Could new methane emissions regulations tend a greener California, or sour the state’s dairy industry?
Away from its sparkling coastal cities and picturesque natural wonders, California hides its massive, steaming pools of literal liquefied shit.
You can find them all across the Golden State, with particular density in the fertile Central Valley. They are the most visible—and the worst smelling—impact of the largest dairy industry in America. And they’re a problem.
Those hot, churning fecal lagoons are but one byproduct of California’s massive dairy industry, by far the biggest in the U.S. And they in turn create another, in the form of large quantities of methane gas produced as bacteria breakdown the poop—gas that is nearly 25 times more destructive to the climate than carbon dioxide (CO2).
California’s industry and the state’s drive to reduce its environmental impact have long been at tenuous odds. The state is at once a paragon of environmental responsibility, and home to some of the worst air and water pollution in the country; a leader in both regulating business, and incubating innovations that have helped it become the sixth-largest economy in the world.
That confusion was laid bare in a pair of new laws passed this fall. In September, Governor Jerry Brown signed an ambitious bill aimed at slashing greenhouse gas emissions, including methane, to 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030. Those lofty goals would require new regulations of the state’s dairy farms—were it not for the bill Brown signed several days later, setting aside $50 million from the state’s cap and trade funds to help retrofit gassy dairies and giving the Air Resources Board discretion over how much those dairies would ultimately have to cut emissions.
On its face, the law appears to be an environmental victory—but not all advocates are so optimistic.
“History has shown that the [Air Resources Board] does not want to regulate dairies,” says Brent Newell, legal director for the Center on Race, Poverty and the Environment. “Even though it’s had the authority for 10 years, it has not imposed any mandatory regulations, and the dairy industry has used its political power to prevent that.”
The Western United Dairymen and Milk Producers Council together spent more than $97,000 lobbying state legislators in the first half of 2016, and another $83,500 in campaign contributions this election cycle, according to state records.
The new law “provides a lot of special treatment for dairies that other industries don’t get,” says Newell. “It entrenches the industrial form of dairy production which is the cause of all this methane and air pollution and water pollution in the first place.”
There is, at least with current technology, a hard limit on how much methane can really be cut from our current system of animal agriculture. Cows are naturally gassy creatures, producing significant amounts of methane in their basic digestion process. In their fight against SB 1383, the Western United Dairymen and Milk Producers Council produced ads suggesting that environmentalists would go so far as to prevent natural cattle off-gassing, creating unnaturally exploding cows.
“You feed a cow and she makes milk and the rest comes out the back end,” says U.C. Davis livestock waste management specialist Deanne Meyer. “You can’t mess with biology.”
Nonetheless, that’s exactly what some scientists are trying to do.
In 2014, Argentinean government researchers unveiled backpacks that collect cows’ digestive gases before they’re released into the atmosphere, through a tube inserted into their gut. About a quarter of that gas is methane, which can then be separated and used for fuel.
But the backpacks are currently just a proof of concept, and they’ve been largely dismissed stateside, as have other attempts to hack cow digestion, including the recent development in Denmark of a super grass that is easier for cows to digest. Enteric methane emissions are taken for granted, at least for now. Which puts us back into the shit.
Most California dairy farms are big operations, with hundreds if not thousands of head of cattle that spend much of their lives in close quarters. To clean them quickly and easily, those quarters are flushed with water, concentrating the cows’ waste into manure ponds that in turn offgas more than half of dairy methane.
Is There a Methane Digester Strategy?
Over the past 30 years, some dairies have sought to cut their emissions voluntarily, treating poo pools more as a usable byproduct than a toxic environmental impact. At scale, decomposing cow manure can be broken down in anaerobic digesters.
“Methane is a big enough issue in California and throughout the world that we need to deal with, and SB 1383 is kind of the direction we’ve been going in all along,” says Albert Straus, who began operating a digester on his Marin County farm, Straus Family Creamery, in 2004.
Today, his facility captures enough methane processed into electricity to run the farm, while the leftover power gets sent back to the grid. But for all the latent potential these digesters have to offset the climate impact of California’s dairies, fewer than 1 percent of the state’s facilities are currently using them, due to a combination of high initial costs, difficult ongoing maintenance, and limited ability to use or store the energy they create.
“They’re not economical to operate without massive public subsidies,” says Newell.
