When the world’s largest pork producer and a major public utility announced they would team up to turn hog manure from North Carolina swine farms into energy, they billed their new partnership as a win-win for both the companies and the climate.
With a $500 million commitment and a recently minted joint venture called Align RNG, Smithfield Foods and Dominion Energy set out to capture the methane emitted from giant hog manure “lagoons,” convert it into biogas—what the industries dub “renewable natural gas”—and inject that biogas into pipelines to heat homes and buildings.
The partnership, the companies said, would create the biggest manure-to-energy project in North Carolina, a state with the potential to become the largest producer of livestock biogas in the country. At the same time, the project would help the companies meet their goals of reducing climate-warming emissions, they said.
Similar alliances are emerging around the country as the livestock industry comes under increasingly critical scrutiny for its greenhouse gas emissions, and utilities and power companies attempt to meet climate-related commitments. To name only two recent examples, Duke Energy announced in July that it will collaborate with dairy farmers in the Southeast. In September, Chevron announced a project with California Biogas and the state’s dairy farmers.
But as utilities, oil companies and livestock companies pitch biogas as an emissions-reducing solution, critics say it simply locks in systems that allow two highly polluting industries to continue unchecked and without truly tackling their climate impact. These industrial farms, like oil and gas infrastructure, are disproportionately located in lower income and minority communities, where pollution plagues waterways, air and quality of life.
“It’s absolute greenwashing,” said Sherri White-Williamson, environmental justice policy director with the North Carolina Conservation Network. “If you think about it, there’s nothing renewable about biogas, because in order to make it, you have to grow the hogs in large quantities in huge facilities.”
She added, “It only continues to ingrain that system.”
Biogas development is creating a new revenue stream for the livestock industry, potentially spurring big operators to expand and add more animals to their inventories. In dairy powerhouse Wisconsin, and in California, the country’s largest dairy state, there’s evidence that such expansion is already happening. At the same time, biogas supports the construction of new natural gas infrastructure, much of it with public funding.
“We’re seeing these things opening up, not just in California, but across the country,” said Sasan Saadat, an analyst with The Right To Zero campaign, an effort by EarthJustice to push California toward net-zero energy. “The gas and livestock industries are some of the largest polluters, so this is a way for these companies to come up with persuasive narratives for why their business models can stay the same and still be consistent with climate action.”
Initially, the idea of capturing methane from manure lagoons and converting it into biogas seemed like a viable way to lower methane emissions—and there is evidence it does just that. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, through such conversion, a big dairy operation can reduce emissions by 250,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent a year. The California Department of Food and Agriculture estimates that biogas operations at dairies can reduce emissions in the state by more that 1 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent a year.
Methane is an especially potent greenhouse gas, 86 times more effective at warming the atmosphere over a 20-year period than carbon dioxide, and emissions are climbing. The EPA says industrial livestock facilities, mostly dairy and pork, are responsible for the rise. This increase has corresponded with a trend in the industry of moving more livestock indoors, where they are raised with great efficiency, confined in small pens or crates, packed into sprawling facilities.
Government-backed funding and credits for biogas projects has poured in, along with supportive legislation and policy. In North Carolina, government officials have said that biogas can help the state meet the state’s emission reduction targets; the legislature tweaked a statewide moratorium that banned new or expanded hog farms to allow them if they have a biogas project attached. New York in 2018 promised $16 million to boost biogas development at the state’s dairies. California has spent nearly $200 million on biogas development at the state’s dairy farms.
On a basic level, the methane-biogas conversion works like this: Manure from the animals is flushed into giant lagoons, where it emits methane. A giant cover is put on the lagoon and the manure flows to an anaerobic digester, where microorganisms break down the organic matter and release methane. The methane is then captured and pumped through pipelines to an upgrading facility, where it is processed and injected into a larger pipeline. The biogas can be used as fuel or to generate electricity.
The farms, or the companies that own or contract with them, can then sell the biogas to utilities or sell credits for the biogas to companies seeking to offset their own emissions, because biogas is considered cleaner than fossil gas. In California, biogas projects—in the state or elsewhere—can generate credits that other polluting industries can purchase through the state’s cap-and-trade program and Low Carbon Fuel Standard to offset their own emissions.
