EPA emissions ruling will affect feedlots

Oct 16, 2009

EPA emissions ruling will affect feedlots

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced the release of a final rule last month that will require many feedlots to report their emissions as part of a mandatory greenhouse gas registry. According to the new rule, any facility that emits more than 25,000 tons of greenhouse gas per year will be required to report to the EPA. Greenhouse gas, in this case, describes an array of gases including carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide. Although the specific number of head required to generate that level of emissions varies, EPA has stated that facilities containing fewer than 29,300 head will be automatically exempted from the reporting requirement. Feedlots housing more animals will be required to conduct further analysis to determine their emissions, and those that exceed the 25,000-ton threshold will have to file an annual report. According to a National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) estimate, this ruling will immediately affect between 150 and 180 of the largest feeding operations nationwide.

Although the majority of feeders in the West may be too small to be affected currently, and others see little cause for alarm, Jon Tarr feels that there is a definite need for concern. Tarr, a business analyst for Harris Ranch Feeders in California’s San Joaquin Valley, worries that federal regulations may become as convoluted as they have in California, a state which has some of the most extensive air quality laws in the nation.

Under California law, Harris Ranch, which can feed roughly 100,000 head at its Coalinga, CA, facility, is required to procure a pollution permit every year from the local air resources board. Tarr is in charge of overseeing this and other environmental permitting at the feedlot, and notes the high degree of latitude given to the regulatory agencies by such rules.

When the law was enacted in 2004, the primary concern in California was for Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs). VOCs are emitted to some degree by all living organisms and combine with other gases in the atmosphere to produce smog, a major problem in central California. Because of this focus, air pollution permits were issued based on VOC emissions, a procedure that cost Harris Ranch untold dollars in fees and time spent filing paperwork. "They went through all these hoops and created who knows how many new layers of bureaucracy," says Tarr, "and now the air district is saying that by 2011, their focus is shifting from VOCs to (nitrogen oxides). Why do we have this permit, and why do we do all this additional record keeping when the regulatory agency suddenly doesn’t care anymore?" Tarr also stated that emissions laws in his state have made it nearly impossible to build a new facility or expand an old one. This is because offset credits must currently be purchased on an open market for VOCs, as well as for dust. He tells the story of a dairyman neighbor who was forced to buy $200,000 in offsets in order to expand his dairy.

"Now they just sit in a drawer," said Tarr. "He’ll never recoup that cost; it may as well have been a tax or a fee."

When it comes to the new EPA rules, Tarr doesn’t know yet what the costs to Harris Ranch will be, but he is concerned that the figures used by EPA to calculate their emissions may not be accurate.

"It’s unreal the numbers that these guys are using," he says. "The calculations for their models are just so far out in left field, it’s really hurting us."

Tamara Thies, chief environmental counsel for NCBA, agrees that the calculations may prove difficult to untangle.

"They give very complicated equations in the rule," said Thies, adding that producers will have to use these equations in order to determine what the EPA thinks they are emitting. As far as the accuracy of the equations, Thies was quick to point out that it makes little difference at this point. "(Feeders) are going to have to trust the EPA that they got the equations and variables right," stated Thies. "They have issued the final rule, whether we think it’s accurate or not."

She also expressed disappointment that EPA had declined to use formulas suggested by NCBA and the American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers, choosing instead to use equations generated by the International Panel on Climate Change.

One thing that does seem clear is that laws concerning air quality and emissions are set to become more prevalent rather than less. Almost before the new rules had been released, EPA was presented a legal petition from the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) asking for more stringent laws regarding livestock emissions. HSUS declined to comment regarding the motive behind this move, but EPA is taking their request seriously, pledging to review and respond to the petition within the next 120 days. Whatever the outcome; emissions regulation is a situation that, in Tarr’s experience, is not going to go away.

"It’s something that people need to be concerned about," he says. "Otherwise, we’re going to box ourselves into a corner we’re not going to be able to get out of." — Jason Campbell, WLJ Correspondent