Environment, Legislature

Bill would hike annual registration fees on electric cars, assess new surcharge on hybrids

Prius and other hybrid car owners could get dinged for an extra $87-$112 in annual registration fees, if a House bill becomes law. Fees would also increase on EV registrations. (Photo: Toyota.com)

Senate Bill 446 (primary co-sponsors Republican Reps. Jim Davis and Tom McInnis) would increase the annual registration fees for plug-in electric vehicles, and for the first time, assess a registration surcharge on gasoline-battery hybrids.

EV owners currently pay a $130 registration fee, which would increase to $175 next year. By 2022, EV owners would pay an additional $275 at the time of the initial registration and each time they renew.

One of the rationales behind the fee increase is that they could offset the reduction in gas tax revenues. EV drivers still use the road, but buy no gasoline, whose taxes help pay for road maintenance. (But EVs don’t emit greenhouse gases, a societal benefit beyond road repairs.)

The gas tax in North Carolina is 36.2 cents per gallon, according to the Department of Revenue, ranking the state 14th in the nation.  The federal gas tax is 18 cents per gallon.

There are about 10,000 EVs currently registered in North Carolina, which account for $1.3 million in extra registration fees each year. If the state registers an additional 80,000 EVs by 2025, as laid out in Governor Roy Cooper’s Executive Order 80, the surcharge could generate an extra $22 million annually.

Even though hybrid cars use gasoline, albeit much less of it because they also rely on battery power and an electric motor, their owners would also pay more: A $87.50 registration fee next year, $112.50 in 2021 and $137.50 in 2022.

The fees could further increase, as the bill calls for them to be adjusted according to the Consumer Price Index.

About 20 states assess registration fees on EVs, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Eight of those states also place surcharges on hybrids. Annual costs range from $50 to $200.

In at least four states—California, Indiana, Mississippi and Utah—these special fees are pegged to inflation or the Consumer Price Index, according to the NCSL.

Senate Bill 513 (primary co-sponsors Democratic Sens. Terry Van Duyn, Wiley Nickel, Michael Garrett) builds on  the governor’s executive order, which also requires a 40% statewide reduction in greenhouse gases  from 2005 levels. The bill sets a state goal for 100% clean energy by 2050.

That benchmark will be difficult to achieve if House Bill 543 (primary co-sponsors Republican Reps. Jimmy Dixon and John Bell) becomes law. It would amend the state’s Renewable Energy Portfolio Standard to flatline the percentage of clean energy that investor-owned utilities would have to generate or buy.

Currently, the REPS requires Duke Energy and Dominion Energy to derive 10% of their power from renewable sources or clean energy, based on 2017 retail sales. In 2021, that percentage increases to 12.5%, based on 2020 retail sales.

However, the proposed legislation would keep the rate at 10%.

Duke Energy Progress, Duke Energy Carolinas and Dominion have all complied with the REPS benchmarks, according to NC Utilities Commission documents. In filings with the NCUC, Duke has said the utility “remains committed to meeting the requirements of NC REPS, including the poultry waste, swine waste, and solar set-asides, and the general requirement, which will be met with additional solar, hydro, biomass, landfill gas, wind, and energy efficiency resources.” Because of House Bill 589, a clean energy bill passed last year, Duke Energy’s  “long-term general compliance needs are expected to be met.”

Duke’s 15-year Integrated Resource Plan, though, is less ambitious. The controversial IRP indicates the utility will still rely on coal for up to 9% of its energy needs, with the bulk of its power coming from natural gas through 2033. Duke plans to increase its renewables generation by just 8 percent and its energy efficiency savings by 5 percent.

House Bill 541, another progeny of Reps. Dixon and Bell, would deincentivize solar energy systems by reducing their tax breaks. Currently, 80% of the appraised value of a solar energy system is excluded from property tax. If the measure becomes law, only 60% of its value would be exempt. Half of the extra tax collected would go to public schools and community colleges.

Environment, Legislature

Unhappy with the Resource Institute, two more coastal towns ask lawmakers to divert funds from controversial nonprofit

Sen. Bill Rabon (Photo: NCGA)

The fortunes of the Resource Institute could continue to dwindle, as the towns of Topsail Beach and Surf City are asking their lawmaker for tax dollars originally appropriated to the controversial nonprofit.

Based in Winston-Salem, the Resource Institute wrangled a $5 million appropriation in last year’s budget, first to study alternative technologies for coastal beach nourishment, and then, after Hurricane Florence, to work on innovative recovery and resiliency projects focused on Topsail Island.

The money comes via a “grant-in aid” from the NC Department of Environmental Quality. However, agency officials said they did not request the appropriation. DEQ has had a combative relationship with the Resource Institute on stream restoration projects, which are under scrutiny by the Legislative Program Evaluation Division.

The $5 million did not go directly to the towns — Topsail Beach, North Topsail Beach and Surf City — but to the Resource Institute to apportion based on project rankings. As the intermediary, the Resource Institute charged a 12 percent administrative fee of $600,000. The hefty commission, along with undue pressure North Topsail Beach felt to accept the Atlantic Reefmaker as one of its funded projects, prompted town officials to petition Sen. Harry Brown for their own share of the money.

