Official: “Cow tax” reports unfounded

Cows wait in the milking barn on Monday to get milked at Rajen Dairy in Curry County.

By Gabriel Monte: CNJ staff writer

Livestock officials are concerned the federal government is considering charging fees for air-polluting animals.

They contend the “cow tax” is a possible consequence of a highly technical Environmental Protection Agency report released last week on greenhouse gases.

EPA Spokeswoman Cathy Milbourn said the concerns are unfounded and the report does not include a proposal to tax livestock. However, one of the suggestions was to impose taxes or fees as an economic incentive to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Cow flatulence is a source of methane gas.

“Nothing has been specifically proposed by EPA,” said Paul Schlegel, policy director for the Farm Bureau of America, “but the whole purpose of the advanced notice is to get people who could be affected to focus on it and say what the impact would be, and that’s what we did.”

Schlegel said regulating the agricultural industry for greenhouse gases could require livestock operations to pay for EPA permits that could cripple the cattle and dairy industries.

Using figures from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Farm Bureau of America estimated a livestock emission tax based on costs from other businesses that create greenhouse gases.

The results are estimated charges of $175 per milk cow, $87.50 per head of beef cattle and upward of $20 for each hog.

Schlegel said concerned famers should pay close attention to future discussions regarding the policy.

Curry County dairy farmer Albin Smith said he hasn’t heard much of the cow tax issue, but thinks what he has heard is ridiculous.

“If they’re going to tax us on something, I want it to be based on sound science,” he said. “There’s no science to this whatsoever.”

Tasked with devising a proposal to regulate greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act, the EPA sought public input on several suggestions in advance notice of the proposed rulemaking document, according to Milbourn. A 2007 U.S. Supreme Court ruling deemed greenhouse gases pollutants. Greenhouse gases include carbon dioxide and methane.

Milbourn said the EPA does not have the authority to impose taxes.

The more than 500-page EPA document released last week mentions the agricultural industry accounted for 6.4 percent of the total greenhouse gases in the country in 2006. Electricity generation was tops at 33 percent.

New Mexico State University dairy specialist Robert Hagevoort said he doesn’t think the EPA is proposing a cow tax, but understands how the interpretation could be made.

Hagevoort said the agriculture industry is environmentally neutral and should be exempt from emissions regulations. While livestock does produce methane and carbon dioxide, crops absorb and convert those gases into energy.

“It’s nature at its best,” he said.

There are about 250 dairy farms in the eastern New Mexico and West Texas area, which have an economic impact of about $30 million a month in Curry and Roosevelt counties, according to Walter Bradley, business and government director of Dairy Farmers of America. An average dairy farm contains about 2,000 head of cattle, he said.

Milbourn said the agency is still at the starting point of coming up with a proposal and a time frame for the next steps is not set.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.