Climate

Environmentalists Want This State To Take Chicken Poop Out Of Its Clean Energy Plan

CREDIT: AP Photo/Rob Carr

Chickens at a Maryland farm in 2010. Maryland is one of the country's top poultry producers.

As the Maryland state legislature prepares for a new session in early January, environmental activists want lawmakers to cut the crap — out of the state’s renewable portfolio standards.

Under Maryland’s current renewable portfolio standards, chicken manure — a byproduct of the state’s booming poultry industry — is classified as a “tier one” renewable resource, the same designation offered to things like wind, solar, and geothermal. To some, the move is a smart compromise that allows Maryland to meet its renewable energy goals while dealing with the millions of tons of chicken waste produced each year by poultry farms. But to others, the rule gives factory farms a convenient pass for their pollution at the expense of public health.

“Burning chicken poop is not clean,” Taylor Billings, a field organizer with Food & Water Watch, a national group that opposes industrial-scale agriculture, told ThinkProgress. “It’s really toxic. It emits any chemical you can think of from carbon monoxide to sulfur dioxide.”

Over the next week, Food & Water Watch has planned a suite of events around Maryland to denounce the classification of chicken manure as clean energy. On Tuesday, activists delivered over 1,000 petitions to Maryland State Delegate Joseline Peña-Melnyk (D), who represents counties outside of Washington, D.C. and Annapolis. Following Tuesday’s event, Food & Water Watch plans to deliver more petitions to state legislators on Wednesday and next Tuesday.

“The bottom line is that the RPS was meant to enhance the lives of Marylanders, and instead they are trying to burn chicken poop and trash and call it renewable energy,” Billings said.

In Maryland, agriculture is big business — with around 350,000 people employed in some aspect of agriculture, it’s the largest commercial industry in the state. And within Maryland agriculture, poultry production — especially chickens raised for meat — reigns supreme, accounting for $990 million in production value in 2013, or 40 percent of Maryland’s total cash farm income. Perdue, the country’s third-largest producer of broiler chickens, is based out of Salisbury, Maryland, on the Delmarva Peninsula, where some 1,700 chicken farms are located.

Such large-scale poultry production, however, leaves Maryland with around 650 million pounds of chicken manure each year. Some farmers use that leftover manure — which is especially high in phosphorus, an important nutrient for plant growth — on their fields. But some manure — leftover from chicken producing operations or over-saturated fields — makes its way into the Chesapeake Bay, where it stimulates the growth of algae and creates areas of low oxygen known as “dead zones.” According to a 2012 report by the Chesapeake Bay Commission, 15 percent of the nitrogen and 36 percent of the phosphorus in the Chesapeake Bay comes from manure.

“Better information about the role of phosphorous was pointing a finger towards the poultry industry and its growth, largely because that fertilizer is used pretty commonly,” Doug Myers, senior Maryland scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, told ThinkProgress.

In 2010, the EPA rolled out a pollution diet that required Maryland, as well as other states within the Chesapeake Bay watershed, to reduce the amount of nitrogen and phosphorous reaching the bay each year. As part of the state’s phosphorous management plan, farmers stopped using chicken manure as heavily as a fertilizer, turning to nitrogen fertilizer or using legume cover crops to add nitrogen to the soil.

In 2011, Maryland legislators looking for a solution to both the excess amount of waste and the pollution in the bay added chicken manure to “tier one” of the state’s renewable portfolio standard, putting the incineration of chicken manure in the same category solar and wind. That same year, the Maryland legislature called for proposals for manure-to-energy projects.

“Obtaining electricity through poultry manure or animal waste helps Maryland government to reach its goal of generating 20 percent of its energy needs from renewable sources, all the while improving Bay water quality and supporting the agriculture industry,” then-General Services Secretary Alvin Collins said in a statement after the call for proposals.

But manure-to-energy projects have been slow to materialize in Maryland, despite the waste-product’s classification as a renewable resource. Despite several proposals, including a recent pitch for an anaerobic digester from a New Hampshire-based developer that earned the support of Perdue, opposition from local communities and concern about the economic viability of such plants have kept proposals from taking off.

“There’s still a lot of working going on on that front,” Myers said. “A lot of different technologies being tried, different formulations for what you can do.”

The most common technology used to turn manure into energy relies on incinerators, which burn the manure to produce heat and energy. A 2013 report on the feasibility of manure-to-energy projects in Virginia conducted by the Center on Human Needs at Virginia Commonwealth University found that a large-scale chicken manure incinerator would result in a higher concentration of hazardous air pollutants (HAPs) near the plant, including things like nitrous oxide, sulfur oxides, and particulate matter. Such pollutants have been shown to lead to an increased risk of asthma, cancer, heart disease, and other health impacts in surrounding communities.

Anaerobic digesters, like the one recently proposed in Maryland, create energy by converting manure into methane gas. As of March, there are 247 manure-to-biogas operations being used on commercial livestock farms around the country. With anaerobic digesters, the only byproduct, other than methane, is carbon dioxide — dangerous particulates are not released into the air as part of the process.

“I don’t think we’re trading off water quality for air quality,” Bill Dennison, professor and vice president for science applications at the University of Maryland’s Center for Environmental Science, told ThinkProgress in March, when news of the proposed anaerobic digester first broke. “I think we’re creating a mechanism where we can achieve both.”

Ultimately, activist groups like Food & Water Watch don’t see anaerobic digesters as a desirable compromise to Maryland’s chicken waste issue either, arguing that any manure-to-energy project simply props up the factory farm industry by allowing it to externalize the cost of its waste.

“Once you create a market for chicken manure, it perpetuates the industry that creates that,” Billings said. “The factory farm industry creates about 600 million pounds of excess waste each year, and it’s that waste that is causing this nitrogen and phosphorus problem in the bay.”

But Myers points to the fact that Maryland’s renewable portfolio standard only mandates that 20 percent of the state’s energy come from renewable resources — meaning, as he points out, that 80 percent of Maryland’s energy portfolio is dedicated to fossil fuels.

“Even though they’ve listed anaerobic digestion and biogas as a tier one source, the existing sources [like wind and solar] feel like their slice of the pie is carved up even smaller, because there’s such a small percentage going into the RPS,” he said.

According to Myers, some environmental groups in Maryland — especially those concerned with climate change — are lobbying for the renewable fuel standard to widen its renewable targets — from 20 percent by 2025 to 40 percent by 2020. That has been met with a great deal of pushback from the fossil fuel industry, however, leading environmentalists and the renewable industry to push for 25 percent by 2020 in the upcoming legislative session. If the renewable portfolio standards were to be expanded, Myers said, there would be room for manure-to-energy projects in addition to wind and solar — and that would allow the industrial agricultural model to dispose of its waste in a way that doesn’t hinder Maryland’s attempts to clean up the Chesapeake.

“The industrial model is the model we are in right now,” Myers said. “We have 2025 staring us in the face to meet our water quality goals. I don’t see us revamping our entire food system in ten years. While that is a laudable goal, in the meantime, we have this very fast approaching timeline to really make reductions in phosphorous.”