Bovine Emission Source Category? Or… What to do About Farting Cows

Posted on March 7, 2016 by Donald Stever

A recent BBC report about the enormous Aliso Canyon Gas Storage Facility gas well leak in California caught my eye. It compared the huge volume of methane emitted from this leak to other greenhouse gas sources, including tons of methane emitted by a large number of cows. Cows? A 2006 United Nations’ Food and Agricultural Organization report claims that the livestock sector, most of which is comprised of cattle, “generates more greenhouse gas emissions as measured in CO2 equivalent – 18 percent – than transport.” According to a Danish study, the average cow produces enough methane per year to do the same greenhouse damage as four tons of carbon dioxide. EPA’s Inventory of U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks contains a statement that, on a global basis the Agriculture sector is the primary source of methane emissions.

This got me thinking about industries and lifestyles as yet largely untouched by the need to address global climate change. Agriculture, including ranching, may be a mainstay of the US economy but we can no longer ignore its impacts on the planet. It is not environmental elitism to require farting cows – a fertile source of humor - be given serious attention in the climate change debate.

Throughout the history of environmental regulatory legislation and enforcement in the United States, conventional agriculture has, by and large, been given a pass. For example, section 404 F of the Clean Water Act exempts from the requirement to obtain a permit the discharge of dredged or fill material into waters of the United States discharges from “normal farming … ranching activities”, from “construction or maintenance of farm or stock pond or irrigation ditches”, and, with some limitations, from construction of “farm roads”. In large commercial agricultural operations “normal” farming activities are of a large industrial scale. Non-point source runoff of pesticide and fertilizer residues from huge farming operations is largely ignored and where farming activities are regulated, such as storm water discharges from concentrated animal feeding operations, regulation is largely by general permits instead of individual permits. Spreading of manure on open fields is, by and large, unregulated. It took EPA nearly forty years to impose regulatory requirements to protect farm workers from exposure to herbicides and other pesticides used in large agricultural operations. Do we see a pattern here? Quite clearly the large commercial agricultural sector has enjoyed a not inconsiderable status of environmental regulatory laissez faire for a very long time.

This brings me back to the farting cows. Bovine source methane emissions are not presently regulated under the Clean Air Act. While cows are mobile,  the Supreme Court clearly didn’t have livestock in mind when it addressed greenhouse gas emissions from mobile sources in Massachusetts v. EPA, and at present EPA is having great difficulty justifying  regulation of even conventional stationary sources of greenhouse gasses. Nevertheless, if the governments that signed the recent Paris Accords remain serious about reducing the precursors of global warming it would seem that they, including the USA, must deal with the bovine methane problem. Quite clearly individual point source emission controls are not the answer to controlling the emission of methane from cows. Collecting the emissions under a roof for rooftop capture and treatment as has been advocated by environmental advocates is not only impractical given the nature of ranching in the US, but attempts to do so would pit environmental regulators against animal rights advocates who argue strenuously and effectively that sequestering animals in tight containments is inhumane treatment.

The only means of reducing this source of greenhouse gas is to reduce the global dependence on meat and cow milk as a primary source of protein in the human diet, that is, significantly reduce the global population of cattle. This will require a far more significant human cultural re-adaptation than will be required to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from transportation and industrial greenhouse gas sources. That being said, there is yet another reason why such a cultural change is necessary. There is simply not enough land on the planet to sustain a meat and cow milk consuming culture as we have now with even the current global population of humans. I don’t have enough space in this blog post to give you the numbers, but suffice it to say that beef and milk are among the most inefficient sources of protein in terms of the number of acres of land required to sustain a single cow. Sorry, all you lovers of good cheese and a great steak, it looks like you are part of the climate change equation.

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