August 21, 2014

Agriculture in Crosshairs as White House Targets Methane Emissions

In March 2014, the Obama administration released a 15-page interagency guidance document that laid out preliminary steps for reducing methane emissions. That document asserts that agricultural operations are the top methane emitter in the United States, accounting for 36 percent of overall industrial methane emissions. This update will focus specifically on methane emissions from agriculture, but stakeholders should continue to pay close attention to the administration's actions on methane emissions in the coming months. The administration is hard at work on reducing these emissions across multiple sectors and industries.

The president's methane strategy treads lightly when it comes to agriculture. It does not recommend or prescribe any regulatory or other mandatory actions for agriculture or livestock. Rather, it focuses on voluntary steps that can be taken by operators to reduce their emissions. The document states that "The most important voluntary opportunities are through manure management with anaerobic digestion and biogas utilization." Pursuant to that, the administration released a Biogas Roadmap in August. The document was jointly produced by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Its purpose is to identify ways in which the government can work with the dairy industry to promote the voluntary, increased use of biogas systems. It identifies several goals, including:

  • Promoting biogas utilization through existing agency programs
  • Fostering investment in biogas systems
  • Strengthening markets for biogas systems and system markets
  • Improving communications and coordination through establishment of a Biogas Opportunities Working Group

While the administration has been quick to caution stakeholders that it will pursue no mandatory regulatory policies to reduce methane emissions from agricultural policies, stakeholders and their supporters on Capitol Hill are taking no chances. Not long after the methane plan was released, 16 U.S. senators sent a letter to Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz and EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, urging them to avoid pursuing any mandatory, regulatory actions to address methane emissions. Shortly thereafter the agency heads responded that the administration has no plans to regulate methane emissions from the agricultural sector and will stick to voluntary measures. However, Congress will likely continue to include, in annual appropriations bills, a prohibition on government regulation of methane from agricultural operations.

In particular, the dairy sector stands to be one of the most affected by this roadmap, as milk-producing cows (and ruminants, in general) are allegedly among the main contributors of methane emissions in the agriculture industry. Indeed, the dairy industry requested the plan from the administration. The National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF), which represents U.S. dairy producers and the cooperatives they own, reacted to the administration's announcement by saying that the roadmap is a potential revenue-generator for dairy farms that can also help the industry reach its goal of reducing its carbon footprint by 25 percent by 2020. The emphasis on developing the biogas market creates a unique opportunity for dairy producers who take advantage of methane digesters in their operations.

More broadly, the possibility remains that potential lawsuits by environmental groups over these emissions could result in a "sue and settle" agreement with the federal government whereby involuntary methane emission regulations are imposed. No known material litigation is pending at this time, however.

Reducing and mitigating climate change remains one of the highest-priority legacy items for the president as he approaches his last two years in office. Given the climate-changing role of methane emissions, and the fact that agriculture is such a major contributor to those emissions, stakeholders should remain vigilant in the coming months and consider advocacy options on the ground in Washington, D.C.

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