Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Farm Animals, Methane Gas and Global Warming

Those of us who follow the climate change agenda recall the news stories a year or two ago touting cow flatulence as the largest producer of methane gas—a greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming. Perhaps you saw the political cartoon that showed an uncomfortable looking cow with what looked like a catalytic converter protruding from its backside. It became a comedic point since we all know that flatulence is a naturally occurring gas.

However, this only gave the "Glo-Bull Whining" crowd fuel for their fire as the vocal climate change alarmists have other beefs with the fat and happy Americans. This source of methane gas could be minimized if we’d quit eating beef or drinking milk, eating cheese—or any dairy product including ice cream. Forsooth!

Today on the news, there was a piece about the Endangered Species Act and the changes made to it in the last days of the Bush White House. The news clip featured a comment from the Pacific Research Institute. That rang a bell as we at CARE regularly receive their updates. We dug through the “in-box” looking for something from them. There we found an unopened piece from them introducing a new approach to the farm animal methane gas dilemma. We had not heard much about the “cow-tax” lately and found this piece to be thought provoking—if not down right entertaining. Worthy of posting.

We e-mailed them to ask for something current on the ESA. Maybe tomorrow. Read on!

Will the EPA Have a Cow?
In response to an April, 2007, Supreme Court ruling that greenhouse gases are air pollutants under the Clean Air Act, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently ended the public comment period on “proposed rulemaking” for regulating greenhouse gases. Buried within the proposal is a controversial measure for regulating methane from agricultural and livestock operations. While EPA bosses claim they do not intend to implement a “cow tax,” dairy and livestock producers are understandably nervous.

Methane is a greenhouse gas, and thus could be among the emissions regulated by the EPA. While the largest sources of methane emissions in the United States are landfills and natural gas systems, the EPA estimates that 21 percent of methane emissions are from “livestock enteric fermentation.” This somewhat euphemistic phrase refers to the natural digestive process of ruminant animals like cows, sheep, and goats, which produces methane as a by-product exhaled by the animal. Production of other types of livestock – pigs, for example – also generates methane through the breakdown of manure products.

Never mind that ruminant animals and their burps are naturally occurring. The proposed regulation could impose a fee on farms with livestock operations that emit more than 100 tons of carbon equivalent per year. This would mean that dairy operations with more than 25 cows, according to the proposal’s calculations, would be subject to regulation. In California the average dairy herd is 850 cows, and only 16 percent of dairies have fewer than 50 cows. At a potential annual fee of $175 per cow, the average California dairy would pay nearly $150,000 per year in greenhouse gas fees. Undoubtedly, this cost would be borne by people who consume dairy products. The story is similar for the proposed fees on cattle and hogs.

Burping cows and other ruminants, however, may not be as critical as originally thought. According to a joint program between the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the link between ruminants and atmospheric methane seems to have broken down. Since 1999, atmospheric levels of methane have leveled off, with emissions being equivalent to removals. Yet from 1999 onward, global ruminant populations have been increasing at a rate of almost 17 million head per year, faster than the increase prior to 1999 of about nine million head per year. It may be that improvements in animal husbandry and ruminant diet in developing countries have decrease per-head methane production, or there may be other factors.

Like all agricultural activity, livestock production has environmental impacts. On the other hand, livestock production offers a number of benefits, including a source of renewable fertilizer, and high-quality dietary protein in milk or beef, not to mention the livelihood of 13 million people worldwide. A cow tax would adversely affect those people, and could also wind up a slippery slope. Water vapor accounts for 60-70 percent of the greenhouse effect at any given time. Is it a far stretch to wonder if creatures that exhale water vapor might be next on the fee schedule? Those creatures would include dogs, cats, and human beings.

The idea of regulating cows comes as politicians seek a surge in EPA clout. California Senator Barbara Boxer is pushing to elevate the EPA to presidential cabinet level. Former EPA administrator Christine Todd Whitman is on record that such a move “would deliver a strong message as to the importance of the agency.”

Scientific research, meanwhile, is identifying a number of strategies through which the environmental footprint of livestock production can be decreased while maintaining productivity. Strapping the industry with fees would certainly not promote any of that. Happy cows may come from California, but if a revamped EPA deploys greenhouse gas emission fees, it will create unhappiness for producers and consumers alike, with negligible benefits for the environment.

Pacific Research Institute Environmental Studies Fellow Amy Kaleita is an assistant professor of agricultural and biosystems engineering at Iowa State University. Dr. Kaleita is involved in scientific research on impacts of agriculture on the environment, as well as on environmental monitoring and modeling.

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