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Food Integrity Campaign Blog

A Closer Look: Factory Farm Gas and Pollution

Food Integrity Campaign | May 17, 2021

The following is part one in our series taking a closer look at the top five myths about factory farm gas. For more about how factory farm gas works and its impacts, read our full blog here

Food Integrity Campaign (FIC) Intern Daniel Sobol sits down with Sally Lee, deputy director of Rural Partnerships, to ask some of the main questions he has about factory farm gas.

DANIEL SOBOL: I saw this ad on YouTube that Chevron put out and I imagine a lot of other people saw it, too. I wanted to start by taking a look at it with you. It’s an advertisement from Chevron for “renewable natural gas” made from animal waste on industrial farms. Can you share with me your thoughts on this video?

SALLY LEE: So, at FIC, we call this factory farm gas. That’s because first, there’s nothing renewable about it, and secondly, it depends on the continued existence – and even expansion – of factory farming of animals.

In the ad, one of the first things I noticed is that the imagery clearly evokes a small family farm. The camera zooms in on a young girl watching a calf learning to walk. This communicates a lot to the viewer – it implies that Chevron is working right alongside farmers in the field. The reality of factory farm gas looks more like the Dominion and Smithfield proposal in North Carolina that we have written about before. It’s a business opportunity forged between Big Ag and Big Oil, designed to take advantage of the fact that this technology could make waste more valuable, but ensuring that the big companies will keep control of the profits.

DANIEL SOBOL: Wow, that was not my impression. When I first heard about biogas I thought “alright, this is a really creative way to reuse waste.” And factory farm gas production does capture some methane – so wait, doesn’t that mean it’s eco-friendly?

SALLY LEE: A lot of folks are confused about the technologies. You are certainly not alone! There has been a conscious effort to brand factory farm gas as good for the environment but let’s look at that frame. Factory farm gas is infeasible without factory farms. It requires the existence of huge animal waste lagoons of industrial-scale livestock farms, which create large amounts of methane.

In this way, factory farm gas production justifies the unsustainable practices of industrial livestock farming, and drives the growth of mega-CAFOs in animal agriculture. If these farms practiced more sustainable agricultural techniques, there would be a lot less methane to begin with. As a greenhouse gas, methane is 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide. And if not captured properly, factory farm gas production can even result in methane leakage, contributing to climate change. So, factory farm gas essentially is like putting a band-aid on a very broken system. It’s a huge investment that will only alleviate some of the damage caused by industrial animal agriculture. It’s more of a red herring than a solution for fighting climate change.

DANIEL SOBOL: Pipelines are in the news a lot; can you tell me and readers how factory farm gas gets transported?

SALLY LEE: Factory farm gas is similar to natural gas in many ways. It actually relies on natural gas pipelines for transportation. So, the same pipeline system that carries this fossil fuel gas will carry factory farm gas as well, and they will be mixed together. This is troubling in itself, because it will lead to the expansion of existing natural gas infrastructure. Despite its eco-friendly sounding name, natural gas still emits a significant amount of CO2 into the atmosphere. If we want to truly take on climate change, that means phasing out all fossil fuels.

DANIEL SOBOL: Speaking of carbon, can you explain the relationship between factory farm gas and the carbon credit market?

SALLY LEE: Sure. One strategy to reduce carbon emissions has been to develop marketplace incentives to spur the use of fuels that have less emissions. For example, California became the first in the world to create a program called the Low Carbon Fuel Standard. Fuels that have lower emissions can generate credits, and fuels with higher emissions generate deficits. So, fuel producers in California, like refineries and petroleum importers, generate a lot of deficits. Producers of fuels with lower emissions generate credits. In order to be “neutral,” the fossil fuel companies can buy these credits from the producers of alternative fuels.

The goal is to reduce the footprint of California’s transportation system. But to be clear, under this system fossil fuel companies can still maintain their polluting practices while satisfying the state’s emissions criteria. These government-subsidized emission trading schemes allow companies to artificially lower their carbon footprint. Our concern is that carbon credit markets like this will also prop-up factory farm gas producers with taxpayer money, despite the fact that factory farm gas is a false solution for fighting climate change.

DANIEL SOBOL: How does factory farm gas compare to sustainable energy sources?

SALLY LEE: The reality is that we already have better alternatives available to us. We do not need factory farm gas in order to meet our goals for fighting climate change. We need to focus on sources of energy that are truly renewable, and that do not entrench polluting industries. Wind and solar could be a couple of examples. It is actually cheaper to generate power with wind or solar energy than with factory farm gas.

Stay tuned for more installments of our series tackling the top five myths about factory farm gas!