Commentary

Op-eds provide hope for renewable energy on another globally warm August morning

A news article in The Guardian puts it pretty bluntly in a Q&A article about the horrific wildfires plaguing California right now. After drawing direct connections between the heat and drought that have been battering the Golden State and the fires, the article puts it this way:

“What can be done?

Bluntly, stop using fossil fuels. ‘People are doing everything they can, but nature is very powerful and we’re not on the side of nature,’ California Governor Jerry Brown said last week. ‘We’re fighting nature with the amount of material we’re putting in the environment, and that material traps heat.’”

Which, thankfully, brings us to a couple of encouraging op-eds from North Carolina news outlets in recent days about the encouraging rise of sustainable energy and the can’t-happen-soon-enough demise of fossil fuels,

As Elizabeth Ouzts of Southeast Energy News explained in “Renewable energy losing its edge as a political wedge in N.C.” on WRAL.com, even many conservative Republicans are seeing the light:

“In this year’s Conservatives for Clean Energy survey, Republican voters said increasing competition in the energy marketplace and investing in clean energy should both be bigger policy priorities than supporting fossil fuels.

Asked how policy makers should solve the problem of toxic coal ash, a plurality of Republicans chose ‘investing state resources into solar, wind and other renewable energy sources’ over the options of doing nothing and paying utilities to clean up the waste.

A majority of voters – including a plurality of ‘very conservative’ ones – said they would be less likely to vote for a politician who supported the temporary ban on new wind projects.”

Some of the conclusions in Ouzts’ article are also reflected in another op-ed — this one by Jim Warren of NC WARN — in Raleigh’s News & Observer entitled “Why solar power is beating coal and natural gas.” Here’s Warren:

There’s good news — outside of North Carolina — in the increasingly desperate fight to slow the climate crisis before its own momentum makes acceleration unstoppable. Economical storage, the long-sought Holy Grail of renewable energy, is surging in the marketplace while climate-wrecking fracked “natural” gas has begun to decline.

“North Carolina is held back by Duke Energy executives’ obsession with gas and their obstructionist strategy toward solar and storage as they cling to the increasingly risky plan to build the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and some 20 gas-fired power plants.

The difference? Market competition versus monopoly capture of customers, public and civic leaders, and public debate.

Solar-with-storage projects are surging in many states by beating gas plants on economics and reliability. By 2026, the U.S. is expected to add storage capacity equal to 35 nuclear plants, generating $4 billion in annual savings.”

After detailing how Duke continues to stonewall efforts to expedite the conversion to renewables, Warren ends on this somewhat more encouraging note:

“Fortunately, utilities commissioner Dan Clodfelter, the Public Staff’s Chris Ayers and Attorney General Josh Stein are changing the long-standing rubber-stamp of Duke Energy’s ‘build plants, raise rates, control debate’ business model. Local leaders are emerging too. Working with Clean Path volunteers, Chatham County commissioners recently made a move toward solarizing county-owned facilities.

North Carolinians must insist that Duke Energy get on the right side of the accelerating climate crisis by belatedly joining the clean energy revolution.”

Amen.

Commentary, News

Chair of Governor’s Leandro commission decries education budget cuts

There were new and strong words yesterday from Brad Wilson, Chair of Gov. Cooper’s Commission on Access to Sound Basic Education. The Commission was created by Governor Cooper in July 2017 to take a comprehensive, interdisciplinary approach to how the state should meet its constitutional obligations under the Leandro rulings.

Wilson’s comments come in response to a General Assembly-mandated $5.1 million budget cut for the 2018-19 fiscal year, which led to the Department of Public Instruction’s recent announcement that it was eliminating 61 positions, including 29 positions focused on turning around our state’s lowest performing schools and districts. Here’s Wilson’s statement:

“The Commission on Access to Sound Basic Education is concerned that once again cuts to our state’s public education budget are disproportionately and negatively affecting the students, schools, and districts that are likely to suffer the most from the cuts. The most recent example, announced by the Department of Public Instruction, includes the layoffs of 29 staff from the Educator Support Services Division – staff whose primary focus was to support turnaround efforts in our state’s lowest performing schools and districts.

Experts from across the political spectrum have agreed for years—with the research to back it up—that the key tenets of North Carolina’s now 20-year-old Leandro case still hold true: quality teachers, quality school leaders, and adequate resources must be available to every student in every school across the state. The recent cuts stand in the way of all of these.

