Christine Ball-Blakely of the Animal Legal Defense Fund joins us to discuss the work of a coalition of organizations that has filed petitions for rulemaking regarding the unbelievable subsidization, with your tax money, of “biogas,” aka factory farm gas, which, as far as I am concerned, appears to be an out and out scam to prop up factory farming, hide its worst environmental harms and convince people that it is part of a sustainable future, when it is, in fact, one of the worst causes of climate change. It’s all outrageous but also flying way too far under the radar, as so many stories about the harms of factory farming tend to do, as they are science-y, deliberately hidden away and obfuscated, and, perhaps most important, definitely not what people want to hear. Fortunately, WE want to hear it, and Christine makes it all very comprehensible.
ABOUT OUR GUEST
As a senior staff attorney at the Animal Legal Defense Fund, Christine works to end the exploitation and systemic abuse of farmed animals. She employs environmental laws to hold the factory farming industry—and the government agencies responsible for regulating it—accountable. She believes that, together, we can build a just legal system that prioritizes the protection of animals, the environment, and marginalized communities over private profit.
- Animal Legal Defense Fund Website
- More information on factory farm gas from ALDF
- Notice of Public Hearing to Consider Proposed Low Carbon Fuel Standard Amendments – comments due 2/20/24
- Proposed Low Carbon Fuel Standard Amendments
Mariann Sullivan: Welcome to the Animal Law Podcast, Christine.
Christine Ball-Blakely: Hi, good to be here.
Mariann Sullivan: It's a pleasure to have you. You know, I've been wanting to talk about this topic for a long time and yet it's a hard topic to get into because there's just a lot of stuff I don't know and there's a lot of stuff that's hard to explain and there's a lot of stuff that is really, really important.
So it's time that we got into it because this issue is huge. For those who aren't up to date on the issue, and I would include myself to some extent on that, can you give us the background overview on what biogas is and where it comes from?
Christine Ball-Blakely: Yeah. Biogas, in terms of terminology, I think it's important to clarify at the outset. You may have heard it called a lot of different things, so biogas is one word for it. We use factory farm gas or factory farm biogas. It's also called biomethane, renewable natural gas, sometimes it's called compressed natural gas, depending on how it's being used.
So, at bottom though, this is gas that is produced from waste practices on factory farms.
I'm sure most of the listeners know factory farms are industrial facilities that confine hundreds or sometimes even thousands of animals all at once in extreme confinement. They're also called CAFOs, and I think one important thing to think about in the context of this topic in particular is that factory farming has not always been a thing.
Industrial agriculture really started getting up to speed in the 80s and 90s, depending on location. And before then, of course, we raised animals for food, but not quite this intensively and not at this scale. So I think of industrial animal agriculture, including factory farming, as a failed experiment, and a fairly recent one at that. And so we see the failures of this system being prevalent not only for animals, who of course have to experience the effects of being confined in these horrible places, but also for the environment and communities that are impacted and occupied by factory farms, and so this is something that doesn't have to be the case.
We're of course against all kinds of animal farming, but this is pretty much the worst case scenario, and instead of walking it back and realizing that it's not working, we're seeing policy decisions at all levels of the government trying to greenwash the industry instead of actually trying to reform the industry.
So, all of these factory farms, for the most part, almost exclusively rely on liquid manure management systems, which would be more appropriately called manure mismanagement systems. And basically the way it works is that they flush manure into these giant holes in the ground that the industry likes to call lagoons.
It's more appropriate to call them cesspools. They're usually unlined and they're usually very large, so they can be the size of football fields or even bigger. Then when they get full, the manure is sprayed on spray fields. There are less environmentally destructive ways to manage manure, but the industry overwhelmingly uses this one because it's the cheapest.
So this is a profit driven decision. There is nothing cheaper in the world than digging a hole in the ground and putting all the manure in it, and then spraying it all over fields. So, this is really a waste management issue. Instead of reforming this practice and scaling animal agriculture down to a level where it is not so environmentally destructive or, of course, in our view, we would like to get rid of entirely, what they're doing is trying to out tech this problem.
So they're coming up with things like biogas or factory farm gas and basically, this factory farm gas, there are lots of different forms that it takes, but it relies on a piece of equipment that's called a methane digester. You may also have heard it called an anaerobic digester. So this digester captures the gases that are coming off of the waste in the lagoons, and those are things like methane and nitrous oxide, lots of climate change inducing gases, and they're capturing it from the decomposing manure.
And then it is taken and used for other things. So for example, it can be used to produce transportation fuel or electricity. So let's back up though for a minute. I want to think again about how this works. The methane is only produced because of the lagoon. So the factory farm is making the decision. We're going to manage waste in this way, because it's the cheapest way.
It's also the most environmentally destructive way. The anaerobic conditions of the lagoon, meaning without oxygen, create enormous amounts of methane and other greenhouse gases. And it is that process in and of itself that creates that methane.
And so the factory farm gas is intentionally produced and then captured. So that's at the very basic level what factory farm gas is.
Mariann Sullivan: Yeah. And that's a really great and detailed explanation. And as I've been doing this, I've been trying to resolve some of the questions I've always had. I mean, one of the things that I think occurs to a lot of people is, you know, when you see articles about this, often like they kind of jokingly talk about cow farts. I mean, they love to talk about cow farts or even cow belches.
And it is true that those are issues that can put these gases into the atmosphere, but the really big issue is what's coming off the lagoons, right? I mean, that's massively more, and that's the issue that they're trying to monetize. Is that right?
