Hog waste biogas: Artificial demand, real environmental harm

By 2023 Summer Fellows Tamara Wood, Chandler Allred, Tashi Choden and Logan Steinike

As we seek to protect our environment, slow climate change and open economic opportunities for all North Carolinians, we're eager to consider innovative, sustainable ideas for generating clean energy.

Hog waste biogas isn't one of them.

This summer, we intensively studied North Carolina's factory hog farms, known as concentrated animal feeding operations or CAFOs, and efforts to monetize their antiquated waste management systems at the expense of human and environmental health.

Despite fierce opposition from environmental and climate organizations, as well as federal civil rights concerns voiced by impacted communities, North Carolina regulators are moving forward with biogas permitting.


2023 Summer Fellows Chandler Allred, Logan Steinike and Tashi Choden are shown in front of a small plane in which they flew over CAFOs in Eastern North Carolina. Image by Erin Carey
Chandler Allred, Logan Steinike and Tashi Choden (l-r) got a bird's-eye view of southeastern NC CAFOs as part of their research.

So it's crucial that we critically examine current environmental practices and the potential impact of the flagship project run by Align Renewable Natural Gas (Align RNG), a joint venture involving Smithfield Foods and Dominion Energy that aims to capture methane emitted from hog waste. We also looked at the Environmental Protection Agency's newly released Renewable Fuel Standards for 2023-2025 and the potential impacts an “eRINs” market could have on methane and agricultural digester demand.

EPA's Renewable Fuel Standards (RFS) include a credit scheme known as Renewable Identification Numbers (RINs), which incentivizes the production and use of renewable fuels. The current set rule includes significant growth for biofuel as fuel sources for 2023, 2024 and 2025. Biofuel from biomass, such as methane from agriculture waste, sees steady growth in its volume targets.

Some lawmakers are now urging the EPA to take up eRINS, which aren't included in the RFS. E-RINs are credits for using renewable fuels or biofuels, such as methane gas, to produce electricity that powers electric vehicles.

If approved next year, the eRINs market would further stimulate demand for hog waste biogas as we try to clean up the transportation sector, which is the primary source of greenhouse gas emissions in North Carolina and nationwide.

The Sierra Club and other groups have urged EPA to reject the proposal, pointing out that "incentivizing energy from high-polluting industries will only worsen pollution hotspots in overburdened communities."

The "greening" of our transportation sector can't come at the expense of communities near factory farms and biogas facilities. For North Carolina’s Clean Transportation Plan to be credible, it must support the safety and health of all North Carolinians in all its elements, including the sources of EV-charging electricity.

North Carolina missed the chance to lead on better hog waste management systems; other states have already embraced methods that pose far fewer risks. But we can lead on clean transportation by embracing solutions that prioritize environmental protection, public health, and community well-being. Relying on "dirty" fuels from projects such as Align RNG proposes to make would fly in the face of everything the state has done in recent years to promote clean energy in all sectors.

North Carolina must reject the "hogwash" inherent in hog waste biogas projects, and demand that CAFO management reflects respect for farm neighbors and the environment. We can and should choose a new "green road" that leads us to a more resilient, equitable, and sustainable future for all our people.