Top | Sift

It's a gas

(article, Caroline Cummins)

The natural gas known as methane does bad things (in the atmosphere, it contributes to the greenhouse effect) and good things (it's an efficient source of energy). You can make methane in a laboratory, but by and large, the methane we use to heat our homes and cook our food comes from natural deposits (typically decomposing plant and animal matter). 

Methane is also a byproduct of the sewage-treatment process; it's generally burned off at wastewater plants in a constant flare of flame. The city of Portland, Oregon, is trying to ditch the burnoff and convert all that methane into electricity. It's not an environmentally perfect plan — the city's main treatment plant will still release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere — but it does reduce emissions.

Meanwhile, some folks are looking at other, um, natural sources of methane. Cows produce methane in their rumens, and on factory farms, all those cows can produce vast quantities of excreted methane. NW Natural, the chief purveyor of natural gas in the Pacific Northwest, has announced a plan to harness the methane produced at regional factory farms and turn it into electricity.

Not a bad idea, no? (At least one reporter for Grist thinks cow energy is swell.) But as Portland's alt-weekly Willamette Week has pointed out, relieving industrial farms of their waste products may do them a favor more than us:

bq. The plan being sold as an environmentally responsible program to customers actually subsidizes an unsustainable and ecologically destructive form of agriculture: the factory farm. How? By subsidizing those large farms’ waste disposal.

If animals weren't raised en masse in confined quarters, in other words, their waste wouldn't be such a problem. From this perspective, NW Natural's plan does two things: subsidizes the factory-farm system and allows customers to feel that their energy is cleaner than ever. Hm.

Still, some advocates think that reducing all those bovine emissions now is better than wistfully hoping for a factory-farm-free future.