Environment

What ‘Schoolhouse Rock’ didn’t tell you: How House Bill 589, the renewable energy law, was made

 

Rep. John Szoka (Photo: General Assembly)

R ep. John Szoka, who lives in Fayetteville, but is originally from Ohio, was present during a pivotal moment in modern environmental history.

“I remember when the Cuyahoga River burned” in 1969, Szoka, a three-term Republican, told the NC Energy Policy Council this week. The result of pollution, the blaze ushered in a new era of environmentalism, including the creation of the EPA.

Considering a major river ignited in his home state, Szoka nonetheless has a conservative-leaning environmental history. For example, he supported a measure that would have wrestled control from local governments to regulate the cutting of trees for the placement of billboards.

But he is interesting in solar energy, and after failing to advance renewables legislation in the 2015-2016 session (third-party solar energy sales were unpalatable for Duke) he was the leading co-sponsor on House Bill 589: hard-fought, flawed, fast-tracked, but as-good-as-we’re-going-to-get-under-the-circumstances legislation that could further spur the growth of solar power and imposes an 18-month moratorium on wind energy. It is now law.

The NC Energy Policy Council is an appointed board operating under the auspices of the NC Department of Environmental Quality. Its members heard from Szoka and the special interest groups that helped craft the legislation, which provided insight into how most of the bill was made — and how it nearly failed.

At one point in May, nine months’ of talks among clean power groups and Duke Energy had stalled. The river, so to speak, was about to catch fire.

“There would be potential solutions and then they would drift away,” said Szoka, who by design, did not attend these meetings until the impasse. “We got involved when there were intractable problems that had to be resolved.”

On Saturday, May 13, the interest groups and the bill co-sponsors, including Reps. Dean Arp and Sam Watford, hunkered down for a marathon six-to-eight hour mediation. “Using different settlement techniques,” Szoka said, “we had a breakthrough.”

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Environment

Despite the moratorium, Duke Energy moving ahead on wind energy plans

(Illustration: Creative Commons)

Although Sen. Harry Brown put an 18-month kibosh on new wind farms in North Carolina, Duke Energy Carolinas announced it’s looking to buy 500 megawatts of wind energy by the end of 2022. The utility issued a Request for Proposals this week.

Duke Energy spokesman Randy Wheeless said that the utility had been working on the RFP for months, and the wind moratorium did not change its timing. The moratorium was inserted at the last-minute by Sen. Brown into House Bill 589, which originally focused solely on solar power.

In fact, if politics stymies the growth of wind power in North Carolina, Duke Energy could bypass the state entirely and import wind power from elsewhere. In 2011 and 2012, Duke Energy Carolinas purchased wind capacity from a farm in North Dakota. “If the price is attractive enough, it can be wheeled from faraway states,” Wheeless said. “That’s the purpose of the RFP — to see what the market looks like.”

According to the RFP, bidders could sell wind power to Duke Energy; build a new wind farm, which Duke would then buy, or sell the utility an existing facility.

Under the state’s Renewable Energy Portfolio Standard, investor-owned utilities like Duke must purchase or generate 6 percent of its energy needs from renewable sources. That amount increases to 10 percent next year and 12.5 percent in 2021.

Since the wind power won’t be delivered until 2022, that won’t help Duke meet its REPS requirements. However, Wheeless said that the utility is on track to meet those benchmarks even without wind

Duke already owns 20 wind farms nationwide, generating in total about 2,500 megawatts of power, equivalent to the amount of electricity for half a million homes.

 

Environment, Legislature

DEQ had GenX info under Secretary Donald van der Vaart; under Michael Regan, delay attributed to scheduling conflicts

Donald van der Vaart, former Department of Environmental Quality secretary, was in charge when state officials first learned last fall there could be a problem with GenX in the Lower Cape Fear River. And the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority knew even earlier.

But not until June of this year, when the Star-News in Wilmington reviewed and reported on the study, did DEQ under the current administration begin to investigate the presence of GenX in drinking water.

