US push to turn farm manure into renewable energy draws concerns

By Keith Schneider

AMES, IOWA – In a gathering that drew the attendance of both farmers and Wall Street financiers, US regulators joined with oil giant Chevron at a November conference here to promote what backers promise will be a monumental breakthrough – systemic changes that would turn polluting agricultural waste into a source of renewable energy that replaces fossil fuels and slows climate change.

Speakers at the conference, which was hosted by Iowa State University and co-sponsored by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the US Department of Agriculture, assured attendees that the answers to agricultural and climate woes can be found in technology that already exists: Key, according to conference promoters, is the rapid expansion of large methane biodigesters, which capture manure waste from the nation’s cattle, hog and poultry operations and convert it into a harvest of both public and private riches.

Water and air would be cleaner and farmers could see billions of dollars in new farm income, among other benefits, according to backers.

“It can provide a substantial portion of global energy needs,” Rudi Roeslein , CEO of Roeslein Alternative Energy, told the attendees. His company has built farm-based methane systems around the country that produce enough fuel to displace six million gallons of diesel fuel and 80,000 cars. “If we do this on a large scale in the US we could generate $63.6 billion worth of revenue for farmers around the country.”

Roeslein’s company promises on its website to “restore a balance” to farmland “by using the sustainably harvested biomass to create renewable natural gas.”

Chevron promotes its investment in manure biodigestion as “finding inspiration in nature.”

“I’m really excited about the innovation in this space,” Lisa Schulte Moore, a professor and co-director of the Bioeconomy Institute at Iowa State, said in an interview. “The renewable natural gas market is providing economic incentives for better management of manure.”

But critics argue that the emergence of an alliance of Big Ag, Big Oil, and Big Government to generate energy from livestock waste is ripe with peril. They say that air pollutants and waste discharged from farms and from already existing farm-based biodigesters receive scant federal and state oversight. They fear that without strict regulation, manure digesters could make water and air pollution worse, not better. Industrial-sized farms, including concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), already are one of the nation’s largest sources of water pollution, and among the principal causes of air pollution.