Environment

FERC approves Atlantic Coast Pipeline; lawsuits are likely

In a Friday night surprise, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission voted 2-1 to approve the $5.5 billion Atlantic Coast Pipeline, 160 miles of which will run through eastern North Carolina. However, the project still has yet to receive its required state permits and it is likely to face legal challenges from environmental advocates.

FERC “completely abdicated its responsibility,” said Hope Taylor, executive director of Clean Water for North Carolina. “It based its decision on cyclical reasoning and was highly dependent on accepting unconditionally the information provided by the utilities.”

The 159-page order, which included an extensive dissent from Commissioner Cheryl LaFleur, contains many puzzling if not contradictory conclusions. The decision acknowledged “the project will result in some adverse and significant environmental impacts,” including to the detriment of more than 100 endangered, threatened or at-risk species over the entire 600-mile route, “but that these impacts will be reduced to acceptable levels,” as long as contractors meet the 73 conditions — which are not enforceable — as laid out in the ruling.

FERC completely abdicated its responsibility, says @cwfnc Click To Tweet

Duke CEO Lynn Good issued a statement Friday 10:38 p.m. calling FERC’s approval is an important milestone and a critical step forward for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline to deliver the benefits of affordable, clean natural gas and affirms the project will be built with minimal impacts to the environment.”

In North Carolina, state regulators and environmental groups are concerned about the project’s effect on wetlands and waterways, particularly the Neuse River. Atlantic Coast Pipeline LLC, which is primarily owned by Dominion Energy and Duke Energy, plan to use an invasive method of installing the pipeline across the river, called a cofferdam. To put it in human medical terms, a cofferdam is like having an open incision rather than laparoscopic surgery.

An example of cyclical reasoning is FERC’s contention that ACP, LLC is new to the pipeline marketplace “with no existing customers.” While the ACP is Duke and Dominion’s first foray into the pipeline world, these utilities do have existing customers — their electric ratepayers, who will foot the bill for the project, plus the 14 percent rate of return.

In her prepared statement, Good said that “natural gas from the pipeline will increase consumer savings, enhance reliability, enable more renewable energy and provide a powerful engine for statewide economic development and job growth.”

The details of how those purported benefits, particularly regarding renewable energy will be realized is unclear. Opponents have argued that natural gas can be shipped via existing pipelines, and that the additional supply is not needed. Duke and Dominion have countered that 96 percent of the natural gas is spoken for. However, these are not outside parties — industry, for example — clamoring for natural gas, but the utilities themselves. FERC acknowledged that five of the six “shippers,” as they are known, are affiliated with the utilities. But FERC determined that the incestuous relationship doesn’t require the commission to examine the agreements to evaluate the need for the project.

FERC also denied commenters’ requests for an evidentiary trial-type hearing on the project, saying that the issues “have been adequately argued, and a determination can be made on the basis of the existing record in this proceeding.” This is likely a response to repeated protests at its hearings. FERC has enacted rules to keep demonstrators at bay; it also has sequestered commenters from the media while making their statements.

Read more

Commentary

Best op-ed of the weekend

It comes, from of all people, the usually reactionary George Will — a man, who like a growing number of other conservatives, is willing to brand the current inhabitant of the White House for what he is: an ignorant and destructive figure who surrounds himself with dangerous people.

Here’s Will in “Sinister figures lurk around our careless president”:

The axiom that “Hell is truth seen too late” is mistaken; damnation deservedly comes to those who tardily speak truth that has long been patent. Perhaps there shall be a bedraggled parade of repentant Republicans resembling those supine American communists who, after Stalin imposed totalitarianism, spawned the gulag, engineered the Ukraine famine, launched the Great Terror and orchestrated the show trials, were theatrically disillusioned by his collaboration with Hitler: You, sir, have gone too far.

Trump’s energy, unleavened by intellect and untethered to principle, serves only his sovereign instinct to pander to those who adore him as much as he does. Unshakably smitten, they are impervious to the Everest of evidence that he disdains them as a basket of gullibles. He understands that his unremitting coarseness satisfies their unpolitical agenda of smashing crockery, even though his self-indulgent floundering precludes fulfillment of the promises he flippantly made to assuage their sense of being disdained. He gives his gullibles not governance by tantrum, but tantrum as governance.

With Trump turning and turning in a widening gyre, his crusade to make America great again is increasingly dominated by people who explicitly repudiate America’s premises. The faux nationalists of the “alt-right” and their fellow travelers such as Stephen K. Bannon, although fixated on protecting the United States from imported goods, have imported the blood-and-soil ethno-tribalism that stains the continental European right. In “Answering the Alt-Right” in National Affairs quarterly, Ramon Lopez, a University of Chicago PhD candidate in political philosophy, demonstrates how Trump’s election has brought back to the public stage ideas that a post-Lincoln America had slowly but determinedly expunged. They were rejected because they are incompatible with an open society that takes its bearing from the Declaration of Independence’s doctrine of natural rights….

