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Critics: Biogas' Clean-Energy Claims Evaporate Under Scrutiny

Six biogas facilities are scheduled to be built in southern Idaho. (Bob Nichols/U.S. Department of Agriculture)
Six biogas facilities are scheduled to be built in southern Idaho. (Bob Nichols/U.S. Department of Agriculture)
July 11, 2019

BOISE, Idaho – The breakdown of farm byproducts such as manure into energy is touted as a renewable fix for the future.

But critics say the clean energy dreams of biogas have fizzled out.

A new analysis from the organization Food and Water Watch says the process of anaerobic digestion to convert organic material into biogas actually releases carbon dioxide and other pollutants, potentially offsetting other greenhouse gas reductions.

The group also notes biogas is made up largely of methane, a potent greenhouse gas that can leak out during energy production.

"We see it as 'greenwashing' the fossil fuel industry that wants to move more gas around, whether it came from factory farm waste or from drilling, and we see big, environmentally damaging livestock operations that have too much manure in one place getting these really big-ticket facilities built that are just going to keep them around for longer," says Patty Lovera, assistant director of Food and Water Watch.

Lovera notes that biogas technology only is available on industrial-scale farms that have large sources of manure.

A North Carolina-based company announced in June that it plans to build six biogas production facilities outside Burley, Idaho, which are expected to bring nearly 100 jobs to the area.

Each facility is expected to produce enough natural gas to power 6,800 homes per year.

The facilities will have plenty of manure to work with. Idaho is one of the top five dairy producers in the country.

The six facilities outside Burley will cost about $240 million and the natural gas will be shipped via pipeline to California.

Lovera says biogas operations are expanding across the country and once facilities are built, we could be stuck with them.

"Once you invest that kind of money, you don't move away from that facility,” she stresses. “So it's locking us in to old choices, right? Not moving us towards better ones."

Lovera adds there are a lot of driving forces for biogas. Some states offer renewable credits for it. And a joint program between the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Environmental Protection Agency known as AgSTAR promotes biogas production as a way to reduce greenhouse gases and create energy independence for farms.

Eric Tegethoff, Public News Service - ID