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January 31, 2009

A Little More Quo, If You Please

Here's something someone should run with. Via Green Inc. I learned that Sen. Ben Nelson just introduced a bill that would encourage development of the agricultural biogas industry with hopes of including it in the stimulus package. Biogas is a renewable form of natural gas derived from any methane source, like, say, manure. While burning biogas does create carbon emissions, it's more than offset by its effect in eliminating methane, a far more potent greenhouse gas (Marc from the Ethicurean explains it in detail here).

In many ways, it's not a particularly high-tech approach and it's currently in common use in China and India - although unlike with the digesters in use in the developing world, the US biogas industry is attempting to significantly increase biogas content to almost pure methane. Because biogas can be produced and used on site as well as shipped via pipeline to power stations, it's theoretically possible for farms to become energy self-sufficient AND deal with excess manure. This isn't a magic bullet, of course, and in the future, farms are likely to use a lot more manure as fertilizer (remember Peak Phosphorus?). But, even in the post-CAFO world we all dream about, there will continue to be excess manure around. Indeed, this is exactly the sort of thing USDA chief Tom Vilsack means when he talks about developing "new technologies and expanded opportunities in biofuels and renewable energy."

Meanwhile, Sen. Nelson isn't generally what you would call a reform-minded guy when it comes to agriculture. Clearly, any biogas subsidies should be tied to something. How about strict enforcement of environmental laws on CAFOs? Now, I don't want to make CAFOs' lives any easier by giving them a way to profit from their lakes of manure and I definitely wouldn't want to pay for this renewable power source at the cost of ensuring CAFOs' survival lest this become the next beef tallow boondoggle. But I also don't want to see such a nifty little proposal become one more ad hoc item slipped into the stimulus without a real strategy behind it. While there's a prime opportunity for a little agricultural quid pro quo here, there isn't a structure in the Senate that really enables it outside of the once-every-five-years Farm Bill (and we know how well reformers fared with that the last time around). Things really would be a lot easier if there were some way to tie energy, the environment and agriculture together that doesn't go through the Senate (or House) Ag Committee. A guy can dream, right?



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