Today in greenwashing: a state-sponsored video about the purported benefits of biogas

A screenshot from the video shows a covered how waste lagoon, which is the anaerobic digester that captures methane. In the background is a secondary, uncovered lagoon that catches the excess waste, which in turn is sprayed on fields for fertilizer. The uncovered lagoon and the spray fields both emit methane.

A two-minute video promoting the alleged benefits of biogas is notable not for what it says, but for what it fails to say.

The video was co-sponsored by the NC Department of Agriculture, the NC Pork Council and the state’s Tobacco Trust Fund Commission. Heather Overton, spokeswoman for the agriculture department, said the commission paid $5,600 for the production. The General Assembly created the commission in 2000 to distribute settlement money from major cigarette manufacturers to farmers and other workers displaced by the downturn of the tobacco industry. It  is administratively housed under the agriculture department. The commission did not return an email message seeking comment.

The video was sent from Laura Kilian, the agriculture department’s legislative liaison, to members of the Senate Agriculture, Energy and Environment Committee on Monday.

What was said: “Renewable natural gas derived from biogas is recognized as some of the cleanest, most carbon-negative fuels that we can consume.”  — Gus Simmons of Cavanagh & Associates, the engineer behind the major biogas installations in the state: Optima KV and Align RNG. Simmons also is a member of the Energy Policy Council, appointed by the governor.

What was not said: First, who is doing the recognizing?
Second, the term “carbon-negative fuels” is slippery. A technology can emit no or very little carbon dioxide, but still send greenhouse gases into the air in the form of methane. Methane emissions can be expressed in tons of “carbon dioxide equivalent,” but it’s not clear what Simmons means here.

Nor did the video present data, not even a handy chart, to illustrate the “net methane” emissions from these operations. That means methane emitted from the secondary lagoon, which is uncovered, plus the sprayfield system, plus any leakage from the pipelines and other infrastructure, minus the methane captured by the covered lagoon, also known as an anaerobic digester. If the data is scientifically sound and contains good news, then by all means, share it.

Kraig Westerbeek of Smithfield Foods (left) and Gus Simmons of Optima KV in a state-produced video extolling the alleged benefits of biogas (Screenshot from video)

What was said: “We capture all the emissions. We capture all the biogas.” — Kraig Westerbeek, vice president environment and support operations, Smithfield Foods

What was not said: Again, if the farm has a secondary, uncovered lagoon, used to capture the leftover effluent from the covered digester, the the farm is not capturing “all the emissions.” Beneath the covered lagoon, nitrogen concentrations rise.

That nitrogen is then sent to the secondary lagoon along with the extra feces and urine, which is then sprayed onto farm fields. Many factors determine how much nitrogen — and nitrous oxide, yet another greenhouse gas — are emitted from the sprayfields and open lagoons.

A 2016 paper in the Journal of Animal Behavior and Meteorology explained that applying manure to the soil can emit nitrogen and nitrous oxide, but the type of feed, the weather, and the length of time the waste has been stored all influence emissions.

What was said: “It provides an economic benefit to farmer.” — Westerbeek

What was not said: Depending on the size of the farm, the number of swine and the complexity of the digester system, construction costs range from $600,000 to $1.2 million, according to industry reports and state records. There are ongoing operations and maintenance costs, as well. Construction costs can be covered by USDA or private bank loans, and sometimes grants.

Last week several lawmakers attended a presentation at the Optima KV facility and a participating farm near Magnolia. According to a lawmaker who was there, a farmer said he earned about $120,000 in revenue annually from selling biogas. If those earnings remain steady, it would take only five years to repay a $600,000 loan.

The proceeds can be calculated by factoring in the number of hogs, which allows the biogas facility operator to estimate the amount of methane generated.

But if the number of hogs declines, say because of a disease outbreak, flooding or hurricanes, then revenues would likely also decline.

What was said: “Perceptions are different from the realities of a hog farm. We’ll continue to be good neighbors and take care of the environment.” — Angie Maier, director of Government Affairs and Sustainability, NC Pork Council

What was not said: Maier is correct that perceptions don’t always square with reality. Staged photos of pink pigs in sunlit barns don’t reflect the actual conditions, which were revealed in a series of nuisance lawsuits in federal court. Photos entered into the court record showed manure-encrusted pigs crammed into dark quarters, the air peppered with flies.

Also omitted was any mention of the 4 million gallons of hog feces and urine that spilled from two farms — B&L and DC Mills — into waterways and wetlands last year. The B&L spill killed at least 1,000 fish.

Conspicuous by their absence was any note that five juries in a series of federal hog nuisance trials heard also disagreed that many of Smithfield’s hog farms are good neighbors. Those juries returned verdicts in favor of the neighbors of the offending farms, and awarded millions of dollars in damages. The federal appeals court also agreed with the jurors, with conservative Justice Harvie Wilkinson III, writing for the majority opinion:

“I am also not so naive as to imagine that hog farming could ever be an antiseptic enterprise. But the record here reveals outrageous conditions at Kinlaw Farms” — the first of dozens of Smithfield’s operations under scrutiny.

“It is past time to acknowledge the full harms that the unreformed practices of hog farming are inflicting,” Wilkinson wrote. “At the end of all this wreckage lies an uncomfortable truth,” Wilkinson wrote. “These nuisance conditions were unlikely to have persisted for long — or even to have arisen at all — had the neighbors of Kinlaw Farms been wealthier or more politically powerful.”

Policy Watch has repeatedly asked Simmons, Smithfield and Dominion to provide data to show the extent of methane capture and leakage. Simmons has not returned requests by email or telephone; in their responses, neither Smithfield and Dominion has answered the question.

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