A new state law streamlines permitting for hog farms that capture biogas, and it moves some control over farming regulations to the local level. Gov. Roy Cooper signed Senate Bill 605, the North Carolina Farm Act of 2021, into law on July 2 despite objections from some environmental groups.
Environmental groups objected because the law simplifies the permitting process for hog farms that collect methane gas for energy. These farms use digester systems that collect methane from waste ponds to sell as natural gas. In the bill, the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality is directed to streamline the permit process and decide on an application for biogas within 90 days. The state permit lasts for five years. Objections to the change came from environmental and civil rights groups based inside and outside North Carolina.
“Gov. Cooper, a self-proclaimed ally for environmental justice in North Carolina, failed to listen to more than 600 groups that called attention to the Farm Act’s disregard for the environmental impacts that outdated waste management industrial operations have on communities of color,” according to a statement released by Friends of the Earth, based out of Washington, D.C., and Berkeley, California.
Farmers say biogas is cleaner energy and makes economic sense for the industry, particularly as technology improves and more farmers want to use it. When the bill cleared the legislature, 14 House Democrats voted in favor of it. In the Senate, eight Democrats supported it.
“Recent storms have caused farms to flood severely, and for years, farmers have been advocating for a way to cap their lagoons to mediate potential environmental dangers,” said Rep. Charles Graham, D-Robeson, in a statement. “This bill would give our farmers the opportunity to use modern technology in their operations and protect their legacy both on the land and within our local economy.”
The Farm Act of 2021 contains other deregulatory measures including giving local agriculture advisory boards the authority to establish and modify local agricultural districts and enter into agreements with local farmers in the districts. The bill also increases the punishment for timber theft, or “tree poaching,” making it a class G felony punishable with fines of up to three times the value of the timber. It also exempts cooking and ceremonies from open-burn laws.