It is imperative that our state’s education leadership—starting with the General Assembly, which controls state funds for public education—does everything possible as soon as possible to ensure that a workable plan is in place to compensate for the cuts and that the negative impacts of the cuts are mitigated. The Department’s new regional support plan discussed at this week’s State Board of Education meeting is a start, but we need assurances that school districts will continue to receive adequate support to turnaround their low-performing schools. Governor Cooper appointed me to chair this Commission, and he remains steadfast in his commitment to ensuring that every student in our state receives the quality education he or she deserves and is constitutionally guaranteed. I, along with my fellow commissioners, will employ our collective expertise and experience to make the Governor’s commitment a reality.”

Commentary

Note to SBI: No need to spy on pipeline opponents — they’re hiding right here in plain sight

Map of proposed pipeline path — (Source: Atlantic Coast Pipeline)

As Policy Watch environmental reporter Lisa Sorg reported yesterday (“State Bureau of Investigation unit prepared “threat assessment” of Atlantic Coast Pipeline protestors”), state law enforcement officials have been spying on, or at least, monitoring, opponents of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline — the highly controversial energy project that threatens to bring significant environmental harm to eastern North Carolina in exchange for highly questionable benefits. This is from Sorg’s story:

“The state’s surveillance and counter-terrorism unit, the Information Sharing and Analysis Center (ISAAC), warned law enforcement officials that the Atlantic Coast Pipeline could attract “violent extremists” who are opposed to the natural gas project in North Carolina, a document obtained by Policy Watch shows.

According to a December 2017 unclassified “threat assessment” (see below), the ACP ‘has the potential to become a regional focal point for ideologically or politically motivated violent extremist actors inspired to commit acts intended to disrupt and halt ACP construction.’”

I suppose there could be something to this — there are always a few folks out there in just about every cause who are prepared to go too far — but it sure sounds extremely farfetched. North Carolina has been home to scores of environmental protest down through the years (invariably with good reason) and there is no record of surreptitious violent action. Indeed, in the overwhelming majority of cases — this one included — the protests are driven by activists committed to peaceful and very public action.

In other words, all one needs to do to monitor the anti-pipeline movement is to, well, read their press releases — like the one below that came out yesterday:

Clean Air and Water Advocates Launch Pipeline Monitoring Effort

RALEIGH, NC (August 1, 2018) – Today, a group of clean air and water advocates announced they would monitor construction of the fracked gas Atlantic Coast Pipeline (ACP) for violations of commonsense environmental protections required by state and federal permits. Trained volunteers and staff with the Sierra Club, Sound Rivers, Winyah Rivers and Cape Fear River Watch will monitor ACP construction activities by water, land, and air to ensure potential violations are reported to the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ). The initiative will be known as the North Carolina Pipeline Watch (NCPW).

“The fracked gas Atlantic Coast Pipeline is designed to maximize profits for polluting corporations, while our environmental safeguards are designed to protect our people and communities,” said Kelly Martin, Director of the Beyond Dirty Fuels Campaign for the Sierra Club. “We helped launch the initiative to ensure the ACP doesn’t get away with violating the commonsense environmental protections that keep our air and water clean,” she added. Read more

Commentary, Trump Administration

Skimpy health insurance plans & pre-existing conditions are back under new Trump rule

Today the Trump administration issued a final rule allowing insurers to sell “short-term, limited-duration” health insurance policies that can last up to three years instead of the maximum allowable three months under current rules.

In the  rule, administration officials contort their words to explain what otherwise looks like an alternative fact:

“This final rule recognizes the role that short-term, limited-duration insurance can fulfill, while at the same time distinguishing it from individual health insurance coverage by interpreting ‘short-term’ to mean an initial contract term of less than 12 months and implementing the ‘limited-duration’ requirement by precluding renewals or extensions that extend a policy beyond a total of 36 months.”

But behind these somewhat comical linguistic gymnastics lie some very real dangers for patients, especially those with chronic health conditions. Short-term, limited-duration health plans are not considered “health insurance” under federal law, and as a result, they do not have to comply with the Affordable Care Act. In fact, these plans look a lot like the often all-but-useless private health plans that littered the individual market before the ACA reined in predatory and discriminatory insurance industry practices.