The alt-right must regard Lincoln as not merely mistaken but absurd in describing America as a creedal nation dedicated to a “proposition.” The alt-right insists that real nationhood requires cultural homogeneity rooted in durable ethnic identities. This is the alt-right’s alternative foundation for the nation Lincoln said was founded on the principle that all people are, by nature, equal.

Trump is, of course, innocent of this (or any other) systemic thinking. However, within the ambit of his vast, brutish carelessness are some people with sinister agendas and anti-constitutional impulses. Stephen Miller, Bannon’s White House residue and Trump’s enfant terrible, recently said that “in sending our [tax reform] proposal to the tax-writing committees, we will include instructions to ensure all low- and middle-income households are protected.” So, Congress will be instructed by Trump’s 32-year-old acolyte who also says the president’s national security powers “will not be questioned.” We await the response of congressional Republicans, who did so little to stop Trump’s ascent and then so much to normalize him.”

 

News

State official recommends Robeson County elementary—excludes Durham, Rocky Mount, Northampton schools—for Innovative School District

(Note: This is a developing story; check back for updates.) The leader of North Carolina’s Innovative School District (ISD) will recommend a Robeson County elementary for the first year of the state’s Innovative School District, Policy Watch has learned.

The selection excludes schools on the short-list from Durham, Nash and Northampton counties.

Robeson Board of Education Chair Peggy Wilkins-Chavis confirmed the selection Friday afternoon for Policy Watch.

It comes one day after the contentious state program received a “rude” welcome from locals in a community forum Thursday, according to The Robesonian.

“The ISD is moving forward with a recommendation to start with one school in the initial 2018-2019 academic school year in order to help create the right conditions to support accelerated achievement for students at Southside Ashpole Elementary,” ISD Superintendent Eric Hall said in a statement.

“Our goal is to work collaboratively with the Public Schools of Robeson County, parents, teachers and community leaders to develop innovative strategies in schools that promote improved student outcomes. For those schools under consideration for the ISD yet not recommended for selection at this time, this is an opportunity for them to focus attention and energy at the local level on improving student outcomes based on district plans. The ISD looks forward to continued engagement with local communities on these strategies moving forward. I believe that working together we can establish a national model for how state and local partnerships are created with a single goal for promoting equity and excellence in supporting students and communities.”

State law limits the district to five schools. However, Hall was initially expected to pick two schools for the program’s first year in 2018-2019 before he suggested this week that he might pick just one school.

The controversial school reform program could allow charter management organizations, including for-profit companies, to assume control of operations and staffing in struggling schools.

Hall’s selection comes after several weeks of whittling down an initial list of 48 schools, chosen because they reported school performance scores in the bottom 5 percent statewide and did not meet growth goals in at least one of the last three years.

The proposal’s earned stinging rebuke from some local leaders, communities and advocates, even as supporters like Hall argued the program would spur fresh ideas in schools with chronic academic problems.

Similar efforts in Tennessee, Michigan and Louisiana have delivered mixed results thus far.

The N.C. Association of Educators, the state’s top advocacy organization for teachers, blasted the ISD after the news Friday.

“Communities, parents, and educators have been standing up for weeks to this state-led charter takeover of  public schools approved by the General Assembly,” said NCAE President Mark Jewell.  “The big out-of-state money that led to this unproven and unaccountable school takeover scheme was exposed by the media this week. Instead of handing over our students to those who want to dismantle public schools and make big profits, our elected leaders should be investing in the resources it takes to help our students be successful.”

Members of the State Board of Education are expected to formally receive Hall’s recommendations next month, with a vote scheduled for December.

Under state law, schools chosen for the ISD will have to accept the takeover or close.

Schools left out of Hall’s recommendations include Rocky Mount’s Williford Elementary, Northampton County’s Willis Hare Elementary and Durham’s Glenn Elementary, which has been a rallying point for Triangle-area critics of the takeover proposal in recent weeks.

“Now the real hard work begins of making sure we’re never on that list again,” said Durham Board of Education Chairman Mike Lee, who’s been bitingly critical of the ISD.

In a statement, Nash-Rocky Mount Public Schools (NRMPS) Superintendent Shelton Jefferies indicated he was “pleased” with the decision.

“NRMPS will remain focused and committed to quality instruction for our students at Williford Elementary School.”

Last month, some Rocky Mount officials indicated they might have closed their school if state officials chose Williford Elementary for the takeover district.

The selection process for the program’s operators is still underway, with members of the State Board expected to vote on Hall’s recommendation in early 2018. As Policy Watch reported Thursday, it’s a process that’s also come under criticism.

News

Lawmakers to take vote Tuesday to override veto of bill eliminating judicial primaries

Lawmakers will officially return Tuesday to take a vote on overriding Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto of Senate Bill 656, which would eliminate judicial primaries.

