Annual Farm Act
This week the North Carolina Senate Agriculture, Energy and Environment Committee advanced Senate Bill 582: North Carolina Farm Act of 2023, with bipartisan support. This bill is an omnibus package of various policies that affect a wide range of agricultural industries, including hog farms, forest fires, muscadine grape juice, and more.
Most of the bill’s 20 sections are noncontroversial. However, two sections drew concerns from environmentalists. The Southern Environmental Law Center distributed a fact sheet to Senators in the committee expressing worry about a section that loosens restrictions on how hog farms use digestors to release gases captured from waste lagoons. This section allows hog farms to vent more methane gas from waste pits. The group said in the fact sheet, "With this change, venting and flaring – and harming the climate – is explicitly allowed." Some state lawmakers changed regulations in recent years to make it easier for farmers to capture that gas and feed it to utility companies that burn it to produce electricity.
The NC Pork Council says the changes are needed to allow temporary flaring at times and to let farmers plan for the future, installing equipment it takes to collect and sell methane before the pipes that are needed to transport the gas reach their farm.
Additionally, some Democrats raised concerns during the committee about a section that would tie North Carolina's wetland protections with federal rules. According to Senator Brent Jackson (R-Sampson), a farmer and the bill's sponsor, the section would align North Carolina's wetland rules with whatever emerges from a series of federal lawsuits where the "federal waters of the United States" rules are being challenged.
Senator Lisa Grafstein (D-Wake) said she was "cautious to support rules we don't know the consequences of." A representative from the Southern Environmental Law Center told committee members that state regulations "fill in a gap" while federal jurisdiction over wetlands is in flux.
Other parts of the Farm Act are less controversial, including prohibiting unmanned aircraft, like drones, from being used near a forest fire, and boosting penalties for operators who spill animal waste along state roadways and leave the scene.
The bill now goes to the Senate Judiciary Committee for further discussion and a vote.