White House Press Briefing by Press and Agriculture Secretaries

Following are excerpts of the February 5 White House press briefing related to U.S. foreign policy and international engagement. The full transcript of the press briefing will be available on the White House website.

Office of the Press Secretary
February 5, 2014

James S. Brady Press Briefing Room

1:13 P.M. EST

MR. CARNEY: I’m bringing guest stars. Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. Thank you for being here for your daily briefing. As you can see, today I have with me Secretary Vilsack. You may have seen reported this morning that the Secretary is establishing — and the administration — is establishing climate hubs in various regions across the country. He’d like to provide some information to you about that. He can also give you a little insight into the bipartisan farm bill that has passed Congress.

If you have questions for him on those subject areas, please address them at the top of the briefing to the Secretary. And then, he can go on with his day and I’ll remain here for questions on other subjects.

And with that, Secretary Vilsack.

SECRETARY VILSACK: I appreciate the opportunity to be with you this afternoon. It may come as a surprise to you — it certainly did to me — that 51 percent of the entire landmass in the United States is engaged in either agriculture or forestry. This is a part of our economy that is significant; 16 million people are employed as a result of agriculture and it represents roughly 5 percent of the Gross Domestic Product. And 14 percent of all manufacturing in this country is related to agriculture, forestry and food processing. So what impacts agriculture and forestry matters.

We’ve obviously seen a significant number of severe storms; very early snowstorms that devastated livestock in the Dakotas; the recent drought in California, which is now going into its third year, but now very intense — is a reflection of the changing weather patterns that will indeed impact and affect crop production, livestock production, as well as an expansion of pests and diseases that could compromise agriculture and forestry.

The President has been quite insistent in Cabinet meetings and in private meetings that he expects his Cabinet to be forceful and to act; we can’t wait for congressional action. So pursuant to his Climate Action Plan, we established a number of climate change hubs. They are located in seven states, and there are three sub-hubs. The seven states are New Hampshire, North Carolina, Iowa, Oklahoma, Colorado, New Mexico and Oregon. The substations are located in California, in Michigan and in Puerto Rico.

These climate change hubs and the substations are going to do a risk analysis of crop production and of forestry in terms of changing climates. It will establish the vulnerabilities that we have in each region of the country. We’ll determine from those vulnerabilities strategies and technologies and steps that can be taken to mitigate the impacts and effects of climate change, as well as adapting to new ways of agriculture.

It will take full advantage of the partnerships that we have with land-grant universities, our sister federal agencies, as well as the private and non-profit sector. And every five years, these climate hubs will be reviewed. It will be a coordinated effort between our Agricultural Research Service, our Forest Service, and our NRCS — the Natural Research Conservation Service. This will allow us to identify ways in which we can make a difference, and then use the tools that are now being provided with a passage of the farm bill.

The farm bill passage is a reflection of the President’s commitment to working with Congress to getting things done. And I’m excited about the opportunities that this bill provides in terms of the issue of climate: The establishment of a new research foundation, which will identify up to $400 million of additional resources to go into agricultural research. This will add to the $120 million that we’re currently spending on a wide variety of climate-related issues, as well as on agricultural issues.

The opportunity to restore disaster assistance: Livestock producers throughout the last couple of years have been unable to access disaster assistance, because the programs expired under the previous farm bill that have now been restored.

The ability to create new market opportunities to use what is being grown and raised in creative ways: Manufacturing is going to come back to rural America, the establishment of a bio-based manufacturing opportunity where we take crop residue and livestock waste, turning it into chemicals, polymers and other materials will create new job opportunities in rural America.

The opportunity to work with conservation and specifically with partnerships that are being formed in large watershed areas of significance to this country will also allow us to adapt and mitigate to climate, whether it’s in the Chesapeake Bay or the Great Lakes or the Everglades, the Upper Mississippi River Basin, the Gulf Coast, or the California Bay Delta.

So combined with the new farm bill and the new opportunities it creates, these climate hubs I think will equip us to make sure that the 51 percent of the landmass of the United States is protected against changing climates, and allow us to maintain the economic opportunity that agriculture creates in this economy, oftentimes underappreciated and under realized. But it is a significant factor.

