Gov. Cooper’s budget on environmental issues: what it contains and why it matters

Gov. Cooper’s recommended budget, apportioned by topic area (Source: Governor’s Office)

Gov. Roy Cooper unveiled his $29.3 billion budget yesterday, 3% of which is devoted to natural and economic resources. 

Here are some highlights of the environmental sections and why they’re important:

Department of Environmental Quality

  • $2.49 million to address emerging compounds with additional staff and testing

Why it matters: Are you tired of PFAS yet? Well, PFAS aren’t tired of you. These toxic compounds have seeped into every day life: drinking water, carpet, clothing, fast food containers, furniture, cookware. They’re in blood, in pee, in breast milk.

This money would pay for more specialized staff — chemists, hydrogeologists, engineers — to meet the increasing need for groundwater testing, as well as permitting. What it will not pay for: the legislature’s political will to allow DEQ to establish a legally enforceable drinking water standard.

  •  $160,000 for a “project liaison” to collaborate with the Department of Commerce and Economic Development Partnership related to permitting and site development; plus another $500,000 for support positions

Why it matters: Former DEQ Secretary Michael Regan often said that it’s possible to have both economic development and environmental protection. That’s a sunny talking point, but In Real Life government and economic development leaders chase tax dollars from polluting industries while giving short shrift to the people who have to live next to the contamination. Those people are usually non-white and/or low-income. And once the first polluter enters a community, then it’s open season. (The NC Environmental Justice and Equity Advisory Board discussed cumulative impacts of multiple polluters at a meeting earlier this week.)

At the risk of using corporate lingo, state agencies are stuck in “silos”: For example, Commerce recruits a company to locate in North Carolina, but until recently no one has considered the environmental — or environmental justice — implications of that department’s efforts.

If the legislature actually includes this line item in their budget (don’t hold your breath), watchdogs should track how it plays out. If the legislature nixes the governor’s recommendation, DEQ and Commerce could still communicate about their respective concerns. The phone call is free.

  • $15 million for low-income households to reduce energy costs and afford clean energy sources

Why it matters: The national average residential electricity rate was up 8% in January from a year earlier, according to The New York Times, which reported it is the biggest annual increase in more than a decade. Low-income households are particularly hard-hit, as are renters. While this budget recommendation would help homeowners, how it would trickle down to renters remains to be seen. According to the NC Housing Coalition, there are 27 counties where renters average more than 8% of their household budget on energy. Renters tend to earn lower wages than homeowners, and since they have to answer to a landlord, they can’t upgrade their homes to make them energy efficient or outfit them with heat pumps or solar panels.

Department of Agriculture

  • $2 million for a forest development program

Why it matters: The importance of forests and trees can’t be overstated. They provide critical wildlife habitat, store carbon, provide shade, and absorb and hold flood waters. The forest development program in the governor’s budget would restore 18,200 acres of forestland — about the size of Durham County — and plant up to 6 million trees. That sounds admirable until you realize North Carolina’s wood pellet plants consume more than that each year.

Map: Lisa Sorg, based on DEQ database of swine farms and NC Division of Emergency Management flood plain data

  • $18 million for the swine farm buyout program

Why it matters: The Coastal Plain, with its sandy soils, high water table and proliferation of swamps, are not well-suited for CAFOS — Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations — and their open-air waste lagoons and spray fields.

Dozens of these farms lie within the 100-year flood plain, making their lagoons vulnerable to overtopping or breaching during a hurricane or prolonged storms. This money would help fund the voluntary buyout program, up to 19 swine farms. The land is put in a conservation easement, but farmers can still plant row crops on that land or raise livestock on pasture.

As Policy Watch reported in 2019, the buyout program launched in 1999, after Hurricane Floyd, Dennis and Irene hammered the state. After four buyout rounds totaling nearly $19 million for 43 farms, the legislature stopped funding the program in 2007. More than 100 farmers who wanted to participate in the buyout program couldn’t.

