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Factory Farm Gas Erodes Critical Environmental Regulations in NC

Food Integrity Campaign | April 9, 2021

Factory farm gas is rapidly expanding its footprint across the country, putting rural communities and our environment at risk. Food Integrity Campaign has closely followed the development of factory farm gas projects in North Carolina. This week a new bill introduced in the North Carolina State Senate threatens to unleash the dangerous potential of these so-called “biogas” projects by letting Big Ag and the natural gas industry circumvent hard-won environmental regulations while simultaneously promoting these projects as “going green.”

Factory farm gas is also referred to as “renewable natural gas” or “biogas.” It is made when industrial-scale dairies, slaughterhouses, and hog farms harness methane from the vast quantities of animal waste produced on site, and corporations such as Smithfield Foods then refine the methane into a finished product chemically identical to natural gas. 

This week in North Carolina the Farm Act of 2021 was introduced, and buried amongst the myriad of issues this bill covers – from forest service overtime pay to drivers’ licenses for H-2A temporary agricultural workers – is language that could enable the exponential growth of concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO) hog production in the state and further entrench the pipeline industry at the same time. 

Section 11 of this large bill would significantly weaken environmental regulation of CAFOs in several ways. The first major setback has to do with how those operations are permitted by the state. This bill would have North Carolina’s Environmental Management Commission (EMC) create a new general permit process for operations with biogas digesters, allowing those operations to bypass the existing permitting process for CAFOs using lagoons and spray fields. Fenceline communities in eastern North Carolina and environmental advocates have fought for decades to establish basic regulatory protections that are now built into that general permit for hog lagoon operations. Section 11 of the Farm Act 2021 specifically addresses those wins and says they will not be included in a new general permit for biogas digesters. 

Furthermore, the language takes several swipes at North Carolina’s moratorium on new hog CAFO operations, which states that any new or updated operations must meet Environmentally Superior Technology (EST) criteria. Section 11 makes it clear that farms adding biogas digesters will not be regulated differently from existing lagoon and spray field operations, so meeting the EST criteria will not be required if you’re adding in a biogas digester. It also does away with an existing tax incentive for the installation of ESTs on farms, and makes exceptions to the Swine Farm Siting Act enabling operations to move components of waste management systems even closer to their neighbors’ property. 

The Farm Act language would also significantly limit transparency and public process. For example, it limits the time that the EMC has to develop, hear and issue a decision on any challenges to permits to just 90 days, and expressly prevents the EMC from holding public hearings regarding permits. 

In total, the language in Section 11 of NC’s Farm Act of 2021 is carefully calculated to create a fast lane for factory farm gas, bypassing several requirements put in place over the years to safeguard neighboring communities and prevent environmental harm. 

This bill is in good company. In March, House Bill 220 was introduced, which would prevent cities and counties from being able to restrict the type of energy production that is developed in their area through new construction. NC Policy Watch has reported that the oil and natural gas industry lobby is behind this bill, reacting to legislation passed in California that allowed cities to issue ordinances preventing the further construction of natural gas connections due to climate change. 

And possibly even more disturbing, House Bill 271 introduced at the end of March would put a measure on the ballot that could allow corporations, not just the government, the right to eminent domain to take private property in order to complete construction of infrastructure such as pipelines and other facilities related to natural gas production. This flurry of legislative reforms reflects not only the power of Big Ag and Big Energy in North Carolina, but also the way in which factory farm gas is being utilized as a justification to erode existing environmental regulations and public process. 

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