Livestock Emissions: Capture that Biogas!

If you think city folk are the only ones getting hit by the slew of new EPA proposed rules, you don’t know…manure. The EPA has been trying to figure out how to require farmers and ranchers to change their cattle management processes to better “capture” the methane emitted by cattle, in the forms of cow burps, flatulence and manure. All in the name of reducing greenhouse gasses (GHG). Here’s the story.

In March of 2014 the Obama White House announced a strategy to reduce cattle methane emissions, alleging they make up almost 9% of all GHGs emitted as a result of human activity in the US. How can cattle emissions possibly be human activity? Because all agriculture is deemed human activity, and cattle are agriculture. There are around 88 million cattle in the US. A typical cow emits around 250-300 liters of methane each day. Multiply that out, and the numbers say that the GHGs cattle emit when they burp, fart and crap produce more methane gas than landfill sites, natural gas leaks, or even fracking.

There is even such a thing as a Cow of the Future project. It is run at the Innovation Centre for US Dairy in Illinois. They think the answer to reducing cattle GHG is a combination of good diet and good digestion: anti-methane gourmet grains processed by the best possible bovine digestive system selective breeding can produce. Imagine how expensive that diet would be!

There is also a National Biogas Roadmap on the way. This is a joint effort between USDA, EPA and the U.S. Department of Energy set for release in June of 2014. The Roadmap will outline voluntary strategies to accelerate adoption of methane digesters and other cost-effective technologies, with a goal to reduce U.S. dairy sector greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent by 2020.

This Roadmap is intended to speed installation of biogas digesters in slaughterhouses, dairies, and ranches to capture methane gas released by the cows’ manure. The methane can then be used on-site as natural gas, or converted into electricity, at least that’s the theory. There are already 2,000 biodigesters in operation across the country. Another 12,000 of these digesters are planned for agricultural, landfill and wastewater sites.

So far, these biogas digesters can only capture biogas from manure. No one has apparently invented the biogas digester that can also capture cow burps and flatulence, but I can just imagine seeing one of those in action sometime in the near future.

In 2008, as part of its advanced notice of proposed rulemaking to regulate GHGs under the Clean Air Act, the EPA considered regulating agriculture-related emissions, which would have required farmers to purchase expensive permits. It was estimated that these regulations would have cost medium-sized dairy farms with 75 to 125 cows between $13,000 and $22,000 a year per head, and medium-sized cattle farms with 200 to 300 cows between $17,000 and $27,000 per year per head. That’s between a minimum of $975,000 per year for the 75 cow operation, to a maximum of $8.1 million per year for 300 cows. You know those costs would mostly have been passed on to the consumer. And we’d all be eating more chicken, pork, and fish by now. Maybe even some tofu as well.

Beyond its environmental hazards, dairy cow methane gas has been responsible for some strange incidents in recent months. On January 27, 2014, in the town of Rasdorf, Germany (Central part of that picturesque country), 90 dairy cows were minding their own business, happily flatulencing and burping away inside a shed, when a static electricity charge ignited the methane, which spurted a flame or two, nearly blew off the roof, and burned one of the cows (talk about wrong place, wrong time-he only had 89 chances to be right).

And during the first week of April, 2014, a Boeing 747 carrying 400 dairy cattle in the confines of its pressurized hold (not the brightest idea, it turns out) made a ‘mayday’ call and emergency-landed at London’s Heathrow Airport. Sensors onboard mistook heat which built up from cattle methane (again, burps and flatulence) for a catastrophic fire onboard. Now that’s some potent exhaust!

Some experts have suggested that significantly reducing the number of cattle would be the most effective solution. Now, it seems to me there would really be only one way to do this. Eat more cows than are replaced.

So be on the lookout for the National Biogas Roadmap this summer (2014). It may just mean that more beef is what’s for dinner!


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