Cows in the Crosshairs: Environmental Groups Take Aim at Minnesota Farmers

After “farting cows” were identified as a climate risk to the planet in a document released by the office of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez addressing frequently asked questions about the Green New Deal, many people in Minnesota were quick to dismiss the idea that the state would begin to regulate farms based on their greenhouse gas emissions. However, it turns out that that is exactly what some Minnesota environmental groups want the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) to do.

The Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy (MCEA), a known anti-mining group and recipient of $530,000 from the McKnight Foundation in 2018, sued the MPCA for not considering greenhouse gas emissions that would occur as a result of expanding the Daley Farm, a dairy farm in Winona County, Minnesota.

As a result, the Minnesota Court of Appeals ordered MPCA to reconsider the permit they approved in January, which would have allowed the dairy to expand from 1,500 head to 3,000.

As someone who grew up on a small dairy farm in Wisconsin where we milked 40 cows, lawsuits like these can only be described as an affront to the rural way of life. I was raised in the same house my grandfather was born in, worked the same ground he did, and swept and cleaned the same barns he worked in when he was growing up. I’m sure many of the people who work and live on Minnesota’s 74,542 farms have similar stories to tell.

Unfortunately, this decision could have major implications for these farmers and their families, as the Star Tribune writes that the ruling raises the possibility that the state could start considering climate change effects as they permit large feedlots.

Thus far, MCEA has tried to pretend that this is not an attack on farmers. According to the Rochester Post Bulletin:

“This is not an attack on farmers,” said MCEA and Land Stewardship Project attorney Amelia Vohs. “This is not an attack on feedlots. This case is against the MPCA and its decision.”

However, this claim is absurd and incredibly disingenuous. If this wasn’t about farmers, and it wasn’t about feedlots, the organization wouldn’t have sued the MPCA about greenhouse gas emissions in the first place. The only logical reason to sue the MPCA was to force the agency to saddle Minnesota farmers with more regulations, including regulations on greenhouse gas emissions.

For the sake of argument, let’s look at the “climate impact” of expanding this dairy farm. I use scare quotes because, as you will see, expanding this dairy will have zero measurable impact on global temperatures.

MCEA and the LSP claim that expanding the dairy will be the equivalent of adding 21,000 cars to Minnesota roads. If we use the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s assumption that the average car emits 4.6 tons of CO2 per year, we find that this expansion would add roughly 96,600 tons of carbon dioxide equivalent gases in the state each year.

A recently released report from MPCA found that greenhouse gas emissions in Minnesota totaled 154.2 million tons in 2016, the most recent year data were available. This means the dairy expansion would account for 0.0006 (0.06 percent) of Minnesota emissions each year.

Now, let’s figure out how much the earth would potentially warm based on the same methods used by the Obama administration when they were determining the impact of the Clean Power Plan (CPP), which is widely considered to be their signature climate change initiative.

The CPP would have averted 730 million tons of carbon dioxide each year. According to the climate models used by the EPA during the Obama Administration, the temperature impact of this regulation would have 0.019 degrees C by 2100, which is an amount too small to measure with the most sophisticated scientific equipment.

The dairy expansion would have constituted 0.00013 (0.013 percent) of the emissions that would have been averted by the CPP, resulting in a temperature reduction of 0.0000025 degrees C by 2100. In other words, there is no credible way to argue that expanding this dairy would have any impact on global temperatures.

Furthermore, denying the permits for this dairy won’t necessarily keep other farms in other states from adding more cows to meet the demand for milk products, so even this unbelievably small impact could be too high.

It is easy to put large farms in the crosshairs, they are big and often garner significant pushback from local communities, but let’s not pretend that groups like MCEA will not use this decision by the Court of Appeals as a starting point to force smaller and smaller operations to jump through similar red tape until every farm in the state of Minnesota is required to get a permit every time they want to buy more cattle or other livestock to expand their operations.

The legislature needs to come together as quickly as possible and pass a law that expressly prohibits the MPCA from considering the greenhouse gas impact of agricultural activities in the permitting process to keep similar lawsuits from harming Minnesota farmers. If Governor Walz is serious about his “One Minnesota” policy, this would be the right time to start showing it.