Friday, August 22, 2003

New Zealand: Big stink over gas tax

By Ray Cooklis
The Cincinnati Enquirer

'Weekend memos' give our editorial writers a chance to express their own opinions, comment on topics they have been writing about, or take a lighter approach. The opinions in 'Memos' do not always follow the Enquirer's editorial positions.
Those who believe that government would tax the air we breathe if it could may not be far off. New Zealand is preparing to impose a ... let's just come out and say it ... flatulence tax on sheep and cattle, and that has the nation's farmers in revolt.

The Cattle Wind Tax, as Russia's Pravda delicately calls it, is part of New Zealand's plan to comply with the Kyoto Protocol on global warming. Cattle, sheep and other ruminants are notorious producers of methane, one of the principal greenhouse gases. A herd of 500 cattle, according to the BBC, produces nearly 64 million liters of methane a year; 3,000 sheep produce almost 22 million liters.

New Zealand has 4.5 million beef cattle, 5 million dairy cattle and 39 million sheep, according to its Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry. However you slice it, that's a lot of gas.

Enter the "flat" tax. The Labor government, which opponents say was pandering to environmentalists, enacted the tax to help fund research on ways to reduce methane from livestock. It would raise $8.4 million New Zealand ($4.9 million U.S.) a year. (Note to the Kiwis: Save the bucks and simply adopt the Chick-fil-A ad-cows' advice - EET MOR CHIKIN.)

New Zealand is the first (and so far, only) nation to pass a gas-passing tax, even though Europe, for example, has four times as many dairy cattle.

Tax proponents aren't just blowing smoke. Thanks to bovine methane - and the fact that New Zealand is largely a pastoral economy - the livestock industry generates 55 percent of that nation's greenhouse gases. So what? counter their opponents. That only amounts to 0.1 percent of the world's greenhouse gases.

Unfair, the farmers say: It's unconstitutional to fund methane research for the general public's good by taxing one group - even if that group generates 90 percent of the nation's methane. The tax - 72 cents a dairy cow, 54 cents a beef cow and 9 cents a sheep - would cost the average farmer $300 a year ($177 U.S.).

So they're fighting back. After sending lawmakers fresh samples of their livestock's end product, which did not amuse the postal service, they moved to phase two: A rapidly growing convoy of farm vehicles is trundling along the countryside to rally public support and collect signatures on petitions, stopping for a series of social events - notably a lovely dinner of baked beans and pickled onions on the West Coast. Really. Their crusade, with the subtly acronymed name of Fight Against Ridiculous Taxes, aims to reach Wellington and confront Parliament on Sept. 4.

They might succeed. A New Zealand Herald poll says 80 percent of New Zealanders support the farmers, and the Labor government is losing ground because of the controversy.

Except for a USA Today article last month, the American media has mostly ignored this bizarre story. Maybe that's a good thing. When environmentalists get wind of it here, they're liable to go after the cattle industry - after all, America has nearly 97 million head of cattle, including 1.2 million in Ohio. And we could be next. Humans may be pikers compared to cattle when it comes to methane, but there are 290,342,554 of us in the United States as of July, according to the CIA's World Factbook.

On second thought, maybe we could solve everything by just imposing the tax on members of Congress.

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