Christine Ball-Blakely: You're correct, they're monetizing it at a truly absurd level. Animal agriculture is the biggest source of methane emissions in the United States. It's 37 percent and this is coming from EPA. So it's a good source. We know that this is the case. I think 10 percent of that is coming from manure management as you're talking about like lagoons and spray fields, which is significant.
The rest of it, 27 percent is coming from enteric emissions. And that's what you're talking about with, you know, cow burps and cow farts.
Mariann Sullivan: Oh, so that is a really high percentage, but that's not what they're trying to capture. So occasionally you see like some stupid article with some stupid balloon over a cow, but that's not where the money is at the moment.
It's in the lagoons.
Christine Ball-Blakely: That's right. And that's actually one of the points that we raise a lot. Because, you know, they're pushing these factory farm gas production processes and investing so much public money into this infrastructure, and it doesn't even address the biggest issue, in terms of the climate, that comes from factory farming, which is enteric emissions.
And so these methane digesters, you can't attach one to the back end of a cow or to the front end of a cow and collect the gases coming off of the cow's body. So you have to basically just let those happen. We are unfortunately expecting to see a lot of animal drugs that are coming out.
My wonderful colleague, Larissa Liebman, was on recently talking about Experior, which is an animal drug that purports to reduce ammonia emissions from cows raised for beef. We're seeing a very similar thing with enteric emissions, and so that's kind of the other side of the coin on methane emissions from factory farming, the enteric emissions. That is another issue that is up and coming, and of course, just like with Experior, we're very concerned about not only the effectiveness, because that's always a concern as it is with factory farm gas production, the effectiveness of the drug, but also the impacts to the animals.
The impact to human health and to the environment of feeding these drugs to the animals. I really like your question though, because it really gets to the crux of the issue, which is that instead of realizing that industrial animal agriculture, factory farming, is a failed experiment, we are pumping money into it as a society.
Governments at all levels are pumping money into these quote unquote solutions that are not real solutions, they're false solutions.
Mariann Sullivan: So the gas that we're specifically focused on, I believe, is methane. We've all heard of methane because people are panicked about methane, but can you just briefly say what is it and how bad is it from a climate point of view?
Christine Ball-Blakely: Absolutely. Basically, we're looking at two main gases when we look at factory farm gas. So, factory farms produce all kinds of air emissions that are very dangerous to human health, and they also produce air emissions that are fueling, dramatically, the climate crisis. And one of those gases is methane.
Methane is 25 times more potent at trapping heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide over a 100 year period. The flip side of that is that it can also be destroyed faster, so it doesn't last as long. So it, you know, it kind of dissipates faster than carbon dioxide does, which is a good thing because by regulating methane, we can actually have a huge impact and slow the climate crisis.
We're not seeing that happen really, but that's why it's such a focus is because it's what's called a short lived climate pollutant. Another one is nitrous oxide, and it's almost 300 times more potent. So, those are the two main ones that are greenhouse gases coming off of these manure lagoons and spray fields.
Mariann Sullivan: I've actually seen voices from the industry talking about the shorter shelf life of, I don't know whether you call it a shelf life, but of methane and talking about how that means it's really not so bad because, you know, it'll be gone in a few years and you can just like keep an even amount going in and out and, you know, not making anything worse.
We're screwing up the climate already. It's not like our goal is to just keep things the same in those years that we're waiting for it to dissipate. It's incredibly powerful, right? And it's incredibly strong as a greenhouse gas.
Christine Ball-Blakely: Absolutely.
Mariann Sullivan: If we could wait 10 years, like, you know, maybe that would be fine, but we can't.
Christine Ball-Blakely: We really can't afford to. Yeah, I mean 25 times more potent. So it's in the atmosphere for less time because it dissipates faster, but it's way more potent than carbon dioxide is. And that's why it's what's called a super pollutant. And so it is one of the most critical things we could do to actually meaningfully address the climate crisis is regulate methane emissions.
But there's unfortunately very little will to do that, at all levels of government. And they're focused instead on quote unquote incentives like factory farm gas production, voluntary measures, things like that that really don't work. We need command and control regulation of this industry.
Mariann Sullivan: I don't want to dwell too long on the big picture, but I've already learned a lot. So I want to dwell on it a little long. Cause this is also my understanding, which never seems to come out... well, I read a lot of industry publications, so that's maybe why I'm not seeing it. Assuming that we had to have all of this methane coming out, which isn't true because we don't have to be producing it, their argument that, well, we're using it, so that's better. It's going to cause much more damage just by putting it into the atmosphere than by us finding ways to use it. But the fact is, it's a greenhouse gas. So even when you use it, it's not like then it's all fine. It's still a greenhouse...
It's so hard to explain this, or at least I find it hard to explain it. But it's kind of like if people were saying about oil. Well, you know, of course, we don't want to just pump it out of the ground and spew it all over the ground. That would be terrible. No, we use it. That doesn't mean it's not causing climate change. I mean, when you burn natural gas, you're still emitting greenhouse gases, just not as much as if you spewed it into the atmosphere without doing anything.
So, it's like they're taking a bad situation, which we could eliminate, and making it a little less bad, instead of eliminating it. And it's still a huge, huge problem. And did I say that right? Because I have a lot of trouble articulating this and I find that it's not articulated very often.
