The meat industry, the natural gas industry, and their cheerleaders in government love to pretend they’re solving our climate crisis with false claims. One of their worst is a clever, but dangerous, spin to masquerade burning animal poop as a “clean energy solution.”
Creating a market for animal waste exacerbates our already cataclysmic climate problem in deeply concerning ways, and it incentivizes the expansion of monstrous factory farms at the same time.
Biogas is nothing more than a scheme to line corporate coffers. Massive meat companies that rely on factory farms are joining forces with energy companies to create a market for factory farm waste--and to greenwash it as clean, renewable energy.
"Burning biogas actually releases carbon dioxide and other pollutants."
But, one more time for the kids in the back: biogas won’t solve either our climate crisis or our factory farm problem. It moves us further away from a more sustainable way of raising animals for food. And it has no place in the just transition we need for climate-saving energy and food production.
Biogas won’t save the climate
Manure-to-energy production involves capturing methane, or “biogas,” that is created by decomposing manure stored in massive lagoons on factory farms. The gas is processed and then injected into pipelines to be burned for electricity or to meet other natural gas demands. It’s that process, using digesters to “clean” biogas, that is touted as a way for factory farms to help address climate change.
Despite claims that digesters reduce greenhouse gas emissions, burning biogas actually releases carbon dioxide and other pollutants including smog-forming nitrogen oxides, ammonia, and hydrogen sulfide, potentially offsetting other greenhouse gas reductions.
Livestock production contributes 14.5 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions originating from human activity. To put this in perspective, the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy estimates that the top 20 corporations producing meat and dairy together produce more greenhouse gases than the entire country of Germany; the top 5 combined produce more than Exxon, Shell or BP. We need to rapidly transition away from factory farming in order to avoid catastrophic climate change.
Biogas will only entrench factory farms
We hear it all the time. If we’re going to raise animals on factory farms, then shouldn't we generate energy from the decomposing waste? This question completely ignores the fact that we should NOT be raising animals on factory farms. If we weren’t concentrating thousands of animals into confined spaces we wouldn’t have massive quantities of manure decomposing in lagoons, to begin with. Raising animals on pasture is much more sustainable for multiple reasons, including for the reduction of greenhouse gases.
"Why make this kind of massive investment in things -- factory farms and fossil fuel infrastructure -- that we need to be moving away from to address our climate crisis?"
Digesters don’t magically make manure or the pollutants in it disappear. In fact, the total volume of waste may actually increase after digestion if digesters add water to manure during the process. The leftover waste still must be disposed of, meaning it is still likely to be sprayed or spread on land. It’s also been shown that digestion can make nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus more water-soluble, meaning water pollution may actually increase.
Digesters also won’t make factory farms more bearable for people living nearby. Smithfield likes to claim that lagoon covers and digesters will help to reduce odor caused by its factory farms, but even the North Carolina Pork Council has written that covers do nothing to reduce odors.
And last but definitely not least, is cost. A single digester can cost hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars. The pipelines to gather biogas can cost millions of dollars per mile. Why make this kind of massive investment in things -- factory farms and fossil fuel infrastructure -- that we need to be moving away from to address our climate crisis?
Some states are falling for the biogas hype:
- In North Carolina, Smithfield has proposed covering up to 90% of its hog lagoons in order to generate biogas; the General Assembly has responded by trying to pass a law that would keep some records about digester plans a secret, exempt factory farms that install new digester facilities from new odor rules, and allow new lagoons (which usually means more animals) to be constructed on factory farms that install digesters.
- Oregon’s Department of Agriculture just issued a permit to allow expanded biogas production at the state’s largest mega-dairy-- an enormous facility that houses 70,000 cows.
- Smithfield is proposing to build 26 new factory farms in Utah in order to install digesters to help meet its climate goals (yes, you read that right, they will build new factory farms to meet their climate goals).
- In Missouri, Smithfield is also proposing to install digesters on all of its factory farms; here they are taking the greenwashing to a whole new level here by bragging about creating butterfly habitat near their filthy factory farms.
- In Virginia, a new joint venture between Smithfield Foods and Dominion Energy will place digesters on factory farms and feed the gas into Dominion’s network of dirty energy pipelines.
- Finally, in California, where the cap and trade market has incentivized biogas production for years, five dairy farms were recently awarded millions of dollars in grants to build new biogas digesters that would be located in disadvantaged communities in the Central Valley, already one of the most polluted areas in the country.
The real solution?
This scheme won’t save us from runaway climate change, and it won’t benefit people in Utah, North Carolina, Missouri or anywhere else-- it just makes more money for Smithfield Foods and other corporate polluters.
Massive and polluting factory farms are not part of a clean energy future. Biogas production does not meaningfully address climate change -- it simply allows factory farms to continue to operate while greenwashing their image-- while harming people and the planet. It’s time to change the fundamental structure of our food system in a way that will actually fight climate change. Join us as we fight for truly renewable energy-- and a ban on factory farms.
What can you do?
Take a look at our new issue brief to learn more about why biogas isn’t the solution we need. If you live in a state where biogas is being developed, contact your elected officials to explain why we need an urgent shift to truly renewable energy. And join us as we work to ban factory farms.