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Returning home from the Las Vegas Outdoor Retailer Show a few years back, we stopped off in West Virginia for a short holiday. It is a mountainous, forested, and agricultural area on the other side of the Appalachians from Washington.
While having a mid morning coffee in a one street “mountain” town we picked up a newspaper showing two photos side by side. One showed a large wooded mountain and the other was the same scene, but without the mountain.
It took us aback. Instead of mining coal by drilling tunnels to the seams, the mining companies had been allowed to access the coal by knocking off the top of the entire mountain. In our part of the UK, if someone wants to move even a footpath or build a single wind turbine there would be a huge outcry, so the concept of removing a mountain is incomprehensible: something we had thought to see only in the crazy 1990s in South China, when the entire region appeared to be flattened to build factories.
A visit to the local agricultural show began to clarify matters as the coal industry had a big stand with lots of "promotional" literature; this was clearly an industry with a powerful lobby. In the last few days, President Obama has indicated that, for the first time, the administration will oppose this lobby because of the CO2 emissions that come from coal, which continue to increase all round the world.
Earlier this year, President Obama also looked at methane; a greenhouse gas which, when measured in terms of CO2 equivalents, is normally put at around 20 times actual CO2, but can vary from zero to 85 times to those who hold strong anti-methane views.
It is exceptionally hard to get at the truth about methane, but one thing I do think is perfectly clear is that the author, Simon Fairlie is right when he writes in "Meat, a Benign Extravagance" that the fossil fuel lobby has used the fact that society has failed to reduce CO2 emissions to direct a quite irrational amount of blame on atmospheric emissions from livestock, particularly cows.
Methane comes from many sources, from swamps to rice production. In the U.S, figures suggest that methane makes up about 9% of total emissions, and the biggest sources of methane going into the atmosphere are leaks from oil and gas facilities followed by seepage from coal mines, and landfills as well as livestock. What is also clear, and the United Nations has now accepted, is that the methane related to livestock can be greatly reduced, in both feedlot production and for grassland bred cattle, by changes in husbandry and waste management.
Whatever your view, one thing is clear: it is convenient for the fossil fuel lobby and anti-meat organisations to make methane from cattle appear a bigger problem than it really is. It also seems clear that no one is standing up for the poor cow. It needs some support.
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