Farm bill passing NC Senate includes new biogas permits

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — The annual farm bill pushed by Senate Republicans won the full chamber’s approval Tuesday, including a provision that would likely make it easier upon North Carolina livestock operations to secure permits to convert liquid waste into natural gas. 

The measure would create “general permits” for animal farm operations that also allows the owner to construct and operate a farm digester system. Currently these operators seek individual permits. General permits that are renewed every five years and are considered more streamlined. 

The pork industry supports the proposed change, saying biogas operations on farms are very similar in scope and that the federal government has encouraged as a way to produce cleaner energy. The bill directs a general permit be issued in 90 days or the applicant could go to an administrative law judge to challenge the delay. Two dozen permits related to such biogas production at farms have been issued over the past decade, the bill’s chief sponsor said.

“There will be many more farms applying for these permits in the future,” Sen. Brent Jackson, a Sampson County Republican, said before a 28-21 party-line vote in favor of the bill. “The technology is well understood.” 

Opponents argue the general permit process will make it harder for environmental groups and the neighbors of those farms to be heard. They say biogas production brings with it its own pollutants and the operations don’t get rid of the stench emanating from the waste pits. 

In a biogas operation, liquid hog waste enters a covered anaerobic digester and captures the natural gas, which in turn powers an electric turbine or gets transported by pipe. The waste ultimately enters a lagoon and is sprayed on land.

Smithfield Foods contracts with many swine farm operators and owns farms in eastern North Carolina. Environmentalists said legislators should force the pork giant now to use improved technologies to make the waste less damaging to the environment after they agreed over 20 years ago to fund their development. The technology has not been considered economically feasible. 

“It is time to make that investment despite the long-term objection of the pork industry,” said Sen. Julie Mayfield, a Buncombe County Democrat, who likened the general permit provision to putting “lipstick on a pig” by seeking to lock in “the lagoon system for decades to come.” 

Hog farms in two eastern North Carolina counties are expected to participate in a “renewable natural gas” project between Smithfield and Dominion Energy in which collected methane gas will be pumped to a refining facility proposed in Duplin County. The facility recently received a permit.

Jackson said farms seeking general permits could still receive more scrutiny by state regulators should they seek to use new biogas technology or have shown a need for additional oversight in the past.

The bill, which now moves to the House, also makes clear that fires for cooking and warmth are exempted from certain open-burn bans. It also would increase punishments for stealing timber and clarifies compensation rules for state Forest Service firefighters.

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