$500m subsidy, market price guarantees sought for cow manure as ‘renewable’ energy
By Kevin Hall
SACRAMENTO – The California dairy industry has Sen. Ben Hueso (D-San Diego) by both teats and is pulling hard, and Hueso is clearly enjoying it.
The industry lobbyists supplying him and other legislators with misinformation are all too willing to keep state officeholders in the dark while they seek $500 million in state subsidies for dairy digesters plus guaranteed price supports for their concentrated animal feeding operations to be paid for by consumers through higher energy bills.
Leading this well-funded indoctrination effort are the San Joaquin Valley’s approximately 1,000 dairy owners. These wealthy farm families and corporations represent less than one-fourth of 1% of the region’s 4 million people, yet are responsible for more than 25% of all its ground-level air pollution, according to San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District figures.
Unregulated and politically powerful (half of the region’s six-member congressional delegation are from dairy families, most infamously House Intelligence Committee chair Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Visalia), the dairy bloc has hitched its overflowing manure lagoons to the municipal waste sites.
While the state clearly needs methane capture technology at every landfill and dump in the state, conjoining the solid waste output of all California residents with the industrial sewage factories known as dairies serves no one well.
Unfortunately for residents of the Valley and Hueso’s constituents in Imperial County, if this strategy of treating dairy waste lagoons and landfills as equals proves successful it will lead to dirtier air and more methane from natural gas released into the planet’s rapidly destabilizing atmosphere.
Despite Hueso’s stated intentions to do well by people’s health and the environment, his attempt to create price supports for “natural gas” from dairy digesters by mislabeling it renewable energy – and as a clean air measure to boot – poses serious threats to air quality and climate stabilization efforts.
Hueso’s ignorance and complete dependence on dairy industry lobbyists were on full display in his June 20 appearance before the Assembly Committee on Utilities and Energy which voted to move his SB 1440 Biomethane Procurement Mandate out of committee and over to Natural Resources where it will be heard on Monday, June 25.
Critics of the measure clearly laid out its many problems (SB 1440 Opposition Letter) and offered the faster, cheaper alternative known as dry manure management that would lower air pollution, reduce methane emissions, and employ more people on the farm. Ironically, Hueso believes those are his three strongest arguments in favor of the bill. But dry manure management, which boils down to physically moving the manure daily, favors small family operations over industrialized mega-dairies and would require a first-ever regulation for dairies.
When asked by Assemblymember Al Muratsuchi (D-Torrance) to address critics’ concerns about incentivizing increased methane emissions rather than methane avoidance, the good senator sputtered and snarked his way through an ill-informed response:
“Does that mean that more people are going to want to throw more trash in the…I don’t know how to answer that because you’re saying that because we’re going to incentive, we’re going to monetize renewable natural gas more people are going to want to throw more trash in landfills…[testily interrupts Muratsuchi who tries to clarify]…I know what you’re talking about, and like I said, they’re concerned that when you create a law saying that, you know we’re going to encourage a specific industry with natural gas to develop, that more people are going to want to throw trash…[laughs]. Well, they’re concerned, look, you put a figure on it and more people are going to want to engage in that activity…”
When Hueso’s bluster settled down (he obviously didn’t like being questioned) and it became clear the issue was dairies and not landfills, he turned to dairy industry lobbyist Michael Boccadoro representing the Agricultural Energy Consumers Association. It apparently didn’t matter that public testimony had been closed and opponents were not given the opportunity to rebut the new – false – information presented by the lobbyist.
But before Boccadoro could hurry up to the witness table from the audience, Hueso did a full back flip into the waste lagoon by scoffing, “And that’s the thing. You think people will do that? Drive up the cost of producing milk because they want to sell more gas?”
Perhaps sensing how out of his depth he was by then, Hueso gladly handed it off to a lobbyist who has been fighting every clean air bill ever debated in the Capitol.
