Using livestock to make coal plants look better

An article in the Wall Street Journal last Thursday announced an interesting—and potentially disturbing—plan from the American Electric Power Company (AEP), one of the largest electric utilities in the United States. According to the Journal, AEP spews out more carbon dioxide than any other U.S. company—some 145 million metric tons a year. And while the utility is “investigating various ways to curb its global-warming emissions” at its plants, it is also finding ways to cut emissions at another kind of factory: factory farms. The company recently agreed to invest in lowering methane emissions from CAFOs (confined animal feeding operations) as part of the first large-scale livestock methane offset program in the United States.

AEP’s plan is to pay for large tarps to be installed over CAFO lagoons, the often-noxious pools that hold livestock manure and urine. The tarps will help prevent methane, a greenhouse gas (GHG) with 21 times more global warming potential than carbon dioxide, from being released into the atmosphere. Under the plan, the gas will instead be burned off and converted into less-potent CO2.

On the surface, this might sound like a good idea. Why not invest in controlling emissions from livestock operations, since it's harder for AEP and other utilities to implement plans to increase the efficiency of generators, or to figure out how to bury CO2 deep underground (research the WSJ reports will take years). Isn’t that why the Kyoto Protocol allows for a system of carbon credits, permitting rich countries and businesses to fund projects that reduce emissions from greenhouse gases (usually in poorer developing countries)?

The problem is that allowing AEP to invest in GHG reductions at factory farms may allow the company to have its cake and eat it too. Sure, covering lagoons is a good thing for lots of reasons—they reduce smell, flies, as well as methane and ammonia emissions. And like it or not, factory farms continue to be a mainstay of U.S. agriculture, so reducing their environmental impact is important. But methane accounts for only 16 percent of all global GHG emissions, while CO2 accounts for a whopping 75 percent. AEP’s investment in tarps will allow the utility to collect carbon credits, which it will use, the WSJ says, to “offset its obligation to clean up its power plants" (at least for now). But there are other ways that AEP can help the environment—for instance, by investing in greater energy efficiency at plants or educating consumers about how to save energy.