These plans can vary premiums based on age, gender, health status, and medical history. They can also deny coverage outright based on pre-existing conditions, refuse to cover any treatment for a pre-existing condition, or find ways to rescind your policy after you’ve incurred a claim.

The other ways they keep their premiums down is by offering bare-bones coverage in the first place. They usually exclude coverage for critical health services that consumers have come to expect their policies to cover. A recent study looked at short-term health plans sold in the Charlotte region and found that most of them didn’t cover benefits for prescription drugs, mental health services, or substance use disorder treatment. Not a single short-term health plan studied covered maternity care whatsoever.

A return to the pre-ACA days of health insurance is a return to the days of lifetime and annual limits on coverage. UnitedHealthcare’s Golden Rule Company, which offers short-term plans in North Carolina, imposes a per-person lifetime limit on covered benefits of $250,000 for many of its three-month plans. Asa result, any enrollee who develops a terminal or chronic condition or who has a premature child is left unprotected from catastrophic costs.

In a press release, U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar says, “These plans aren’t for everyone, but they can provide a much more affordable option for millions of the forgotten men and women left out by the current system.” Even if that were true, allowing these policies to last for up to three years at a time creates an alternate market to the ACA in which insurers will market heavily to young and healthy enrollees, dupe them into buying bare-bones coverage with lower premiums, and ultimately make premiums for full-benefits, comprehensive coverage more expensive for the older and sicker enrollees who remain in ACA-compliant market. This isn’t about providing options—it’s about undermining the Affordable Care Act.

Commentary

Today’s “must read” editorial: UNC Board of Governors should censure Tom Fetzer

In case you missed it, there was a “must read” editorial this morning at WRAL.com about fire-breathing UNC Board of Governors member and former state Republican Party leader Tom Fetzer. The editorial comes as a follow-up to news reports like the one last week from Joe Killian of Policy Watch, detailing Fetzer’s disruptive and inappropriate behavior surrounding the recent botched chancellor hiring at Western Carolina University. This is from “Fetzer out of bounds; UNC board should censure him”:

“Tom Fetzer’s behavior as a member of the University of North Carolina Board of Governors isn’t simply rude or self-serving. His latest, self-confessed actions in connection with the recruitment and hiring of a new chancellor for Western Carolina University are disruptive.

They are, by any practical standard unethical, given Fetzer’s direct conflicts of interest in the matter and failure to act appropriately as a member of the board.

The leadership of the board should conduct a thorough examination of Fetzer’s actions. Of greater concern is that Fetzer wasn’t a passive interested party. He is a former member of the Western Carolina Board of Trustees. Further, he had a personal interest in the position. He acknowledged that two former board members recommended Spellings name him interim chancellor. Spellings instead selected Alison Morrison-Shetlar, the university’s provost.

Specifically, the UNC Board should examine the appropriateness of Fetzer – one of the state’s most influential legislative lobbyists and former chairman of the state Republican Party — using his appointed government position to gain access to otherwise confidential information, specifically the names of candidates for the Western Carolina University chancellor’s position. Then, did he violate policy and ethical conduct procedures by giving that confidential information to a private ‘screening’ firm Fetzer personally hired to dig into the background of a candidate for the chancellor’s post?”

The editorial goes on to add this:

“Fetzer has been far from a stabilizing force on the UNC Board. Frankly, he’s been more of a bomb-thrower. While Fetzer says he was just doing his job as a board member – with the actions he took – you don’t need to be a business school graduate to know that if he’d had concerns about the chancellor selection process, or individuals, he should have talked with the board chairman, President Spellings or the chair of the search committee.

He should NOT have taken matters into his own hands, hired his own investigators and then broadcast what was confidential to other members of the UNC board. It demonstrates a lack of discipline. The actions were clearly out of bounds.

Unfortunately, there should be little surprise given the overly partisan and political people that have been appointed to the UNC board. The General Assembly has given board seats to favored lobbyists, loyal former political officeholders and key political donors.

The UNC System, the students and faculty it serves, and the people of North Carolina deserve and need better if the state is to continue to provide top-notch higher education….

The board and the legislators who appoint it must act now to preserve its integrity. Failure to directly deal with it will jeopardize one of the most critical elements to the state’s prosperity and growth.”