A veteran among policy and a passionate agricultural lobbyist, Tom Sell, is greeted by his two golden retrievers as he enters his home office in pursuit of freshly brewed coffee. His increasingly frequent flights to Washington, D.C. have confined his recent schedule, but this dedication carries Sell to be an influential voice for rural agriculture.
“I’ve been involved in every farm bill since ‘95,” Sell said. “Now, we’re coming into ’23. And that’s my love, the agricultural legislative field. So, that covers a lot of things including energy.”
A glance around Sell’s office is evidence of years of experience in legislative policy. Stacked on his desk are copies of farm bills back to the Clinton administration. As an agricultural economics undergraduate student at Texas Tech University in 1995, Sell completed a congressional internship with Rep. Larry Combest before serving under Combest while he was chair of the House Agriculture Committee. After Combest retired from Congress in 2003, Sell worked for the Bush administration before returning to Texas Tech to attend law school. He later co-founded Combest, Sell and Associates with his mentor, which serves as a small firm that represents associations, coalitions, and corporations on agricultural, food security, and rural issues.
“Rural development is a title in the farm bill, but it’s never the title that gets the most focus,” Sell said. “There are some things in the title that are really beloved. One would be what has come out of their Rural Electrification Act of the ’30s, REA, and that’s what really created the co-op system for the rural electrics.”
The 2023 Farm Bill is likely to be the fifth farm bill to include an official energy title. According to the Congressional Research Service, Title IX, the energy title in the 2018 Farm Bill gives the energy programs of the U.S. Department of Agriculture authority to incentivize research, development and implementation of renewable energy projects.
“The thing I love about Congress is it’s a place built for conflict and then to eventually get to some level of compromise,” Sell said. “I’d say the predominant view in Congress right now [on alternative energy sources] is an all-of-the-above approach.”
Through Sell’s efforts as an agricultural lobbyist, he has gained clients within the dairy industry who are leaders in the alternative energy sectors.
“A lot of our dairy guys are using those fuel processors to power their semis,” Sell said. “The whole haul. There are big-time incentives, and then there’s been this kind of secondary market that’s developed.”
Darren Turley, the executive director of the Texas Association of Dairymen, is active in discussions regarding the dairy industry and alternative energy and greenhouse gas emissions.
“We’ve been doing development of farming practices of hammering waste differently and utilizing all that waste as fertilizer,” Turley said. “We have a good success story of how we have worked to be greener now for generations.”
Turley said these technologies set the dairy industry up for innovations that put them at the forefront of green agriculture industry energy production.
“It’s advanced with some new technology, but it is a methane digester system,” Turley explained, “Which captures the waste from the dairy facility as it immediately is captured at the back of the farm. That methane then is cleaned and sold into a [gas] pipeline system.”
He said these systems are just starting to become operational with plans for more to be built.
“We don’t have a long enough time running them in Texas to quantify numbers and results,” Turley said. “Everything’s just too early to tell how efficient they’ll be.”
The implementation of solar technology on smaller scales for powering electric fences and running pumps or remote wells Turley said are examples of green energy practices the dairy industry is using to adapt.
“We already can see the ability,” Turley said, “We’re just not sure this market is developed enough to be stable long term.”
This concern – the sustainability of alternative energy technologies – is held by many.
While chasing white lines, landscapes beside the highway are now interrupted by rows and rows of wind turbines spinning along to the bold and constant West Texas wind. Not to mention, is the car passing this growing infrastructure filled up at a traditional gas pump or plugged into a charging station?
Darren Turley explained that West Coast technologies have created a push for technologies to move across the country.
“California put forth this system and we’re able to start doing carbon sequestration and then carbon trading,” Turley said. “A carbon credit system that you could take to any industry.”
According to the United Nations Development Programme, carbon trading is a market in which carbon credits are bought and sold. A tradable carbon credit equals one ton of carbon dioxide removed or reduced from the atmosphere. Furthermore, corporations or even individuals trying to lower their greenhouse gas emissions can purchase credits from those producing credits with reduction or capturing processes, or buyers can acquire the same credits through a third-party facilitator. This is classified as a voluntary market.
California stands as the only state with a state cap-and-trade market according to the International Emissions Trading Association. A cap-and-trade market or involuntary market is established by the government setting a cap on how many tons of emissions sectors such as oil, transportation, energy or waste management can release.
Carbon credit trading has helped fund the development of alternative energy systems and has motivated them to spread. Turley said there’s discussion around this speculative market and how it has helped drive other states to explore newer technologies.