Between build-out, equipment, and connecting to the existing electric grid, the cost of a digester is generally accepted to be at least a half million dollars, with some estimates closer to $2 million. But Straus doesn’t think it needs to be that way. “Most of those systems take so long to pay off that it’s not realistic,” he says. But his digester cost less than $350,000, with about $150,000 of that covered through government aid, “by simplifying it and making it not built like a Mercedes Benz.”
“At the end of the day you have to be concerned about the cost,” says Straus. “If you don’t survive as a business, there won’t be digesters operating anyway.”
A “digester-first” approach to manure management presumes that manure lagoons are an inevitable cost of the dairy business—and that the other pollutants created in the digestion process are worth it. But environmental advocates disagree. Instead of being flushed into lagoons, manure can also be scraped, gathered, and composted, or cows can be let out to pasture with the manure allowed to decompose in small amounts across the land, which naturally results in less methane—both strategies that would incur other costs in tools, labor, and additional land. But at least some of the funding earmarked for dairy retrofitting in SB 1383 could be spent on these other methods.
“We would like to see at least 50 percent of those funds go to a diversity of dairy management strategies beyond digesters,” says Merrill.
“We have to make sure that this money will be spent in a way that won’t cause more harm,” says Newell. “The silver lining is we made sure that pasture was a recognized manure methane reduction strategy. The other victory we got was a limit on how that $50 million would be spent so it would not lead to an increase in air pollution.”
If every scrap of decomposing dairy dung were absorbed by pasture, composted, or digested, the industry as a whole might have an outside, theoretical shot at cutting its methane emissions by 40 percent. But these efforts likely come at great capital, labor, and time costs when the industry is already struggling, so it’s unclear from where the will to change might come.
“California dairymen are incredibly innovative and resilient and the people who are here today have made huge modifications to their operations to be more efficient and more mindful about how they use their resources,” says U.C. Davis’ Deanne Meyer. “If you look at our carbon footprint per gallon of milk produced, it’s not going to get much more efficient than what we have going on in California.”
But regardless of any green goals, lofty or otherwise, California’s dairy farms and their manure lagoons aren’t in imminent danger of sweeping change. The new law provides for an eight-year research period, with the Air Resources Board expected to issue recommendations for emission cuts in 2024.
Dairy Demand May Be Biggest Challenge
To some degree, California’s dairy majority allows the state to lead U.S. agriculture by example: either toward a more sustainable future, or more of the status quo. But it is hardly a closed economy. Golden State dairy farmers are already grappling with the basic harsh realities of agriculture business, in the form of state-wide drought and a global dip in milk prices. The state has lost hundreds of dairy farms in recent years, both to other states with more water and fewer regulations, and full-scale closure, even as consumers are demanding more dairy than ever.
In their 2011 Meat-Eater’s Guide to Climate Change and Health, the Environmental Working Group ranked cheese third highest for emissions on a list of 20 foods, just below beef and lamb, but higher than pork, chicken, turkey, farmed salmon, and eggs. And a new U.N. report on climate change and food security urges the adoption of more plant-based alternatives.
Yet despite mounting evidence of its environmental impact, dairy production still outpaces that rising demand, as farmers try to milk more profits from falling prices. The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently announced it would be buying millions of pounds of cheese in an attempt to offset a growing glut, but it’ll be a small bite. Some farmers are simply dumping their surplus milk—more than 43 million gallons of it.
As methane emissions continue to rise precipitously—in no small part due to expanding animal agriculture operations worldwide—the potential impact of California’s new rules is still as murky as an industrial farm’s manure lagoon. If any state is to successfully retrofit otherwise harmful animal agriculture practices, it will have to strike an effective balance between industry and the rest of society—a balance that environmental advocates say is entirely achievable.
“There’s room for eating ice cream and cheese and butter we just need to produce it in a climate-responsible way,” says Brent Newell. “We can’t have forms of food production that have massive climate impacts.”
“The system we’ve had does not work, so how do we create a system that’s more sustainable? Methane digestion is a piece of it, organic farming is a piece, carbon farming is a piece, being a good member of the community,” says Albert Straus. “Sustainability is all those components. But at the end of the day, you still have to be a profitable business.”
And at the end of the day, California’s eyes may be bigger than its plate.
“How do you keep the price of the product reasonable and resource use accountable?” asks Meyer. After all: “We’re just California.”
ABOUT THE WRITER
Susie Cagle is a journalist and illustrator in Oakland, California. She has written and drawn for The New York Times, The Guardian, ProPublica, and others.