Few issues have rattled livestock folks more than the rumor that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was proposing to tax livestock for methane emissions. In the story put forth by the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) in late November 2008, the so-called “cow tax” would require operations with more than 25 dairy cows, 50 beef cattle or 200 hogs to pay an annual fee estimated to be $87.50/head for beef cattle, $175/head for dairy cows and $20/hog.

The rumor circulated for weeks despite denials from government and assurances by major cattle organizations that such a measure wasn't in the works. But who could blame U.S. producers for such angst in this age where environmentalism has taken on a religious zealotry that easily steamrolls science.

The whole episode emanated from an Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (ANPR) issued by EPA last summer. It was the result of a 2007 U.S. Supreme Court decision — Massachusetts v EPA — that determined that CO2 is a pollutant and directed EPA to evaluate whether CO2 endangers public health and the environment. If EPA were to determine that CO2 is a danger to public health and the environment, it likely would be regulated under the Clean Air Act (CAA).

Given this concern, EPA issued and sought comment on the ANPR in large part to inform the public about the devastating effects regulating greenhouse gas (GHG) would have on every sector of our economy, including agriculture, explains the National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA).

But there is no formal proposal to regulate GHG in this way, NCBA says. In fact, the ANPR states that: “None of these documents represents a policy decision by EPA, but all are intended to advance the public debate and to help inform the federal government's decisions regarding climate change.” In addition, EPA Administrator Steve Johnson stated that the CAA is “an outdated law … ill-suited for the task of regulating global greenhouse gases.”

Such a measure isn't unheard of, however. A similar tax on livestock has been, or is under, discussion in New Zealand, Estonia, Australia and the European Union.

In his inauguration speech last month, President Barack Obama called on all Americans to work together. He also said: “We will restore science to its rightful place.” The question is “whose science?”

The fact that Obama's top aide in energy and environment is Carol Browner, who once said: “Global warming is the greatest challenge ever faced,” gives me pause.

The situation reminds me of an old Woody Allen line of years ago where he paraphrased the biblical passage about the lion and the lamb from the Book of Isaiah. He said: “The lion and the lamb shall lie down together… but the lamb won't get much sleep.”

Similarly, it will be wise for livestock producers to remain vigilant that the outlandish doesn't become reality.