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Q&A on Cow Gas

May 9, 2014
Senator Chuck Grassley , Traer Star-Clipper

Q: What do dairy cows, Uncle Sam and methane emissions have in common?

A: It sounds like a bad joke in the works. But when the federal government is involved, it's typically not a laughing matter. In March the White House issued plans to reduce greenhouse gases. Specifically, the Climate Action Plan targeted methane emissions produced on federal lands by the oil and gas industry and in U.S. landfills by rotting waste. Scientists say too much methane traps heat in the earth's atmosphere that can lead to global warming. The President's climate initiative also zeroed in on the gasses (methane) released by the nation's dairy herd. Cattle have a unique digestive process known as enteric fermentation that produces methane. Transforming a cow's methane emissions into electricity certainly would expand the definition of "wind farms" in rural America, but beefing up policies to reduce methane emissions in the barnyard needs to stay voluntary. As an Iowa farmer, I appreciate the importance of value-added agriculture to boost the bottom line. As a federal lawmaker, I recognize that diversifying Iowa's cash crops can help create good alternative sources of renewable energy and good-paying jobs in rural America. For generations, farmers have taken pride in being good neighbors and operating as conscientious stewards of limited natural resources. Let's make sure farmers aren't hog-tied to mandatory regulations that require unaffordable upgrades to their farms. If farmers decide to reduce, reuse and recycle their livestock herd's supply of natural gasses, let farmers decide how to manage their manure on a voluntary basis.

Q: What is a "biogas roadmap"?

A: The White House proposal called upon the federal Departments of Agriculture and Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency to outline a "biogas roadmap." Presumably, the map would suggest where biogas digesters, also known as anaerobic digesters, should be located to help achieve the goal of reducing methane gas emissions by 25 percent by 2020. An anaerobic digester uses technology that captures methane gas released by cattle. From there, the captured methane may be converted into electricity. Before Uncle Sam saddles dairy farmers with heavy-handed rules and regulations, let's be sure the federal government isn't making cow-pie-inthe-sky assumptions that simply don't add up. That's why I sent a letter to the EPA to clarify key points in the climate proposal. Specifically, I want to know if other countries are assigning methane-reducing regimes on their livestock producers and how that may impact U.S. goals.

Secondly, what percent of average-sized dairy farms would need to install anaerobic digesters to help reduce methane emissions by one-quarter by 2020? Lastly, what would the typical costs associated with the biogas digesters be for an average-sized dairy or livestock farm? It's important to get all the facts out on the table before the federal government rides herd on dairy farmers into an arrangement that makes udderly no sense.



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