Influencing California’s Approach to Dairy Methane Reductions

Flushing an alleyway at a dairy in California. Source: NRCS.
Flushing an alleyway at a California dairy. Source: NRCS.

As we have discussed here before, California is moving full steam ahead to cut dairy methane emissions in the state. The timeline is certainly ambitious – a current proposal from the Air Resources Board (ARB), called the Short-Lived Climate Pollutant Reduction Strategy, puts the target at a 75% reduction in methane emissions from dairy manure management over the next fourteen years.

A bill that would require the Air Resources Board plan to be implemented, authored by Senator Ricardo Lara (D – Bell Gardens), recently passed the Senate by a single vote. Should Lara’s SB 1383 advance to the Governor’s desk, it would require the state to achieve a 40% reduction in overall methane emissions by 2030, from across the agriculture, waste, and oil and gas sectors.

The majority of those reductions would come from dairy and livestock operations – 26 Million Metric Tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (26 MMT CO2e) per year, or the equivalent of taking 5.5 million passenger vehicles off the road annually.

Avoiding Risky Strategies

To achieve this, ARB has proposed to regulate dairy methane emissions should voluntary measures fail to produce the desired progress. As the state considers the types of voluntary measures to incentivize, it is critical to avoid relying on strategies that present a real threat for failure and could put an already vulnerable industry at greater risk. This includes some approaches to implementing dairy digesters, the risks of which we have previously outlined in comments to ARB (found here).

In taking on this challenge, the state must carefully pursue strategies that make wise use of limited public funds while recognizing the realities of California’s diverse dairy industry. This was the message of a letter, signed by a group of California dairies earlier this year, and delivered by CalCAN to state legislative leaders. The letter specifically called for state funds to support a diversity of dairy methane reduction practices, rather than only specifying funding for dairy digesters as outlined in Governor Brown’s budget.

Dairies, like other parts of agriculture, are on the frontlines of climate change impacts, with rising temperatures and a greater number of extreme heat days putting both cows and workers at risk. It’s clear that we must avoid the worst impacts of climate change by acting now.

Progress Being Made

CalCAN's recommendations.
CalCAN’s dairy methane recommendations. Click to view.

CalCAN has been participating in the dairy methane reduction discussions since last fall, when we weighed in on ARB’s first draft of the Short-Lived Climate Pollutant Strategy. Following public comment, the draft was rewritten and a revised Strategy was released earlier this year. Encouragingly, the new version provides a more balanced view on the merits and drawbacks of the multiple strategies dairies can use to reduce their climate impact.

To cite one example, the revised Strategy now acknowledges the considerable economic risks that come with expensive anaerobic digester technologies, which convert manure waste into electricity or fuel. Digesters have a poor track record in the state despite years of efforts to promote their adoption on dairies here.

As a result of these and other changes, the revised Strategy paints a more realistic picture of what it would look like for California’s dairy industry to offer innovative climate solutions.

Recognizing Benefits from Composting, Pasture

Most notably, the Strategy now calls for a mix of different approaches, as appropriate across different regions and types of operations. The state proposes to invest in converting dairies away from liquid-based manure management systems—which store waste in anaerobic conditions conducive to methane production—to ‘dry’ management systems that could, for example, turn manure waste into valuable compost products.

Whereas ARB was previously dismissive of pasture-based management practices overall, the revised Strategy now clarifies that pasture systems can play a positive role on dairies in some parts of the state. ARB also acknowledges that pasture can produce valuable environmental co-benefits that may be worth incentivizing.

However, the Strategy still concludes that pasturing practices have very little, if any, role to play at large existing dairies in the Central Valley. Citing recent research, CalCAN has made the case for ‘mixed’ dairying systems that integrate some pasturing practices into conventional confined animal systems. While there may be factors limiting the full conversion to pasture-based dairying systems in Valley, the state should support research and demonstration on the viability of these ‘mixed’ systems, which could potentially produce significant methane reductions in addition to environmental and animal welfare co-benefits.

Work Still To Be Done

In May, CalCAN submitted our comments on the revised Strategy, which ARB has posted on its website alongside comments from about 120 other organizations and individuals. ARB staff plan to release another revision to the strategy document, which will be considered by the Board for final approval this fall.

California has an opportunity to both reduce potent methane emissions and support a vibrant dairy industry by pursuing diverse methane reduction strategies: from creating new markets for dairy compost, to moving more cows on to pasture, to supporting smart digester investments that work for dairies as well as the environment. But failing to acknowledge that the kinds of digester investments policymakers have made for years, with little benefit to show for it, would be a disservice to the dairy industry—especially as regulation looms.

With smart policymaking and a dedication to collaboration, CalCAN is hopeful that these efforts will ultimately succeed in strengthening California’s dairy industry along with the state as a whole.

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