And, frankly, it will also allow us to continue to be what I like to refer to as a food secure nation. The United States is blessed because we basically create and grow just about everything we need to survive as a people. Hardly any other country in the world can say that. So we want to make sure we continue to be in that strong position.

So with that, I’ll be glad to answer questions.

MR. CARNEY: Nedra.

Q I’m just confused. Is this something new that the government is doing, or are these activities that they already do and research that’s already done being combined into one central —

SECRETARY VILSACK: It’s a combination of both. It’s taking existing avenues — our Research Service, our Forest Service — and charging them with a new responsibility, to basically take a look at precisely what risks are currently being recognized and what’s the vulnerability to agriculture and to forestry in each region of the country.

The reason we have seven of these major hubs is because each region in the country does things a little bit differently in terms of agriculture and forestry. Each of them are faced with slightly different circumstances. Warm weather in the Northeast may be a different consequence than in the Southeast, for example. So they will basically take existing structures, add to that additional responsibilities pursuant to the President’s Climate Action Plan, do this assessment and then identify technologies and practical science-based guidance that will say to farmers, to those who own forested areas and to the government, this is how you need to manage; these are the steps you need to take to utilize water more effectively; these are seed technologies and biotechnology that you might use to respond to less water or too much water; this is what you can do in terms of forest restoration.

And then using the new programs being established in this farm bill that don’t get a lot of attention focuses oftentimes on subsidies and the SNAP program, but in between that is this research foundation, new market opportunities, local and regional food systems, et cetera, creates a whole new opportunity to revitalize and restructure the rural economy.

So these climate action hubs — or these climate hubs are really part of the President’s Climate Action Plan and his directive to us to actually act — not wait for Congress, not wait for laws to be passed, but to do it on our own.

Q Is there a cost for this? Is there some spending in the farm bill on this?

SECRETARY VILSACK: We currently have $120 million that we’ve dedicated of our research budget to climate. This will add on top of that. It’s difficult to assess precisely how much money will be spent because it depends on what the risks are and how significant they are, and what conservation programs will be used. But I can tell you that it will be a significant investment made in each region of the country because of the importance of it. When you’ve got 5 percent of the Gross Domestic Product, when you’ve got 16 million people employed who are dependent on this, you’ve got 51 percent of your landmass, you better be paying attention to it.


Q And back to the climate hubs. Is it accurate to say that the number-one job is to teach people how to adjust to climate change within their agricultural forestry or livestock line of work? Is that the ultimate goal?

SECRETARY VILSACK: The ultimate goal is, first and foremost, to understand precisely what the risks are, to be able to do a better job of forecasting when those risks might be a reality.

Q A drought risk or —

SECRETARY VILSACK: Right, or a significant infestation of pests because climates are either warmer than anticipated or something along those lines. And then

Q Over the horizon thing?

SECRETARY VILSACK: Yes. And then be able to equip those folks who are in that region who are impacted by that risk to be able to either adapt and shift to a different crop that they produce, or use a different seed technology, biotechnology, whatever they might, to eliminate the risk; or if the risk is not something that can be eliminated, how we mitigate the impact of it; and then to be able to accumulate all that information and have one repository at the hub so that folks who are researching, folks who are looking at ways to perfect work that we’re doing will be able to access that information. And each region of the country will have its own separate analysis, which is important.

Q Many land-grant universities have large agricultural educational systems — they do all this work themselves already, don’t they? Is there anything duplicative about this?

SECRETARY VILSACK: It’s not duplicative; it’s focused. It is using our resources at ARS, which is our internal research service, in partnership. It will allow us to fund additional research. It will allow us to go deeper. Land-grant universities are often pooled based on their own level of expertise. You may be a land-grant university in California that’s got specialty crop understanding, but you also have dairy, you have livestock interests in California. This regional hub in Oregon, working with the Davis California operation, will basically focus on the entire range.

And oftentimes, forestry is not considered unless you have a significant number of national forests or BLM land — but you still have forests in virtually every state and that’s important to maintain. And you’ve got private forests that need to be maintained.

So this is really not duplicative. This is really focusing. It’s very consistent with the President’s instruction, which is we have got to make this country more resilient, we have to make it be able to adapt and mitigate, because if we don’t, our economy is going to be impacted. Those 16 million people that are depending upon agriculture and forestry, they want to make sure that they continue to have a job because we’re continuing to produce and create new products.