Just because we capture this stuff and burn it doesn't mean that we're not producing greenhouse gases.
Christine Ball-Blakely: I think it's even worse than that, you know, like, you're absolutely right, it's definitely not solving anything, and you're absolutely right, we are combusting this gas. At the end of the day, it's not like it miraculously goes away, it's being combusted for energy for some purpose.
It's an attractive thing to think about, it's like, oh, it's like reduce, reuse, recycle without the reduce.
Mariann Sullivan: They call it sustainable because it keeps coming. It's not a fossil fuel. I mean, there are methane fossil fuels, but this methane is sustainable because we keep getting more of it and we use it and then we keep getting more of it. But in the meantime, we're losing the planet.
Christine Ball-Blakely: And the fact that the incentives for this, for the production of factory farm gas, are actually increasing the greenhouse gases emitted. Let's just think about this for a minute. Number one, we've already said that these digesters are not able to capture enteric emissions.
And we've already said enteric emissions are 27 percent of methane emissions. Manure management are only 10. So, what happens when you monetize something like this? The Wall Street Journal had an article recently, maybe like a couple of years ago, that said something about the manure gold rush.
And so we're monetizing this at such a level that factory farmers are now producing manure on purpose. And what that means is that they're also increasing their enteric emissions in conjunction with that. And so we're seeing those emissions go up, and factory farming is getting bigger and badder, which is the opposite direction that it needs to be going as we know.
There's also a lot of issues with the system as a whole. So, when you take raw manure, it has a certain level of emissions. When you take digested manure, it's called digestate. That's the residue that's left over after the manure goes into the digester. That is a chemically different thing than raw manure that has not been put in a digester.
And what we know from studies is that digestate is much higher in things like ammonia and nitrous oxide, which as you remember is 300 times more powerful than carbon dioxide. That digestate is much higher in those things than undigested manure is. So what we found in studies is that the increased nitrous oxide emissions from the composted solids alone erase the purported benefits of this methane capture in the first place.
To say nothing of the fact that you're going to have to refine this factory farm gas, so it goes into a refining process, much like any other fuel, to make sure that it can be used for things like, fuel for vehicles, for compressed natural gas, things like that, for electricity production.
And that process creates a lot of emissions. And then it's transported through fossil natural gas pipelines, which we know are extremely leaky. So, that's something the Biden administration has focused on a lot, are these fossil natural gas pipelines and the reason why is because they're a huge problem.
They also leak emissions, the digesters themselves leak emissions. Sometimes they explode. They're very volatile. And when that happens, of course, the digestate goes all over the place. In 2022, there was a massive spill from a digester in North Carolina. I think 37, 000 gallons of digestate reached the nearby wetlands.
What we're also seeing is the entrenchment of both of these industries on the backs of these subsidies propping up factory farm gas. So, the oil and gas industry has kind of entered into an unholy alliance, if you will, with the animal agriculture industry because they're doubling down here.
So, it's kind of a great gaslight, in terms of greenwashing. The oil and gas industry wants some money to keep putting infrastructure in place for their fossil gas. They're, they're greenwashing their fossil gas with factory farm gas. And then the agriculture industry is greenwashing its practices with factory farm gas.
And so it's like, oh, both of these industries are lobbying like crazy. You know, we see industry actors like Chevron, BP, Shell, Smithfield, Tyson, Purdue, all of these massive corporations are all in on factory farm gas because they're working together to preserve their current business models, and you're right, at our peril because none of this is solving the climate crisis and it's probably even increasing emissions.
Mariann Sullivan: Yeah, it would obviously be increasing emissions because natural gas is not a solution to emissions. It's like we have natural gas farms and we're just producing more and more natural gas. That makes so much sense what you say about the infrastructure that they require.
I mean, I guess some of the gas that's produced, I do read that some of it's used right in place on the farm, but most of it probably, the goal would be to be able to sell it. And then you're putting it exactly into the same whole pipeline system. You're just making that system bigger and bigger and building more and more infrastructure to support it and none of it is providing the kind of energy that we need.
If I reiterate things you say and get them wrong, please let me know because all of this is kind of new to me and I think it's fascinating. Like, we have to know this. It's such a scam. It's a scam in like 12 different ways. I, you know, there's a scam at each level of it, and it's hard to figure out all of it.
Are we talking mostly about pigs and dairy cows? That's who I associate with lagoons.
Christine Ball-Blakely: Yes, there are now efforts underway to use dry poultry litter from chicken and turkey CAFOs. Yes, so that's kind of an up and coming thing that we're seeing happening more and more, particularly in places like Delaware. But yes, for the most part, most of my work has been concentrated in California, in the San Joaquin Valley, and we see mostly dairy there.
Although, California's program, the Low Carbon Fuel Standard, is also propping up factory farms all over the country, nationwide, because you do not have to be located in California to exploit this program and profit off of it. And so then we're seeing actors like Smithfield, in Utah, they have these absolutely massive pig factory farms in Utah that are participating in this program.
So yes, we see a lot of different mostly dairy but also pigs and usually the digester, you know, there's a lot of different kinds of digesters but the ones that we see primarily in California are basically giant tarps that are spread over the lagoon.
Mariann Sullivan: Yeah, it's another, like, like Lagoon. It's a fancy name for something that's really not all that fancy, right?
Christine Ball-Blakely: Oh for sure, yeah, lagoon. I mean it's a cesspool. It's a hole in the ground filled with manure. No, that's a huge piece of it.
