Dairy cows are shown in the pasture. | Photo credit: PublicDomainFiles.com
Cattle aren't the problem. Bad herd management is.

In summary

The dairy industry is responsible for 75 percent of agriculture’s methane emissions, but it has focused on unproven bio-digester technology. California should look at less costly alternatives.

Michael Boccadoro

Michael Boccadoro is executive director of the Agricultural Energy Consumers Association, mboccadoro@westcoastadvisors.com. He wrote this commentary for CALmatters.

The California Air Resources Board recently announced that the state achieved its 2020 goal for reducing greenhouse gases four years early. The next hurdle, reducing greenhouse gases to 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030, will be far more difficult.

The Legislature has recognized the urgency of reducing methane and other short-lived climate pollutants from fossil fuel, which can be tens to thousands of times more damaging to the climate than carbon dioxide.

The state’s climate plan depends on methane and other short-lived climate pollutants reductions to provide more than one-third of all climate reductions needed to meet the state’s 2030 climate goals.

Sen. Ben Hueso, a San Diego Democrat, is carrying Senate Bill 1440 to help the state achieve these necessary reductions by supporting the development and use of in-state biomethane and biogas.

The state’s strategy for combating short-lived climate pollutants calls for removing barriers to pipeline injection of biogas made from organic waste and for additional policies to accelerate in-state biogas production and use.

Senate Bill 1440 furthers these plans by directing the California Public Utilities Commission to create a modest biomethane procurement program. The plan calls for long-term contracts to provide market certainty and spur development of biogas projects at landfills, dairies, wastewater treatment plants and other facilities where methane can be captured and used as renewable natural gas.

The progress being made in the dairy industry represents a tremendous success story. It hasn’t happened by accident.

In 2016, Sen. Ricardo Lara, a Democrat from Bell Gardens, carried legislation that established an incentive-based approach to dairy methane reduction. Gov. Jerry Brown and the Legislature invested $260 million into the effort. That investment is paying huge dividends for the state:

  • California’s Dairy Digester Research and Development Program is one of the top three most cost-effective climate investments in the state’s portfolio, providing one ton of greenhouse gas reduction for every $8 invested.
  • The digester program is expected to reduce greenhouse gas by tens of millions of metric tons over the next decade.
  • California will have gone from about a dozen methane digesters a few years ago to as many as 120 by 2024.

These projects create carbon-negative fuel that replaces diesel in heavy-duty trucks and reduces pollutants in disadvantaged communities.

California needs to deploy a mix of strategies that spur innovation in order to achieve its ambitious climate and air quality goals. Senate Bill 1440 would help by facilitating one key strategy in managing our waste.By Phoebe Seaton and Rebecca Spector

Phoebe Seaton is co-founder and co-director of the Fresno-based Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability, pseaton@leadershipcounsel.org. Rebecca Spector is West Coast director at the Center for Food Safety, rspector@centerforfoodsafety.org. They wrote this commentary for CALmatters.

California policymakers have a choice: We can reinforce our dependence on natural gas and harm already-burdened communities by subsidizing large-scale agriculture, or pause to question whether consumers, ratepayers, and neighborhoods deserve better.

The dairy industry is responsible for 75 percent of agriculture’s methane emissions. Half of that comes from dairies designed to mix the manure of 1.7 million cows with water and use the atmosphere and aquifer as waste pits. The other half comes from the same dairies; cows are quite gassy.

Rather than clean up its act, the industry has fixated on technology to capture and process methane in the hopes of turning it from a climate liability into marketable biomethane gas by using so-called “dairy digesters.”

State policymakers have fueled the rapid growth of the dairy digester industry with millions of dollars in state grants and ratepayer subsidies, and a commitment of millions—if not billions—more. But do the Californians footing the bill for this know how little they are getting, or the damage this scheme could cause?

Vendors of such technology sell a promise to cut emissions by half, produce fuel that burns cleaner than diesel, and reduce air and water contamination from manure.

California Bioenergy and one other vendor, Maas Energy Works, have received nearly all of the roughly $120 million in state grants for dairy digesters awarded since 2015. The companies could split the more than $65 million in 2019 state climate investments destined for digesters.

Digester companies may be confident they can fulfill their promise to make money for everyone from dairy producers to carbon credit traders. But it’s doubtful that they can meet the greater need to reduce methane in the most cost-effective manner possible or address environmental degradation.

Policymakers should heed Henry Drummond’s advice from Inherit the Wind: ”Look behind the paint! And if it’s a lie—show it up for what it really is!”

The industry envisions a financing scheme supported with public funds including state grants, carbon credits, and rate-payer subsidies like those embodied in Senate Bill 1440, which until late-breaking amendments required that utilities purchase biomethane, a step that could have increased ratepayer costs by $500 million annually, a legislative staff report says.

The cost issue aside, such a mandate is premature. The California Public Utilities Commission is starting a pilot program to assess the efficacy of injecting biomethane into common carrier natural gas pipelines.

Dairy digester proponents boast that biogas will replace diesel used to power trucks and tractors, thereby improving air quality.

But that doesn’t square with either a procurement mandate or the new Aliso Canyon settlement, which proposes a $26.5 million investment in dairy-generated biomethane, both of which are aimed at supplying gas for heat in homes and businesses, not necessarily to power trucks.

There’s another consequence of dairy digesters. They will lead to increased herd sizes and greater concentration of cows near digesters, leading to greater environmental impacts in already overburdened communities.

We have seen a Fresno County dairy pair its digester permit application with an application for increased herd size. More cows mean more gas, manure, silage, air pollutants, and nitrates leaching into groundwater in some of the most environmentally stressed communities of our state.

In Inherit the Wind, Drummond recalls the rocking horse he coveted as a boy, and how his family sacrificed a month’s earnings to buy him “Golden Dancer.” No sooner did the exuberant boy jump on the rocking horse than its rotten wood, masked by gold and glitter, split in two.

California’s leading policy-makers have articulated their commitment to climate change mitigation, environmental justice, and clean energy. Now, they can take important steps to honor that commitment by amending the Aliso Canyon settlement deal and taking a much harder look at dairy digesters before investing another cent.

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