The Central Valley is home to the largest concentration of dairies in California. The region suffers from widespread groundwater contamination, poor air quality, heavy truck traffic, high rates of asthma and other chronic and acute health conditions.
Large dairies are major contributors to these problems, especially impacting the people who live and work in rural, agricultural areas, and who are usually low income families and communities of color.
These massive dairy operations cause pollution that has local and basin-wide impacts. In the San Joaquin Valley, dairies are the largest source of ammonia, which is both a toxic air contaminant and a main precursor to fine particle pollution, not to mention a significant source of smog-forming volatile organic compounds (VOCs). A recent report on nitrate impacts from Central Valley dairies documents elevated nitrogen concentrations beneath all dairies that were studied, and notes significant contamination of both deep and shallow groundwater underneath them.
Despite the harmful impacts on already overburdened communities, the gas industry promises these same dairies are an appropriate source for “renewable” energy. Gas companies and industry groups claim dairy digesters, which capture methane from dairy manure lagoons, can be used for fuel in a way that's sustainable. Meanwhile, the Dairy Digester Research and Development Program, administered by the California Department of Food & Agriculture, doubles down on the problems that have arisen from intense consolidation in the dairy industry over time and contributed to these harmful local impacts.
Dairy digesters aren't a solution. They don't address air and water degradation resulting from various common dairy practices, beyond manure lagoons. For example, silage, over-application of manure on cropland, pre- and post-digester manure management, and dust all contribute to local pollution. About 96 percent of nitrate contamination is caused by nitrogen applied to cropland, 33 percent of which is from animal manure applications. Furthermore, nearby communities still experience noxious odors.
Calgren Dairy Fuels and Southern California Gas Co. recently announced an expansion to Calgren’s biogas operation in Pixley. The companies boast the facility will capture methane from the manure of 75,000 cows and will help SoCalGas meet its natural gas portfolio goal. They claim huge greenhouse gas benefits, while failing to acknowledge the impact on water and air quality, and the reliance on an unsustainable model of animal agriculture.
Calgren and SoCalGas claim if not captured, methane from dairies would otherwise enter into the atmosphere. What they don’t say is biogas releases greenhouse gases when burned as fuel or flared. They don’t mention dairy digesters do nothing to address enteric emissions (from cows releasing gas) which account for about half of the methane from dairies. A false narrative the only way to raise dairy cattle is in heavily consolidated factory farms, prevents a shift towards helping dairies avoid such large methane production in the first place.
Expanding the capture of methane for biogas means we'll need even larger dairies that put the health of local, often low-income communities and communities of color, at greater risk. Digesters likely encourage increased herd sizes and incentivize greater concentration of dairies around energy infrastructure, to generate greater revenue from energy production. Concentrating cows and their waste only intensifies the amount of ammonia, NOx, and water pollution produced by dairies. Communities that face serious environmental and social inequities, who have been fighting for decades for the right to clean water and clean air, are left to bear a disproportionate burden.
As California aims to move away from dirty energy, dairy digesters and the attempt to paint them as “clean,” “green,” and “renewable” undercuts genuine attempts to develop the state’s clean energy infrastructure. While industry leaders promote biogas as “clean” energy and so-called “renewable” natural gas,biogas is neither clean nor renewable.
California can't achieve its climate goals without doing so in a just and equitable way. Doubling down on the status quo model of dairy production in the Central Valley, rather than investing in holistic, environmentally and economically sustainable change in livestock management, won't get us there. Doubling down on existing gas pipeline infrastructure, rather than transitioning to zero-emission energy, won't get us there.
While the state continues to support the financing of dairy digesters, we will work to shine a light on the misguided direction of these investments and the need to address local impacts, shift farmers away from dependence on extremely high herd densities, and lift up small-scale farmers and farmers of color who are using agroecological practices.
Julia Jordan is a policy coordinator with Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability, which works directly alongside impacted residents in the Central Valley who live everyvday with the odors, poor air quality, and contaminated water caused by large dairies. We, along with dozens of other organizations, are committed to tackling our state’s climate crisis while ensuring safe drinking water, clean air, and equitable opportunities for all, regardless of race, wealth, or geography.