The Obama administration has released a Climate Action Plan that includes a call to reduce methane gas emissions from dairy cows by 25 percent by 2020.
Details of the plan will be released in June, but Senate Republicans are already expressing concern that the plan will severely impact the livestock industry.
"In 2008, as part of its Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to regulate [greenhouse gases] under the Clean Air Act, the [Environmental Protection Agency] deliberated regulating agriculture-related emissions, which would have required farmers to purchase expensive permits," said a letter sent to administration officials by GOP Sen. John Thune
of South Dakota, which was signed by 15 of his Republican Senate colleagues.
"It was estimated that these top-down regulations would have cost medium-sized dairy farms with 75 to 125 cows between $13,000 and $22,000 a year, and medium-sized cattle farms with 200 to 300 cows between $17,000 and $27,000.
"We are concerned about potential actions against the agriculture community to regulate methane and other greenhouse gas emissions, which could severely impact the livestock industry," the senators wrote last week. "We reject the notion that the EPA should, absent express authorization from Congress, seek to regulate the agriculture sector in this manner."
On his website, Thune called on GOP senators to "resist taxing livestock emissions."
While an appropriations rider keeps the EPA from regulating these types of methane emissions, that rider is renewed annually, which is what led the senators to contact the heads of the Department of Agriculture, EPA, and Department of Energy to express concerns that the nation's livestock farmers could bear the brunt and production costs of new environmental regulations.
The senators urged the agencies to "work with Congress and the agriculture industry to outline voluntary measures that can be taken to reduce emissions without imposing heavy-handed regulations on farms across America."
Others wonder if the plan is not an overreach, as emission rates for cattle have remained stable over the past 20 years.
"The problem isn't getting worse," argues Daren Bakst, an agricultural policy research fellow at the Washington, D.C.-based Heritage Foundation.
Using four years of EPA's data
, from 2008 to 2012, the rate of "enteric fermentation methane emissions" — derived from cow burps and flatulence — declined about 4 percent, Bakst told Newsmax. In 1990, the emissions rate was only about 2 percent less than the rate for 2012.
"Basically, for more than 20 years, the emissions have remained relatively flat, with reductions over the [most recent] four-year period — although the numbers do fluctuate," Bakst noted.
Methane accounts for 8.7 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions, with enteric fermentation from cattle topping the list of methane sources, ahead of natural gas systems, landfills, coal mining, and several others.
According to the EPA
, "methane (CH4) is more than 20 times as effective as carbon dioxide at trapping heat in the atmosphere. Over the last 250 years, the concentration of methane in the atmosphere increased by 151 percent. "
Methane emissions have long been a concern of those in the dairy and beef cattle industry who have worked on better feed qualities and other research advances to reduce emissions and improve production.
But put in the context of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, just 3.6 percent of the total comes from livestock, noted Nicolas DiLorenzo, an assistant professor of animal science at the University of Florida who studies emissions. "The biggest portion is electricity generation and transportation, 60 percent of total emissions.
"People are under the impression that methane from cows is what is causing these emissions," DiLorenzo, who works at the North Florida Research and Education Center in Marianna, Fla., told Newsmax. "But the point is, if you put it in perspective, there is a lot of room for improvement in the industry with transportation and electricity."
In cattle, methane is "a necessary evil," DiLorenzo says. "It's the way fermentation occurs. Cows have the ability to ferment feed that we as humans can't typically digest, like cellulose or certain plants. And the counterpart of that is they do so at the expense of producing methane."
While dairy cows consume more feed and produce more methane, there are 10 times more beef cattle in the country than dairy, making them the top methane offenders. Also, animals that are fed high-grain diets produce three times less methane than those who forage and consume roughage.
DiLorenzo added: "One of the concerns that producers have is the interpretation of how this strategy is going to be used. If it is used in the context of reducing their productivity, they are concerned; if it enhancing productivity while helping the environment, they are interested."
Juan Tricarico, director of the Cow of the Future project for the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy, said the environmental goals came directly from players in the industry who offered input to the White House on methane reform as part of their pledge to improve sustainability.
Tricarico said such efforts to improve methane emissions in dairy cows are voluntary, noting there is no need for regulation because the industry is already motivated to take action. At least 10 different research projects from the dairy industry are devoted to finding ways to make improvements and hit the emissions targets.
Bakst, the agriculture policy analyst, warned about the impact of any future regulation on methane emissions.
"I think we have to look at the bigger costs of what we are being asked to give up," he said. "We don't want to drive up the prices of beef so much or to drive our ranchers out of doing business. That just drives up food prices and it hurts the poor the most."
While the EPA cannot now regulate emissions — programs to curb them are voluntary — "that can change," he said. "The moral of the story is while you now have voluntary efforts, there is significant concern that this is going to be a mandatory requirement, and that is the concern you now see coming from senators on the president's new climate action plan."
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