Get on Board: Cows on the Road

Martha Walden

A herd of cows.

California wields an elaborate system of sticks and carrots to move all businesses within its borders towards a carbon-neutral future. Its tactics sometimes seem frustratingly slow because it is fearful of its industries migrating to less regulated states. 

The Low Carbon Fuel Standard (LCFS) program is a good example. It aims to reduce the carbon intensity of transportation fuels. Producers of renewable fuels are rewarded for their lower emissions with credits that fossil fuel producers are required to buy in order to pay for their higher emissions. This holds true even for Renewable Natural Gas (RNG) and other biofuels that do not directly substitute for transportation fuels. 

RNG is methane. Much methane comes from Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs). CAFOs produce meat, eggs, milk, and manure. That last product is stored in huge lagoons that emit hundreds of thousands of tons of methane (plus nitrous oxide and ammonia, among other pollutants) every year, and that’s just in California. Lagoons can be covered to deal with this problem, and anaerobic digesters capture most of the methane. The high Global Warming Potential (GWP) of these prevented emissions are deducted from the GWP of the resulting natural gas. Chemically identical to fossil natural gas, it uses the same distribution infrastructure.

Small dairies are increasingly installing digesters. In exchange for installing this expensive equipment, subsidies from LCFS and other grant programs create multiple streams of revenue for the same basic diversion of methane. Needless to say, the extra revenue helps them compete against giant dairy CAFOs. 

A handful of Humboldt dairies—Western Organic Family—want to sign up. The seven member dairies plan to increase their herd size, pool their manure, and transport it to the digester. Will animals still be allowed to graze during half of the year on pastures where their manure is inaccessible to the digester? Not likely. Their manure management will change to the lagoon method, further increasing methane emissions. 

Climate activists have three major reservations about the cow-to-RNG strategy. Does adding RNG to the fuel mix to lower its overall carbon intensity actually decrease the total amount of transportation emissions? So far it’s not evident. Fossil fuels must be curtailed to decrease the total amount of emissions. 

Does California efficiently use its resources when it creates multiple, overlapping incentives for methane diversion? When the LCFS and other programs take credit for reducing the same methane, it’s impossible to know how much total methane is actually reduced and how much it costs.

The last question is if it’s wise to treat methane as a sought-out fuel instead of a problematic consequence of different activities. When livestock industries cash in by increasing their production of methane, other impacts to the environment increase as well. These include high water usage, air and water pollution, pathogens, inhumane treatment, flies and vermin infestations. People who live in the highly polluted vicinity of CAFOs are economically disadvantaged and pay a high price for our dairy and beef. 

We need fewer cows on earth, not more. They should spend their lives ambling around on grass. Consequently, beef and dairy would be less plentiful and more expensive. Many people understandably wouldn’t welcome that new reality, but it would be one of the most effective changes we could make to protect civilization from the increasingly dire climate emergency.