From the road leading up to it, Lawnhurst Farms, nestled a few miles from Seneca Lake in Ontario County, looks much as it would have a hundred years ago. A 19th-century white clapboard farmhouse and a storybook red barn are fringed by fields of corn and alfalfa stretching to the horizon. But beside those quaint buildings is a setup more typical of intensive industrial farming: two long, low sheds holding the dairy’s 3,150 cows, and a squat cylindrical building housing an anaerobic digester — a tank that extracts methane from the 55,000 gallons of manure the farm produces every day.
Lawnhurst started operating the digester in 2013, producing more than enough biomethane to power the farm and selling the excess to the local utility. But a few years ago, waste-to-energy companies began approaching the farm’s owner, Don Jensen, with a sweeter deal: capture the methane for use as transportation fuel rather than electricity, and sell carbon credits to oil corporations seeking to offset their emissions. Jensen signed with a joint venture between Chevron and a California-based company called Brightmark, whose motto is “reimagine waste.”
Jensen’s dairy is part of a quickening trend in New York. Eight dairy farms are producing pipeline-quality biomethane, or soon will be. Two more are seeking permits to join them, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, and that’s just the official count. Environmental experts worry this handful of farms are at the leading edge of a boom that subsidizes poor manure management practices and could promote the reckless expansion of large-scale factory farming. Beyond that, the state may be overcounting the climate benefits of manure biofuel as a mechanism to reach its greenhouse gas reduction targets—a miscount that will only grow as the industry expands.
Trading Cow Manure for Carbon Credits
New York is the fourth-largest dairy producer in the country, behind California, Wisconsin, and Idaho. As dairy operations have grown in recent decades, the amount of manure they produce –more than 100 pounds a day for each cow, collected in sprawling lagoons–has become a significant environmental problem, fouling the air and nearby waterways and emitting planet-heating methane. A dairy operation with 1,000 cows produces as much greenhouse gas in a year as 2,000 gasoline-powered cars. And although agriculture as a whole accounts for a small share of New York’s total greenhouse gas emissions—6 percent—livestock operations contribute 92 percent of that.
Biogas has been promoted as part of the solution to that problem. Manure dumped in lagoons decomposes anaerobically, which produces methane and carbon dioxide; a digester captures those emissions and converts them into a gas that can be used to generate electricity and heat for buildings. The gas can also be refined by removing the CO2 and other waste elements (such as hydrogen sulfide, or “sewer gas”) to create biomethane–what the industry often calls renewable natural gas–which can be compressed and used as vehicle fuel or injected into the same pipelines that deliver fossil-based natural gas.
It’s the creation of pipeline-quality biomethane that has recently caught the attention of dairy farms across the country, and that’s because they can now sell their methane through California’s low carbon fuel standard, a carbon trading system established in 2007. As part of its efforts to reduce carbon emissions overall, California requires companies that produce fuel for transportation to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, or else offset them by buying credits from producers of lower carbon fuel; the rule requires credits to overtake deficits by the end of 2030.
To determine the price of these credits, the state assigns a carbon intensity score to different fuels: gasoline gets a high score, and fuels like ethanol and biogas are assigned a lower score. But there’s a quirk in the way the credit for dairy biomethane is calculated: because it gets points for preventing emissions from the manure lagoons and more points for replacing dirtier fossil fuels, biomethane is awarded a negative carbon intensity score. It’s as though Don Jensen’s digester were actually sucking methane out of the atmosphere.
Some leading environmental groups have objected that these calculations are illogical. Brent Newell, a former senior attorney for Public Justice’s Food Project who is now in private practice, said the overvaluing of factory farm biomethane allows fossil fuel companies to continue to produce dirty energy, stalling the transition to a fossil-free economy. “Polluters benefit from that transaction, corporations benefit, but not the climate,” Newell said.
“The trading scheme is terrible policy,” he concluded.
For New York’s dairy operations, the calculations may be particularly flawed. Of the ten farms that have contracts to produce FGA or are seeking permits, every one had built a digester years ago, and had been generating electricity for use on-site. As these farms switch to producing pipeline gas, no additional methane is getting captured; it’s simply being repurposed.
“That’s a spurious greenhouse gas capture,” said Tyler Lobdell, a lawyer for Food and Water Watch who focuses on factory farming. “They are not causing any emission reduction on the ground.”
Indeed some experts have noted that when farms shift from using biogas on their farms to sending it to pipelines, it’s a net loss for the planet. In public comments opposing a permit for Bluebird Renewable Energy’s proposed dairy pipeline projects in Cayuga County, Josh Berman, a lawyer with the Sierra Club’s environmental law program, argued that the projects “would significantly increase pollution and greenhouse gas emissions associated with the two farms.”
Both farms had digesters to capture methane for electricity, and Berman said the pipeline project would be a less efficient, more polluting use of the farms’ manure biogas. “There are so many additional steps to go through to make it a saleable product to get it into the pipeline,” Berman told New York Focus. The gas must be refined to remove impurities and compressed before it can be injected into a pipeline, both energy-intensive processes. And in most scenarios –including the Cayuga County projects–the gas must be trucked to the pipeline, which creates a risk of leakage and even explosions in case of road accidents.
The transition to pipeline gas also means the digesters no longer provide their relatively low-carbon electric power to the farms themselves. Don Jensen’s contract with Brightmark requires him to sell all the methane his digester produces, so now when he flips on the lights, he is buying electricity from the local utility company, like most other consumers. “We can’t even run a generator. That was a condition.” Jensen said. The money he makes from selling the biomethane more than makes up for his new electric and heating costs, but that new energy consumption may not square with New York’s climate goals.
