In California’s Methane-Reduction Crosshairs, Dairy Industry Faces Regulation for the First Time

As with California's other climate action efforts, this one could provide a roadmap for other states or for federal regulation, which the industry will likely fight.

California dairy industry has evaded regulation on most kinds of pollution until now
California's dairy industry has fought most forms of pollution regulation, but now faces methane reduction requirements under a new law. Credit: Getty Images

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Despite heavy pushback from the state’s livestock producers, California Gov. Jerry Brown last month signed a law aimed at cutting methane emissions from cattle operations, the largest source of heat-trapping methane in the country’s biggest dairy-producing state.     

More than half of California’s methane emissions come from dairy and beef operations, specifically from cow manure and belching, mostly from dairy cows. But the state’s powerful dairy industry has successfully blocked methane regulation for the past decade. 
Now, as the state works toward meeting the nation’s most aggressive greenhouse gas emissions targets, the livestock sector and methane—with its potent atmospheric warming power—will contend with regulation for the first time.
“This is definitely a victory,” said Brent Newell, an attorney with California’s Center for Race, Poverty and the Environment. “It became painfully obvious that dairy absolutely had to do something. It could not remain exempt.”
Nationally, the livestock industry and its allies in Congress have thwarted attempts to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from animal agriculture and have specifically blocked efforts to measure emissions from livestock operations. Since 2009, Congress has approved spending bills that prevent the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating air pollution from livestock facilities, largely aimed at Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, or CAFOs.
“CAFOs are a sacred cow,” said David Doniger, director of the climate and clean air program for the Natural Resources Defense Council. “Pun intended.”
In California, where lawmakers passed an ambitious law aimed at cutting greenhouse gas emissions in 2006, regulators have had the authority to require dairies to cut methane, but have not followed through because of opposition from the industry.
“The dairy industry is very powerful in California, and it pushed back against the Air Resources Board’s implementation of the law, and effectively prevented it from regulating methane at dairies,” said Newell. “They used the same playbook that they use at the national level: We’re family farmers, we can’t afford it, the science isn’t strong enough.”
As with other California climate measures, this one could provide a roadmap for other states or for federal regulation, which the industry will likely fight.
“It often happens that what starts in California ends up spreading to other parts of the country,” said Rob Vandenheuvel, general manager of California’s Milk Producers Council, which fought against the new law. “But in this case California has gone to the extreme in trying to address climate change.”
The California law, enacted on Sept. 19, requires the livestock industry to cut methane emissions to 40 percent of 2013 levels by 2030, and the state’s Air Resources Board says 75 percent of that reduction should come from the state’s dairies. Most of the cuts will come from efforts to convert methane into useable energy, like methane digesters. (The law also requires a 40 percent cut in hydrofluorocarbon gases; a 50 percent reduction in anthropogenic black carbon, or soot; and will establish targets for reducing organic waste in landfills.)
For starters, the state will direct $50 million from fees gathered under its cap-and-trade program toward digesters and other methane-reduction technologies.
“If we can do this without regulation, that’s everyone’s goal,” said Michael Boccadoro, executive director of Dairy Cares, a California-based livestock industry group.
But if the state’s livestock industry doesn’t meet the reduction target by 2024, the new law authorizes forced reductions. Livestock producers don’t think the targets are realistic and see the law as government overreach.
“We have 1,500 dairies in the state; we have 12 digesters right now. The idea that we should get digesters on 40 percent of the dairies in the state is just not realistic,” Vandenheuvel said. “The producers feel this is a serious grab of power toward regulating manure management.”
The California dairy industry is by far the largest in the U.S., producing one-fifth of the country’s milk, generating more than $9 billion in milk sales and adding more than $60 billion to the state’s economy. But the state’s dairy cows—about 1.8 million of them—are especially robust sources of methane, making them an obvious target for meeting the state’s goal of cutting overall greenhouse gas emissions to 40 percent of 1990 levels by 2030.
California groups, including the Western United Dairymen and Milk Producers Council, pushed hard against the new law, claiming regulations would drive producers out of business—or out of the state.
“I think it’s a significant risk to the California industry,” said Chris Dolan, an attorney with Faegre Baker Daniels who specializes in environmental law for the agriculture industry. “It’s not that operations in California will pick up and move. It’s that they may fail, and if you’re looking to start a new dairy, you’re not going to do it in California.”
The law requires the state to begin developing regulations in 2018 that will take effect in 2024 after an extensive public hearing process and more research into methane-capturing systems. The law also requires that whatever measures the dairy industry takes have to be “economically feasible”—a provision the industry fought for and won.
According to the Air Resources Board, 55 percent of the state’s methane emissions come from livestock—about 30 percent from cow belching, a process called enteric fermentation from the animals’ digestive systems, and a quarter from manure. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has said that greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture climbed 11 percent between 1990 and 2014, in part because of a large rise in methane and nitrous oxide emission from manure lagoons where large farms, including CAFOs, treat and manage animal waste. 
So, while new feed combinations and even herbal compounds can lower the amount of methane that cows burp, the most obvious and direct way to tackle methane emission is by better managing their waste. (In order to feed the animals methane-lowering compounds, the Food and Drug Administration would have to approve them, ensuring they don’t end up in the milk consumed by people.)
So far, California has focused much of its resources and research on anaerobic digesters. In 2001, the state launched a program that helped dairies install and pay for the digesters, which capture methane as biogas that can be converted to electricity. The process prevents methane from leaking into the atmosphere, and also enables dairy farmers to generate carbon credits that can be sold to organizations trying to meet emissions-reductions targets under state law.
But a state report in 2009 found that, even with state subsidies, dairies were having a hard time making the digesters profitable.
“Most of them shut down,” said Robert Parkhurst, director of agriculture greenhouse gas markets for the Environmental Defense Fund. “Dairies are complex operations, and now you’re adding yet another operation onto the facility that, at the time, there was no revenue for. All you had were maintenance and operations costs.”
The new law, Parkhurst says, will change the equation by creating revenue streams for electricity or fuel generated from methane digesters.
“This bill is really focused on helping and identifying ways to make the management of manure financially viable,” he said. “Since 2010, there have been opportunities to generate carbon offsets through the state. But you still have the cost hurdle. The real question is, how can we get over that cost hurdle—which can approach $10 million [per digester]—to solve this?”
Between now and 2024, state regulators and the industry will try to find ways to make capturing methane from dairies profitable. There are a few possibilities beyond simply creating carbon credits. One is by injecting and selling methane into gas pipelines; another is turning compressed methane into a low-carbon vehicle fuel.
“Dairies are like solar panels were 30 or 40 years ago. Some of the kinks are getting worked out,” Parkhurst said. “But I continue to be impressed by the innovation in this space.”
The rest of the industry will be watching to see if California’s approach works.
“There’s a lot of wiggle room and a lot of delay in implementation,” Newell said. “But the silver lining here is there will be methane regulations. The state can’t address the emissions targets without regulating dairies. They can’t get around it.”