According to a letter sent Aug. 14 from DEQ and the Health and Human Services department to  Sen. Bill Cook, and copied to the Senate and House leadership, in November 2016, “the previous administration” received a research report from the EPA and NC State University scientists regarding the Cape Fear watershed. This study, conducted in part by NC State professor Detlaf Knappe, showed GenX was present in the Lower Cape Fear and in untreated water at the Cape Fear utility. In 2013, the researchers found average levels of 631 parts per trillion of GenX in 37 samples of untreated water.

The Cape Fear Public Utility Authority received the same study in May 2016, according to the letter.

The letter was in response to communications sent last week from the Senate Republican Caucus. In that correspondence, lawmakers asked DEQ Secretary Michael Regan and Secretary of Health and Human Services Mandy Cohen a series of questions about Chemours and GenX. Lawmakers also requested a justification for their departments’ combined $2.5 million emergency appropriation.

Lawmakers had set a deadline of Aug. 14, at 5 p.m. for Cohen and Regan to provide the information.

Jamie Kritzer, DEQ communications director, told NCPW that it’s unclear who at DEQ originally received the study last November. Kritzer said the reason the current administration didn’t act more quickly is because this past spring, several staff members from the Division of Water Resources had tried to meet with Knappe to better understand the study results, but scheduling conflicts prevented that meeting from happening.

But it appears neither Chemours nor GenX  rose to enough importance under van der Vaart to merit a mention in the transition documents provided to the new DEQ administration. (Transition documents are used to transfer institutional knowledge from one administration to another.)

However a different study by Knappe regarding another emerging, unregulated contaminant — 1,4 dioxane — does. Under the heading, “Special studies: 1,4-dioxane,” Jay Zimmerman, chief of the Division of Water Resources, notes that the presence of high levels of 1,4-dioxane in the Haw River “may be an indicator of things to come as previously unregulated emerging pollutants are studied.”

The chemical, used to stabilize solvents, is being discharged by industries upstream near Burlington and Greensboro. Zimmerman wrote that federal discharge permits would be modified to require additional sampling to “better isolate the issue.” He also wrote that “efforts to reduce sources will result in significant cost and potential loss of industry opportunities.”

A geologist, Zimmerman has been with DEQ since 1987. He managed the section overseeing groundwater protection and animal operations before van der Vaart promoted him to DWR head in 2015.

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Environment, Governor Roy Cooper, Legislature

Gov. Cooper vetoes SB 16 over dangerous rollbacks to water quality protection

The governor’s veto last night of Senate Bill 16 has temporarily halted several environmental laws, including one that gives eminent domain power to Dominion Energy for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline.

Gov. Cooper vetoed Senate Bill 16 , the Business and Regulatory Reform Act of 2017.

It passed the House and Senate when they convened for just one day earlier this month, and when many lawmakers were out of town attending a national legislative conference.

Cooper’s veto statement read:

We should make it easier, not harder, for state and local governments to protect water quality, whether through stormwater safeguards or by giving public health departments the ability to revisit wastewater permits if needed Rolling back ways to protect water quality is dangerous.

SB 16 includes a provision expressly enabling Dominion Energy to use eminent domain to build the Atlantic Coast Pipeline in eastern North Carolina. Currently, in-state companies can condemn private property for these types of projects. But Dominion is based in Virginia, and although the company co-owns the ACP with Duke Energy, needed this language to quickly proceed, should the project receive federal approval.

The bill also micromanages DEQ by giving the Environmental Management Commission — which is politically appointed more oversight over the agency’s reports. And the measure weakens coastal stormwater and development rules, and eliminates public input from landfill permit renewals. (NCPW annotated the bill, which we’ve included below.)

Upper Neuse Riverkeeper Matthew Starr issued a statement shortly after the veto, “calling it a victory for clean water and property rights.”