Q I was just going to say, California being such a critical farming hub, are there any immediate steps that you can take to help alleviate the problem out there?

SECRETARY VILSACK: Well, we’ve taken steps this week and we’ll continue to take steps. Yesterday, we announced a $20 million resource directed to the most heavily stricken areas — drought-stricken areas. That’s going to provide farmers and ranchers and dairymen the opportunity to do a better job of utilizing scarce water resources. It’s going to allow them to look at their water storage facilities, maybe upgrade them. It’s going to allow them to take a look at possible other forage opportunities. So that has been put in place.

Today, with the Department of Interior, we developed a smart-water program where $14 million of federal resources is being applied.

These hubs — well, obviously, one of them is going to be located in Davis, California, and that obviously will be focused on specialty crop and the impact of drought. We’ll continue — once the farm bill is signed by the President, there is disaster assistance that will allow us now to provide assistance to dairymen and to livestock operators to provide them resources that they didn’t have, that I couldn’t provide. That’s why this bill is so important to have gotten done now.

So those are three or four concrete steps that we have taken. Other agencies are looking at ways in which they can provide help and assistance. And our rural development folks are looking at the impact — when agriculture suffers, it has a rippling impact and effect in small towns that are dependent on agriculture, in part. So we’re taking a look and making sure that our rural development programs, our loan programs are ready, willing and able to provide help and assistance if that’s necessary.

Q Mr. Secretary, are you seeing farms go under now because of the effects of climate change or is this something that’s focused on a future threat? I mean, is this something that the Department believes is happening now?

SECRETARY VILSACK: I can tell you without any hesitancy that because we didn’t have a good assessment and didn’t have good forecasting and didn’t have a disaster assistance program, that some of the livestock producers in the Dakotas, for example, just couldn’t make it. When that snowstorm hit, it didn’t wipe out just a few animals, it wiped out the entire operation. Nobody anticipated and expected that severe a storm that early. That’s one impact.

I can tell you that the folks who live in the Western part of the United States who have been dependent on timber and forestry are deeply concerned about the impact of the pine bark beetle and diseased trees. We have roughly 45 million acres of diseased trees because the pine bark beetle was not killed during harsh winters, as in the past. That’s having an impact. That’s making forest fires significantly more intense, and that’s creating not just the fire hazard but flooding hazards following the fire. So there are ramifications today that impact operators.

Q You’re convinced this is not just severe weather patterns, that this is the effects of climate change?

SECRETARY VILSACK: When you take a look at the intensity of the storms that we have seen recently and the frequency of them, the length of drought, combined with these snowstorms and the subzero weather that we’ve experienced, the combination of all those factors convinces me that the climate is changing. And it’s going to have its impact and will have its impact, and is having its impact on agriculture and forestry.

If we are not proactive, as the President has directed, we will find ourselves 5, 10, 15, 20 years down the road wishing we had done what we’re doing today; wishing we had assessed the risk; wishing we had created and identified the vulnerabilities; and wishing we had created programs and responses to those vulnerabilities to tamp down the impact and effect.

MR. CARNEY: Roger.

Q Mr. Secretary, agribusiness has a big stake in the stability of agriculture. Is there any thought being given to having a partnership formed between the government and agribusiness on floods, droughts, other kinds of research?

SECRETARY VILSACK: Well, I would say two things. First of all, the President instructed internally within the federal government for us to work in a much more collaborative way, and that’s why he instructed us to put the drought resiliency taskforce together, which is allowing us now to respond more aggressively to the California drought situation. That’s internal.

These climate hubs will, as part of their mission, be partnering with the private sector, the non-profit sector and land-grant universities. They will assist us in identifying technologies — could be biotechnology, could be seed technologies, it could be stewardship or conservation practices that are identified through the research. They will assist us in getting the message out to producers that you ought to think about doing X instead of Y. So there will be a tight partnership here.

And there is some accountability on our part. We will review these internally each year, and we’ll have a significant review every five years to make sure that they’re on mission and doing what we are asking them to do.

We’re very serious about this. We’re going to dedicate a lot of people-hours to this and a lot of resources, because it’s important.

Q And because of these programs, these hub programs here — and this maybe requires a crystal ball on your part — but could this change the face of agriculture as we know it?

