Dairy farmers in California say anti-flatulence law stinks

 

Jane Wells@janewells CNBC

Happy cows may come from California, but their farts could be overheating the atmosphere.

A new state law aims to reduce methane from cows, but the cattle industry thinks the regulation stinks.

"I don't have a whole lot of hope that common sense will prevail," said Rob Vandenheuvel, general manager of the Milk Producers Council, a industry group in California. The Golden State has the most dairy cows in the nation with a herd of 1.7 million animals churning out milk. There are also nearly 4 million beef cattle. 

Vandenheuvel may not have much to worry about. The law leaves a lot of wiggle room, and it will take so long to kick in that there's a chance it could end up as little more than a burp in the road. "Any regulation is a ways off," said Dave Clegern, spokesman for the California Air Resources Board.

Gov. Jerry Brown signed the law last month to reduce "short-lived climate pollutants." Part of the law mandates cutting methane from livestock 40 percent by 2030 from 2013 levels. Methane doesn't "live" long in the atmosphere, but it is considered a powerful greenhouse gas.

"Agriculture represents the largest methane source in California, accounting for nearly 60 percent of methane emissions," said a draft report on the legislation. 

Cows are the main culprit of livestock methane — through flatulence, belching and manure. An estimated 19 percent of methane wafting through California's air comes from so-called dairy cattle "enteric," that is, gas coming out of one end or the other of the animal. Another 25 percent comes from dairy manure, and 10 percent comes from nondairy livestock. 

It's not even clear how to measure methane emissions from cattle operations, or what 2013 levels were, but Vandenheuvel suspects regulators will come up with a baseline by multiplying the number of cattle known to be in California that year by the amount of methane an average cow generates. 

How are farmers and ranchers supposed to cut down on methane emissions, short of cutting down the size of their herds? The air resources board will spend the next couple of years investigating whether it can be done by changing animal diets, something the industry worries could hurt the animals. A long-shot idea is anexperimental contraption out of Argentina called a Fart Pack, which collects gas directly from a cow's digestive tract. 

But the main focus is manure. While the state's draft report credits the dairy industry with a feed system that is already "among the best in the world" in producing low gas emissions, manure management appears ripe for innovation. Regulators are interested in the potential use of digesters, expensive machines that capture methane off of manure and convert it into power. 

Under the law, California will spend $50 million from its current cap-and-trade program for carbon to set up pilot projects, like digesters. Gas companies will be ordered to set up five dairy biothermal projects to take the manure methane, and they can reportedly recover the cost of those projects from ratepayers. Encouraging more pasture-fed cattle would also cut methane emissions from manure, but that is impractical for many dairies, particularly as California enters another year of drought. 

Vandenheuvel said some diary operations have already been looking into whether it's cost effective to bring in a digester, though after you take the methane out of the manure, it's less valuable as a fertilizer. He estimates it would cost $500 million to supply enough digesters for the industry, something the dairies can't afford, and Vandenheuvel doubts California taxpayers would want to help subsidize such an effort. "Most people don't even realize where their milk comes from."

Some sort of decision on how to implement the law must be made by 2018, after a series of hearings. There could even be a cap-and-trade program for methane similar to the one it has for carbon emissions.

Yet even after a decision is made in 2018, the new rules won't go into effect until 2024. But maybe not. If the state determines by 2020 that cutting methane emissions by 40 percent isn't economically or technologically feasible, or there isn't sufficient infrastructure to turn the captured methane into energy, or there isn't a market for that energy, the 40 percent goal can be reduced. 

What's more, no solution can be imposed on dairy farmers if it impacts public perception of milk, such as injecting cattle with something to reduce flatulence. "If it hurts consumer acceptance, you cannot do it," said Vandenheuvel. 

Still, he predicts even with the long lead line and challenging hurdles, change is coming. "They have wanted to go after methane," he said of regulators. "I think it absolutely will result in some sort of regulatory rule." 

Clegern, of the state air board, said regulators are "in the public process right now for a draft strategy," which will be presented to the agency in a few months as a guidance document. That will be followed by public comments, workshops "and a final version of the strategy should go to the board sometime next year," he said. 

Vandenheuvel recently told a a local talk radio show that if California wants to regulate methane from its 5.5 million cows, what about its 40 million humans? Could they face restrictions next? He admits that was a joke, but he wouldn't be surprised to eventually see a milk or meat tax — similar to a soda tax — to pay for the environmental damage caused by methane. 

California has long led other states — even other countries — in pioneering green energy, but some California dairymen are again threatening to shut down or move out of state because of ever restrictive regulations. "The animals may not be here, but they will be somewhere else," said Vandenheuvel. "All we will have is lost jobs."