Clearing the Air: California Dairies Are Unsustainable

Clearing the Air: California Dairies Are Unsustainable

By Tom Frantz

The factory dairies of the San Joaquin Valley contribute more to our air pollution and global warming than any other sector. Their onsite ammonia and VOC emissions plus the thousands of daily diesel truck trips carrying milk and feed are directly responsible for approximately a third of our ozone and PM2.5 levels. In Tulare County alone, there are more than 750 diesel trucks per day carrying raw milk from dairies to processors.

It is a fact that half the days of the year, especially in the southern half of the Valley, the air is unhealthy to breathe for children under the age of 16. That is a tragedy, and our factory dairies are responsible for a third of that pollution.

These milk factories also heat the planet. Surprisingly, the methane and other greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions attributable to a glass of milk or a slice of pizza heat the planet more than a five-mile drive to the store or restaurant in a fossil-fueled vehicle.

Meanwhile, California does not have the political will to regulate these dairy emissions like it does other industrial sources. A reduction in ammonia levels is proven to reduce PM2.5 levels significantly, but regulations have yet to be imposed. Dairy methane rules were proposed by the state but delayed indefinitely due to the milk lobby in Sacramento.

The California factory dairy industry is the best ever example of unsustainability. It depends on grain and soy imported from the Midwest by rail for two-thirds of its feed. It produces enough nutrients in the cows’ manure to grow that imported feed, but dairy farmers purposely dispose of it into our air as ammonia and methane.

There are simply too many cows for the associated land and air. But their economic model is to use cheap fossil fuel inputs to maximize per cow (and per acre) outputs. That leads to ratios of up to eight cows per acre when it should be far less for environmental sustainability.

But we must have milk, right? Actually, there is way too much dairy in our diet. Plus, milk for drinking is less than 5% of the total production. Cheese for pizza is about 25%, and everyone knows that fatty food such as pizza is one of the main reasons Americans are so obese and unhealthy.

Probably the biggest tragedy about this industry, after the negative health effects on local air quality, is the California Air Resources Board (CARB) collusion and complicity in subsidizing the industry’s unsustainability. The CARB is betting the climate on paying the dairy industry millions of dollars to capture a fraction of its methane emissions with dairy digestors. The idea is to capture the methane and use it to replace a fraction of the diesel in trucks.

Besides paying for the digestors, the CARB has made up a set of rules that declare this biogas more than three times more carbon negative than the carbon positive intensity of diesel. This fictional number does four bad things.

First, it is a cheap way for a diesel or natural gas supplier to satisfy the Low Carbon Fuel Standard. By replacing one diesel truck out of every 20 with a truck fueled by dairy biogas, the CARB satisfies the Low Carbon Fuel Standard in 2030. That means 95% of current diesel trucks will be allowed to remain on the road polluting our air and warming the planet.

Second, it makes the biogas from a dairy digestor very valuable. This fact, along with the huge payment to build the digestor, makes for a handsome subsidy to the unsustainable factory dairy industry. For all intents and purposes, the industry’s polluting, business as usual, way of doing business is being rewarded.

Third, putting biogas into the current pipeline and delivery system of fueling vehicles and heating buildings is a free pass for the natural gas industry. Most people agree that we must end our use of fossil fuel to save the planet, but putting biogas into the natural gas delivery system pretty much ensures that 90% of all current natural gas will also be in the system for many years to come.

Fourth, all these subsidies to the factory dairy industry are going to be paid with higher rates for fuel throughout the economy. It is, of course, low-income residents who will always suffer the worst impacts from higher fuel costs.

In conclusion, our air quality will not improve because of the current greenhouse gas reduction plans laid out by the state. This is especially true regarding the plans to capture a little bit of the methane from factory dairies. All the promised benefits of better air quality because of decreased GHG emissions are simply a cruel joke on the millions suffering from poor air quality in the southern half of the Valley.

The solution is relatively simple. Biogas from dairies should in no way be considered renewable energy. It should not be used to satisfy the Low Carbon Fuel Standard or the Renewable Portfolio Standard for electricity providers.

The legislature must revisit this issue and mandate GHG reductions from this industry on a schedule that meets the 2030 goals. This must be coupled with a strong campaign in the state for better diets with less dairy content, such as the Oakland City School District mandated recently for its students.

A shrinkage of the dairy industry with strong regulations on that which remains is essential to the well-being and health of both local residents and the planet.


Longtime clean air advocate Tom Frantz is a retired math teacher and Kern County almond farmer. A founding member of the Central Valley Air Quality Coalition (CVAQ), he serves on its steering committee and as president of the Association of Irritated Residents. The CVAQ is a partnership of more than 70 community, medical, public health, environmental and environmental justice organizations representing thousands of residents in the San Joaquin Valley unified in their commitment to improving the health of Californians. For more information, visit www.


  • Community Alliance

    The Community Alliance is a monthly newspaper that has been published in Fresno, California, since 1996. The purpose of the newspaper is to help build a progressive movement for social and economic justice.

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