We're not talking laughing gas

By Jon Segal The Capital Times
Copyright 1998 Capital Times (Madison, WI)
September 24, 1998

Contrary to U.S. Rep. Mark Neumann's recent political advertisements, cow gas is not laughing gas.

Environmental activists and scientists criticized Neumann's ad featuring flatulent cows, saying the spot disregards scientific proof that methane gas is a serious environmental problem.

Neumann's ad claims a federally funded study on the gas is an example of government waste, the kind of waste Neumann said Sen. Russ Feingold supports.

Feingold previously responded that Neumann misrepresented his position in voting against an amendment to cut $  23 million in funding for the Environmental Protection Agency. That amendment would have affected important environmental programs including research preventing methane explosions in coal mines and landfills, he said.

Methane gas, which is produced by animals' digestive systems, accounts for 15 to 20 percent of the gasses that cause global warming, a 1997 United Nations information sheet states.

Eric Mosier, a Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources official, said methane is roughly 24 times as potent a greenhouse gas as carbon dioxide, the primary human-produced gas that causes global warming. Carbon dioxide is a greater threat because so much of it is produced by burning fossil fuels.

Mosier said although methane was not as great a global warming cause as carbon dioxide, scientists who study climate change still take it very seriously.

John Foley, a professor of atmospheric and oceanic sciences at UW-Madison, is one of those scientists.

Foley said methane levels in the atmosphere have doubled since the industrial revolution. Additionally, they are rising at a rate of approximately 1 percent per year. At that rate, methane levels will double every 70 years.

''Studies like the one at Washington State University which Neumann criticized in his commercial are essential to understand methane-producing processes,'' he said.

Foley also said the methane cows produce is actually wasted energy -- food energy that could be turned from waste into greater milk and beef production. He said the federally funded study Neumann criticizes in the ad was trying to change the diets of cows to cut down methane and increase milk production.

''From two distinct perspectives, environmentally and economically, this study is very important to a state like Wisconsin,'' he said. ''His attempts to kill this study suggest he may be uninformed.''

Cows produce more methane gas by belching, not from flatulence as Neumann's ad suggests, Foley said.

Sierra Club officials also criticized the ads. They called on Neumann to pull the ads from the air at a forum on climate change.

''Congressman Neumann should cut the hot air and take these misleading ads off the air,'' said Brett Hulsey, Midwest representative of the Sierra Club. ''We need more studies to find ways to reduce the smell and pollution from livestock factories and feed lots, which are popping up all over the state.''

DNR statistics show that cows produce 53 percent of all methane produced in Wisconsin. Cow manure management accounts for another 6 percent. Rice paddies, landfills, coal mining, and fossil fuel production and consumption are other major sources of methane pollution worldwide.

Neumann's campaign could not be reached for comment.

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