Mariann Sullivan: Digester I picture like some fancy, like, techno machine or whatever. It's a tarp.
Christine Ball-Blakely: Yeah, I mean, the whole point is to deprive the manure of oxygen even more so that microbes can eat the decomposing manure. I'm sorry, I know this is a very glamorous topic, but that is pretty much how it functions. Sometimes they're above ground tanks, there's different kinds of digesters, but the ones that we see primarily in California are the ones that are just basically a big tarp over a lagoon.
And you can see pictures of them online. It's quite eerie to see.
Mariann Sullivan: I have seen, I saw a picture when I was prepping for this, and when I first glanced at it, I thought it was a picture of snow, and it was really just like these huge white tarps over piles of shit, basically. Really, really charming.
I just wanted to reiterate one thing because I think that what's really going on here and everything I read about it that's like in favor of it, it's all based on the supposition, which it's very easy to convince people of, that factory farming and raising animals in general is inevitable. Like this is just what we have to do.
That's the basic supposition here. So if that is true, this does lead logically from that. We might as well like, like not release this methane into the atmosphere and use it for something and we'll produce some energy and it'll be another income stream. You really have to get down to that basic issue of we do not have to raise these animals for food. Like that's the point here. And so, so we don't have to worry about the side products because what we should be worrying about is whether we should be doing it at all.
Christine Ball-Blakely: Yeah, and I think there's different gradations of that. I mean, that's certainly our perspective here at ALDF. But you see, that's kind of why I started out talking about factory farming, because we do think of it as inevitable. We do think of it as something that is just a fixture of our society that we cannot get rid of or even reform.
And that's just not true. It hasn't even been a part of our society for very long in the grand scheme of things. And again, I want to emphasize- you don't have to raise animals for food. You don't have to factory farm animals for food. And we have a lot of partners on that point. You know, we work with a lot of environmental organizations who agree with us on that point.
Factory farms are bad for the environment. They're bad for the community that has to be impacted by it. They're bad for animals, as we know, but also we are paying factory farmers a premium. Just absolutely absurd amounts of money to use the most environmentally devastating form of manure management they possibly can.
So the bigger the mess they make, the more money they get. And we're creating an industry out of producing manure. Whereas before, manure was a liability. Well, you know, what do you do with it? It's here. We don't have like waste treatment facilities like we do for human waste. So, we just spray it all over the land, and put it in holes in the ground, and now they're really, really making it a commodity.
It is a gold rush for manure, and that's extremely devastating for everyone, except for the people who are making a buck off of it. There was a study, not that long ago, that said that, just in California, I think, that factory farmers were making, I want to say it was more than $2,800 per year, per cow, just off of the low carbon fuel standard, and credits.
So, yeah, and we're talking about facilities, you know, factory farms that have 10, 000 cows, more than that, you know. It's just, it's also distorting the market. So we've seen the dairy industry decline recently. We're seeing it decline in a positive way because this is not something that we should be doing.
This is not a practice that should be happening. But, this has given them kind of a toehold to continue entrenching their practices. And so, and that's true for all factory farming. So this is continuing something that may have stopped on its own, just due to market forces. In the dairy context, which is especially disturbing.
Mariann Sullivan: Yeah. What other business do we do this for? It's unbelievable. I live in upstate New York, which is huge dairy country, and there's just this assumption that what's good for dairy is good for us. It's crazy. It's crazy. Everybody, it's just a mindset and everybody goes along with it. And when you say that we are supporting it, we are paying for it, you mean we are, because this is a taxpayer funded enterprise.
It's our tax money that's going into the pockets of all of these people who are basically in the business of producing shit.
Christine Ball-Blakely: Absolutely.
Mariann Sullivan: So the main focus so far, legally is on this federal program and as you mentioned, the California program. I hadn't realized that the California program actually had a national impact.
So let's start there 'cause that's really the one that's been a focus. Can you just give us an overview of the California, I think it's called the California low carbon fuel standard.
Yes. and how it works.
Christine Ball-Blakely: Yes.
So the Low Carbon Fuel Standard is a pollution trading scheme. And it purportedly exists to decarbonize California's transportation sector. And the way it works is that it sets a target for the average carbon intensity of all transportation fuels that are used in the state of California. And you can kind of think of carbon intensity as a measure for how clean or green a fuel is.
So, a fuel with a high carbon intensity is dirtier and worse for the environment and the climate than a fuel with a lower carbon intensity. The way they calculate a carbon intensity of a fuel is by doing what's called a life cycle analysis, and the life part of that is important. It's supposed to account for all of the emissions that go into producing any particular fuel.
Every single emission from well to wheel. So in the context of gasoline, the gas well all the way to the car that is using the gas, well to wheel. So that's the life cycle analysis that informs this carbon intensity score. And in the low carbon fuel standard, you have producers of fuels that have higher carbon intensities, and those are things like gasoline and diesel.
And because they have a higher intensity than the target that has been set, that creates deficits. Those producers are called deficit generators. And then producers of fuels that have lower carbon intensities, things that are quote unquote greener than the LCFS target, which unfortunately includes factory farm gas, create credits.
So those producers are called credit generators. So you have two different kinds of parties here. Does that make sense so far?
Mariann Sullivan: Yeah, well, it makes sense in a way, though calling that a credit is, doesn't make a whole lot of sense, but that's not your fault. You have explained it well, but it just, I can't say it makes sense.
