California’s clean energy program is leading to the unprecedented growth of factory farm biogas facilities nationwide, an emerging sector of the fossil fuel industry that creates methane gas from factory farm pollution to inject straight into pipelines alongside fracked gas.
The nascent industry has secured allies in high places, from California Governor Gavin Newsom to President Biden, whose USDA is set to unveil a plan to expand the flawed program.
How “Renewable Natural Gas” (RNG) Props Up Polluters
Big Ag is teaming up with the fossil fuel industry to bail out their stranded fracked gas assets. The false climate solution they misleadingly call “renewable natural gas” (RNG) incentivizes the worst practices of the polluting industries. From pipelines to gas hookups in buildings, factory farm biogas keeps gas infrastructure on the grid and provides the rationale to build more. While industry touts RNG as a way to eventually supplant fossil fuel gas, the numbers tell a different story: This is an energy source that, at full potential, with 2019 data, accounts for just one percent of total natural gas use. At a time when we need to move off fossil fuels, factory farm biogas extends a lifeline to the fracked gas industry.
Biogas also drives polluting factory farm expansion, driving increased industry pollution and hampering efforts to transition our food and agriculture system away from emissions-intensive factory farming. Factory farm air pollution includes the release of ammonia, a smog-forming particle linked to more than 12,000 premature deaths annually — anaerobic digestion has been proven to concentrate the pollutant further. Further, the waste left over from the anaerobic digestion process is often land-applied, leaching harmful pollutants like nitrates into drinking water supplies, cropland and regional ecosystems.
How California Is Driving National Biogas Growth
In 2018, there was not a single factory farm biogas facility in California’s low carbon fuel standard (LCFS) program. Today, at least 66 facilities in nine states profit off the credit system. More than 30 large-scale projects are under construction explicitly to generate pipeline gas eligible to profit from the California program.
California’s Low Carbon Fuel Standard (LCFS) is the nation’s largest and most lucrative carbon credit system for factory farm biogas. Intended to incentivize the production and use of low-carbon fuel sources for the transportation sector, the LCFS determines credits based on the life cycle emissions of each energy source. Under the LCFS, factory farm biogas lifecycle emissions don’t include many of the greenhouse gas emissions attributable to factory farming, resulting in calculations that the fuel has a vastly lower emissions intensity than in reality. This faulty accounting attributes a greater supposed climate benefit to factory farm biogas that can be sold as a “credit”.
In his November Methane Emissions Reduction Action Plan, Biden charged his USDA with developing a plan which we anticipate will borrow language from California’s faulty LCFS. This threatens to extend the system’s faulty accounting nationwide, broadening the market and profit horizon for the polluting industry.
How Taxpayers’ Clean Energy Money Goes to Polluters
Factory farm biogas digesters need public funding to turn a profit. Unsubsidized and outside of a credit system, factory farm biogas costs between four and six times as much as fracked gas, per energy unit generated. With LCFS credits, digester facility operators can pay off their startup costs in no time — as much as a few years to profit, despite the hefty startup price tag, which ranges from $3-10 million.
Yet public money flows freely to the false solution. In his 2022 budget, California’s Governor Newsom directed $48 million to factory farm biogas facility development, and the facilities carry President Biden’s endorsement. Federal efforts to prop up the false solution of factory farm biogas spell disaster for our climate. Seeing lucrative public investment, tax credits and pollution trading programs like California’s LCFS, private investment in the biogas scam has tripled since 2017 to $1.6 billion.
Food & Water Watch is tracking the factory farm biogas industry’s growth nationwide, and is engaged both in local fights to stop these methane refineries, in legal action to stop the buildout, and organizing to ban factory farms federally and in states across the country. In October, we worked in coalition to file a petition calling on California to remove factory farm biogas from its LCFS.
Contact: Phoebe Galt, [email protected]