SECRETARY VILSACK: Well, I think it could. I think it opens up new opportunities. And I think, frankly, what changes the face of agriculture in the immediate term is this new farm bill. When I made reference to the local and regional food systems and the bio-based economy and manufacturing new products, this opens up a whole new vista of economic opportunity that has not existed before. And this farm bill makes a historic investment in both of those things.

And so I’m excited about that. I have been in plants that have taken crop residue and turned it in a bottle that Coca-Cola is using to produce their water products. In Ohio the other day I saw a 3-D printing machine produce a skull that’s used by brain surgeons in brain surgery — it was made from crops.

It’s a whole new day here. And the great thing about this is it can bring manufacturing into the rural communities. We’re seeing a rebirth of manufacturing in the last couple of years, which is great, but a lot of it is focused in urban and suburban areas. Now we have a component opportunity here with the resources of this farm bill and the direction of this farm bill to go out into rural areas and bring manufacturing back. And that’s a huge opportunity for us.

And it’s an opportunity for this reason — and a lot of people don’t realize this — but if you take a look at the people who actually produce most of what we grow, it’s about a million farmers. Of that number, 70 percent require all farm income to keep the farm. In other words, they’re having a harder time just on farming alone. It’s one of the reasons why out where I travel, the Affordable Care Act thing doesn’t get as much grief because people now see this as an opportunity to maybe not have to have themselves and their spouse working an off-farm job because most of the time it’s for health insurance.

Bringing a manufacturing opportunity into a community like that creates a chance for that farmer to substantially expand his market opportunity or her opportunity at higher value-added opportunities; not commodity prices, but ingredient prices. And it creates an opportunity for a son or a daughter or a spouse, if they wish, to work in a manufacturing job that’s a much higher-paying job than what’s being created in a lot of rural communities today.

So this farm bill is extraordinarily important. And unfortunately, the focus has been on crop insurance, which is important, and on SNAP, which is important. But there’s a whole lot in between that folks are missing, and it’s the whole lot of in between that I think creates just enormous opportunity.


MR. CARNEY: Well, thank you for hearing what Secretary Vilsack had to say. We’ll go back to regular order. Nedra.

Q Since we aren’t going to be allowed in the meeting today with the Senate Democrats, can you just tell us what the President’s message is to them and are there things that he is hoping to hear back from them?

MR. CARNEY: Well, Nedra, I think the message the President has for Senate Democrats is very similar to the message he had for House Democrats yesterday. It’s the message that he has been delivering to members of Congress and others around the country about looking for ways that we can work together to expand opportunity and make sure that hard work is rewarded, that folks who take responsibility for themselves and their families are given access to opportunity. That’s the sort of overall thematic approach that the President is taking to the work we can do this year, both with Congress but also with governors and state legislators and mayors, and in partnership with the private sector — you’ve seen examples of this already play out in the last days and weeks. So that’s what he’ll be talking about.

He’ll certainly be talking about, as he did with House Democrats, the ways that they can advance the priorities that they share — he, the President, and Senate Democrats, legislatively because this is Congress. And I think that goes to the point that Secretary Vilsack just spoke about in response to a question. This reinforces that the President’s approach is not an either/or proposition. It’s not either we do everything through Congress or he does everything he can through the use of his executive authority. He believes he’ll do everything he can on both tracks and where Congress is willing to cooperate, as Congress was in the farm bill, in the budget bill, in the omnibus, then we can get some stuff done on behalf of the American people that’s good, that’s bipartisan, that’s effective, and that expands opportunity and rewards hard work.

Where Congress won’t act or where the President has unique powers because of his office to act in ways that Congress couldn’t even if it wanted to, the President will take advantage of that in the authority that he has. And you’ve seen that in the way he gathered commitments from the private sector to address the long-term unemployment problem and the skills summit with college universities that we had here at the White House earlier this year. Those are the kinds of approaches that the President is going to take, and it’s not because Congress won’t act at all, it’s because there are opportunities available to him to advance an agenda that helps the American people.

Q He needs Congress on trade. Is that on the agenda? Does he plan to push on that?