Christine Ball-Blakely: That makes sense. I totally understand what you mean. So, deficit generators, like I said, are producers of gasoline and diesel, and they purchase credits from credit generators, like, unfortunately, producers of factory farm gas, to quote unquote offset those deficits.
Mariann Sullivan: So, it's like, the worst getting credit from the bad.
Christine Ball-Blakely: I think that's a good way to put it.
Mariann Sullivan: What about other, like, do better producers of energy, like solar or wind or whatever, better environmentally, do they get a better credit than factory farms? Or are factory farms like at the top and considered... like, I can't believe they can sell credits!
That's so crazy!
Christine Ball-Blakely: Well buckle in, Mariann, because it's about to get worse. So, factory farm gas has the lowest carbon intensity of any fuel in the low carbon fuel standard.
Mariann Sullivan: Oh my god!
Christine Ball-Blakely: Yes. So, most fuels in the program range between zero and a hundred. So, for example, to your point, if you have an electric car that you've charged with solar generated electricity, so you have a solar panel on your house and you charge your car with that, you would have a carbon intensity of zero.
Kind of makes sense. Gasoline would have somewhere up near like 100 probably, positive 100. Factory farm gas is always below zero and sometimes so drastically in the negative that it blows your mind. We've seen some as low as negative 790.
Mariann Sullivan: Like who counts this and how does that, like I just can't get my head around that. How does that happen? I mean, obviously producing methane is not less than zero carbon.
Christine Ball-Blakely: That's pretty much the way it happens. So they don't look at it like they're producing methane. It goes back to the life cycle analysis that I mentioned, which informs the carbon intensity. So they're supposed to look at this gas and look at everything, every single emission that went into making it.
That would include enteric emissions, by the way, but they don't do that. And on top of that, they actually give these factory farmers credit for capturing methane that would already have otherwise have been vented to the atmosphere. So, they build these lagoons intentionally. They make them anaerobic intentionally.
This produces a ton of methane, more than, way more than a ton, you know, just colloquially a ton. And then they pay them the most, they give them the most valuable credits for it. So like, they give them the highest number of credits for this because the carbon intensity is so low. Because they're just looking at a tiny piece of the production process, and they're giving them credit for avoiding the methane being vented that they created intentionally in the first place.
Mariann Sullivan: We're, we're going back to that, that issue of we start with the assumption that factory farming is inevitable. It's just like what happens. So it's not, that's not anybody's fault. And so they actually are reducing the emissions that come from factory farming and they're avoiding the idea that, well, we wouldn't have to even do this at all.
Is that right?
Christine Ball-Blakely: Yes, and another way of saying it that one of our coalition partners has said for a long time, and I think makes a lot of sense, is that they take these manure lagoons like natural lakes or something that just appear in the environment and that's not the case. As we said, this is the cheapest way to quote unquote manage manure and that's why they do it. Because they're profit driven and they want as much money as they can possibly get, and the government doesn't force them to do anything different So now, not only is the government not forcing them to do anything better than that, but they're also rewarding them for choosing the most destructive possible way of managing manure.
And that's how they get this really absurdly low carbon intensity score. And so they're cashing in big time because these credits are so valuable because they're quote unquote so green.
I mean, the easiest way to say it is that it's smoke and mirrors accounting. They're not looking at the whole life cycle of this fuel. They're not considering enteric emissions. They're lavishly crediting the quote unquote avoided methane that was intentionally created in the first place.
Mariann Sullivan: And they're considering a factory farm lagoon the equivalent of a natural lake. That's exactly right. Like, factory farm is just, you know, what we do. Like, there's no way around that. This is insane. Wow. This gets worse and worse. I was horrified when I was reading before, and now that you've told me the details, I'm even more horrified.
So basically, this process increases greenhouse gas emissions in two ways, because it allows the oil and gas companies to buy offsets so that they can keep producing, and that it encourages more and more factory farming and more and more methane creation and use. So, that produces more greenhouse gas emissions, and it only reduces greenhouse gas emissions in the sense that you just consider the lagoons natural lakes, and it would be floating off into the atmosphere, which would be really bad, but instead we're capturing it and using it, so we're heroes.
Christine Ball-Blakely: So if you ask the California Air Resources Board, which is the agency in California that's responsible for the low carbon fuel standard, they would also say that the factory farm gas is displacing, say, gasoline and diesel in the transportation sector, which is the point of the low carbon fuel standard.
So they're saying like, you know, we have these compressed natural gas trucks that run on factory farm gas, and so we're taking it from being vented into the atmosphere and using it to power this truck. And that's displacing the fossil fuel that would have otherwise powered that truck. It's a bunch of different ways that they get to this score, but that's one of the ways.
The ones that we're most focused on are the completely inadequate lifecycle analysis, that's probably the nicest way I can put that, and then also the policy decision to give them credit for a quote unquote avoiding methane that they intentionally created themselves. So, that is a perverse policy decision.
Mariann Sullivan: We are seriously through the looking glass here. This is just hard to even get your head around.
Christine Ball-Blakely: Yes.
Mariann Sullivan: It's so convoluted and ridiculous. California has this program; is this going on in other states as well, or is California really out ahead?
Christine Ball-Blakely: They were out ahead. They were the first one to have this program. And unfortunately, they're considered the gold standard. And so we've seen similar programs pop up in Oregon and Washington and even in British Columbia. Other states are considering doing the same thing. And this is why we have focused, ALDF and our coalition partners have focused so much of our attention on California because it really does set the bar.