Lawnhurst Farms was founded in 1925 by Don Jensen’s grandparents, with 13 cows. The farm grew gradually over the next 70 years, so by the early 1990s it managed 180 cows. In the next two decades the herd expanded dramatically, until by 2014 Jensen had 2,700 animals. Since then he has added several hundred more. That pattern has been repeated across New York and in dairy regions across the country, as dairy producers sought economies of scale, and smaller pasture-based dairies struggled to compete.
It’s these large confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) that are able to cash in on the new carbon credit schemes. Brightmark, for example, seeks to partner with facilities with “a few thousand milking cows,” CEO Bob Powell said, to make the venture worthwhile.
For large CAFOs, selling carbon credits can be so lucrative that the profits could begin to outpace the money earned from selling dairy products, according to Aaron Smith, an agricultural economist at the University of California, Davis. At that point, Smith wrote, the dairy would be “farming methane rather than milk.”
That’s not the case just yet: Smith estimates that an average cow produces milk worth $4,977 a year and she generates about $1,834 in fuel credits in a year. But the credits do seem to create perverse incentives. Smaller farms where cows are pastured and manure is scattered in the fields–that is, farms with lower-impact environmental practices–aren’t eligible for subsidies. Factory farms with massive manure ponds are rewarded. The credit program “creates clear market distortions,” according to an analysis conducted by Amin Younes and Kevin Fingerman, environmental scientists at Humboldt State University, “in favor of large, confined operations, which could exacerbate the already-present trend of market consolidation.”
Experts on decarbonizing agriculture (as well as advocates for more humane farming practices) fear that the credits will encourage the growth of New York’s CAFOs, with ruinous effects for the environment, for animal welfare, and for rural economies. “Rural communities depend on small farmers,” Newell said. Their economies are stronger and more resilient “when there are many small farmers versus a handful of massive extractive dairy operations.”
Curt Gooch, a consultant on sustainability to Land O’Lakes who worked on New York dairy gas projects for more than 20 years in Cornell University’s Pro-Dairy program, rejects this critique. He said those who claim the carbon credits will inspire a rush to expand “don’t understand the dairy industry.”
“There has to be a market for the milk,” he said, or else “the economies don’t prove out. They are not going to add thousands of cows just because the RNG is in place.”
Yet in states where the biogas industry is more mature, the dairy operations have begun to expand. According to public records, one farm in California’s San Joaquin Valley received a permit to build a biomethane facility in October 2018, and seven months later it was granted permission to increase its herd from a maximum of 9,381 cows to a maximum of 13,200. Several Iowa farms have likewise applied for methane digesters and expansion of their herds in quick succession since the biogas industry arrived, according to Lisa Whelan, operations director of Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement.
In New York, the pipeline projects are only just getting up and running, and none of them are yet drawing checks from fuel credits. So far there’s no evidence that the farms with pipeline contracts have applied for permits to expand. But Don Jensen said Brightmark would “love to see us” bring more manure to the pipeline. He anticipates that Lawnhurst may well continue to grow, following its path, and industry trends generally, for the past several decades. When asked if additional profit from the carbon credits would be one enticement to expand, he said, “absolutely it is.”
‘We Still Have the Manure to Deal With’
Environmentalists point out that extracting methane doesn’t solve the farms’ larger manure problem. Matt Lamb, the proprietor of Lamb Farms, in the northwest corner of New York, acknowledges the fact. “We still have the manure to deal with, whether you’re getting methane or not,” he said. Industrial-sized dairy farms started using manure lagoons because they produce far too much manure to spread straight on fields as fertilizer; the runoff can cause algal blooms and fish kills in local waterways. Lamb has been running a digester since 2009 and now partners with Brightmark. He says once the methane is captured, the dry material is separated from the wet and is often used as bedding for the cows. “The liquid still goes into the lagoons. That part hasn’t changed,” Lamb said.
But methane-producing manure pits are not an inevitable product of raising cows for milk; they are a makeshift solution developed by today’s industrial-scale operations. Factory farms now crowd in “more animals than can naturally fit on a plot of land and whose waste cannot naturally be incorporated on a plot of land,” said Sasan Saadat, a senior research and policy analyst at Earthjustice.
At a time when climate scientists advise that consumption of meat and dairy must be drastically reduced to prevent cataclysmic global heating, Saadat argues that our food systems must be profoundly changed. “We are not planning to leave these oil refineries in place, we are not planning to leave these coal power plants in place,” Sadaat said. “We shouldn’t plan to leave these industrial animal farms in place either.”
Advocates of sustainable farming insist there are better ways to manage manure on dairy farms. The Northeast Organic Farming Association offers technical assistance to farmers looking to institute more sustainable practices, such as “using dry manure management to reduce methane generation, and transitioning to managed-pasture-based and lower-density farming to reduce the concentration and quantity of stored manure,” Katie Baildon, the group’s organic policy coordinator for New York, wrote in an email.
Across the dairy farming regions of New York, Baildon said, “we have seen farm size grow and small farms struggle and go out of business at increasing rates.” Baidon and other advocates for sustainable farming would like to see more dairy farms operate the way Lawnhurst did just a few decades ago, before the digester was built, before the farm acquired too many cows to put out to pasture.
Some advocates are hopeful that the biomethane industry and its subsidies for New York’s factory farms can be stopped. “There’s growing alarm” about biomethane projects, said Alex Beauchamp, northeast region director of Food and Water Watch. He thinks local opposition to the Bluebird project in Cayuga County could be just the beginning. “There’s a deep history in New York of fighting and winning against oil and gas pipelines,” he said. “The people who fought those projects are going to oppose this as well.”