Are Biogas Subsidies Benefiting the Largest Industrial Animal Farms?

A few years ago, farmers under contract with Smithfield Foods began building an industrial hog facility four miles north of David Remkes’ home in Flowell, Utah. Not long after, a developer submitted a proposal with the County Commission for another operation in the same area that would house more than 30,000 hogs at a time.

“I thought [Smithfield] would never come here. It seemed like everyone I knew didn’t want hogs here,” said Remkes, a house remodeler who has lived in Millard County, about 150 miles southwest of Salt Lake City, for 40 years. “But they’re really, really expanding.”

Remkes and his wife Holly, who have four children, were concerned about odor and groundwater contamination, primarily because they had watched Smithfield’s massive hog farms grow to dominate the landscape in Beaver County, just south of where they live.

In 2017, Beaver County ranked No. 1 in Utah for the number of hogs sold—about 1.4 million—despite the fact that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) counted just 17 hog farms within its borders. And while the concentration began as far back as the 1990s, Smithfield is presenting more recent growth in a novel way: as climate action.

A screenshot of a Google Earth satellite view of hog farms in Beaver County, Utah. The dark squares are manure lagoons.

The county’s newest farm complex, which can confine close to half a million hogs in one area, is a part of the company’s Align Renewable Natural Gas initiative, created in conjunction with Dominion Energy. At these operations, methane that would otherwise be released into the atmosphere from manure lagoons at each concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO) is captured, converted, and funneled into natural gas pipelines, thereby cutting emissions and providing an alternative energy source all at once.

As a greenhouse gas, methane’s warming potential outpaces that of carbon dioxide, and the recent, damning U.N. climate change report recommended reducing the potent gas as a critical step to slowing climate change. On Friday, the U.S. and the E.U. pledged to cut methane emissions by 30 percent in the next decade. While the World Resources Institute estimates manure management accounts for only 7 percent of greenhouse gas emissions from agricultural production globally, those emissions increased by 66 percent in the U.S. between 1990 and 2017, primarily due to hog and dairy lagoons.

Now, as attention to cutting emissions grows, there is a policy push toward supporting animal farm biogas projects, primarily by including them in carbon offset markets.

In addition to California’s two carbon offset markets, a regional market on the East Coast is now set up to pay for methane capture on farms, and the Biden administration has expressed interest in using federal policy to support the projects. In the past, methane digesters have been installed on smaller dairy farms to power those farms or in local closed-loop systems. But as momentum for cleaner energy and emissions reductions in animal agriculture has grown, Big Ag companies have joined forces with gas companies to scale up the projects and connect them to natural gas pipelines.

It’s one of many reasons a coalition of environmental and animal welfare advocates has been warning that what they call “factory farm biogas” is a false climate solution; they say that government support in the form of carbon markets and tax breaks for the production of this gas will tilt the playing field in favor of the largest industrial operations and support larger, more concentrated CAFOs, which negatively impact people and the environment in other ways, including by polluting air and water.

“Anaerobic digesters are not a new technology, but in the past the incentive was for the individual farmer to run an on-site generator to offset their electricity costs,” said Tyler Lobdell, a staff attorney at Food & Water Watch. “Now the integrators like Smithfield . . . are coming in to capitalize on biogas.”

In addition to Smithfield’s large development in Beaver County, Utah, an industrial dairy in California recently applied to more than double its herd with the installation of biogas infrastructure, to more than 9,000 cows. Oregon dairy operation Threemile Canyon Farms is one of the country’s largest dairies, with a herd of about 70,000 cows in one place. Over the years, its digesters have generated generous state tax breaks and carbon credits through an Oregon state program and California’s cap-and-trade market. It partnered with an investment firm for a $55 million upgrade to its digester infrastructure in 2019 to convert and connect its biogas to a natural gas pipeline. Meanwhile, hundreds of small dairy farms have gone out of business in the state over the last several decades.

Bacon with Benefits or False Climate Solutions?

In 2020, Smithfield Foods announced a commitment to reduce absolute greenhouse gas emissions across its supply chain by 30 percent and to become carbon negative across its U.S. operations by 2030. In line with those goals, the company, which is owned by Chinese firm WH Group, the world’s largest pork company, announced aggressive plans to capture methane across its hog operations in several states. Environmental groups including the Environmental Defense Fund have applauded those initiatives because of their potential to reduce emissions.

The Milford, Utah project is the first of several planned as part of the Align Renewable Natural Gas initiative. In a statement provided to Civil Eats, Kraig Westerbeek, vice president of Smithfield Renewables, said the project would cut emissions by 100,000 metric tons, boost revenue for farmers, and generate clean energy to power more than 3,000 homes and businesses annually.

Other Smithfield farm complexes in the same county already had digesters installed and have been producing biogas and generating credits from California’s cap-and-trade system for several years. GreenBiz reported last year that Smithfield’s partner, Dominion Energy, plans to sell the natural gas from the newer facility into California’s Low Carbon Fuel Standard (LCFS) market.

Both of those markets treat the methane captured on hog farms as emissions offsets, and since methane emissions in animal agriculture are otherwise unregulated, they likely do represent real reductions, said Mark Trexler, the founder of the climate solutions-focused group, The Climatographers.

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