So we feel like if we can get our arms around it here, then that will have a huge impact and it needs to happen. But, you know, even though we're centered in California with this effort, we do have partners all across the country. You mentioned you live in upstate New York. There are dairies in upstate New York that are participating in and profiting off of the low carbon fuel standard right now.
And there are also horrible, horrible factory farms, like Smithfield, for example, is participating in this. It doesn't matter how cruel the factory farm is, it doesn't matter if they've had manure spills in the past, if they're violating their permit. The California Air Resources Board does not care about any of that.
They will still give them credits. So it really is so perverse.
Mariann Sullivan: Yeah, we just had on Jamie Berger, on the Our Hen House podcast, The Smell of Money. This is the next chapter in The Smell of Money, because the smell just got a lot stronger. I mean, there's just more and more, they didn't even cover this issue because, probably, as you said, it started in the dairy industry and hasn't taken hold as much in the pig industry.
But now they're going to be making even more money. The chances of them being able to shut down these lagoons in Eastern North Carolina have just gotten much tougher and they have more and more money to fight them with.
Christine Ball-Blakely: Yes.
Mariann Sullivan: Unbelievable! All right. Most of my interviews are with people who are involved in litigation and I don't think this issue is at litigation stage yet, but there has been already a major legal effort underway, at least about this California program. So can we talk a little bit about what's happened so far in this legal effort?
I think there's actually a coalition working on it.
Christine Ball-Blakely: Yes, yes, we're very happy and proud to be a part of this coalition. We've been working in this capacity for a few years with them now. I don't think I can name everyone, but our main coalition partners include the Leadership Council for Justice and Accountability, which is a wonderful organization in the San Joaquin Valley in California.
They focus on environmental justice and do a really great job of amplifying the voices of residents who are really having their lives impacted by factory farming and now digesters. And Food and Water Watch is another coalition partner, which of course, they're a nationwide environmental organization.
And we have been collaborating with them to really try to bring attention to this issue and we really want to advocate sufficiently that the California Air Resources Board will stop allowing this to go on. So, we've been filing all kinds of comments, a hundred, I think over a hundred sets of comments, probably more in the past couple of years.
So that's one thing we've been doing. So every time a factory farm gas producer wants to profit off of the low carbon fuel standard, they have to send an application to the California Air Resources Board. We have been challenging all of those. So we have filed comments and opposed every single one of those, nearly every single one.
There have been, like I said, I think over a hundred in the past few years, and we've really seen it accelerate recently. In 2021, we filed a petition for rulemaking with the Air Resources Board in California, and our main ask was for them to remove factory farm gas from the low carbon fuel standard.
And we had a few different arguments in that one. One thing I haven't mentioned yet is that this is only one program in California and there are also federal programs pumping money into this system. So, the people who are producing factory farm gas, they're not buying their own digester and they cost I think an average of five million dollars.
So, they're not buying their own. They are relying on grants and loans from the government to get the digester in the first place. And then they're getting all these credits to produce factory farm gas. So, California has a program called the Dairy Digester Research and Development Program that pays for these digesters.
So we're seeing this requirement for the low carbon fuel standard that they can only give credit to emissions that would not have otherwise occurred. And so what that means to us is like, we read this law and we see they're not supposed to be giving credits for emissions that have already been accounted for, basically.
And that's exactly what's happening, because you'll say, have one factory farm that sees the money in this situation, and they get a digester through the California program that pays for it. So they already have the digester, it's already gonna be running, purportedly reducing emissions. To what extent is definitely something we disagree on with the industry.
But then they're getting these low carbon fuel standard credits on top of that for purported emission reductions that would have already occurred because they already had their digester and it was already running. So our petition really highlights this lack of, it's called additionality.
So there's additionality requirement. They're not supposed to be given credit for emissions that would have already occurred because what's the point? That's not actually reducing emissions, so it's not working. The other thing we challenged in our petition is the life cycle analysis. As I mentioned before, the carbon intensity of factory farm gas is only as favorable as it is because they're not looking at all the emissions that go into producing it, like enteric emissions.
Mariann Sullivan: Yeah.
Christine Ball-Blakely: And we also talk about environmental injustice. So, one thing that we argued is that the Air Resources Board in California is discriminating against communities in the San Joaquin Valley that suffer the impacts of factory farming. Because what we have is the industry on record admitting that they're consolidating in this area.
So for example, they'll put a massive digester in one area, if it's not the covered legume kind. You know, they have this huge digester and this huge refining facility that they put in one area, and then they have a bunch of dairies sending manure to this one location. So they're admitting that they're consolidating cows in this one small community.
And this is happening in several different places, it's not just one. But the health impacts of CAFOs are well documented. And this is hurting communities, so we also argued that.
Mariann Sullivan: That makes so much sense that it would be profitable for them to concentrate the animals even more intensely, so they're all in the same place, they're all producing manure in the same place, and that makes the transport of the gases that much easier.
Christine Ball-Blakely: Yes.
Mariann Sullivan: Especially if you have to build pipelines.
Christine Ball-Blakely: Well, they don't pay for that either. That's another thing that the California Public Utilities Commission has a program that pays for infrastructure for factory farm gas. So, once again, we're seeing they're not paying for the infrastructure. They're not paying for the digester. They're getting credits to produce it.
