When eyewitnesses spotted a massive cloud of smoke hovering over a newly built mega-barn at a Texas dairy farm in April this year, the source turned out to be a huge fire in which more than 17,000 cows were killed or injured.
Authorities are still investigating but the Texas Fire Marshal’s report – obtained by the investigative consultancy Data Desk via an open records request and seen by Tortoise – points to a truck used to gather manure as the probable cause of the disaster at South Fork Dairy, in Dimmitt, Texas.
Vacuum trucks are an innovation in the industry, designed to replace the pumps and concrete channels previously used to direct manure to storage or processing. At the time of the fire, the farm was due to break ground on an anaerobic digester, which would generate methane from the manure.
With investment from US and UK oil and gas companies, dairy farmers are turning their manure into money. It’s part of a broader push to hit net zero targets by scaling up biogas production, much of which will be derived from animal waste.
But the Texas fire marshal’s report into the fire at South Fork casts doubt on whether continuous operation of vacuum trucks in crowded barns is safe.
According to the report, the fire started due to a blaze in the engine compartment of a Mensch vacuum truck.
The driver of the truck initially tried to drive it out of the barn, but couldn’t. He then tried to put the blaze out with fire extinguishers but failed. The report reveals that a truck of the same make and model had previously caught fire at the same farm.
Mary Ann Sabo, a spokesperson for Mensch, said the investigation into the South Fork fire remains ongoing. “We are not aware of any issue with the machine that would have caused a fire. In our nearly four decades of operation, we have had no claims about defective equipment that led to a fire and no recalls because of fire safety.”
Huge subsidies are available from central and local governments for the construction of biodigesters, including California’s Low Carbon Fuel Standard.
Phoebe Seaton, co-executive director at Leadership Counsel for Justice and Sustainability, a campaign group in California, said that subsidies for biogas production on factory farms “entrench and incentivise massive and concentrated herds, which results in air and water pollution along with odours and flies in communities near those large and expanding operations.”
Aaron Smith, professor of agricultural economics at UC Davis, said the number of anaerobic digesters in California had expanded sevenfold in recent years, from five in 2018 to 35 now, while the number of cattle on farms in the state had stayed “relatively constant”. The California subsidy has also encouraged biogas production across the US.
Tyler Lobdell, a staff attorney at the US group Food & Water Watch, said: “The LCFS allows applicants to generate credits if they can make the straight-faced argument that the gas they produce is at least travelling towards California.” Lobdell said this has included farms in Oregon and in New York state, on the other side of the country.
Faye Holder of InfluenceMap, a think tank tracking lobbying by polluting industries, said that in recent years the oil and gas industry had made a concerted effort to lobby around “renewable low carbon and decarbonized gases”. The EU includes biomethane in its taxonomy of technology that is considered green for investment purposes.
Oil and gas industry lobbying in Brussels has included a push to prevent the EU ending government incentives for gas boilers, Ms Holder said. In the US, the oil and gas giant Chevron describes gas generated from anaerobic digesters on farms as an “integral part” of its portfolio.
Ms Holder said: “Residential buildings and transport are sectors that are, relatively, easier to decarbonize. The industry push back against decarbonizing through electrification appears to be an effort to lock in infrastructure that allows a continued role for natural gas.”