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EarthTalk®

by Roddy Scheer & Doug Moss


Dear EarthTalk: Is encouraging dairy farmers and cattle ranchers to capture methane gas from their livestock’s manure good or bad for the planet? -- Phil Onorato, Pittsburgh, PA

Methane capture, the process of using the decomposition of livestock byproducts like cow and hog manure to generate electricity, is a promising technology. It helps to resolve existing, and for the time being, necessary evils such as climate-warming methane emissions from cattle and pigs. It works by exposing the livestock waste to bacteria and enzymes that break down the embedded methane into usable natural gas that can be pumped right into generators.

Large farms and livestock operations that employ this now widely available technology can turn their cattle and pigs from a climate scourge—methane is a much more potent greenhouse gas than even carbon dioxide—into at least a producer of renewable energy (even if it is a fossil fuel).

One benefit of generating natural gas this way is that the resource is renewable, as long as cows and pigs keep defecating. Another is that methane capture accommodates existing technologies. Methane capture fuel and traditional natural gas use the same infrastructure.

The downside of methane capture, at least as far as environmentalists are concerned, is that it perpetuates the fossil-fuel-oriented status quo and further incentivizes the factory farm business model instead of a shift to true zero-emission renewables like solar, wind and geothermal. The factory farm business model has wreaked havoc on the environment from coast to coast, from pig waste overflows in North Carolina to poisoned waterways in the Midwest from runoff contaminated by livestock waste to California drought from cattle ranches claiming more than their fair share of water to quench cattle thirst.

But proponents of using methane emissions to offset methane production by livestock argue that their way of producing energy is just as “zero emission” as solar or wind. Yet we wouldn’t even need the process of methane capture to begin with without the livestock trade. Carbon offsets also do not reduce methane emissions, they simply compensate for them. In a sense, they are robbing Peter to pay Paul.

Policy pushes abound on both sides of the issue. These include the California state government walking a fine line between supporting its farm-based economy, while leaning toward a greener future through incentivizing methane capture. Their opponents, including advocacy groups like Food and Water Watch, the Sierra Club, the Southern Environmental Law Center and the Natural Resources Defense Council, are coordinating on crafting legal solutions to manure-related pollution issues.

Methane capture may be a controversial technology, but it is worth investigating. Solutions that can work right now have some benefits over solutions that are only possible in the distant future. But future planning will require more ambitious solutions than temporary replacements.

CONTACTS: California Rejects Petition to Drop Factory Farm Gas From Energy Credit System, foodandwaterwatch.org/2022/01/26/california-rejects-petition-to-drop-factory-farm-gas-from-energy-credit-system/; For dairy farmers, this technology turns methane from cow manure into cash, marketplace.org/2021/07/21/for-dairy-farmers-this-technology-turns-methane-from-cow-manure-into-cash/. 

Dear EarthTalk: What kind of environmental toll is Russia’s war on Ukraine taking?

-- James P., Philadelphia, PA

Russia’s war on Ukraine is one of the worst humanitarian crises facing Europe since World War II. As Russian military forces continue their violent, murderous invasion, environmental organizations worldwide are raising additional concerns of the war’s far-reaching devastation to the environment.

Russia’s military activities threaten Ukraine’s environment through air, water and soil pollution. Toxic materials are released not only from munitions, but from the destruction of infrastructure, ranging from buildings and roads to pipelines and chemical storage sites. Ukraine’s highly industrialized landscape intensifies the country’s risk of toxic pollution from destruction in and around industrial facilities like fuel storage facilities and hazardous waste storage sites. The Donbas region of eastern Ukraine knows this impact all too well: That area was the site of fighting after Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, and is still suffering toxic contamination from leaking industrial facilities and munitions.

Ukraine is home to Europe’s largest nuclear facility, the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant, and fighting near the plant has caused fires to break out. Russian occupancy of the Chernobyl nuclear site, also located in Ukraine, is also deeply concerning. “Few regions on Earth are as poorly equipped to handle military conflict as the Chernobyl nuclear power plant,” Senior White House Correspondent Alexander Nazaryan says. Russian movement in the area has launched radioactive dust from soil into the air, spiking radiation levels within the zone. While experts say there is no immediate danger to surrounding vicinities, the potential of nuclear disaster makes this war even more dangerous to the environment.

The country’s already deteriorating water infrastructure is further threatened by the war. On top of Russian forces cutting off vital water resources that civilians need for drinking and sanitation, damages to wastewater infrastructure are causing untreated sewage to pollute water supplies. On the other end of the spectrum, artillery fire compacted with dry conditions due to climate change make the region susceptible to wildfires. “There is an urgent need for ecological monitoring to assess and minimize the environmental risks arising from the armed conflict,” says UN Environment Program analyst Leila Urekenova.

The war is impacting climate change talks as well. Since Russia is one of the top three fossil fuel suppliers in the world, some green groups worry the climate change agenda will be sidelined. Already, the crisis is showing that other countries, especially the U.S., need to be less dependent on foreign fuel, and fossil fuels in general. Climate analysts hope, if anything good can come from the war, it will be the advancement of renewable energy investment to secure energy independence from nations like Russia.

In its present state, the environmental toll of the Russian war on Ukraine seems boundless. However, the full environmental impact may not be seen for generations to come. As Benjamin Franklin warned, “Wars are not paid for in wartime, the bill comes later.”

CONTACTS: Ukraine invasion: rapid overview of environmental issues, ceobs.org/ukraine-invasion-rapid-overview-of-environmental-issues/; The Impact of Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine on Climate Change Policy, news.climate.columbia.edu/2022/03/07/the-impact-of-russias-invasion-of-ukraine-on-climate-change-policy/.

EarthTalk® is produced by Roddy Scheer & Doug Moss for the 501(c)3 nonprofit EarthTalk. See more at https://emagazine.com. To donate, visit https//earthtalk.org. Send questions to: question@earthtalk.org.


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