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.”