by Stewart Boss
As the legislative session comes to a close in North Carolina this week, lawmakers have begun to undo the decades of progress that made the Tar Heel state a regional leader in clean energy for the Southeast.
Republican lawmakers, who in 2010 took control of both houses in the General Assembly for the first time since the 1800s, have pushed an agenda that has hit important environmental programs. The trend of state-level environmental rollbacks has become a nationwide epidemic, but North Carolina has distinguished itself among the numerous states where Republicans are successfully pushing the state towards a dirty energy future.
The state’s budget has been the most contentious fight of all. The Senate and House overrode Democratic Governor Bev Perdue’s veto of the 2011-2012 budget this week. As a result, the $19.7 billion spending plan contains a 12% cut to the state’s Department of Environment & Natural Resources, with $23 million in program cuts that get rid more than 150 positions in DENR. The budget also includes cuts of 90 percent, or $89 million, to the state’s Clean Water Management Trust Fund, which enables the state to protect rivers and streams.
Echoing that sentiment, the legislature’s Joint Regulatory Reform Committee, with the purpose of creating “ a strong environment for private sector job creation by lifting the undue burden imposed by outdated, unnecessary, and vague rules,” just released its Regulatory Reform Act of 2011, to prevent any new environmental protections stricter than the federal minimum, and creates a process for eliminating any existing rules stronger than the federal minimum.
One particular bill, the Energy Jobs Act, would mandate that the Governor form a regional compact to accelerate offshore drilling, move the state closer to making “fracking” legal, and dismantle the state’s Energy Policy Council by renaming it the “Energy Jobs Council” and redefining its membership to include primarily utilities and oil and gas industry representatives. That bill has been passed by both chambers and is likely to be sent to the Governor’s desk. Despite growing and widespread environmental and public health concerns relating to fracking, Rep. John Blust (R-Greensboro) told The News & Observer: “It’s time to get crackin’ on frackin’… If we’re worrying about tourism, do you think $4 a gallon gas is going to affect tourism? We need more fossil fuels in this country.”
Just this week, the House Environment and Natural Resources Committee approved an amendment to a bill forbidding state agencies to regulate greenhouse gases that will effectively eliminate the State Air Toxics Program, which would gut the state’s strong protections against hazardous pollution. The amendment, introduced by Rep. Pat McElraft (R-Emerald Isle), came as five of North Carolina’s biggest emitters of hazardous and toxic pollutants, including utility giant Duke Energy and steel manufacturer Nucor Corp., urged Republicans to work on repealing the legislation. According to the EPA’s 2009 inventory, those five companies account for more than half of the hazardous and toxic chemical released in North Carolina.
Three former DENR secretaries wrote a joint letter opposing the Republican efforts to pick apart North Carolina’s environmental protections and programs while describing the benefits that the state enjoys as a result.
These bills and proposals would replace ‘conserve and protect’ with ‘dismantle and re-direct.’ The first wave aims to dismantle the Department of Environment and Natural Resources. A second wave aims at taking funding away from natural resource conservation programs. Among them are bills that would raid and re-direct half of the dedicated funding that has been the heart and soul and engine of two highly effective and successful programs: the Parks and Recreation Trust Fund and the Natural Heritage Trust Fund. These two programs are the product of years of bipartisan and nonpartisan leadership, cooperation and support. As a result of these and other important conservation programs, North Carolina citizens and visitors enjoy a wonderful network of state and local parks, gamelands, recreation facilities, greenways, trails, public access to public beaches and waters, and natural areas.
Some programs have remained intact, and progress is still being made in small chunks. North Carolina just approved its first onshore wind farm, with 150 wind turbines in Pasquotank County that will be able to power up to 75,000 homes. And the state’s Renewable Energy Portfolio Standard of 12.5% by 2021 is still the only law of its kind in the Southeast, managing to withstand conservative attacks by the John Locke Foundation and others.
According to Public Policy Polling, an overwhelming 83 percent of voters agreed that “protecting North Carolina’s air and water is important to attracting good jobs to the state.” The idea that North Carolina needs to be any more business-friendly simply rings false: in 2010, Forbes ranked North Carolina as the #3 best state for business in the country.
Molly Diggins, state director for the North Carolina chapter of the Sierra Club, said:
There’s a tendency now to suggest that the environment got too much consideration under the Democrats…When did that happen? The difference today is that the legislature doesn’t seem to see any connection between environmental quality and economic health.
The slew of bad bills that have come down the pipeline since January represents an unprecedented attack on solid environmental programs. Until 2011, North Carolina was a model for how a clean environment and a robust economy were achievable at the same time. Given the legislature’s current agenda, that’s unlikely to hold true for long.
— Stewart Boss, a CAP intern from the Tar Heel state