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GOP Sens. Newton, Sawyer, McInnis lambaste Gov. Cooper’s clean energy order, call it “political theater”

Gov. Cooper signed Executive Order 246 on Jan. 7 at NC A&T University (Screenshot: Governor’s Facebook page)

This story has been updated with a statement from the governor’s office and Duke Energy.

In an icy letter to Gov. Roy Cooper, three Republican state senators — Paul Newton, Vickie Sawyer and Tom McInnis — lambasted the latest executive order on clean energy, arguing that it conflicts with legislative priorities enshrined in the most recent energy law, House Bill 951.

The lawmakers sent a letter to the governor on Jan. 19. The senators posed nine questions regarding carbon emissions, affordability and transportation included in Executive Order 246. The letter also reiterates several Republican lawmakers’ public stances supporting natural gas and nuclear energy over renewables as a way to reduce carbon emissions.

“As you know, changes to North Carolina’s energy future cannot be achieved through executive action alone,” the senators wrote. “… we can only conclude that Executive Order 246 is mere political theatre.”

In response, the governor’s office issued a statement: “It has been Governor Cooper’s Executive Orders that have sparked administrative, legislative and private sector change in North Carolina’s emerging clean energy economy. We hope legislators will join us in the hard work of transforming transportation just as they join us for the jobs announcements clean energy keeps bringing.”

On Jan. 7, Gov. Cooper signed EO 246. It sets several targets to mitigate the existential threat of climate change: reduction of statewide greenhouse gas emissions by at least 50% over 2005 levels by 2030, and net-zero carbon emissions as soon as possible, no later than 2050.

It also sets a goal of increasing the total number of zero-emissions vehicles registered in North Carolina to 1.25 million by 2030.  In addition, the order says the state will “strive” to ensure half of all new car sales would be ZEV sales by 2030.

The new goals are more ambitious than those in the governor’s 2018 order. EO 80 set a target of 40% reduction in statewide greenhouse gas emissions and 80,000 registered ZEVs by 2025.

“While legally enforceable” — a phrase used five times in the three-page letter — the executive order “confuses the public and appears to shift the goalposts by purporting to establish new emissions reductions goals. Your new goals, which you announced without consultation with the negotiators who worked with you for many months,” on HB 951, “do not have the force of law,” the letter reads.

Since EO 246 is not legally enforceable, it’s unclear why the three senators sent the letter. None of the letter-writers returned emails from Policy Watch seeking further explanation.

It’s also unclear how the 50% reductions goal conflicts with those established in HB 951, which Gov. Cooper signed into law. 

HB 951 requires investor-owned electric utilities, like Duke Energy, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 70% from 2005 levels by 2030. Carbon neutrality must be achieved by the utilities 2050. If state agencies — themselves Duke customers — reduce their energy emissions, then feasibly that could help Duke reach its benchmarks.

Duke Energy acknowledged an email from Policy Watch, but has not yet responded. [Update: 4:20 p.m. A Duke Energy spokesman said the utility would not comment on the letter or the governor’s response.]

Update 5:12 p.m. The governor’s office responded to the senators late Monday. The letter was signed by Dionne Delli-Gatti, the state’s Clean Energy Director within the NC Department of Environmental Quality. It notes that “North Carolina’s transition to a clean transportation sector must benefit residents across the state, including those in rural communities, low-income households and communities of color.” The letter also acknowledges that transportation funding needs modernized in light of the growth of ZEVs.

Some of the letter echoes previous debates in legislative committees. The letter writers asked the governor if he considers nuclear energy a viable option to achieving carbon reduction goals. In House Bill 951, lawmakers originally appropriated $50 million for a modular nuclear reactor; that provision was stripped by the final bill’s passage. 

Other language in the letter was akin to Sen. Newton’s grilling of Delli-Gatti, the governor’s original nominee for Secretary of the Environment, last year. Newton helped tank Delli-Gatti’s nomination over her lack of enthusiasm about the need for more natural gas pipelines.

The letter took a similar tone to the Delli-Gatti committee hearing: “Are you aware that a disruption in the state’s supply of natural gas would cause real-time immediate disruptions to the state’s energy grid?” Newton, a former Duke Energy executive, and his two colleagues wrote.

The letter also lays out concerns about potential shortfalls in gas tax revenue if zero-emissions cars and trucks become dominant. More than half of the NC Department of Transportation’s revenue comes from that tax, which helps maintain roads. 

“It is now possible for an electric vehicle to cause wear and tear on a North Carolina road without its operator contributing anything at all to road maintenance” the letter reads. “If only operators of gasoline power vehicles are subject to the gasoline tax, as the number of ZEVs increases, the burden for funding road maintenance will fall on an ever-smaller number of drivers.”

Other states have established additional fees for plug-in hybrid and electric vehicles in order to cover projected shortfalls, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. North Carolina is among them. In 2013 and 2015, state lawmakers assessed an additional $130 fee for plug-in electric vehicles, for a total annual fee of $166. Traditional fees for gas-battery hybrids and conventional gasoline vehicles are $36. 

Other states have contemplated enacting vehicle-miles traveled fees or mileage-based user fees, according to the NCSL, a funding mechanism that “seeks to more closely link” the taxes “to actual use of the roadways by a driver.”

DOT did not respond to an email seeking comment.

Duke Energy has previously supported ZEVs and is converting much of its company fleet to those types of cars and trucks.

The senators argue that the higher purchase and maintenances costs of ZEVs disproportionately affects low-income households. It is true that cars, regardless of fuel type are expensive. 

But a 2021 U.S. Department of Energy study showed that maintenance costs for gasoline-powered cars are higher than for ZEVs A light-duty battery-electric car costs 6.1 cents per mile to maintain, compared to 10.1 cents per mile for a conventional gasoline-powered car/

Maintenance costs for hybrids and plug-in hybrids are between 9 and 9.5 cents per mile.

A separate study showed that for some ZEVs, maintenance costs can be higher within the first year but are covered by the vehicle’s warranty. (In North Carolina, ZEVs are exempt from emissions inspections, currently $16.40 a year in the 22 counties where the tests are still required.)

The 2021 price of new electric vehicles ranges from $27,000 for a Nissan LEAF to $100,000 for deluxe Tesla models. The average prices in 2021 of conventional gas-powered vehicles was $41,000: the cheapest being a compact ($23,000) and the most expensive, a high-end luxury car ($105,000), according to Kelley Blue Book.

HB 951 was also assailed by public interest groups for its failure to fully address affordability issues. The final version of the measure contained no money for the weatherization of older homes, which are generally less energy-efficient and are occupied by low- and moderate-income households.

The governor’s office had not returned an email requesting a response by deadline.

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