But Hurricane Florence was a game-changer: Rising water flooded 46 lagoons and another 60 nearly overtopped. In 2018, the NC Department of Agriculture secured $5 million to restart the buyouts, split between federal and state funds.

Department of Natural and Cultural Resources

  • $10 million for peatlands and pocosin conservation and inventory

Why it matters: First, peatlands are cool, at least when they’re not on fire. In this part of the world, they are the result of decomposed Sphagnum moss, shrubs and sedges. In Scotland, smoldering peat is used to dry malt that is used to make whisky. (Laphroig will knock your socks off.)

However, burning peat releases carbon dioxide, a major driver of greenhouse gas. North Carolina has coastal peatlands; those of you around in 2008 might remember when, during a severe drought, lightning struck a peat bog, igniting it. The bog burned for weeks, and the smell — and pollution– traveled west all the way to the Triangle.

Restoring peatlands — re-wetting them — can reduce carbon emissions and wildfire risk, as well as promote flood resilience and water quality, all very important not just to coastal communities but the planet.

These funds will also help the Natural Heritage Program inventory Coastal Plain wetlands that have been previously excluded from other counts. Wetlands can control flooding, filter pollution and provide key habitats. Finding, acquiring and protecting wetlands, particularly in the flood-prone Coast Plain, can build resiliency against future hurricanes and severe storms — events that are very likely because of climate change.

(Creative Commons)

Other appropriations

  • $10 million to the Department of Transportation so the state can receive matching federal grants for the first portion of the S Line: commuter rail that would link Wake, Franklin, Vance and Warren counties. Another $10 million would go to a local government program that would to provide matching funds for bike and pedestrian projects.

Why it matters: Transportation is responsible for 60% of the state’s greenhouse gas emissions. However, electric cars won’t solely dig the planet out of the climate crisis. As long as we continue to put more cars on the road, including electric, that sparks road widening. And road widening requires asphalt, whose manufacture and trucking emits greenhouse gases. More highway lanes often require massive clear-cutting of trees, which are carbon stores. (Exhibits A and B: I-40 in Wake County, I-95 in Cumberland County.)

As for the S Line, it’s years away, but a north-south rail line could alleviate the daily logjam on U.S. 1 and Capital Boulevard. 

Another way to get cars off the road is to make cities and suburbs safe and pleasant for walkers and bicyclists. Protected bike lanes, greenways, sidewalks that connect neighborhoods: People would more likely walk or bike to a coffeeshop if they didn’t have to cheat death by crossing four lanes of traffic.

 

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.

Gov. Cooper executive order calls for deeper cuts in greenhouse gas emissions, focuses on environmental justice

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

Gov. Roy Cooper signed an ambitious executive order today designed to further reduce greenhouse gas emissions statewide and to emphasize environmental justice in agency decisions, beyond the NC Department of Environmental Quality.

Executive Order 246 sets several targets to mitigate the damage of climate change, including the reduction of statewide greenhouse gas emissions by at least 50% over 2005 levels by 2030; and net-zero emissions as soon as possible, no later than 2050.

The 50% reductions are in line with U.S. commitments under the international Paris Agreement.

“One of the main goals of my administration is to move us toward a clean energy economy to fight the existential threat of climate change and to create good paying jobs,” Cooper said at the signing ceremony at NC A&T University in Greensboro. “We know that climate change has caused more severe storms and often the effects of these storms hurt most the people who can afford it the least.”

The new goals build on a previous executive order, known as EO 80, that the governor signed in the fall of 2018. That document set a goal of a 40% reduction in statewide greenhouse gas emissions over 2005 levels, and 80,000 registered zero-emissions vehicles by 2025.

Executive Order 218, signed last June, advances North Carolina’s offshore wind energy.

The state’s progress toward the 2018 goals will likely be revealed in an updated state greenhouse gas inventory that the NC Department of Environmental Quality must release by Jan. 31.

Environmental justice composes a significant portion of the executive order. Each cabinet agency “shall identify” and environmental justice and equity lead to serve as a point person for those initiatives. These include sharing data and activities, as well as agency decisions that could significantly affect communities of color and underserved areas.

