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Published April 23, 2009, 07:51 AM

Thune says EPA move brings 'cow tax' closer to reality; Johnson disagrees

South Dakota Sen. John Thune thinks a recent government declaration about carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases is a step toward the creation of a “cow tax,” but South Dakota’s other senator, Tim Johnson, disagrees.

By: Seth Tupper, The Daily Republic

South Dakota Sen. John Thune thinks a recent government declaration about carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases is a step toward the creation of a “cow tax,” but South Dakota’s other senator, Tim Johnson, disagrees.

Last week, the Environmental Protection Agency declared that carbon dioxide and five other gases, including methane, are a major hazard to Americans’ health. The declaration could set the stage for tighter regulations on vehicles, power plants, factories and — according to Thune and some other concerned observers — cattle.

“It would be absolutely disastrous to South Dakota and our economy,” Thune, a Republican, said Wednesday.

The EPA estimates that U.S. cattle emit about 5.5 million metric tons of methane per year into the atmosphere, accounting for 20 percent of U.S. methane emissions.

The EPA’s new declaration on methane and other gases could set the government down a “slippery slope” toward a permit process for the natural methane emissions of cattle, Thune told reporters on a Wednesday conference call. Such a permit process, according to Thune, would amount to a tax on livestock that he’s taken to calling a “cow tax.”

Anticipation of the EPA’s declaration led Thune and Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., to introduce legislation in March that would prevent a cow tax. To support his arguments, Thune has often cited numbers from the New York Farm Bureau, which claimed in December that the cost of methane-emission permitting for livestock would be $175 per dairy cow, $87.50 per head for beef cattle and $21.87 per hog.

Julianne Fisher, spokeswoman for Sen. Johnson, a Democrat, issued this statement Wednesday in response to a Daily Republic question:

“The most recent EPA findings on greenhouse gases in no way propose a tax on livestock emissions.”

Fisher cited EPA assertions that the new greenhouse-gas declaration does not trigger, mandate or propose any new regulation, and that Congress should be responsible for any action that could be taken under the Clean Air Act.

Thune considers the EPA declaration a backdoor approach to expanding the reach of the Clean Air Act.

“If the Obama administration wants to implement climate-change legislation, they should work with Congress to do this and not find a way to go around the legislative process and use the EPA to implement these new regulations,” he said.

South Dakota’s lone U.S. representative, Democrat Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, said she would oppose a cow tax but did not comment on whether she thinks it’s likely to happen.

“I’m strongly opposed to taxing livestock emissions and will continue to monitor this issue closely in light of last week’s announcement from the EPA,” she said in an e-mailed response to a Daily Republic question. “The potential implications for agriculture are many, particularly through the increased regulatory burden and potential increase in costs for livestock producers.”

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