That green distinction, though, is based on faulty math, critics say. Most methane from livestock comes from the burps of cows—which biogas systems do nothing to divert. Those systems then lead to more cows, more manure and more methane pollution.
“They make these claims that they’re going to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by so much because this methane was going into the air, but that assumes that emissions from industrial livestock are natural. They’re a human-induced problem,” said Saadat. “When animals are raised on pastures, their manure decomposes. Livestock consolidation leads to manure lagoons and the manure lagoons are what’s responsible for the methane pollution.”
These systems cost tens of thousands of dollars to install, are expensive to maintain and only make economic sense on farms with high numbers of animals, which tends to motivate the expansion of existing farms that are already large.
But as tax credits, grants and support for these projects mount, critics say, so does the evidence that the methane reductions are questionable.
“Yes, it does reduce some greenhouse gas emissions,” said White-Williamson, who was also a longtime EPA employee. “But when the hog lagoons are capped to capture the biogas, the amount of ammonia increases, which is a much more deadly gas than methane. There are also some studies that say that as much methane escapes during the process as is actually captured.”
Most farms use what’s known as a lagoon-and-sprayfield system, in which the manure that’s stored in a lagoon is then sprayed on nearby fields at a rate and volume allowed by regulators. In this system, critics argue, more manure means more ammonia and other toxic substances ending up in waterways, groundwater and air. Duke University research has shown that people living near these facilities have higher rates of pollution-caused illnesses.
North Carolina is the country’s second largest pork-producing state after Iowa, with about 10 million hogs—about as many pigs as people—at any given time. Most of them are raised—or grown, in industry parlance—in the state’s flood-prone coastal plains, where Smithfield is the largest player. Along with methane, they generate water pollution, stench, flies, buzzards and a constant stream of hog-hauling semi-trucks on the region’s country roads.
“The smell. The constant back and forth of the trucks. Dead animals in Dumpsters for days. The flies. You can’t even be outside,” said White-Williamson. “I live in a town with a Smithfield processing plant. I’m three miles away, but even that far, on some days, I don’t want to let my dogs outside.”
Her concerns are echoing through communities in Sampson and Duplin counties, where Align RNG plans to install lagoon covers at 19 industrial hog operations, build a pipeline system more than 30 miles long and construct a central upgrading facility where the biogas will be processed and injected into the existing natural gas pipeline.
In November, the state’s Department of Environmental Quality held a virtual public hearing on an air quality permit for the Grady Road Project, as the Align RNG project is called. Many residents said they simply want more transparency about which farms will be involved, where the pipeline will go and how the state’s regulators will hold the companies accountable if things go wrong.
“We have a minimally regulated industry here in North Carolina and the state adopts this fiction that these operations don’t discharge pollutants in the air and streams,” said Blakely Hildebrand, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center. “There may be some climate benefits from capping a lagoon, but those are dubious. By simply capping hog waste lagoons, they’re entrenching an inherently harmful system for raising livestock. They could be addressing climate concerns, but also public health, water and air pollution concerns.”
A spokesperson for Align RNG sent links to press releases about its venture but did not respond to specific questions about the project or its plans. As residents in Sampson and Duplin counties press on Align and state regulators for more details of the project, they can probably expect more pressure from the industries, which have momentum behind them.
The incoming Biden administration has indicated it plans to decarbonize “rural energy and promote green energy and smart grids through the vast reach of rural development grants and loans to rural utilities and by dramatically increasing use of methane digesters….”
This has critics of biogas concerned that more public dollars will be funneled to giant livestock companies and utilities, at the expense of rural communities that will bear the burden of any increased pollution.
“The emphasis on the use of public dollars to fund the biogas industry, which in turn is a subsidy to the natural gas industry, also sends us on the wrong track,” said Ben Lilliston, director of rural strategies and climate change at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, referring to Biden’s agriculture and climate plan. “These methane digesters have expensive up-front costs. We should not be using public money to create more financial incentives to produce more animal waste and manure.”