Cheeseheads Should Cheer the Stupidity of California’s Proposed Methane Regulations

By Isaac Orr

The California Air Resources Board (CARB) is considering implementing strict new regulations that would require farmers to capture methane emissions produced by their cattle, which CARB claims might one day mean “a gallon of California milk might be the least greenhouse gas intensive in the world.” As someone who was born and raised on a dairy farm in Wisconsin and resents the fact California produces more milk than “America’s Dairyland,” part of me hopes they’re stupid enough to go through with them.

CARB’s proposed regulations would attempt to cut methane emissions from dairy operations in half by 2015 and provide a 75 percent reduction in dairy manure emissions by 2030. Regulators have suggested building dairy digesters to capture and convert methane into electricity, changing the diets of their cattle by adding methane-reducing additives and attempting to breed cattle that emit fewer methane emissions into the air.

Despite all CARB’s promises, these “solutions” are problematic and will deliver zero measurable environmental benefits.

Dairy digesters are incredibly expensive, ranging from $5 million to $6 million to build, and studies of centralized digester systems in New York, Oregon, and Wisconsin have shown these facilities are uneconomical. California regulators have acknowledged this fact, stating the digesters will not be economical without substantial subsidies. Subsidizing digesters will hit consumers with a double-whammy, because they will pay higher taxes (to provide the subsidies) for the privilege of also paying higher prices for a gallon of milk at the store.

Changing the diets of cows to reduce methane emissions has produced mixed results. Adding nitrates to cattle feed has reduced methane emissions by as much as 70 percent in lab studies, but it also caused one cow to die and six others to get sick. A note for the city folks: Farmers don’t make any money burying their cows. Other additives may end up being less harmful to cattle, but many of these are prohibitively expensive or not very effective.

Selectively breeding cattle to produce fewer methane emissions may seem like a workable solution to government regulators, but unless these cows maintain milk production, weight gain, and other economic considerations, this is a non-solution, because farmers in other states will not sacrifice the productive qualities of their cattle just to keep up with California’s hypothetical methane emissions reduction.

In addition to driving up the cost of doing business in California, these regulations will provide no measureable environmental benefits. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, manure management and enteric fermentation—burps and farts from animals like cattle and sheep—collectively account for 30 percent of man-made methane emissions in the United States. California is home to only 5.73 percent of the nation’s cattle herd and thus only about 6 percent of agriculture-based methane emissions, so some back-of-the envelope figuring suggests California’s cows account for just 0.015 percent of the total man-made methane emissions in the United States.

By contrast, EPA estimates emissions from the oil and gas industry account for 33 percent of man-made methane emissions, but new rules designed to reduce methane emissions from the oil and gas sector by 40–45 percent below 2012 levels by 2025 will only reduce global temperature by 0.004 degrees Celsius by 2100, meaning these regulations will have zero discernable impact on the climate.

If reducing methane emissions from oil and gas systems by nearly half will have no meaningful impact on reducing global temperature, believing CARB’s proposed regulations on California dairy operations will produce any benefits for the world’s climate is udderly insane.

These proposed regulations are bad news for California consumers, farmers, cows, and they will have zero impact on the climate, but hey, if they’re implemented, maybe Wisconsin residents will be spared from the insufferable “Happy Cows Come from California” ad campaign, giving this very dark cloud a silver lining for us Wisconsinites.

Isaac Orr ([email protected]) is a research fellow for energy and environmental policy at The Heartland Institute. Follow him on Twitter @thefrackingguy.