“If SB 16 became law, it would open the door for oil companies using eminent domain to build dangerous pipelines through the back yards of families across the state. And it would make it more difficult for communities to hold local landfills accountable for poor practices. When it comes to clean water, SB 16 would literally pave the way for contamination. The bill’s language makes it easier for developers to skirt responsible stormwater controls, making it more likely that toxic contaminants enter our public waterways.”

SB 16 had taken on many forms since it was filed early in the session — Jan. 26. — serving primarily as a placeholder for various legislation that could be added later. One amendment that passed the House but failed in the Senate conference committee is worth watching: In June, Rep. John Bell, whose district includes counties within the Lower Neuse River basin, sponsored an amendment that would have directed the Legislative Research Commission to study flood control in that basin. While this sounds innocuous, building flood control reservoirs can create more problems than they solve. They eat up land, potentially creating environmental justice problems, and fragment ecosystems. (Ironically, a different bill would have weakened rules regarding riparian buffers, themselves a natural method of flood control.)

Under the amendment, the Legislative Research Commission would have also considered alternate water sources for Raleigh when flooding forces the US Army Corps of Engineers to lower the level of Falls Lake. Jordan Lake is already supplying water to more than 300,000 people, a number that is expected to grow; Lake Crabtree is contaminated with PCBs in the fish and sediment. Within the county, that leaves Lake Benson, near Garner. The supply of clean drinking water is definitely an issue facing Raleigh, but it seems strange to tuck such a far-reaching provision in an amendment to a omnibus bill.

Senate Bill 16 by LisaSorg on Scribd

Environment

Score in Manteo: OBX 34, offshore drilling 0

About 125 people gathered in Manteo to comment on a proposal to open the North Carolina coast to offshore drilling. (Photo: Lisa Sorg)

Sun-kissed and sandal-clad, the people who assembled at the Dare County Government Center in Manteo Thursday night wore the calm demeanor of those who fall asleep to the murmur of the sea and wake up to resplendent sunrises.

They arrived to try to protect that way of life on the Outer Banks. This life is not the gaudy carnival of Myrtle Beach (although there is a Dirty Dick’s Crab House in Avon), but that of a fragile national seashore. A mere sandbar jutting into the ocean, the Outer Banks is home to marshes, estuaries, inlets, sounds, porpoises, whales, sea turtles, all manner of birds and marine life, plus the tourists who flock here to enjoy them and the residents who would rather be nowhere else.

The threat of offshore drilling, which many here thought had been put to rest once and for all when the Obama administration reversed itself, has re-emerged as a possibility. The current leasing plan, which excludes the Atlantic Outer Continental Shelf and thus, North Carolina, could be replaced by a new version proposed by the Trump administration.

This is a national seashore. It's a sacred place. Click To Tweet

If the plan, managed by the federal Bureau of Ocean and Energy Management, clears all the hurdles — and it’s unclear if the proposal will — oil rigs could sit just three miles off the North Carolina coast. A spill — considering the weather conditions in the “graveyard of the Atlantic,” so named because of the number of shipwrecks there — could sully the beaches for decades. There would be seismic air gun testing, sonic blasts that harm, even kill marine life, from the top of the food chain — whales — to the bottom — plankton.

For an hour and a half, 34 residents of the Outer Banks — commercial fishers, ocean scientists, small business owners, environmental advocates and dolphin naturalists — told state environmental officials that under no circumstances should offshore drilling be permitted near the North Carolina coastline.

The public hearing was the third hosted by the NC Department of Environmental Quality, the other two being in Morehead City and Wilmington earlier this week. The agency will forward the comments, which includes support from the NC Petroleum Council and opposition by Gov. Cooper, to BOEM.

The Outer Banks business community isn’t biting on the financial chum the fossil fuel industry is dangling before them. No amount of oil and gas royalties, which are not even guaranteed under federal law, would compensate for the $1 billion that tourists spend every year in Dare County. Elected officials in Kill Devil Hills, Nags Head, and Dare County government, along with the Outer Banks Chamber of Commerce, “vehemently” opposed the plan. “Do we want to risk destroying a national treasure?” said Susie Walters, mayor pro temp of Nags Head.

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