You read correctly. Pooh. Manure. Cow pies. American dairy farming remains a massive contributor to methane, a greenhouse gas, emitted from its endless cattle corridors supplying milk to the public. California in particular, currently sits in the mecca of American dairy farming, but also accounts for nearly half of methane emissions statewide. New recycling methods have been introduced and automakers like BMW have used their carbon offsets to power its electric vehicles, but many say this is greenwashing and the whole incentive scheme encourages more emissions, not less.
Over the past decade, biogas energy derived from animal waste has become a very popular option for dairy farmers as an additional income stabilizer. Energy harvested using methane digesters has led automakers like BMW to use these offsets to charge their electric vehicles with less guilt on their conscience, but analysts have cried ‘greenwashing’ as these methods produce not only have the same environmental impact as fossil fuels, but also encourage dairy farms in the United States to increase emissions.
In 2011, California launched an incentive program called the low carbon fuel standard (LCFS) which rewards dairy farmers for converting their methane into energy which can then be sold to other companies, such as car manufacturers for example, in the form of offset credits. The concept of offsets is an entirely different discussion that we will save for another day, but in spirit this idea seems beneficial even if we would say that a complete focus on natural resources like wind and solar proves better in the long run.
In fact, many scientists and conservationists agree as much. A January 2022 report of Union of Concerned Scientists relayed the following with respect to manure biomethane analysis:
We recognize that the capture and productive use of biomethane waste generated by anaerobic digestion (AD) from manure lagoons is a useful mechanism to mitigate methane pollution and can also replace a small amount of fossil methane used in energy and industrial applications.
However, the system remains flawed, as do its priorities. Experts say that the LCFS in particular provides loans to farmers for far more than the cost of operating and maintaining a methane digester. The aforementioned study goes on to say that it estimates that the value of LCFS credits for large confined animal feed operations (CAFOs) like California dairy farms, massively exceeds the costs of recovering the biomethane itself.
Additionally, biomethane energy still burns the same as fossil fuels, despite being marketed as a clean alternative. This is where the subject of greenwashing comes in, but how exactly is BMW involved in a biogas industry that is expected to more than double globally to $126.2 billion by 2030? ? Like many dairy-related things, it starts in California.
BMW’s biomethane energy offsets border greenwashing
In April 2021, BMW Group announced a new venture as the first automaker to start collaborating with dairy farms in California to offset carbon emissions from charging its electric vehicles. At the time, BMW relayed that credits through the LCFS allow charging incentives for drivers participating in its ChargeForward program which began around the same time.
These collaborations included Straus Organic Dairy Farm and CalBio who builds the methane digesters used by the farms. BMW North America Energy Services Manager Connected eMobility Adam Langton spoke at the time:
Our sustainability mission is not just to reduce carbon emissions, but to make sustainability practices financially attractive over the long term, so that those practices can grow and help our partners thrive. Dairy biodigesters are an example of an energy technology that not only reduces carbon emissions in a sustainable way, but also provides a new source of income for farmers and their communities. Going forward, we hope to use this collaborative model we created in California to further support the development of biodigesters in the United States and ultimately bring more clean energy sources to our customers.
Steve Shehadey, third-generation farmer and owner of Bar 20 Dairy, shared a similar sentiment in the video you can see below, explaining that whatever your farm’s dairy production, farmers have no control over. fluctuations in milk prices:
There are times when you make money, there are times when you lose it. And so the concept of being able to generate power or electricity was appealing because if you can stabilize some income, it helps you get through tough times.
According to Shehadey, Bar 20’s two solar projects and the methane digester produce an excess of 3 million kWh more electricity than the dairy farm needs to operate. Implementing renewables like solar on farms is commendable, and capturing methane for recycling is a better option than just letting it enter the Earth’s atmosphere.
However, there’s greenwashing at play here, no matter how BMW or anyone else tries to spin it, because these recycled gases are still heavy carbon emitters and backed by an incentive program that rewards farms for the stinkiest gas they produce.
An article from 2022 by the Guardian refers to the same research by the Union of Concerned Scientistsarguing that the environmental benefits of biogas are hugely exaggerated and that the LCFS prioritizes farm gas (a combustion-based energy source) over other renewables such as solar and wind.
According a 2018 analysis by UC Davis researchers, methane digesters are unlikely to be profitable without government grants and subsidies, finding that it costs $294 a year to produce $68 worth of gas from a cow, not including the massive initial cost of installing the digester itself.
This is where it gets interesting.
According an analysis 2021 by Aaron Smith, professor of agricultural economics at UC Davis, LCFS credits generate a subsidy of $1,935 per year per cow. If the dairy farmer needed a reason to start recycling cow poo, it’s a pretty lucrative one, especially in a fluid price market for dairy – to have a financial contingency to sell the excess poo. energy seems to be a no-brainer for farmers, especially those with large farms.
A main argument speak Union of Concerned Scientists is that LCFS subsidies far dwarf the cost of producing methane gas, disproportionately benefiting the largest and most polluting dairy farms. On an even more discouraging note, these incentives threaten consolidation in the dairy industry, where bigger farms are getting bigger and smaller ones can no longer compete. Not to mention that the dollar signs attached to biogas production could steer farmers away from cleaner renewable energy sources, again like wind and solar. According to his study:
The LCFS is structured to require producers of polluting transportation fuels to bear the cost of mitigating transportation fuel pollution. However, in the case of manure biomethane, the majority of the climate pollution at play is methane from manure, and the displacement of fossil methane in the transportation fuel market is a relatively small contribution. Thus, in this case, the biggest polluter is the one who receives a large subsidy.
The lifecycle basis of the LCFS is meant to ensure that support for low-carbon fuels is based on a comprehensive assessment of their climate benefits. However, in this case, this structure functions as an ill-conceived offset program, with transportation fuel users paying an extremely high price for manure methane mitigation. This is not good transportation fuels policy or good agricultural methane mitigation policy.
We fully understand why Californian dairy farmers who participate in the production of methane-based biofuel thanks to the current subsidies put in place for their benefit. It is truly doubtful that there is any bad intention towards the environment in this process, as it provides a partial solution to a serious emissions problem in the state. However, its benefits are greatly exaggerated to the point of greenwashing, so it’s hard to give companies like BMW a pat on the back for their corporate collaborations.
There are certainly cleaner ways to power electric vehicles, especially without carbon offsetting.
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