Tom Sell explained how carbon credits might be applied to the West Texas area and the agriculture industry.
“This area is more dominated by what’s going on in the marketplace,” Sell said. “If you’re a big venture capitalist and you’re saying, ‘I want to get some carbon credits and I want to make my hedge fund greener,’ and you’re looking for a place or people to partner with to do this.”
Applying these tax incentives or technologies seem to have the potential to benefit farmers and industry. Darren Turley works with the impact of the carbon credit business every day within the dairy industry.
“There’s a conversation now that if the programs go forward like they are, there’s almost an incentive for the producer who has not tried recent technology. They would be in better shape to take advantage of the program because their score would be higher,” Turley explained. “We’ve got to get some answers before you can really implement a program to encourage producers to really adapt to a lot of the new technologies out there.”
One of the main problems with the carbon capturing process is that the fact that the market for commodity groups to truly capitalize on going green has not been fully developed.
“If we sell our rights of our green energy projects to show that gain for another entity to take the use of that, does the dairy industry then not get to take advantage of the credits that they produce?” Turley said. “Because we sold our rights to another entity. We don’t have a good baseline. We don’t have a good starting point for most of the regulation.”
Turley said there is concern on how the industry will fair with current regulation if a large portion of dairies implement the process to get a revenue stream out of the carbon capturing process. The protection of dairy operations and their producers is at the forefront of Turley’s mind.
“We’re now reaching back out trying to get some baselines, and it’s not just us, it’s agriculture as a whole to be sure to make clear,” Turley said, “Because you also have row crop farmers and others that are asking the same question. Which credits can I generate?”
If one thing is clear in the alternative energy game, it is that money talks. Applying tax incentives, building infrastructure, and creating jobs and new niche markets have spurred from the desire to take care of the Earth.
Bristi Cure, senior vice president of renewable development for Invenergy, curates partnerships across the country between landowners and operations to build renewable energy technologies, including wind and solar farms.
“We know that farming and ranching gets harder and harder each year as well as trying to keep family farms in operation,” said Cure, who has a bachelor’s and master’s degree in agricultural communications from Texas Tech. “It is a really hard thing from an economic standpoint.”
Working for a large corporation like Invenergy with projects in wind, solar, energy storage and natural gas, Cure said it is an easy sell for her to advocate for these technologies because the economic impact for rural America is huge.
“To me, alternative energy has changed a lot of rural America. Some of those changes, folks don’t like. It might change the horizon that they look at, but it’s added additional tax revenue to those communities. It’s added jobs – high paying jobs – in rural places where nobody else is coming in and building a $200 or $300 million facility and paying taxes on it,” Cure said. “It’s a great economic impact for rural America, and it makes a lot of sense in addition to how it keeps our electricity prices lower as a consumer of electricity in Texas.”
Rural America has been built and sustained by hardworking men and women for generations. Tom Sell explained the idea behind incentives for alternative energy or market dictation could stem from the idea of trying to help rural America.
“Most members of Congress will say the best world development you can have is a thriving economy in rural America,” Sell said.
Luke Morrow is the president and founder of Morrow Renewables. In addition to his Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering and a Master of Business Administration from Texas Tech University, Morrow has more than 25 years of experience in gas treating, marketing and landfill gas gathering.
Morrow serves on the board of directors of the Renewable Natural Gas Coalition and his experience has allowed him to watch the general attitude towards alternative energy technologies change.
“It’s odd because the government does kind of take horses in this and then they kind of changed their direction,” Morrow said. “There was a big push for forever to put renewable natural gas into vehicles which helped build out infrastructure, right?”
This infrastructure took over land to build fueling stations. Morrow explained by putting renewable natural gas in these stations, companies can be below zero on their carbon score. The problem now is the large-scale shift of views on what technologies might be sustainable.
“I think we just got to be careful that the government doesn’t pick and choose our winners for us based on their politics,” Morrow said.
Looking at ways to create alternative energy can get complicated quickly. Morrow said his motivations for exploring green technologies originate from wanting to be a true steward of the land.
“I love what I do because I really feel like God put me on this Earth to care for it. It’s fulfilling what he’s given us to do and to care for the world, and so that makes it fun,” Morrow said. “I think it’s become how you feel about the science around global warming, and that shouldn’t matter because we should want to take care of the Earth.”
Even with the benefits to rural development, the concern of the sustainability of alternative energy sources is still very real. Morrow said, in the end, wind and solar need to financially make sense for producers.