You know, it's just like piling money on to this industry. I mean, windfall doesn't even begin to describe what we're dealing with here. And so, we raised all these issues and said, look, the integrity of this program is in jeopardy if you do not do something about the way that you treat factory farm gas or remove it altogether, ideally, from the program.
So, unfortunately, I know this is probably a spoiler, the Air Resources Board denied our petition. We were disappointed, of course. We did file a petition for reconsideration.
Mariann Sullivan: At the petition level, you're basically going to the people who made the decision and saying you're all wrong. That's a hard argument to make.
Like they're not going to want to grant that.
Christine Ball-Blakely: Yes, you're right. And they rely on it, right? I think that the Air Resources Board relies on factory farm gas so dramatically to show reductions in emissions on paper that aren't real. They're not really reductions. And so, obviously, at the end of the day, our groups all have different kind of, we all share interests as well, obviously, but we all have different focuses.
But, at the end of the day, this climate program is not working, and that should scare everyone.
Mariann Sullivan: Yeah.
There was also, if I understand correctly. There was a petition and that was denied for the most part, and then there was a petition for reconsideration, is that right? Rather than trying to go to litigation, there was a petition for reconsideration and that was also denied?
Christine Ball-Blakely: Yes. That happened the next year. I think we bolstered our arguments, reinforced them, you know, showed them why they need to reconsider their decision. We did the best we could. What we got back in response was interesting to these two petitions, and also timely and relevant for reasons I'll get to in a second, but they basically said, you know, we'll take it under consideration for when we amend the low carbon fuel standard.
Well, guess what? That's now. So, you know, they amend the low carbon fuel standard periodically every six years, I think, and that's happening right now. So we've been waiting for this moment, and we waited with bated breath to see if the proposed changes would be what we've been asking for, and demonstrating with hard evidence, studies, facts, testimony, all of these things. We have shown them time and time again, that they need to do what we're asking.
And so, we've been waiting and hoping, maybe this is what is going to happen. But they released the draft language of the rule and it's not. So, unfortunately, they're really doubling down on factory farm gas. They're trying to use it in different ways now. They really want to protect the investors.
That's what they, we've heard time and time again. We're worried about stranded assets, and what that means is, you know, we have people, these factory farm gas developers, which by the way are often times people like Chevron, who have really put a lot of time and resources into this, and they don't want to not get a return on their investment basically.
So that's what the Air Resources Board is most concerned with.
Mariann Sullivan: There's an important consideration.
Christine Ball-Blakely: Very important, yes.
Mariann Sullivan: What is it about agriculture in particular? Well, you know, and then huge companies especially, but, but like if I started a restaurant and it failed, I don't think I could go to the government and say, well, I made bad decisions and I put all this money into it. So, so give me money.
Like, in other areas of endeavor, you know, you win, you lose. Like, you don't get paid back just because you put a lot of money into it. What if we all buy a stock and it goes down? Like can you go to the government and say, Oh no, I lost money. You need to give me money. Like it's crazy.
Christine Ball-Blakely: Yeah, it is. And it's the result of a truly unimaginable amount of money in politics and, um, the lobbying. I mean, we all are familiar with agricultural exceptionalism, and I think that the oil and gas industry is like, Oh, we can hitch our wagon to this. And so that's what they're doing, and it really benefits them.
I mean, it's, pardon the pun, but it's a massive cash cow. But yeah, I mean, they have successfully lobbied this agency, and others, and it's unfortunate. So, we're seeing they're doubling down on factory farm gas in this latest version of the rule. They're planning to continue rewarding the industry for alleged avoided methane emissions that they intentionally created in the first place.
So, comments are due on February 20th, so we're in the process of putting them together now. And we're just going to keep fighting the fight. It's something that's too important. We really can't let this go on. We have to keep fighting it and that's what we're going to do until we get somewhere because people know better. They are jeopardizing our future.
They're doubling down on something that needs to go away. At the end of the day, factory farms need to be abolished, not propped up and entrenched with greenwashing schemes funded with public money. And in the meantime, they need to be regulated. Governments at all levels have to regulate these climate crisis causing animal factories.
They could charge them a methane emissions fee. They could require them to reduce their herd sizes so that they're not so big. They could make it illegal to use liquid manure management, which is, by the way, what's creating all the methane in the first place. It doesn't have to be like this. Our goal is to make that point.
And I think that our futures depend on it.
Mariann Sullivan: Are you encouraging people to submit comments? Is that something that individuals can and should do?
Christine Ball-Blakely: Absolutely, yeah, you can find it. If you Google it, you'll be able to find it and maybe I can send you some information on it that you can put in the notes, but absolutely. Yeah, you can absolutely submit comments and I think the more the merrier. And again, just to reiterate. If you live in Wisconsin, you're impacted.
If you live in New York, you're impacted. Texas, Utah, Missouri, California, obviously. But it's all over. So, yeah, absolutely.
Mariann Sullivan: You know, I just want to remind people too of a recent interview we had, which it's a totally different topic, but it's related. We recently did an interview of how chat GPT can be used in advocacy. And writing something like this can be very intimidating, but if you want to throw it in chat GPT and then, you know, check to make sure it's right and fix it, it makes it a whole lot less frightening. So I think we should all be thinking about doing that. We now all have something to write all these hard things for us.
That is crazy. I mean, obviously you're still in the rulemaking morass. It doesn't look like you're going to get what you want out of that, though I have no idea.
Any next steps that you have in mind?
