Congress Chooses Ignorance on GHG Emissions

Congress yesterday passed a FY 2010 appropriations measure for environmental agencies that exempts factory farms from having to track and report their greenhouse gas emissions. The exemption applies to a rule issued in September by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) requiring thousands of large facilities economy-wide to monitor and report their emissions.

The mandatory greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions reporting rule was issued in response to a Congressional demand included in FY 2008's funding bill. By eliminating huge factory farms from the reporting requirement, members of Congress are deliberately blinding themselves to crucial information needed to make policies to combat climate change. The new funding bill prohibits EPA from spending any money to implement the rule if it covers manure management systems, ensuring that for at least another year, Congress and the public will be ignorant of the climate damage caused by these systems. 

The current rule is estimated to cover 107 livestock facilities that use certain manure management systems to handle the tons of animal waste produced by concentrating thousands of animals in feedlots. These manure management systems, which include enormous "lagoons"of liquefied waste, emit roughly 58.7 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) annually. The manure system operators would only need to monitor methane and nitrous oxide emissions, which are both much more potent global warming gases than CO2, but for comparison's sake, emissions are measured in CO2e. Emissions from these systems have been greatly increasing for years.

Congressional appropriators originally passed the measure calling for the mandatory reporting of GHG to gather information from "all sectors of the economy of the United States."

Iowa Republican Tom Latham inserted the exemption in the House version of the funding bill, and subsequent Republican maneuvers made sure it was in the conference report. According to Latham, "[The reporting rule] doesn't do one thing to improve the standard of living in rural Iowa or any part of this country.  But I will tell you what it does do. It significantly drives up costs for farmers and hardworking American families…"

According to EPA, the GHG registry is "intended to collect accurate and timely emissions data to inform future policy decisions." Apparently Mr. Latham feels he and his colleagues do not need the data, or perhaps are not interested in making informed policy decisions.

As for the costs to "farmers and hardworking Americans," the EPA has provided estimates of the potential economic costs to the 107 livestock facilities likely impacted by the rule. According to the agency, a facility might incur expenses of $857 to $1,812 for labor in the first year and some facilities might see capital costs of up to $961 per year over ten years. So the unluckiest of factory farmers would be hit by up to $2,773 in costs in just the first year.

Keep in mind, we are not talking about the proverbial family farmer grazing a few dozen cows or even a few hundred chickens. The rule impacts the largest of the obscenely large operations. To meet the threshold for having to report its emissions, a facility must have at least 3,200 dairy cows, or at least 29,300 beef cattle. Pigs, the notoriously prolific poop-makers, must number 34,100 before one of the "farms," known as concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), must report its GHG emissions from its manure management systems. As for broiler chickens, EPA is talking about tens of millions of birds.

A hypothetical extreme cost analysis puts the rule in perspective. If the estimated 107 impacted CAFOs must each pay $2,773 in the first year the GHG rule is in effect, and if the costs were passed on to consumers at a dollar-for-dollar rate, and if the only consumers of the farms' products were constituents of Mr. Latham's district (pop. 585,305), the first-year cost per person would be $0.51.

At a time when agricultural interests are pushing hard to cash in on pending climate change legislation through measures that will pay them for farming practices dubiously considered to offset GHG emissions, one would expect farmers to support having their emissions reported. Without the transparency provided by accurate monitoring, the market for GHG emissions offsets from livestock facilities might be less lucrative.

Before any meaningful policies on climate change - such as a cap-and-trade system - can be implemented, we must have thorough data. We must know who is emitting and how much. Other industries that are estimated to emit less global warming gases than CAFOs are also covered by EPA's rule. Hopefully Congress's recent action is not the beginning of the chipping away at an indispensable tool for averting the worst impacts of climate change.

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