“Anything that costs more to make than [what it is] worth doesn’t make a ton of sense even though it might be, or seem, green,” he said. “Over time things get cheaper and cheaper as technology gets better and better.”
Morrow, a Midland native, said his company and their renewable natural gas technologies are a complement to natural gas and fossil resources.
“It’s easy to see where [the oil and gas industry] would be skeptical because they’re always getting drug through the dirt in the public sphere,” Morrow said. “The oil and gas sector has actually done a really good job of cleaning up emission rates and really paying good attention to the environment.”
An Approach to Power
As a lobbyist for a variety of agricultural commodity groups, Sell encounters discussions on alternative energy surrounding the American consumer and how it affects decisions in Congress every day.
“Just wanting to do all this stuff, it all gets politicized and that’s unfortunate,” Sell said. “But the reality is I like the ‘all of the above’ approach, and I like redundancy. I like planning for the worst-case scenario.”
At Invenergy, Cure works within a blend of alternative energy sources and natural gas technologies and said the “all of the above approach” is needed to sustain the grid. Winter Storm Uri in 2021, she said, helped prove that.
“Having a robust grid that is able to change with whatever’s going on is important,” Cure said. “We think wind and solar make a nice complement with other resources like natural gas.”
For the dairy industry, Turley was a direct witness to the effects of Winter Storm Uri on industry operations.
“Whenever we have the winter storm event and had everything ice over here, I really was worried that we were going to have a hard time refilling the shelves,” Turley said.
But Turley said he was wrong. The industry came back in full force and was able to restock shelves quickly. This adaptability is what positions the industry as a spearhead for alternative energy technologies.
“So, the dairy industry is I think very poised. We adapt very quickly. It makes you very competitive as an industry,” Turley said. “So, farm to farm, you need to advance because everybody’s going to find what works for that type of extra income basically in one form or another.”
Turley said he believes the winter weather events have pushed the state legislature to consider an “all of the above” approach, but he argues the policy and financial structure for an operation to pursue all avenues of energy is not available in the current policies.
We think wind and solar make a nice complement with other resources like natural gas.Bristi Cure
This is a problem many farmers, ranchers and the agriculture industry face as natural stewards of the land as they try to adapt to changing policy and modern technology. Turley said the disconnect between lawmakers, the public and the agriculture caretaker is distinct and powerful.
“I think we’ve taken for granted what we do and how good we do it,” Turley said. “We do not tell our story well. The dairyman would much rather be with cows than [around] people,” Turley said. “That’s why they choose to milk cows seven days a week and be out in the country. They didn’t choose to come to town to go to work. So, there’s just a different mindset. We got behind really from generations to generations.”
As the executive director of the Texas Association of Dairymen, one day Turley might be standing under the Texas State Capitol rotunda rehearsing a speech for the state legislature and the next day he could be walking through a dairy’s milking parlor.
Turley said he feels good communicators are important to advocate for real producers to accurately represent the agriculture industry and its significant issues.
From founding Morrow Renewables to testifying before Congress about the Renewable Fuel Standard program and the efficacy of renewable policies, Luke Morrow said he prioritizes accurate representation and communication between industries.
Morrow’s company built and designed the first cow manure-to-pipeline gas plant of its kind in the United States. In a time when new, green technology was first introduced, Morrow said he battled a healthy amount of hesitation. Now after years of evidence, Morrow is confident his technologies can work.
“We work in a very political industry,” Morrow said. “It didn’t start off political at all. But it has become very political, and that’s too bad. It takes some of the fun out of it.”
On the national scale, Morrow explained this issue is increasingly relevant. From the smallest producer to legislative members, the conversations around alternative energy sources are powerful, complicated and carry serious effects both good and bad on a multitude of industries.
With his cup of coffee now empty and his golden retrievers sleeping silently at his feet, Tom Sell reflects on where agricultural industry issues can be affected by this year’s farm bill.
“This is our farm bill year, so it’s going to be a fun one to watch in terms of how this all comes together,” Sell said. “We have big challenges in terms of our federal budget and how much money is invested in what things and whether a farm bill can come together this year or not.”
Sell works closely with several different commodity organizations to bring issues to the biggest stage, one of which is alternative energy.
“Those agricultural uses, it’s like a set of lungs for our nation,” Sell said. “It’s an important part of our body. The challenge a farmer has always been to be reconciled with nature and to harness nature in ways that produce the fundamentals for what we need as a society— food and fiber— and they’re doing a remarkable job of it. It’s a real challenge we have as a society where we just keep wanting to grow in terms of infrastructure, population and power needs.”