“There’s no realism to the concern that it is going to incentivize larger dairies,” schmoozed Boccadoro. “Dairies have been consolidating in California for a number of years. We have fewer dairies, and that’s a truly unfortunate thing, and it’s a combination of requirements and labor costs and others consolidating in the industry. There is no incentive ever to add cows to your dairy to produce more methane so you can sell it under this bill. That’s just absolutely crazy.”
He’s right. It is crazy, but Hueso was the only person making that argument.
The disinformation being pushed here by Boccadoro starts with a false description of why dairies fail. He blames government regulation and labor costs. The truth is that economies of scale have been wiping out small and mid-size dairies nationwide for decades, and in the San Joaquin Valley the number dropped from greater than 1,300 to fewer than 1,000 in the last decade thanks to the Great Recession.
Boccadoro also left out the critical point that while the number of dairy operations decreased, herd size has increased dramatically. And so has pollution. Between 2001 and 2016, according the California Agricultural Statistics Service, the average Valley dairy herd grew from 926 cows to 1642. Total cows went from 1,172,700 to 1,541,500 – a 166% increase. Throughout that period dairies have been the Valley’s No. 1 and fastest growing source of criteria air pollutants.
Boccadoro further fed Hueso’s ignorance by defending the senator’s canard of an argument that dairies might be incentivized to add cows in order to produce more gas. No, they are incentivized by any form of price support – and they have many – to grow herd size in order to keep up with the competition. It’s grow or die in the dairy industry, just as it is throughout agriculture. He, of course, in true Ag lobbyist style finished with the usual ad hominem attack on any critic as “crazy.”
The impartial truth is found in the 2017 Environmental Impact Report completed by the California Department of Food and Agriculture in support of the Dairy Digester Research and Development Program, a $99 million piece of the Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund in 2018 alone.
According to the CDFA EIR, the “Pixley Cluster” of 10 dairies within 12 miles of the Calgren Dairy Fuels plant currently stock fewer than 30,000 cows, but the EIR projects the cluster will grow to 50,000 cows – a 166% increase. Sen. Hueso and his dairy backers seek publicly guaranteed, consumer-subsidized price guarantees for this effort to add dairy “biogas” to compressed natural gas lines for fuel and commercial uses.
The entire project’s claim to cleaner air is a clear case of wishful thinking, encouragement rather than regulation. While the EIR calculates significant reductions in diesel exhaust by replacing agricultural trucks manufactured prior to 2010 with CNG-powered ones, it is not required: “The project will create additional criteria pollutant benefits by encouraging the conversion of 221 existing diesel vehicles to RCNG fuel.” (CDFA EIR, p. 159)
The job creation argument offered by the bill’s proponents fails because the cheaper, faster, sustainable way to reduce methane emissions from dairies is to require dry manure management techniques, rather than the wet manure approach required by digesters. While the latter offers a handful of operational jobs, the dry manure approach would create even more jobs for farmhands.
But when you’re in a volatile industry and just one recession or trade war with China away from bankruptcy, you’re always on the lookout for additional revenue streams. The lobbyist’s “crazy” reality is visible throughout the valley where more and more dairy operations are closed, their cornfields turned to almond and pistachio orchards. Because that’s where the real money is these days.
Moreover, as the Groundwater Sustainability Act finally kicks in, these operations’ intensive water use (up to seven acre feet annually for hay) will quickly render them obsolete, leaving digesters and pipelines to rust. The tree nut crops require half that much water.
But the state is already pouring funds into permanent dairy digesters and fixed pipelines. This bill’s promised price supports threatens to waste hundreds of millions of dollars more on the greatest polluting, most heavily subsidized, and least regulated industry in all of California. Such is Sacramento.
(Kevin Hall is a former Fresno County Planning Commissioner and long-time air quality advocate. He previously worked for more than 10 years as a farm trade-magazine reporter and editor. Past honors include the American Agriculture Editors Association Opinion Writer of The Year, Sierra Club California’s John Zierold Award, and California League of Conservation Voters’ Environmental Activist Award.)
© Valley Climate, June 23, 2018