Waste Not, Want Not

As visitors to a certain doughnut shop in Duck, North Carolina will tell you, everything is better with bacon — including their maple icing doughnut covered with chopped bacon and salted caramel drizzle.

From barbecue and BLTs to the production of insulin and antibiotics, from the xenotransplantation of eyeballs and heart valves to rooting out truffles in the French countryside, the sacrifices of our friend the humble hog are unmatched. And thanks to a new forward-thinking provision in the North Carolina Farm Act of 2021, that contribution will be taken to an entirely new level.

Governor Cooper signed Senate Bill 605 into law last Friday after bipartisan veto-proof majorities in both the House and Senate had given their approval to the legislation earlier in the week. The new law contains a number of non-controversial provisions that change existing forestry and agriculture rules. These include exempting certain kinds of fires from open-burning laws (e.g. campfires), increasing the punishment for the theft or damage of timber, granting local governments more authority over agricultural districts, changing Forest Service compensation rules, and a host of technical changes.

Bringing Home the Bacon

With almost as many hogs as there are people, North Carolina ranks third in the country (behind Iowa and slightly behind Minnesota) in the number of hogs used for the sale and production of pork. According to the NC State University Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics, the pork industry in North Carolina supports 44,000 full-time jobs and contributes over $10 billion in economic impact. There are approximately 2,000 hog farms, with 89% of pig farms being family-owned. Each farm must be permitted by the state.

Section 11 of the 2021 Farm Act concerns the operation of digester systems on hog farms. Essentially large sealed tanks, these covered pits create clean energy when bacteria are introduced to eat and digest hog manure (anaerobic digestion) to produce biogas (pronounced bio-gas), which contains methane and carbon dioxide.The captured biogas, when further refined, is sent from multiple farms to a central facility, which then turns it into renewable natural gas (RNG) — fully interchangeable with conventional natural gas. The RNG is then sent to pipelines to be used in homes, businesses, power plants, and as fuel for automobiles, trucks, and buses. It’s a clean, cheap, and effective alternative to non-renewable energy sources that has the added benefits of eliminating hog waste, reducing odor, reducing greenhouse gas, and producing a high-quality, pathogen-free organic fertilizer as a byproduct.

“We talk about lowering carbon emissions, and this is from a power plant perspective, but if we can capture methane from these lagoons and use it to produce electricity, we’d be doing the environment a big favor,” said Duke Energy’s Randy Wheeless. “Methane is a much more damaging byproduct than carbon dioxide is to the environment.”

North Carolina’s history with hog waste renewables goes back nearly 15 years, when the General Assembly first required that utility companies generate small amounts of renewable energy from hog manure. We now lead the nation in producing renewable energy from hog manure.

Smithfield Foods and Dominion Energy are currently investing $500 million across the nation in a joint project called Align RNG to generate renewable natural gas from hog farms. Align RNG’s first project in North Carolina, straddling the border of Sampson and Duplin Counties, will generate enough energy to power 4,500 homes — with annual carbon emissions reduction of 157,000 metric tons — that’s the equivalent of removing 36,000 automobiles from the roads or planting 2.7 new trees each year.

That project took state bureaucrats two years to approve because farmers were required to apply for permits to operate these biogas digester facilities on a site-by-site basis. The long delays built into in the approval process causes uncertainty, which leads to a reluctance on the part of farmers to invest in biogas digester systems, which involve large up-front capital costs in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The new law streamlines the permitting process in significant ways. It directs North Carolina’s Environmental Management Commission to allow farmers to construct and operate multiple farm digester systems on their property under a new general certificate of coverage, rather than having to get a new permit for each digester system. Additionally,  it speeds up the process by stipulating that if the commission fails to make a permitting decision within 90 days of a farm’s request, the request for a certificate of coverage is considered approved.

Despite the overwhelming, bipartisan approval for these reforms in the legislature and the support of the governor, not everyone thinks the expedited permitting process is a good idea. Before floor debate in the House even began on Senate Bill 605, an amendment was introduced by Representative Raymond Smith of Wayne County that would have removed the entirety of Section 11 regarding biogas digesters:

“This is a very egregious part of the bill that I think is not necessary at this particular point in time. There’s no need for a general permit. The permitting process as it stands works just fine; each individual that is applying for a permit has the opportunity to go through the permitting process on an individual basis, on a farm-by-farm basis, this general permit just takes it to another level that’s just absolutely not necessary at this time.”

Thankfully, his job-killing amendment was roundly defeated.

The Carolina Leadership Coalition applauds the legislature and Governor Cooper for their support of this innovative, common-sense measure. It is a great example of public policy that is pro-consumer, pro-business, and pro-environment.

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