The bill was passed by both chambers last week and vetoed by Cooper early this week. Lawmakers weren’t expected to take up a veto override until January, but members have been whipping votes since the veto.

In addition to eliminating judicial primaries (which you can read more about here), the bill would make it easier for unaffiliated candidates and new political parties to appear on the general election ballot — except for legislative races. You can read more about that here.

Lawmakers are expected to return for the vote at 10 a.m. Tuesday. Both chambers are also scheduled to reconvene Monday but no votes are expected then.

Uncategorized

The Week’s Top Five on NC Policy Watch


1. North Carolina’s greatest scandal continues
UNC center’s latest report on poverty provides powerful reminder of the communities and individuals being left behind

When you consider the matter for a moment, it’s really not all that surprising that conservative politicians in Raleigh have been so hell-bent for so long to silence Professor Gene Nichol and the colleagues and students with whom he works at UNC Law School. There are, of course, numerous critics of the reactionary policies that state leaders have been advancing for most of the past decade—many of them employed in state-funded universities—but when it comes to Nichol and his team, there are a couple of factors that have to drive the powers-that-be absolutely crazy.

Nichol’s voice itself is one. Few other North Carolinians this side of Rev. William Barber are as powerful, passionate and pointed in, as the old saying goes, “speaking truth to power.” If you have any doubts about this, you must have somehow missed Nichol’s regular essays that dramatically enliven the opinion pages of Raleigh’s News & Observer. Click here and here to check out a couple of recent examples. [Read more…]

2. Lawmakers want increased competition in elections, except their own

Hypocrisy in politics is hardly a new phenomenon but rarely is it as boldly on display as it was last week from Republican legislative leaders during the latest of the now monthly special sessions of the General Assembly.

The House and Senate passed legislation called the “Electoral Freedom Act,” first introduced by Senator Andrew Brock in this year’s regular legislative session that sought to make it easier for unaffiliated candidates and new political parties to appear on the general election ballot.

North Carolina has some of the most restrictive ballot access laws in the country and many good government groups for years have pushed lawmakers to change them. [Read more…]

3. Groups with ties to Innovative School District head seeking state contracts for charter takeovers

Two groups seeking state contracts to run struggling North Carolina schools have professional ties to the man who may ultimately steer the decision to hire them, N.C. Policy Watch has learned.

According to documents obtained by Policy Watch, AMIKids Inc. and Communities in Schools (CIS) of Robeson County are two of eight organizations that have filed notices of intent to apply for contracts in the Innovative School District (ISD), a controversial reform program that could allow for-profit school operators to assume control of operations and staffing in lagging public schools for at least five years.

Until he accepted the role of ISD superintendent this year, Hall was the president and CEO of Communities in Schools of N.C., the state affiliate for CIS of Robeson County, an organization that specializes in dropout prevention with struggling kids. Before that, Hall also worked for more than seven years as national director for AMIKids, a Florida-based nonprofit that works with at-risk youth and non-traditional schools in a number of southern states. [Read more…]

***Bonus reads:

The N.C. Supreme Court building in downtown Raleigh. (Photo by Ricky Leung)4. Experts express concerns about consequences of eliminating judicial primary elections

North Carolinians will lose their “precious right to vote,” as U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg calls it, in at least one election next year if lawmakers override Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto of Senate Bill 656.

“The Electoral Freedom Act” eliminates next year’s primary election for judicial races among other things. It was passed in both chambers last week and Cooper vetoed it earlier this week. His veto will be up for an override vote by January at the latest—though some lawmakers have been told that an override vote could now be scheduled for as early as next Tuesday, October 17.

The only public explanation for the language about eliminating judicial primary elections next year (which was slipped into the bill via a last minute maneuver of the kind that have become commonplace at the General Assembly in recent years) has been to give lawmakers more time to tweak the redrawing of judicial and prosecutorial districts. [Read more…]

***Bonus video: Legislators will attempt to override Cooper’s veto of “The Electoral Freedom Act” on Tuesday

***Bonus read:  The latest on NC’s racial gerrymandering case: Will a special master get involved in a map redraw?

5. Duke Energy’s flood maps reveal only part of the risk of a coal ash spill

Saturday nights at the 311 Motor Speedway in rural Pine Hall smell of fast food and fuel. Wooden bleachers overlook the track, essentially a clay bowl, where under the bright lights, mini stock cars careen through the turns, monster trucks tear up mud bogs, and “Ucars” — souped up Hondas and Chevys and Fords — speed down the straightaways.

For an extra five bucks, you can sit in the VIP section, close enough to the track to feel the engines roar in your chest. From these premium seats, you could likely also see the infield begin to fill with coal ash and dirty water, should a basin at Duke Energy’s Belew’s Creek plant fail.

Facing litigation from the Southern Environmental Law Center, Duke Energy has made public previously secret information, including maps showing areas near 10 of its coal-fired power plants that would flood in the event of a basin breach. [Read more...]