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Dairy farms benefit from methane from manure: NPR


Dairy farms that capture methane from their cow manure can earn valuable pollution reduction credits through California’s low-carbon fuel standard.

Rich Pedroncelli/AP


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Rich Pedroncelli/AP

Dairy farms benefit from methane from manure: NPR

Dairy farms that capture methane from their cow manure can earn valuable pollution reduction credits through California’s low-carbon fuel standard.

Rich Pedroncelli/AP

California is trying to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from cars and trucks in the state, and in a controversial twist, its efforts are putting money in the pockets of dairy farms across the country. It’s the result of a strange but lucrative business: reducing pollution on farms to meet California’s road emission limits.

Among those who could reap a windfall is High Plains Ponderosa Dairy in southwestern Kansas. The dairy’s thousands of cows spend their days and nights in long barns. “They have fans and cooling in the summer, and they’re warmer in the winter, but because of that, when your cows poop, it goes on the concrete, and we can scoop it all up,” says manager Greg Bethard. general of the dairy.

Currently, this manure goes into large storage ponds called lagoons where bacteria feed on it and release a gas called methane. Methane is the main ingredient in natural gas, burned in domestic boilers and stoves. It is also a powerful greenhouse gas. It doesn’t persist in the atmosphere as long as carbon dioxide, but while it does, it traps 80 times more heat, contributing to climate change.

Later this year, however, manure from the dairy will instead flow into large tanks, called anaerobic digesters, which will capture most of the methane.

The captured methane will go into a gas pipeline located a few kilometers from the farm. This gas pipeline is connected to gas pipelines in California, which is essential for it to be able to participate in the Californian emissions trading system.

The California Low Carbon Fuel Standard sets increasingly stringent limits on greenhouse gas emissions from transportation fuels used by California cars and trucks. Oil and gas companies, which sell gasoline and diesel fuel, must meet these emission caps. They can satisfy the law by selling less gasoline, but there is also another option; they can pay for greenhouse gas emission reductions elsewhere.

That’s where Ponderosa High Plains Dairy’s methane capture equipment comes in. The dairy builds it thanks to a partnership with the oil company Shell. When they capture methane from manure, they receive pollution reduction credits — partly to reduce their methane emissions and partly to provide cleaner fuel for use in California’s transportation fleet.

California oil and gas companies can buy these credits to cancel their own emissions. The dairy will also earn clean fuel credits through a separate federal program called the Renewable Fuels Standard.

For High Plains Dairy and Shell, these emission credits could be worth tens of millions of dollars per year, although the value of these credits goes up and down with demand. “If you take today’s value [of the credits] and extrapolating, yes, there are profits to be made,” says Bethard. “But I still think that in the long term, our core business will still be milk.

Because its manure ponds release a lot of methane, the Bethard dairy is perfectly equipped to take advantage of this opportunity. There is more pollution to eliminate, which means more profits to be made. Dairy or beef cattle operations that keep cows outside, allowing their manure to dry, or those that allow cows to graze on pasture, do not generate as much methane from manure.

Aaron Smith, an economist at the University of California at Davis, decided to examine the impact of emissions credits on these dairy farms. “I had heard people say this was a big deal, and I kind of held off on the review for a while, because I was like, ‘How big could this really be? “”, he said.

When he calculated the potential revenue from emissions credits, “I was amazed,” he says.

The value of these pollution reduction credits could represent a 50% increase in revenue compared to simply selling cow’s milk. Smith published the result in the form of a blog post titled “Which is more valuable: a cow’s milk or its poo?” It quickly became the second most-read article on his website, second only to a fast-food chicken sandwich taste test Smith and his daughter performed.

Smith says generous subsidies for dairy-derived methane could lead to a paradoxical and unwelcome outcome. This could persuade dairies to expand, add more cows and produce more manure. This is particularly concerning because cows also release methane by burping it when digesting grass, and these emissions cannot be captured.

That’s not what California’s emissions trading system intended. “If you have a program that creates incentives to generate Following pollution, you won’t get the benefits you want,” Smith says.

Smith says he’s not sure the credits are actually persuading dairies to expand. But given the potential revenue, he says, it could definitely happen.

A coalition of environmental justice groups are now mobilizing to stop it. Brent Newell, an attorney for one such group – Public Justice – has written a petition to the California Air Resources Board (CARB) demanding that it stop giving credits to dairy, beef or hog farms for methane capture . “The solution is not to commodify it, so that cows and pigs poop!” he says.

Newell says these credits primarily benefit the largest farms, which are the biggest polluters, “and harm the health and well-being of the communities who experience all the associated air and water pollution. to the factory farming system.

According to dairy industry consultant Michael McCully, farms need at least 3,000 cows to produce enough manure to justify building an anaerobic digester. In a 2021 article published in Hoard’s Dairyman, McCulley wrote that emissions trading programs could make it harder for small dairy farms to survive as they struggle to take advantage of this new source of revenue.

Last week, California environmental regulators denied Newell’s petition. Richard Corey, executive director of CARB, wrote that the current emissions trading system is working as intended, encouraging farmers to capture methane emissions. In fact, data from another climate-related program in California shows that the money invested in manure digesters had the greatest impact on greenhouse gas emissions, at the lowest cost. However, Corey also said CARB will take a fresh look at those criticisms and decide if the program needs to be changed.

Oregon and Washington, meanwhile, are set to launch their own emissions trading schemes, which could further boost demand for manure-derived methane.


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