Hog industry key to environmental win
RALEIGH -- Who would have thought two decades ago that North Carolina hog farmers would prove pivotal in preserving an environmental law?
It hasn't been that long ago that the state's hog barons were portrayed as polluters and despoilers of the state's waters, as headline-grabbing waste spills accompanied a burgeoning contract hog farming industry that helped fill a void left by the decline of tobacco.
Over the last few weeks, though, it was the hog barons standing beside environmental groups to oppose the repeal of requirements that North Carolina's electric utilities generate a portion of their power supply from alternative energy sources.
Kraig Westerbeek, a vice president at Murphy-Brown, told legislators that the bill would send the wrong message to investors supporting livestock waste-to-energy projects being developed around the state.
Summer Lanier, a spokeswoman for Prestage Farms, told a House committee that the legislation would put an end to a $35 million poultry litter gasification facility planned for Bladen County.
Harnett County hog farmer Tom Butler said a project on his farm to convert hog waste to methane gas would be undone by the legislation.
The hog industry's opposition may not have been the only thing that doomed Rep. Mike Hager's bill to drop the renewable requirements.
Executives from solar energy firms, touting their businesses' growth and job creation since the requirements were approved in 2007, made an impression too.
Still, it might have been easy for some Republican and eastern Democrats to dismiss those folks as newfangled greenies. No one was going to think of names like Murphy and Prestage in that way.
The result was that Hager and his legislation received a stinging defeat before a committee that he chaired. Three powerful Republican lawmakers -- Reps. Ruth Sameulson of Mecklenburg, Tim Moore of Cleveland County, and Nelson Dollar of Wake County -- were among the GOP lawmakers who joined with Democrats to vote against the measure.
Hager had argued that the alternative energy requirements, which will reach 12.5 percent of the energy supplied by the state's big utility companies by 2021, amount to a subsidy that has been put on ratepayers.
But another key argument from conservative pundits and think tanks who want the requirements to go away is that those ratepayers really are not getting much for their dollar, that the renewable requirements' contribution to clean air is negligible.
Even if that were true, what about the contributions to clean water in a future where vast amounts of livestock waste are turned into energy? How much is that worth?
The hog industry has been working for years to find alternatives to waste lagoons and spray fields.
For at least one moment, it stood beside the same people it used fight about what to do with the waste.
With the chance to be cast a very different light than it was two decades ago, the industry didn't let the moment slip away.