LEWISTON, Minn. – A Minnesota dairy farm is moving into uncharted waters in part due to a ruling by the Minnesota Court of Appeals ordering that the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) must take into consideration greenhouse gas emissions before granting a permit to the Daley Farm of Lewiston for their expansion plan.
“This sets a very bad legal precedent for allowing environmental groups to sue the state government and basically tell farmers how to run their business,” said Isaac Orr, a policy fellow at Center of the American Experiment, where he writes about energy and environmental issues.
The Daley Farm is a fifth-generation dairy in Winona County with 1,500 milking cows. In January, they were granted a permit by the MPCA to expand their operation to 3,000 head.
“We've been at this same size since 1998, so for just over 21 years,” said Shelly DePestel of Daley Farms. “The next generation, our kids, three of my sons and my nephew, have joined us back on the farm.”
After completing college, the younger Daleys, the sixth generation, also want to come back and earn a living through the farm.
The planned expansion is what is needed so that all the Daley family members can continue to work and live off the farm.
“In order for them to be successful and in order for us to retire, our project looks like a 3,000-cow dairy adjacent to the milking site that we have now,” DePestel said. “Then we can use our existing facilities for heifers, pre-fresh dry cows – that type of thing.”
After granting a permit to the Daley Farm, the MPCA was sued by the Land Stewardship Project and the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy. Their lawsuit was based on the idea that the MPCA should have considered greenhouse gas emissions as part of the permitting process before granting the permit.
There currently are no laws or regulations stating the MPCA is required to consider greenhouse gas emissions on farm permits.
“There’s no part of the permitting process that we went through that has a box saying, ‘Check this box and explain what impacts greenhouse gases this expansion would have.’ It's not included in the format at all, so it wasn't done, clearly, because it wasn’t asked for,” she explained.
In July, the case against the MPCA was sent to the Minnesota Court of Appeals and the decision was made this past October.
It is very unclear what the next step will be because there is no precedence for this ruling. The MPCA has never made greenhouse gas emissions part of the permitting process, nor are they required to do so by law.
“The justification was the Next Generation Energy Act, a clause that says they want to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent, below 2005 levels,” Orr said. “This regulation, which was passed in order to mandate wind and solar onto the grid, is now being used to justify all kinds of different things.”
Based off of public information, the MPCA was as surprised by the court’s decision as the Daleys were.
“They (the MPCA) thought that they had a good case to begin with and they didn't think that they were going to lose this appeal,” he said. “The court of appeals told MPCA that the Daley Farm had to take a look at their greenhouse gas emissions, so it's such vague language at this time.”
The Daleys are now working to find an expert on dairy farms and greenhouse gas emissions in preparation for what they may or may not be required to do, which has been challenging. Every operation is different. Emissions will be different and there are no regulations in place for the Daleys to follow.
“The environmental groups said that adding this number of dairy cows (1,500) was the equivalent of adding 21,000 cars to Minnesota roads,” Orr said. “When you look at the total emissions of Minnesota, this is like 0.06 percent of total emissions.”
Using the climate change models used by the EPA during the Obama administration, Orr calculates that preventing the Daley Farm expansion would lead to a non-measurable global temperature reduction of 0.0000025 degrees Celsius by 2100.
“You probably couldn't even measure the concentration of increasing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere because it's so small,” he said.
This court ruling could set a dangerous precedent in Minnesota, making it harder for livestock operations to expand and continue to do business in the state. In the end, the demand for milk and dairy is there. The milk will be produced somewhere, even if it’s not Minnesota.
“There are 68,000 plus farms in the state of Minnesota, and forcing them to start to look at things that are so minuscule, like the greenhouse gas emissions and what those temperatures are, is a very big chilling effect,” Orr said. “You're basically telling an industry that puts food on everyone's table that they're a liability and not an asset.”