Atlantic Reefmaker, a wave-attenuation technology, is a spinoff company of a main contractor for Resource Institute.

Last week, Brown, a Republican from Onslow County, amended Senate Bill 95 to peel off $1.6 million and redirect it to North Topsail Beach.

Officials from Surf City and Topsail Beach have indicated they want their share, said Steve Smith, chairman of the Topsail Island Shoreline Protection Commission. He made the remarks last Thursday at a regularly scheduled public meeting.

“I expect this bill to change again,” Smith said. “The other two towns want to be treated equally.”

Smith said he had contacted Sen. Bill Rabon, a Republican representing four southeastern counties, including Pender, for help. Rabon did not respond to an email sent by Policy Watch.

“There has been a lot of discussion about [the requirement] that the technology be innovative,” Smith said. “But there’s not a whole lot of new help being offered by the Resource Institute.”

Environment

Science panel determines red wolves are a distinct species, underscoring need for protection

Red Wolf (Photo: USFWS)

Red wolves are indeed a unique species,  according to a National Academy of Sciences report issued yesterday scuttling theories that the animals’ bloodline had been diluted, and that they were no longer worthy of protection in the wild.

The findings are important because the US Fish and Wildlife Service had stopped managing and conserving the only known wild red wolf population — now estimated at less than 25 — in northeastern North Carolina. The agency’s proposed policies — thwarted, at least temporarily, by litigation filed by the Southern Environmental Law Center — would likely cause the species to go extinct in the wild, a violation of the Endangered Species Act.

The US Fish and Wildlife Service could not be reached for comment.

The earliest fossils of red wolves — dated to 10,000 years ago — were found in Florida, part of the animals’ historical range in the southeastern US. But the red wolves had long been extinct when, in 1987, USFWS introduced an “experimental population” into several counties near the coast, including Dare. The experiment was successful and by 2000, an estimated 200 roamed northeastern North Carolina. But after USFWS stopped its conservation program, which coincided with pressure from several area landowners who opposed the release of the wolves, the number of animals plummeted.

The agency had ceased its coyote sterilization program, which would have kept coyotes and red wolves from breeding, thus diluting the wolves’ bloodline. USFWS had also proposed removing most the wolves from the wild and placing them in zoos or sanctuaries. Wolves that left their designated area — narrowed to one part of Dare County — could legally be shot.

A federal judge in North Carolina ruled last year that the agency violated the Endangered Species Act by implementing those measures and by failing to respond to the ongoing decline of the species. There may be only one breeding pair left in the wild.

In March 2018, Congress directed the US Fish and Wildlife Service to investigate the “taxonomic status” — the defining and shared characteristics of both Mexican gray wolves and red wolves. Both are classified as endangered under federal law.

The National Academy of Sciences conducted the research, studying DNA, as well as the length of their hind feet and tail, the width of their head and overall body mass. While the wolves have interbred with other canids, the scientists found that the current population of red wolves is genetically linked to its ancestors and not a subspecies of gray wolf or coyote.

Derb Carter, senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center issued a statement on the academy’s findings:

“Today’s report by the National Academies confirms the longstanding classification of red wolves as a distinct species deserving of protection and underscores the urgency for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to act now to save the wild red wolf.  … Time is running out to do what we know is required to save this species.”

Environment, Legislature

And the wind cried Harry: Sen. Brown introduces anti-wind energy bill — again

Sen. Harry Brown received $4,000 in campaign contributions last year from Koch Industries, which opposes wind energy and other renewables. (Photo: NC General Assembly)

Sen. Harry Brown, who last year received $4,000 in campaign contributions from anti-wind energy billionaires, the Koch Brothers, has filed a bill that would cripple the wind energy along the North Carolina coast.

The Onslow County Republican yesterday filed Senate Bill 377, the “Military Base Protection Act,” which would prohibit wind farms in areas that could present a high risk for military training exercises. Based on Department of Defense maps, the bill essentially outlaws wind farms within 100 miles of the coast — a prime area for wind energy.

Sens. Paul Newton, a former Duke Energy employee, and Norm Sanderson are the other primary co-sponsors of the bill.

Brown and other coastal wind energy opponents say wind turbines present an unacceptable risk to the military and could jeopardize the state’s bases in the next round of base closings. However, the Department of Defense Site Clearinghouse reviews all energy project proposals that could interfere with military missions, and works with states and energy companies to mitigate potential problems.

Federal law states that the Defense Department “may only oppose development of an energy project when impacts cannot be feasibly and affordably mitigated, and may significantly degrade or impair military operations.”

However, at least one military base, Otis Air National Guard in Massachusetts, has built its own independent microgrid using a wind turbine, solar energy and battery storage.

No military crashes have been reported with wind farms as the cause. In 2014, a Piper civilian plane crashed in South Dakota near a wind farm, but the FAA attributed bad weather, including dense fog, as the cause. In 2008, a Cessna crashed near a wind farm in Minnesota during bad weather. Federal investigators determined the pilot didn’t have the proper instrument training to fly in those conditions.