MR. CARNEY: We have been very clear about the fact that getting trade agreements with our Asian partners and European partners are priorities for the President. And it’s a topic that is frequently discussed. Again, I can’t predict what will be discussed in this particular meeting, but we’ve been clear for a long time now about the need for us to — in the example of Asia, this is the fastest-growing region in the world. It’s the region of the world that presents the greatest amount of economic opportunity. It’s a region of the world that if we do not maintain our competitive edge in, we will cede that competitive edge to China. We need to act to make sure that those markets are open to American exports, and that in by opening those markets to American exports we are creating good-paying American jobs here at home. So that’s something we have to do.

Q It just seems surprising that didn’t come up in the meeting with Senator Reid after —

MR. CARNEY: The fallacy of the reporting on that — the idea — I mean, the President speaks with Senator Reid all the time and the White House speaks with Senator Reid all the time. That meeting was about — I mean, I think Senator Reid spoke about the subject matter in that meeting but — that meeting was with Senator Bennet — and these are conversations we have all the time.

As I said last week, anybody who was surprised that Senator Reid held the views that he expressed on trade hasn’t been covering Senator Reid and doesn’t know Senator Reid. So we believe that it’s important to continue to make the case and to work towards ensuring that we can get trade agreements that protect the American workers, protect the environment, and advance the American economy through a growth in exports.


Q On Syria, the Syrians missed another deadline for turning over chemical weapons. Are you worried about this? Is the effort in danger of failing?

MR. CARNEY: I think we’ve made very clear that the Assad regime has a responsibility to live up to the commitments it made. And those governments and nations that were instrumental in bringing about the agreement by the Syrian regime to give up its weapons for destruction need to fulfill their obligations. And I would note that Russia has said it expects the Assad regime to deliver a substantial portion of its chemical weapons stockpile in the relatively near future, and we obviously believe that’s very important.

Russia has a lot at stake here. Russia has staked a lot of credibility in the role that Russia played in helping bring about this agreement. Remember, Syria never acknowledged — in fact, refuted suggestions that it had a chemical weapons stockpile. And, in fact, the world knew that it had one of the largest chemical weapons stockpiles. And now it has acknowledged that that stockpile exists and agreed to dispose of it. And Russia played an important role with the United States in helping bring about that agreement, and all of our partners on this matter are going to continue to insist that the Assad regime fulfill its obligations.


Q A couple of quick follow-ups. First, Steve’s question about the Syria chemical weapons issues. I think the question was, is the White House concerned that that agreement is falling apart?

MR. CARNEY: Absolutely not. We’re not concerned it’s falling apart. We’re concerned — or we are ensuring and making our views known that Syria must abide by its commitments. And that is a view that —

Q And you believe they will?

MR. CARNEY: I believe that they must. I believe that the regime must. We have heard from the Russian government that it is their expectation that the Assad regime will be delivering a substantial portion of its chemical weapons supplies and equipment in the relatively near future. We certainly expect and hope that that’s the case. And I noted that Russia obviously has a great deal at stake here when it comes to Syria fulfilling, the regime fulfilling its responsibilities.

Q And on the issue of trade, you eloquently spoke about the need for the trade promotion authority and these agreements with Asia. How important is it for the White House for this to happen soon? Can you afford to wait until after the midterm elections, as some are suggesting on the Hill?

MR. CARNEY: Look, I don’t have the privilege of scheduling votes. All I know is that the President has —


Q And one last thing on Keystone. Former Secretary of Energy Chu said that this decision on the Keystone pipeline is a matter of politics not a matter of science. Do you agree with that?

MR. CARNEY: Well, I disagree with that. I can tell you that there has been a lot of politics around this. And perhaps that’s what he’s referring to. I think we saw Congress take a very political approach — Republicans in Congress take a very political approach that then precipitated a delay in the consideration of the pipeline.

What is happening and what has been happening is a process that has been conducted according to the rule book, according to established procedure by previous administrations of both parties. We have now reached a point where has been an environmental impact statement issued by the State Department, opening up a timeframe in which the public and other agencies comment on that EIS and are heard from, and those views are incorporated. The State Department continues to own the process. And that’s the way it should be.

In fact, the process is designed to be insulated from politics. That doesn’t prevent people from trying to politicize it, but it does insulate the experts from the politics that have obviously surrounded this issue.

Ed Henry.

