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Straight talk on cow power

Gassy cows

In a recent Op-Ed article (“A Load of Manure,” New York Times, March 4th), Nicollete Hahn Niman (yes, as in Niman Ranch beef) argues that biomass energy projects don’t make sense because they encourage industrial-scale cattle operations and don’t yield much in the way of environmental benefits. TerraPass invests heavily in biomass, so naturally we feel these serious charges bear careful analysis.

First, the basic science. U.S. methane emissions amounted to just less than one-tenth of total greenhouse gas emissions in 2003 according to the EPA. In absolute terms, emissions of methane are much lower than carbon dioxide.

But pound for pound methane has 22 times the heat-trapping potential of CO2. Of the 545 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent methane emitted in the U.S. each year, roughly one third of that comes from the livestock industry. Much of that methane is produced by fermentation inside the cows’ stomachs — not a whole lot we can do about that so long as people are eating cheeseburgers. But nearly 40 million tons of CO2 equivalent methane are released from anaerobic fermentation that occurs after the cows have done their business and when the manure is being stored in uncovered lagoons — a common practice on larger dairy and cattle farms.

When TerraPass buys a Carbon Financial Instrument from one of the methane digester projects in the TerraPass portfolio (such as the family-owned, 600-cow Haubenschild farm in Minnesota), it is providing a payment to support the investment and operation of equipment to capture the methane produced in these manure storage pits and combust it to produce electric power. This electricity is from a renewable source — cow manure — and therefore is carbon neutral. As a benchmark, if all the manure lagoons in the U.S. were equipped with methane digesters, it would be the equivalent of taking over 10 million cars off the road per year.

So those are the hard numbers on methane digesters and global warming. What about the “big farms” argument that Niman leveled against the digesters? Do digesters really encourage the industrialization of the cattle industry?

Many people have a warm place in their heart for the idyllic family farm and buy organic foods for the health and environmental benefits. However, if we’re going to tackle methane emissions we have to look a bit farther than the farmer’s market. The reality is that there are already a whole lot of big farms out there, and this is where the bulk of the country’s milk and meat (and methane) production comes from.

The trend toward industrialization in the cow business is all about scale economies, and has nothing to do with methane digesters. At Haubenschild, for example, less than 1% of farm revenues come from the digester. Without support from offset purchasers like TerraPass, farms would have little incentive to invest in the digesters and the methane would keep going right up into the atmosphere. It’s an emissions reductions opportunity we can hardly afford to ignore.

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