If it becomes law, the legislation would not affect the 104-turbine Amazon Wind Farm, which has operated in Perquimans and Pasquotank counties in northeastern North Carolina since 2017. That same year, Brown at the last minute inserted language into a clean energy bill that established an 18-month moratorium on new wind farms. The measure was controversial, and nearly hijacked months-long negotiations among Duke Energy, lawmakers and the clean energy sector. The bill eventually passed and became law. The hiatus expired on Dec. 31, 2018.

According to 2018 campaign finance reports, Koch Industries, which is run by the Koch Brothers, contributed $4,000 to Brown’s campaign. The Koch Brothers have made their fortune in fossil fuels.

Although the Trump administration has said the next closings could occur in 2021, that is speculative. Congress often opposes the closings, known as BRAC for short, to protect bases in their home districts.

Nonetheless, the Trump administration has several renewable energy opponents among its ranks. Christine Harbin, a senior adviser for external affairs in the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Electricity Delivery and Energy Reliability, came from Americans for Prosperity, a longtime foe of renewable energy. According to DesSmogBlog, which coves climate science, in 2012, Harbin organized Koch Brothers-backed groups to send an anti-wind letter to Congress asking federal lawmakers to end wind production credits.

Environment, Legislature, News

Cancer study bill advances; protections against leaking trash trucks introduced

(Illustration: University of California San Francisco)

Suspected cancer clusters would get closer scrutiny, according to a bill that passed with a favorable report from the Senate Ag, Environment and Natural Resources Committee today.

Senate Bill 297, sponsored by Sen. Vickie Sawyer, a Republican from Iredell County, would direct the NC Policy Collaboratory to assemble a Cancer Research Advisory Panel to review and analyze statewide cancer data.

The Collaboratory would then use the panel’s expertise to recommend ways for the state to establish a “credible research program” to determine “if and where statistic significant clusters of cancer exist.”

Sawyer mentioned the bill last week at a Mooresville town meeting about preliminary findings on a suspected cancer cluster in southern Iredell County.

“We need more help to find more answers,” said Sawyer, whose drinking water well lies within 2,000 feet of a structural fill site that contains coal ash. “This bill is the first step to find more answers for all of our backyards in North Carolina.”

Eleven other counties, primarily in the southeastern part of the state, have higher than expected rates of thyroid cancer.

Sawyer’s bill, though, would direct the Collaboratory to study not only the rates of thyroid cancer, but of all types of cancer diagnosed statewide. There have been 18 cases of a rare ocular melanoma in young women living in Huntersville.

The NC Department of Health and Human Services and the NC Department of Environmental Quality would consult on the panel, as well  as major medical schools and centers at Duke, UNC Chapel Hill, and East Carolina universities.

Draft recommendations would be due no later than Dec. 31.

No appropriation has yet been included in the bill. It now goes to the Senate Rules Committee.

Several other environmental bills were introduced in the Senate this week:

SB 356 (Andy Wells, Harry Brown, primary sponsors): The Clean Water Management Trust Fund and the Parks and Recreation Trust Fund would each receive 12.5 percent of the net proceeds from the sale of state-owned property outside of the Capital District in Raleigh. Both funds run on gaunt budgets. Lawmakers routinely have cut the CWMTF budget, from $40 million in 2000 to as low as $6 million. In 2017, the CWMTF received $18 million, but that amount was 18 percent lower than the previous budget allocation.

SB 358 “Protect Citizens From Leaking Garbage Trucks” (Michael Garrett, Natasha Marcus, Mike Woodard, primary sponsors): This bill would repeal a portion of a dreadful 2013 Session Law that required solid waste trucks to only be “leak-resistant,” rather than “leak-proof.” (Section 59.2 for those of you playing along at home.)

So if garbage juice containing who-knows-what dripped, flowed or otherwise left the collection truck — and ended up on the road or the street in front of your house — that was legal. At the time, then-Sen. Trudy Wade had inserted in the language into the bill as a favor to her waste industry supporters.

And in the House, House Bill 479, “Study Solar Facility Decommissioning Requirements,” (Jimmy Dixon, sponsor) addresses some  conservatives’ opposition — disguised as environmental concerns — about utility-scale solar farms. (Dixon even opposes calling them “farms,” when Merriam-Webster allows for such usage.)

The bill language is technically reasonable in that it requires a study of performance bonds and the accounting of hazardous material that the panels could include.  According to the NC Sustainable Energy Association, while the panels themselves are not usually considered hazardous waste, some of the chemicals inside them must be properly disposed of in compliance with federal law. It is true that North Carolina lacks statewide rules regarding their disposal, but that authority is generally left to local governments.

Other industries that produce hazardous material rarely receive this level of scrutiny. The Coal Ash Management Act, for example, could have required Duke Energy to excavate every unlined impoundment and to then place the ash in dry, lined and capped storage. But the law didn’t.

The EPA doesn’t classify coal ash as “hazardous,” but that designation was influenced by political pressure, not science. Coal ash contains arsenic, lead, chromium, radium and other hazardous and toxic chemicals, but the non-hazardous designation allows the material to be used as structural fill or disposed in solid waste landfills.