California Air Resources Board members question incentives for polluting fuels in state climate program, support direct regulation of livestock methane in 2024

At its September 28 meeting, the California Air Resources Board (CARB) held an eight hour discussion about changes to the Low Carbon Fuel Standard (LCFS) — a major clean transportation program in desperate need of reform to protect the health of frontline communities and help California actually achieve its climate goals

Currently, the program overwhelmingly supports the use of combustion fuels as “clean” alternatives. While major California clean transportation programs like the Advanced Clean Cars II, Advanced Clean Trucks and Advanced Clean Fleets support electrification, the LCFS is stuck in the out-dated assumption that combustion fuels, like factory farm gas, can meet our climate goals. 

In fact, 80% of the credits generated from the program have gone to renewable diesel, biomethane, ethanol, and biodiesel producers, while only about 20% went towards electric transportation. For years environmental justice advocates and community members have been calling on CARB to modernize the program and cut incentives for harmful fuels that pollute their communities.

Ahead of the meeting the Environmental Justice Advisory Committee (EJAC) passed a resolution that brought a series of recommendations to the board that reflected the concerns of advocates and community members with the LCFS. One of the major critiques environmental justice advocates have of the program is the lucrative “avoided” methane crediting that provides windfall profits to massive dairies and factory farm gas producers who purportedly capture methane produced from expansive manure pits for conversion into a combustible transportation fuel.

The presentation from staff at the meeting about proposed changes to the LCFS did not contain the majority of recommendations from EJAC or advocates, prompting questions and concerns from board members around program incentives for factory farm gas, refinery hydrogen, and biofuel production. 

Board member Dr. Tania Pacheco-Werner questioned why the landfill gas value is vastly lower than the factory farm gas value. As major contributors to methane emissions, landfills, unlike massive dairy operations, are required to reduce methane emissions. Since livestock emissions are not regulated or required to reduce their methane emissions like landfills are, they get avoided methane credits for “capturing” methane that they chose to create in the first place through profit-maximizing, environmentally irresponsible manure management practices.

While several board members questioned the fundamental assumptions attached to livestock methane, board member Dr. Susan Shaheen raised concerns about the accuracy of data with respect to dairy digesters and the variability in their performance.

Currently livestock emissions are not regulated. However, pursuant to California law, CARB is required to develop and adopt appropriate methane emission regulations and can start implementing these regulations in 2024. SB 1383 requires the dairy and livestock industry to reduce methane emissions by 40% compared to1990 emission levels by 2030. CARB’s own 2022 report noted that  the industry is not on track to meet that requirement.

Board member Diane Takvorian shared concerns about whether moving forward with changes to the LCFS is advisable without being clear on how meaningful regulation of livestock methane will happen. When asked by board member Takvorian if a direct emission reduction rule would be coming forward in 2024, CARB staff responded that they do not have one planned. 

The board then heard from 165 members of the public, including unionized airport workers, environmental justice advocates, and community members calling on CARB to protect workers and communities by restricting harmful biofuel crediting, eliminating avoided methane incentives that will continue to provide subsidies at factory farms and refineries, and including intrastate jet fuel as a deficit-generator in the program.

During the lunch break, CARB board member and state senator Henry Stern joined a rally in support of the above asks and gave a speech calling out industries and thanking those who joined the meeting to hold them accountable. 

“Right now, it’s all just carrots. It’s all just free incentives. Hundreds of millions of dollars we have given away to these industries with no accountability. No methane regulation, no airport fuels regulation, no clean air regulation, no ambient air regulation,” said Stern. “The fact that you come up here and spend your time away from your families and your work to do what you are doing — it is a sacrifice. I am grateful for it.”

In their final discussion of the day, board member Gideon Kracov echoed Takvorian’s support of a rule for direct methane regulation in 2024. 

“We regulate every major source of methane and GHG [greenhouse gas] emissions… SB 1383 itself explicitly says this sector [dairies] can be regulated in 2024. That’s in three months! That was the deal,” said Kracov. “CARB’s recent dairy and livestock report identifies significant evidence gaps about how well the [digester] program actually works. And concludes that ‘a record keeping and reporting regulation developed pursuant to SB 1383 could provide a mechanism to obtain necessary data.’ I would support this and a board resolution indicating that we will initiate in 2024 rulemaking for this sector.”

Board member Davina Hurt questioned the validity of incentivizing digesters as a solution to the state’s methane emissions problem.

“While dairy digesters are a small portion of the LCFS, it definitely has a large impact on communities struggling for clean air, communities of color… Are there other viable alternatives to deal with the waste that we should be incentivizing more? And how do we ensure that we’re not incentivizing and subsidizing manure to be more valuable than milk?,” said Hurt. “I believe the goal of a closed loop sustainability system makes good sense when we’re dealing with waste, but I never want us to get to… the tail wagging the dog. We don’t want to get there with dairy digesters. I get a little bit worried when I hear one hundred more are necessary, and I’ve heard even bigger numbers.”

Acknowledging that this LCFS rulemaking is his third, board member Hector De La Torre provided an important, historical perspective. 

“The initial iteration of this really worked out well. And then I think we got a little greedy. We thought it was working so well, let’s do this and do this and do this. And what ended up happening is the credits aren’t worth as much and are not doing all the wonderful things we would like them to do,”  he said. “And so, for the last several months, I’ve been telling people we’re going to trim this program. Period. And some people are going to be unhappy about that. We’re not here to make sure that people’s business plans succeed. We are here to put the best program together and have strong credits that can do, again, the priority work for this agency.”

Board member De La Torre also said he found the credits for avoided methane “too generous” and would like to see the carbon intensity scoring “tightened up,” stating “…We made this program up many, many years ago. We can make adjustments that are rational, that are, again, based in science and based on our judgment of what we are looking to do.”

As the San Joaquin Valley representative on the board, Dr. Pacheco-Werner urged the other members to think about looking back in 2045 and if they will be able to say they are proud of the decisions they made with this rulemaking and that no community was sacrificed. 

Board member Dr. Susan Shaheen, underscored the importance of making a strong program that also supports the health of communities, stating “I want to work with everyone to reach common ground and to bring about clean air and address climate change, but also to think about the markets and the effects and, in particular, underserved communities.”

As CARB continues the LCFS rulemaking process, we must continue to raise questions and concerns around program incentives for polluting fuels and urge staff to make changes to the LCFS that do not sacrifice communities, but rather benefit them by prioritizing clean transportation. Californians need solutions that are pollution-free from end-to-end and leave biogas and biofuels behind. Our future depends on it. 

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