By Kelsey Gee
The Obama Administration's push to cut methane emissions puts a bull's eye on an issue that has long drawn criticism of the agriculture industry from environmentalists. But the White House's proposals for curbing gas emitted by livestock are relatively tame.
CHICAGOThe Obama administrations push to cut methane emissions puts a bulls-eye on an issue that has long drawn criticism of the agriculture industry from environmentalists.
But the White Houses proposals for curbing gas emitted by livestock are relatively tame, relying strictly on voluntary measures that are largely already under way and are focused primarily on the dairy sector.
Agriculture accounts for 36% of the human-related methane produced in the U.S., the White House said. Livestock is by far the biggest source, with the nations herd of about 88 million cattle particularly big producers. Cattle and other ruminant animals have digestive systems that use fermentation to metabolize plant materials that many animals cant easily digest. The Darwinian advantage also produces methane that cattle exhale or belch in large quantities. Livestock emissions also come from giant pools of manure from cattle, pigs and other animals.
The White House plan focuses on the dairy industry, which accounts for 9 million of the U.S. cattle population. It emphasizes effortsalready being encouraged by the Agriculture Department and the industryto use machines called biogas digesters to convert methane from livestock into energy.
The administration said the EPA, the USDA, and the Energy Department will work with the dairy industry to produce a biogas roadmap in June outlining voluntary methods to accelerate the adoption of biogas systems and other technologies to reduce the industrys total emissions by 25% by 2020.
Were glad that its carrots as opposed to sticks, and think this could help generate a more reliable revenue stream for farmers from manure, said Chris Galen, a spokesman for the National Milk Producers Federation, the largest trade group of dairy farmers.
Thomas Hertel, a professor of agricultural economics at Purdue University who researches climate and environmental policies, said its nice to see efforts being made to encourage low-cost methods to reduce gas emissions in agriculture, which hasnt been pushed very hard so far.
Still, he questioned how effective the voluntary measures would be. Clean energy, value-added manure, jobs, it all sounds good, said Mr. Hertel. But reducing gas emission by 25% by 2020 seems like it will require more than letting the industry know theres an opportunity out there.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack played down the new initiative. It really doesnt mean anything beyond continuing what were already doing, he said in an interview. He said the USDA already has a very aggressive partnership with the dairy industry, including a commitment started several years ago to help fund the purchase of methane digesters.
Mr. Vilsack also pointed to the USDAs efforts to curb food waste, such as by educating consumers on what the best if used by date on food labels actually means, so they dont throw out good food. He said a significant percentage of methane is produced in landfills, and the single largest component of solid waste in a landfill is food waste.
Some agriculture companies have been working on their own commercial solutions. Cargill Inc., the global commodities company based in suburban Minneapolis, has provided digester technology developed for its own meat facilities to three major U.S. dairies. The units convert methane gas to electricity, producing on average 1.3 million kilowatt-hours a month, which Cargill estimates could power 3,000 homes.
Cargill also has outfitted nine of its 22 U.S. meat-production facilities with wastewater technology that captures methane gas and uses it to heat boilers that are used in food safety and plant sanitation operations, according to Michael Martin, a spokesman for Cargill. The systems have reduced the facilities use of natural gas and cut their carbon dioxide emissions by a total of 50,000 metric tons a year, he said.http://stream.wsj.com/story/latest-headlines/SS-2-63399/SS-2-494862/