Q Thank you, Jay. On Keystone, another — I guess it’s the day for former Secretaries to weigh in. Ken Salazar, the former Interior Secretary, this morning gave a speech in Houston at an energy conference. And he not only said that he thinks that Keystone should be built, but he went on to say that on the issue of fracking, he thinks it’s “safe,” and said, “There’s not a single case where fracking has created an environmental problem for anyone. We need to make sure that story is told.” My question being, do you agree or disagree with that?

MR. CARNEY: On the second part?

Q Fracking.

MR. CARNEY: Well, I haven’t seen those remarks, so it’s hard for me to comment specifically on them. The President believes that natural gas is an important part of our future and that the methods that we use to extract it need to be safe and secure. We believe that they are and can be, but we obviously have to take steps to ensure that’s the case.

So I don’t know — I’m not qualified to judge a statement about what impacts there have been. What I can tell you is what the policy approach that this administration has taken is.

Q On Keystone he specifically said, “Is it better for us to get the oil from our good neighbor from the north or to be bringing it from someplace in the Middle East?” Is that a view that the White House would agree with?

MR. CARNEY: What I can tell you is that under this President, for the first time in 20 years, we are producing more oil in the United States of America than we are importing. That is a fact, and that is a big deal. And it has been true now for several months and will continue to be true because in no small measure of the all-of-the-above approach the President has taken to our energy needs. And that approach includes renewables and concludes the historic standards car rule — standards that the President put in place for mileage that reduced carbon emissions, reduced our dependency on oil in general, and therefore reduced our need to import foreign oil. That’s good for our national security. It’s good for our economy. That’s the approach that the President is going to take.

The assessments about impacts related to that pipeline are being made by experts, and that process is underway. And as I just said, there’s a lot of effort to politicize it, to pull it out of the framework that exists precisely because these decisions need to be isolated from politics. And the President’s intent is to let that process play out the way it has in the past under Republican administrations and Democratic administrations. And we’re midstream. A milestone has been crossed with the release of the EIS, but we’re not — the process isn’t completed yet. And until it is, we’re going to keep it insulated in the way it should be.


Q On Syria quickly, with another deadline passing today without action by the Syrians right now, I want to get a sense of whether any punitive actions are presently in the works.

MR. CARNEY: On the chemical weapons issue?

Q Yes.

MR. CARNEY: I really don’t have anything to add except that we’re watching very closely and working with our international partners, including Russia —

Q I guess, how long do we give them? I mean, how open are we? Where’s the next red line, so to speak?

MR. CARNEY: Again, I think Russia has obviously a huge stake in this and is the primary interlocutor with the Syrian regime, and they announced to the world that they expect the regime to deliver a substantial portion of its stockpile in the relatively near future. We’ll watch to see that that happens.

Q On lighter notes, the Olympics begin for a lot of athletes tomorrow in Sochi. I’m curious if the President has had any conversations with, among others, the flag bearer, Todd Lodwick, or any of the other athletes who begin their competitions tomorrow.

MR. CARNEY: I don’t know of any conversations he’s had with athletes in the run-up to the Olympics, at least certainly not in the recent past. He’s, I think, like everyone who loves to watch the Games, he’s looking forward to them getting underway and is very proud of the athletes that will represent the United States, very proud of the diversity that they represent, because that is such a strength in our country, and looks forward to many of our athletes bringing home gold, silver, and bronze.

Q Has he spoken to Billie Jean King, who is not going to be traveling?

MR. CARNEY: I don’t think he — I’m not sure that he has. I don’t think he has. He has spoken to her in the relatively recent past, I know ,because I saw her here — I don’t know, sometime late last year. Well, I don’t know that she met with him, but I know she has spoken with him. I don’t know that she’s spoken with him about the Olympics or the delegation. We did announce that because of a serious illness in her family she is not able to be part of the delegation for the opening ceremonies but we’re very grateful that Caitlin Cahow, who is going to participate in the closing ceremonies, is going to take her place.


Q And on the Olympics, yesterday the president of the International Olympic Committee made an interesting observation that some politicians rejected an invitation that they don’t have. And reporters who covered the speech assumed he was referring, among others, to President Obama. So my question is, does President Obama have an invitation to attend the Olympics?

MR. CARNEY: I didn’t see those remarks. I can tell you that the President, like so many Americans, looks forward to watching the Games and is very proud of the delegation that is representing the United States at both the opening and closing ceremonies. Thanks all very much.

END 2:20 P.M. EST

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