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California's Dairy Methane Digester Program More Costly and Less Efficient Than Claimed, Report Finds

Comprehensive investigation and analysis of dairy industry program reveals hidden costs, recommends transparency reforms

February 08, 2024
Center for Food Safety

San Francisco, CA—Removing methane emissions from cow waste may not be as effective or cost-efficient as California state and dairy industry officials have claimed, according to a new report—the first comprehensive investigation of methane digester funding, examining all public financing and market incentives.

"Waste Stream to Revenue Stream: Calculating the costs and climate impact of California's investments in dairy digester infrastructure" is a comprehensive analysis conducted by Dr. Kevin Fingerman, Ph.D., Associate Professor in the Department of Environmental Science and Management at CalPoly Humboldt. The analysis shows that California's highly touted program of reducing methane emissions from industrial dairy operations costs up to 17 times more than what state and industry officials have claimed, producing a far lower return on investment.

Methane is a top climate-harming greenhouse gas, and California's livestock industries generate at least half of the Golden State's annual methane emissions. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), California emitted more methane from manure management than any other state.

"This new research finds that the state of California has overestimated the public's return on investment in dairy digesters on mega-dairies by 17-fold," stated Sylvia Wu, senior attorney at Center for Food Safety. "As California looks to increase the climate impacts of the Low Carbon Fuel Standard, the state cannot ignore the growing body of research that suggests that dairy digester gas is too costly and does not deliver the kind of climate benefits the program is intended to foster," she continued.

The report reveals that while California's Climate Change Investments report claims the digesters cost $9 per ton of CO2 emissions reduction, that estimate "ignores the other sources of funding and revenue available to digester projects." The digesters' true costs are $28 per ton of CO2 abated when counting all public digester funding—and $159 per ton including market incentives such as the Low Carbon Fuel Standard. That's 17 times the cost reported by the state.

While the California Department of Food and Agriculture's Dairy Digester Research and Development Program claims a total cost of $195 million for 117 dairy digester projects throughout the state, today's report shows the state actually spends $589 million for the digesters.

The report raises questions about the methane digester program's transparency and recommends tracking and monitoring all methane digesters and funding. This includes third-party verification of livestock operations' methane emissions, a centralized digester tracking system, and "stronger economic and industry analysis to ascertain whether the investments in digesters… are delivering windfall profits to the dairy industry in ways that could incentivize increased methane generation, distort the market for dairy products, or lead to industry consolidation."

"California's subsidize and incentivize approach to livestock methane is costly for taxpayers and lucrative for factory farm gas producers and investors," said Phoebe Seaton, co-director, Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability. "More alarming still, the profit incentives associated with producing factory farm gas in California entrenches and intensifies harmful farming practices. The more manure produced, the more cows, the more water degradation, water depletion, and air and climate pollution — all in the already disproportionately impacted communities of color in the San Joaquin Valley."

Previous research has shown that California's dairy industry methane digesters and Low Carbon Fuel Standard program are incentivizing more factory farm consolidation and methane emissions. National and international promotion of industrial livestock digesters has proven to be "a false climate solution," according to analysis by Center for Food Safety.


Center for Food Safety, in partnership with other regional and national organizations, is working to address the health inequities faced by disadvantaged communities in California. We seek to create a safe and healthy environment in which local communities' air, water, land, and environment are not polluted by mega-factory farms and in doing so create communities where everyone can thrive. Disadvantaged communities disproportionately face the brunt of environmental pollution, and California is no exception. Public and environmental health is directly related to our state's agricultural practices, and one of the most egregious environmental polluters is the animal factory farming system, including dairies.

CFS sees a timely opportunity to fight the mega-dairy industry in California in order to improve health equity in the Central Valley by reducing and/or eliminating state funding that is misguidedly supporting methane dairy digesters, a false "quick fix" technology that only serves to further entrench and perpetuate this polluting industry. We advocate for local and state policy changes with the goal of improving air and water quality in these counties and beyond.

Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability works alongside the most impacted communities in the San Joaquin Valley and Eastern Coachella Valley to advocate for sound policy and eradicate injustice to secure equal access to opportunity regardless of wealth, race, income, and place. LCJA focuses on issues like housing, land use, transportation, safe and affordable drinking water and climate change impacts on communities.

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