Is Pig Poop the Fuel of the Future?

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As the second-largest pork producer in the country, North Carolina has a pig poop problem, and there’s no doubt about it.

As a result, there are lakes of pig feces sitting all over the state, causing enormous environmental problems and health concerns.

To combat the issue, a North Carolina clean energy law implemented in 2012 contains a specific carve-out for energy derived from animal waste, a requirement necessitated by the state’s uniquely severe pig waste problem.

Duke Energy is working to comply with the law by turning that pig waste into carbon-neutral electricity. The utility company partnered with Carbon Cycle Energy, who will make a digester that captures the methane gas out of swine waste. That gas will be funneled into an existing natural gas pipeline and directed to four North Carolina Duke Energy plants. The result will be 125,000 megawatt-hours of renewable energy per year, enough to power about 10,000 homes for a year.

Whether or not this method will effectively mitigate the problem remains unclear.

For starters, people are not going to stop eating bacon any time soon. As long as the mass consumption of pork persists, lagoons of toxic pig waste will continue to pollute the countryside. Turning that waste into a viable form of renewable energy might just be a moral solution to a deeply immoral situation.

On the other hand, however, Duke Energy’s plan encourages an environmentally destructive industry that violates both animal and human rights.

In 2013, a story broke about an Oklahoma pig farm that contracted with meat powerhouse Tyson Foods and was discovered serially abusing its pigs. Sadistic workers were discovered slamming piglets into the ground repeatedly, leaving them to die slowly over the course of many hours, gouging out their eyes, and stuffing very pregnant pigs into pens barely larger than the pigs themselves.

Similar stories surfaced in 2011 in Iowa and again in 2015, this time at a Pennsylvania farm that contracted with Whole Foods.

Meanwhile, North Carolina plays host to many subsidiary farms of pork distributor behemoth Smithfield Foods. At least one farm was also found beating its pigs, castrating them without painkillers and with dull knives, and stuffing them into abusively small gestation crates. Some employees admitted to the physical torture of pigs as being their own brand of “therapy.”

Smithfield Foods claimed to have abandoned the gestation crates, yet they remained the “norm” in 2010, according to a CBS News report.

Despite these offenses, Duke Energy may source swine from Smithfield, according to Duke Energy Communications Manager Randy Wheeless.

Animal rights aside, the status quo of swine farming practices remains an abusive human rights violation to those communities who live near the farms.

Pig farms like Smithfield create what are often called “lagoons” of feces: enormous lakes of pig waste that are left to dissipate into the atmosphere or else are spread over crops as manure. There have also been reports of feces being sprayed over crops from the air, unbeknownst to inhabitants of the surrounding areas.

All three acts pose serious health risks for nearby communities. In addition to the attraction of disease-carrying insects and pests, as well as the groundwater contamination that ensues, the odor of the waste causes a myriad of respiratory issues, immune dysfunctions, high blood pressure, and antibiotic resistance.

It’s also a social quality of life concern. Families surrounding pig farms report ceasing to socialize in their homes and that their children are bullied at school for smelling like pig waste. People go to bed every day and wake up each morning to the sickening odor.

Another chief concern regarding the stagnant pools of pig waste is the methane they release into the atmosphere.

Because of how quickly and easily it absorbs heat, methane has a far more devastating impact on climate change than does carbon dioxide. According to NASA’s Drew Shindell, it is 60 percent more effective in heating the Earth than CO2.

Should pig farmers radically alter their practices? Absolutely. Yet in the meantime, lakes of feces have nowhere to go except into the surrounding air. Transmuting them into carbon-neutral renewable energy may be the best option available, at least for the environment.

What about the animal and human rights concerns? Some would argue that turning the waste into something sustainable is a socially conscious response to the bad practices that generated the waste.

Ultimately, however, pig farming would need to continue to create more waste as a fuel source, meaning that Duke Energy’s plan would only further the growth of the industry and provide little incentive to change.