California’s Dairy Goldrush

March 5, 2021

The original California Goldrush started on January 24, 1848 at Sutter’s Mill. It began a seven-year complete and utter plunder of the environment in the search for gold and riches. As we all know now, during the US Gold rush, millions of acres of forest were denuded, river courses were altered–increasing sedimentation and runoff–killing native salmon habitat and destroying entire ecosystems. Let’s not forget it also released enormous amounts of mercury and other heavy metals into the landscape. More than a century later the Sierra Nevada mountains still have high concentrations of heavy metals. You can find a more complete picture here

Compare that to today’s “dairygold” rush and a very different environmental picture is emerging. On average, US dairies produced 223 billion pounds of milk in 2020. That’s 26.2 billion gallons, for all you milk drinkers out there, or about 79 gallons per person/year.  And where there is milk, there are tons and tons of methane producing cows. The volume of manure generated by that many cows has huge environmental impacts in different but equally damaging ways than the original goldrush. One way California is correcting this is by turning manure into renewable natural gas or RNG. In 2019, only seven dairies registered for LCFS (Low Carbon Fuel Standard) but by 2020, 31 more had registered to monetize their poop into real tangible returns. After monetizing their renewable natural gas production, dairies can make over ~$100/MMBTU for the gas they produce from all those cows. All that gas also displaces fracked gas, which has its own very high environmental costs.

By investing in equipment that collects, captures, cleans, and compresses the methane released from all that poop, dairies are not only making huge impacts on their bottom line, helping them stay in business, but they are also having an “udderly” positive impact on the environment. As we’re learning all too clearly, methane is turning out to be way worse than CO2. Methane has 25 times the global warming potential of CO2.

California’s Slogan “Eureka!” dating from the original goldrush era should maybe be changed to “Milk to Manure to Money!” Almost as catchy. 

This article is contributed by

Chelle Davidson
As the RNG Compliance Manager, Chelle works to help implement the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) and Low Carbon Fuel Standard (LCFS) programs, along with other applicable state programs. She received her B.A. in Environmental Journalism from the Evergreen State College in Washington State.

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