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February 18, 2015  |  Written by Somach Simmons & Dunn

California – Poised to Regulate Methane Emissions from Agriculture

California’s leaders have made clear their intent to regulate methane emissions from agriculture.  While agriculture contributes approximately 6 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions, both nationally and within California, methane comprises 62 percent of agricultural emissions, the vast majority from animal agriculture.  Because methane remains in the atmosphere a short period of time relative to carbon dioxide (CO2), but also has significantly higher potency, decreasing emissions of methane can provide a greater impact than decreasing CO2.

In the fall of 2014, Governor Jerry Brown signed SB 605, the Short-Lived Climate Pollutant Act of 2014, mandating that the state complete a comprehensive inventory of, and a plan for reducing, short-lived climate pollutants such as methane by the end of 2015.  Days later, the Secretary of the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) and the Chair of the California Air Resources Board (CARB) identified steps the state is already taking to decrease methane emissions, including funding the research and development of dairy digesters, and other greenhouse gas reduction measures in agriculture, stating that “we must do more, and we will.”1

Previously, the State had called for a comprehensive plan to reduce short-lived climate pollutant emissions, including methane, in the 2014 Climate Change Scoping Plan Update (Update).2  The Update calls for the California-Federal Dairy Digester Working Group, an interagency working group convened by CDFA and other agencies, to develop a methane capture standard by 2016. The Update also directs the Bioenergy Interagency Working Group, comprised of California government entities, to promote the input of biogas into the electrical grid and natural gas pipelines.3  Further, Governor Brown singled methane emissions out during his inaugural address, followed by the Chair of CARB reiterating that agriculture was part of CARB’s focus, and describing the San Joaquin Valley a hotspot for methane emissions.4

As the administration moves forward on multiple fronts, it is critical that agricultural interests and energy developers ensure that programs work for dairy farmers and processors and project developers, as well as regulators.  As the California-Federal Dairy Digester Working Group determined, the development of dairy digesters in California has been challenging due to a host of economic, technical and regulatory issues.  For example, CARB has had a livestock digester offset protocol in place since 2011,5 but zero California entities participate, although digesters represent more than one-third of all CARB offset projects (28 out of 88).6

As the administration moves forward to design programs that regulate and fund digesters, critical questions must be asked:

  • Do these programs truly incentivize the development of digesters in California, promoting electricity and fuel production, while reducing methane emissions?
  • Do these programs reflect the diversity of our dairy and waste industries, allowing for multiple models, from dairy digesters on small farms to more complex facilities that co-digest waste from a variety of sources and develop multiple products – energy, fuel, soil amendments and more?
  • Are regulations streamlined to ensure that our environmental goals are achieved without duplicating existing regulatory structures?
  • Are we addressing the challenges of connecting to the electrical grid or a natural gas pipeline?
  • Do the economics work?  Does the price of electricity or fuel produced from digesters reflect the multiple benefits associated with the creation of such products, such as air, water, climate, distributed, renewable energy, waste diversion?

If the state can design a program that meets these multiple goals, value will be added for dairy farms while achieving our climate and renewable energy goals, a win-win for all.

What to Watch

1 Mary D. Nichols and Karen Ross, Letter to the Editor of the Los Angeles Times, The Times highlights the need to reduce short-lived climate pollutants to fully tackle global warming – California has a long history of leadership in this area (Sept. 26, 2014), in response to Times Editorial Board, What about those other greenhouse gases?, Los Angeles Times (Sept. 22, 2014).
2 CARB, First Update to the Climate Change Scoping Plan (May 2014( Chapter IV:  Accomplishments and Next Steps, pp. 61 and 96.
3 Ibid. at p. 96.
4 Joe Moore, California Air Regulators Eye Methane Emissions From Oil, Ag (Valley Public Radio, Jan. 20, 2015, 7:30 p.m.).
5 Adopted October 20, 2011.  See Compliance Offset Protocol Livestock Projects, CARB, CalEPA.
6 CARB, CalEPA, “ARB Offset Credits Issued,” last updated, Jan. 28, 2015 (as of Feb. 4, 2015).

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