“For too long, our low- and moderate-income communities, communities of color and indigenous communities have been disproportionately impacted by pollution and climate change,” Cooper said, adding that his order “prioritizes funding” to mitigate the harm of climate change in these areas.

NC DEQ Secretary Elizabeth Biser: “What’s good for the environment is also good for our economy.”

These interagency communications, both internally and with the public, are important. In some cases, an agency, such as the Department of Transportation or the Department of Commerce approves projects with environmental justice ramifications.

For example, DOT’s 540 toll road extension in Wake County runs through a portion of a low-income mobile home community. And the Commerce Department has the power to grant incentives to polluting businesses and industries; Active Energy, a proposed but as yet operational wood pellet plant was awarded $500,000 in building reuse funds, even though the facility’s emissions would create air pollution. That money has yet to be distributed because the status of the plant is in limbo.

The executive order sets several additional deadlines:

  • Each agency also must develop a public participation plan for underserved neighborhoods and communities of color by
    June 1.
  • The state’s “Deep Decarbonization Pathways Analysis” will evaluates potential ways to reduce emissions to achieve the 2050 net-zero goal and any interim targets. The Pathways Analysis shall be completed for the state Climate Change Interagency Council to submit to the governor by Jan. 7, 2023.
  • DOT, DEQ, the Commerce Department, and other relevant agencies, shall develop a North Carolina Clean Transportation Plan for the Climate Council to submit to the governor by April 2023.

DEQ Secretary Elizabeth Biser said the governor’s order provides economic, environmental and public health benefits. The order contains measures to ensure that “those benefits reach every community as we advance climate and energy goals,” Biser said.

James Johnson, chairman of the Secretaries’ Environmental Justice and Equity Advisory Board: “In several important ways this executive order casts new  light on environmental inequities and imposes greater accountability on the state to address inequity.”

Environmental advocates quickly commented on today’s order:

“Gov. Cooper’s Executive Order No. 246 offers a robust, sensible roadmap for combating climate change that will help steer North Carolina toward a cleaner, carbon-free future. The order also brings more needed attention to the issue of environmental justice and equity. The voices of impacted and underserved communities deserve to be given weight in the halls of power, and this order is a step in the right direction.” — Brian Buzby, executive director, NC Conservation Network

“The voices of communities disproportionately impacted by sources of pollution must be front and center on policy decisions affecting their health. We are hopeful that today’s action will begin that process. For far too long BIPOC communities have suffered from environmental racism, with heavy industrial activity and pollution clustered in their neighborhoods. This Executive Order will finally require all state agencies to listen to residents before, during, and after economic development decisions are made.” — Daisha Williams, environmental justice manager, CleanAIRE NC

“We are excited that Gov. Cooper is continuing to lead our state on a just transition toward a clean energy and clean transportation economy. ‘Just’ is the key word here. This new executive order not only ramps up this transition for all North Carolinians but puts a focus on ensuring justice and equity for the communities most impacted by pollution and climate change, namely communities of color.” — Montravias King, Clean Energy Campaigns director, NC League of Conservation Voters

“For too long, conversations regarding equity and climate have been siloed, when in reality these issues deeply intersect as historically marginalized communities bear the disproportionate burden of pollution and are on the frontlines of increasingly damaging climate impacts. EO246 sets the stage to consider these issues in tandem, which is essential to making meaningful progress towards a more equitable, climate-safe future.” — David Kelly, North Carolina state director, Environmental Defense Fund

“For years, we’ve been advocating that the Cooper administration expand its focus on climate change to include the transportation sector, which is quickly becoming the number one source for heat-trapping emissions in North Carolina. We welcome the governor taking this step and look forward to working with the administration to create a meaningful clean transportation plan that sets out wide-ranging strategies to reduce emissions, and to do so equitably.” — Mary Maclean Asbill, director of the Southern Environmental Law Center‘s North Carolina office

“Since transportation emissions are the nation’s top contributor to climate change, we’re very pleased that the executive order sets up a pathway to decarbonize North Carolina’s transportation sector. This executive order answers the need to move beyond fossil-fueled transportation.” — Cynthia Satterfield, state director of the NC Sierra Club

Gov. Cooper nominates former DEQ lobbyist Elizabeth Biser to lead agency

Elizabeth Biser

Elizabeth Biser, who previously served as the director of Legislative and Government Affairs for the NC Department of Environmental Quality, is the governor’s new nominee to lead the agency.

