Ask the Indy: In Colorado, how culpable are cows for climate change?

Livestock is a major source of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. The picture in Colorado is a little different.

Cows at the Cottonwood Ranch in Colorado on July 5, 2011. (Photo by M&R Glasgow via Flickr creative commons)

In response to a story The Colorado Independent wrote about proposed oil and gas air emissions regulations, reader Nancy McDonald asked if we have looked at other sources of greenhouse gas emissions.  

“Agriculture? Cows, etc.? We emit lower than these,” McDonald wrote, referring to the oil and gas industry.  

Whether this statement is accurate depends on where you draw boundaries and how you slice the data. 

Across the U.S., agriculture emits more methane, one of the most potent greenhouse gases, than oil and gas production, according to the Environmental Protection Agency’s 2019 greenhouse gas inventory report

Belching animals and their piles of poop account for 36% of total methane we release into the atmosphere. Oil and gas production accounts for about 31% of total methane emissions. 

But here in Colorado, the picture is different.

Oil and gas emissions are greater than emissions from agriculture, according to state data. Agriculture, which includes emissions from animals and crop production, emits 10.6 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent gases (MMT CO2e). The oil and gas industry emits 15.6 MMT CO2e. That’s roughly equal to putting 3.2 million passenger cars on the road for a year, according to an EPA equation

That data comes from the state’s inventory of greenhouse gas emissions. It looks at greenhouse gases like nitrous oxide, carbon dioxide and methane, all of which have the effect of heating up the planet. The state traces these emissions to eight different sources ranging from electricity generation to landfills. 

How the state measures emissions from each of those sources varies. When it comes to measuring methane emissions from oil and gas production, that figure is especially shoddy and has historically been a conservative estimate. The state data is modeled off of production levels, even though emissions vary widely from one well to the next regardless of production. It fails to account for both emissions from leaking equipment, and, on the other end of the equation, reductions from repaired leaks. The state continues to detect methane leaks, according to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment’s latest leak detection and repair (LDAR) report. The state’s estimate also does not measure emissions from the transportation and consumption of the oil and gas produced in Colorado. 

With that in mind, the state’s best estimate is that oil and gas drilling accounts for about 12.3% of the state’s total emissions, according to 2015 figures, the most recent data available. 

That puts oil and gas greenhouse gas emissions a distant fourth on the list of the state’s top greenhouse gas polluters, but still ahead of cows. 

The now operating wells at Crestone's Pratt site flank neighborhoods and the CO national Golf Course. (Photo by Ted Wood/The Story Group)
The now operating wells at Crestone’s Pratt site flank neighborhoods and the CO national Golf Course. (Photo by Ted Wood/The Story Group)

The top source of planet-warming pollution is electricity generation, about half of which still comes from coal-fired power plants, accounting for about 28.5% of the state’s total emissions. Next in line is transportation. Emissions from people driving vehicles, flying aircrafts and riding boats account for about 22.2% percent of the state’s emissions. Residential, commercial and industrial energy use, which includes heating buildings with fossil fuels, accounts for 20.2% of the state’s emissions. 

Finally, agriculture emits about 8.4% of the state’s greenhouse gas emissions. 

The state says that more than half of these emissions come from livestock flatulence. That is measured by applying an emission estimate to the total population of certain species of animals, not including bison.  

It’s unlikely this estimate is accurate, though. Contrary to common belief, the bulk of livestock’s so-called “enteric emissions” comes from belching, or burping, and not farting. Ruminants, like cows, have four stomachs. When cows burp, methane is released from the upper stomach chamber, or rumen. 

It turns out that feeding cows seaweed, probiotics, and curry spices can make them less gassy. In 2016, California regulators ordered the dairy industry there to make reductions in methane emissions from cows. 

In Colorado, the state is proposing no such regulations or diets for livestock. Beef is Colorado’s largest export. When Gov. Jared Polis ate a Burger King Impossible Whopper and suggested Colorado agricultural businesses should consider plant-based meat alternatives, he came under fire. 

“It makes my blood boil,” said state Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg, a rancher from Sterling, in response to the suggestion. 

The state is in the process of slashing emissions in order to comply with a law Democrats passed this year seeking to cut emissions 90 percent, compared to 2005 levels, by 2050. 

The only mention of agriculture in the law is that climate change is causing “decreased economic activity” for the industry.