Christine Ball-Blakely: You know, we're just kind of waiting at this point to see how this goes. Of course it is just a proposed rule at this point, so they may change it. We are hopeful that the board will do the right thing. The California Air Resources Board will do the right thing, will listen to its constituents, the people that it really owes a duty to.
Community members who are impacted by factory farms, this is really an issue that's having a huge impact on public health. This is not something they can turn a blind eye to anymore. It's an environmental injustice and they need to take it seriously. We certainly are.
But yeah, we'll just have to wait and kind of see how the proposed rulemaking process shakes out. And we're still crossing our fingers and hoping for the best.
Mariann Sullivan: I've kept you for a long time, and I don't want to spend a lot of time on it, but I don't want to leave without talking about the federal program, because this isn't just happening in California. I think it's called the Renewable Fuel Standard Program, can you talk a little bit about that?
Where it is and what's being done about it.
Christine Ball-Blakely: Yes, like I said before, there are tons and tons of piles of money being thrown at this from all levels of government. California's low carbon fuel standard is a huge piece of that. But the federal government also has a lot of money going into it. Some of it comes from USDA. They have the Rural Energy for America program.
That provides lots of grants and loans for digesters. And then EPA has this renewable fuel standard that's kind of the low carbon fuel standard equivalent in the federal sphere. So, the overall goal of this program was to incentivize the production of alternatives to petroleum based transportation fuels.
And the goal was to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the transportation sector in the United States, and also to reduce our dependence on oil from other countries. So in this program, again, it's kind of similar to the low carbon fuel standard. Oil refiners or importers have to buy credits that are called renewable identification numbers or RINs and they have to do that to meet EPA's renewable fuel targets.
Factory farm producers, or factory farm gas producers, once again, can get these RINs or credits for producing factory farm gas and then sell those to refiners. So, very similar to the dynamic in the low carbon fuel standard. But, in both programs, the factory farm gas producers and the factory farms are not regulated.
So, they're only getting the plus side, right? Like, there's no downside to them, they're just making money off of it. So, there's no regulation for them, they're just getting a payday out of it. The worst part about this is, you know, I talked before about additionality when I was talking about our petition for rulemaking.
They can participate in all of these programs at the same time. So that's another, yeah, that's another really big problem that we're seeing. And so, there's just so many different sources of money for this, that it doesn't make economic sense for factory farms to not do it, and the government has created that situation.
And so that's why we're seeing this perverse incentive to expand, to entrench its liquid manure management practices. And, the industry just has no reason to reform in any way if we have this perverse incentive out there from all different levels of government.
Mariann Sullivan: Wow. Christine.
Christine Ball-Blakely: I know, it's a real bummer.
Mariann Sullivan: Like, I thought things were bad before we got on this interview with each other. And now I'm like, Oh my God, this is just crazy. It also feels like an emergency. I mean, I consider climate change an absolute emergency. And obviously it's an emergency for the animals every single day of their pathetic lives.
Like, the legal system grinds so slowly and it just really can't keep up with this level of evil and it's getting bigger and bigger. I mean, do you see there being legal solutions to this? Do you see it being perhaps made sufficiently comprehensible to people that it will become, you know, an issue of public attention and that the public will care about?
Christine Ball-Blakely: I think so. I think we know that the public doesn't support factory farming. People don't support this, and the problem is that it's out of sight and out of mind, and we know that. And as animal advocates, that's constantly on our minds. How do we change that? And this is a similar dynamic, I think.
Mariann Sullivan: Totally.
Christine Ball-Blakely: It just needs to be, the industries and the government, which is responsible for regulating the industry and is instead propping it up, perversely incentivizing it to be as bad as possible. It's opaque for a reason. And so, I think all of the advocates that I know and work with on this issue, one big piece of our goal is to make sure that the public understands what's happening.
And understands that it's a policy decision designed to help factory farms. And designed to help oil and gas. And you're absolutely right, the climate crisis is not a problem we can wait to address anymore. These pollution trading schemes are never going to cut it. We have to make real change and I do think that the law is one piece of the solution. As an advocate, I think a lot about people power. I think a lot about communities who are fighting not only for a better world generally, but more emergent for them is the fact that they're fighting for their own lives.
We know that animal agriculture kills, I think it was 1, 200 people a year, just from the fine particulate matter that is produced So, this isn't something we can wait to address anymore, and people know that. I'm just trying to make it as comprehensible as possible, and I spent years working on it, and it's confusing.
Mariann Sullivan: It's really confusing. It's intimidating.
Christine Ball-Blakely: And it's on purpose! I think!
Mariann Sullivan: Totally. Well, I thank you so much for doing it and for joining us today to break it down. I think you've made it very comprehensible, you've certainly depressed me, like, really a lot.
Christine Ball-Blakely: I know.
Mariann Sullivan: That's what we're here for.
Christine Ball-Blakely: Channel it into action, you know, that's what I try to do when I get down in the dumps about it, which happens a lot. But, I just so appreciate the chance to be on and talk with you about it, and I really am passionate about it. I think it is a real nexus for us.
Lots of different groups and people are interested in this for different reasons.
And at the end of the day, we all have to join together to fight it. And that's what we're doing. And I think one day we will win. So thank you for the opportunity to talk about it. And I'm sorry to anybody who is depressed because of it now.
Go look at pictures of puppies.
Mariann Sullivan: Thank you so much, Christine.
Christine Ball-Blakely: Thank you.
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