Our current path is not sustainable
The CWA has been effective at controlling pollution from ‘point sources’, such as industrial, municipal wastewater treatment, and power plants, where pollution is easily measured and regulated. The vast majority of the nation’s clean water spending, over $114 billion in 2010, is directed at point sources and most of that spending is driven by nutrient removal. However, further nutrient reductions from point sources will require steeply escalating costs for incremental improvements. Stormwater treatment of runoff from urban and suburban sources, the next step in regulation under the CWA, represents substantially higher costs.
Agriculture is the problem…and the solution
The largest source of nutrients in most major watersheds comes from ‘non-point’ sources, which are widespread and not easily measured or regulated. Agriculture, the largest source of nutrients in most major watersheds, is a non-point source. Much (if not most) of the excess nutrients from agriculture come from livestock and the use of untreated manure for fertilizer. Ironically, agriculture and livestock are all but excluded from compliance under the CWA.
Best management practices (BMPs) are the primary source of nutrient reductions from agriculture. These are voluntary and often taxpayer-funded farming practices that are now known to be less than half as effective as previously thought. More importantly, BMPs do almost nothing to reduce the impacts of ammonia emissions from livestock waste, which are now known to have a far greater impact than previously understood. Failure to adequately address agriculture, and especially livestock waste, has led to much of the excess nutrient problem we have today.
Agricultural ammonia emissions disrupt earth’s delicate nitrogen balance is a landmark study conducted by Colorado State University, along with the US EPA, National Park Service and the National Atmospheric Deposition Program, that was released in May 2016. The study confirmed what Bion has said for many years: ammonia emissions from livestock waste result in very large quantities of highly-reactive and -mobile nitrogen that reenters the watershed and surrounding areas through atmospheric deposition. We know that more than half of the nitrogen impacts from livestock waste originate as ammonia emissions, which deposits everywhere: forests and fields, roads and waterways, parking lots and rooftops.
According to the study, ammonia emissions from livestock waste and nitrogen fertilizers have surpassed nitrates (NOx) from fossil fuel emissions “as the dominant source of disruption to the nitrogen cycle”. Among the report’s conclusions: “future progress toward reducing U.S. nitrogen deposition will be increasingly difficult without a reduction in ammonia emissions”.
Direct treatment of livestock waste represents a large untapped pool of low-cost nutrient reductions
Advances in technology, such as Bion’s, are creating new alternatives that can achieve high-impact, cost-effective and verifiable nutrient reductions from livestock operations. Bion’s technology all but eliminates ammonia emissions. Moreover, direct animal waste treatment, especially at scale, is much less expensive than recapturing the nutrients after they have escaped to contaminate the environment. Many in the livestock industry have recognized their potential to provide large-scale solutions to the problems of excess nutrients and support policy changes that would encourage high-impact voluntary solutions from agriculture.
Recent federal policy guidance from EPA, USDA and Office of Management and Budget, supports a market-based approach to water quality management and highlights the need for a transparent and accountable process that shifts risk from the public. A 2015 University of Maryland (UMD) Financing Strategy Report and a 2013 Pennsylvania Legislative Budget and Finance Committee (LBFC) study both demonstrate that a competitive procurement program, open to all sources of verified reductions, will save billions of dollars and accelerate cleanup of our watersheds. A verified credit standard was established in 2013/2014, creating a ‘common currency’ to serve as the foundation of a transparent and accountable trading/ procurement program to capture the dramatic savings demonstrated in the Maryland and Pennsylvania studies.
In June 2017, H.R. 2853, the Agriculture Environmental Stewardship Act, was introduced in the House Ways and Means Committee – Science, Space and Technology. The bill has 25 co-sponsors from across the aisle and across the country. If adopted, the Act will allow biogas property and qualified manure resource recovery property to be eligible for the energy credit (30% Investment Tax Credit – ITC) and to permit new clean renewable energy bonds to finance qualified biogas property, finding federal “incentives and encouragement for the conservation and appropriate handling of nutrients contained in organic matter are necessary”. In April 2017, a companion bill, S. 988, was introduced in the Senate Finance Committee.
Innovation requires investment – investment requires certainty and accountability that has been lacking in a space traditionally dominated by government agencies and NGOs
Bion is a founding member of the Coalition for Affordable Bay Solutions (CABS) that, supported by major national and state livestock and agricultural interests (and others), supports a market-driven strategy that will allow the private sector to compete for current public spending. The 2013 bipartisan LBFC study said a competitive bidding program could reduce costs to Pennsylvania’s rate- and tax-payers by up to $1.5 billion annually, an 80 percent savings. A Special Report issued by Pennsylvania’s Auditor General highlighted the Commonwealth’s impending default on its 2017 Bay targets, the dire economic consequences of that default, and the need to address low cost alternatives, including manure control technologies.
In June 2017, legislation to implement a competitive bidding strategy in order to capture the savings opportunities spelled out in the LBFC study was introduced in the Pennsylvania Senate. The bill was sponsored by Republican leadership and passed by an overwhelming bipartisan majority, 47-2; It’s successor bill, PA Senate Bill 575, was introduced in the Senate Environmental Resources and Energy Committee in June 2019. In April 2017, US EPA sent a ‘Letter of Expectation‘ to PA DEP that details the state’s Chesapeake Bay challenges, options and potential consequences for non-compliance. The letter strongly encourages PA to utilize nutrient trading, competitive bidding and other ways to engage the private sector to lower costs.
While the answer seems straightforward – reallocate some portion of our existing spending to these more cost-effective solutions – change has been a complex and slow process, involving many layers of federal, state and local agencies and policies. The clean water space is dominated by government agencies and NGOs. The biggest problem has been the many vested (and deeply invested) stakeholders, including many of these agencies, NGOs and their stakeholders, that benefit from the status quo. As always, these entrenched interests strongly oppose innovative alternatives that might reduce ‘their’ share of funding, despite clear evidence of better and cheaper solutions.
The inevitable reallocation of current spending to more effective and cost-effective solutions will unlock dramatic savings to the taxpayer, who ultimately bears the cost for clean water. With an ever-growing population, we will need to use ALL the tools in the toolbox, including the private sector with its ability to innovate. Finalizing and funding a competitive procurement strategy that is transparent, accountable and based on cost (as most goods and services are acquired on behalf of the taxpayer) will benefit both the environment and the taxpayer, and will highlight those solutions that can document both their effectiveness and cost-effectiveness.
Finally, strategies being developed in the Chesapeake Bay can serve as a blueprint for the more than 30 states in the Great Lakes and Mississippi River Basins, and other watersheds that suffer from the same problem and face the same looming costs. The UMD Financing Strategy Report summed it up, “it is essential that financing and funding decisions be made based on efficiency and effectiveness of projects rather than political outcomes and motivations”. Change is good.
The farming community has long awaited this important opportunity, which allows the financing and installation of new technologies to reduce the amount of nutrients flowing into our Nation’s watersheds. The proposed legislation to implement a competitive bidding process for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania is cutting-edge public policy and will lead to improved water management with lower costs to the citizens.
Former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture and Governor of North Dakota
Bion Executive Vice Chairman