Biser also worked as a government relations policy advisor at the law firm Brooks Pierce, where former DEQ Secretary Bill Ross works. There, she successfully lobbied for the $78 million Connect NC bond package for state and local parks.

She also lobbied for North Carolina Forever, which includes not only the Environmental Defense Fund, NC coastal Federation, but also Smithfield Foods and the NC Farm Bureau.

She also served as vice president of policy and public affairs for the Recycling Partnership; she also ran her own environmental consulting business.

Gov. Cooper had originally nominated Dionne Delli-Gatti, but Senate leaders tanked her confirmation, allegedly because she was unfamiliar with the proposed MVP Southgate natural gas pipeline, which would route 50 miles through Rockingham and Alamance counties.

However, behind the scenes, it appeared that supporters of that project, including Sens. Paul Newton and Chuck Edwards, worked to derail there nomination. Given Biser’s previous work with agribusiness, her nomination might be more palatable to conservative lawmakers.

David Kelly, director of public affairs for Environmental Defense Fund, issued a statement in support of Biser. He characterized her as a “woman who has spent her career advancing smart environmental and natural resource policy. Through her policy expertise and strong network throughout the business community,Elizabeth possesses the right mix of experience, knowledge and relationships to serve as an effective leader” of DEQ.

Like Delli-Gatti, if confirmed, Biser would be the first woman to lead the agency.

Gov. Cooper says the $5.7 billion in federal rescue money can bring “transformational change” to NC

Governor Roy Cooper

Gov. Roy Cooper’s ideas for spending the $5.7 billion coming to the state from the latest federal recovery package range from offering another round of direct payments to parents to improving local water and sewer systems.

Cooper presented his proposals for widespread investments to  – among other goals –  help individuals and businesses, expand high-speed internet access, improve rural downtowns, and pay for scholarships for community college and university students.

“This pandemic brought us a once in a generation challenge, and these funds a once in a generation opportunity,” Cooper said.  “Let’s use them to make transformational change for our state. We can revolutionize North Carolina.”

Cooper proposes using some of the money to continue a modified version of a program of direct grants to parents that legislative Republicans started last year.

The “extra credit grants” would go to low- and middle-income families based on their 2019 incomes, and would cost $250 million. Families would get $250 or $500, depending on their income, with people who make less money getting the bigger grant. The maximum eligible income would be set at $60,000.

Cooper said the pandemic levied the most harm to people with lower incomes. “We need to try to get the money to families who need it the most,” he said.

The state budget office estimated that 320,000 families would receive $500 and 340,000 families would get $250.

Cooper would use some of the money to continue efforts to expand high-speed internet by spending $1.2 billion on broadband access and affordability. High-speed internet became a necessity in the pandemic when students had to learn from home and medical offices pivoted to telehealth.

The spending will ensure “every home with a school-aged child will have access to high-speed internet,” Cooper said.

Other proposals include:

  • $835 million for community college and university scholarships and grants. The NC Guarantee Scholarship would offer at least $6,000 to UNC and state community college students whose families earn less than $60,000 a year. The scholarships would phase out as family income increases to $75,000.
  • $575 million for affordable housing.
  • $175 million for rural downtown transformation grants.
  • $350 million in grants to small hospitality and related businesses, including $50 million targeted to small business owners who closed or partially closed their businesses in the pandemic to help them reopen in the existing locations.
  • $800 million to fix water and sewer systems. Aging pipes in North Carolina are driving up user bills, straining local utility budgets, and contributing to water pollution. $440 million would be use for water, sewer, and stormwater projects for distressed and at-risk water and wastewater units and $360 million would be available for all units statewide, according to the supporting budget document.