worked last summer to pass the largest investment in biofuels in our nation's district through the Inflation Reduction Act," Craig said. "This is a game changer for corn growers and soybean farmers in my district, and it's a commonsense way to help protect our environment, strengthen our energy independence and lower costs for Americans. The Inflation Reduction Act included many more investments in renewable energy and important reforms to our oil and gas practices. But today, House Republicans are putting forth hyper-partisan legislation to roll back the climate progress we made in the last Congress, gutting clean air and drinking water protections and giving handouts to polluters. Their so-called 'all-of-the-above' energy bill does not contain even a discussion of biofuels."
Chris Clayton can be reached at Chris.Clayton@dtn.com
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