Democratic state lawmakers ask FERC to temporarily stop MVP Southgate from using eminent domain — commission agrees

The proposed MVP Southgate route (Map: MVP Southgate website)

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has agreed to suspend MVP Southgate’s ability to use eminent domain for its natural gas pipeline project in North Carolina, at least temporarily, according to public documents.

The 75-mile MVP Southgate project would start in Virginia, where it would connect with the main MVP pipeline, and enter North Carolina in Eden, in Rockingham County. From there, it would travel southeast through Alamance County, ending near the Haw River.

Construction has not begun on the project. A year ago, the NC Department of Environmental Quality denied its water quality permit application; the project also faces several court challenges. Opponents have requested that FERC hold a rehearing on the Certificate of Public Convenience and Necessity, which the commission granted last year.

MVP Southgate has petitioned FERC to deny the requests for a rehearing. FERC has yet to rule on the matter.

Despite these uncertainties, in January, MVP Southgate began eminent domain proceedings against more than 100 private landowners in Alamance and Rockingham counties in North Carolina and in Pittsylvania County in Virginia. In Alamance County alone, 38 property owners could each lose up to 10 acres of land, according to a letter sent in February from Democratic State Rep. Ricky Hurtado. Hurtado’s district includes part of Alamance County.

Alamance County Commissioners unanimously voted in 2018 to oppose the project over concerns about potential harm to the Haw River, drinking water, erosion, public safety and property values.

Today, FERC Chairman Richard Glick responded to lawmakers saying the stay is in effect. Glick referred to a recent order, issued in May, that prohibits the commission from approving construction activities while it considers requests for a rehearing. The stay is limited to 90 days.

The main MVP pipeline in West Virginia and Virginia is years behind schedule and billions over budget. It has been delayed by hundreds of permit violations and successful legal challenges. Without the main line, the Southgate project would not have a connection point.

Fifteen Democratic state lawmakers, including Hurtado, had asked FERC for the stay: Reps. Gale Adcock, Kelly Alexander Jr, John Autry, Amber Baker, Cynthia Ball, susan Fisher, Pricey Harrison, Zack Hawkins, Rachel Hunt, Verla Insko, Graig Meyer and Marcia Morey; and in the Senate, Michael Garrett and Wiley Nickel.

House environmental budget appropriates money for flood control … then rolls back flood control protections

High water during Hurricane Florence

Update: The House amended the budget Wednesday night to strip the isolated wetlands language from the bill.

The House released its $25.7 billion budget proposal this week, and unlike previous legislative sessions when lawmakers held a veto-proof majority, there are no dire cuts to the Department of Environmental Quality. (Considering past slashes to DEQ’s budget, there’s little left to trim.)

That said, the DEQ portion of the budget is not completely benign. It contains some regulatory rollbacks that work at cross purposes to the appropriations.

The Senate has already passed its version, and the two chambers will have to compromise on a final version before it goes to the governor.

The budget funds five new full-time positions — $487,000 per year — for an emerging compounds unit to address PFAS and 1,4-Dioxane contamination. The Senate budget allocated money for 10.

Regardless of income, residents whose private drinking water wells are contaminated with PFAS can apply for a grant from the Bernard Allen Memorial Drinking Water Fund. The fund typically is reserved for low-wealth households, but in cases of PFAS contamination, the income limitation is lifted.

Left hand, meet right hand: Lawmakers appropriated a lot of money for resilience and flood control while relaxing and eliminating rules that would help with resilience and flood control.

DEQ would receive $1.45 million in one-time money for coastal resiliency grants and temporary coastal resilience planners, plus $98,000 for a new permanent resilience coordinator, and $5 million in non-recurring funds for a pilot project in the flood-prone Stoney Creek area of Goldsboro. The Department of Natural, Economic and Cultural Resources would get $20 million in non-recurring funds for floodplain grants.

This funding is necessary to help the state adapt to the vicissitudes of climate change, but buried halfway through one budget document is a provision that would prohibit local governments from enacting stormwater ordinances that are stronger than the state or federal rules. Ditto for riparian buffers, which keep development from sensitive areas near waterways, usually 50 to 100 feet away, depending on the river basin. Both stormwater ordinances and riparian buffers help with flood control.

Nor would the state require a permit for “activities” (read: filling) in isolated wetlands currently not protected by the federal Waters of the United States rule.

Wetlands are key to filtering pollutants and controlling flooding, which is why they have been legally protected.

Since there are no maps that identify these wetlands — known as “non-jurisdictional” — it’s impossible to predict what projects could affect these wetlands, according to a DEQ presentation last month to the Environmental Management Commission. However, the Division of Water Resources estimated 99 isolated wetlands would be unprotected. Data gathered by a non-governmental organization indicated that more than 900,000 acres of wetlands in just two river basins could be non-jurisdictional, according to the presentation.

WOTUS, as it’s known for short, is under revision by the EPA and the US Army Corps of Engineers, so certain isolated wetlands could be protected in the future, but that would be too late for the ones filled in.

Another tool for flood control: dams. Yet the budget would strip DEQ’s ability to classify a dam as high hazard if a private engineer determines it doesn’t merit that designation. DEQ would have to defer to the engineer’s opinion for dams less than 20 feet tall and that can hold up to 653,400 cubic feet — or 4.8 million gallons — of water.

According to the state’s dam inventory, 789 dams fit that height and capacity criteria. Of those, 152 are currently classified as high hazard.

Department of Health and Human Services

Not in the DEQ budget, but potentially related, DHHS would receive $150,000 in one-time money for an Huntersville ocular melanoma study. Twenty-two people have been diagnosed with this rare cancer since 2009, most of them young women. The majority of people diagnosed with ocular melanoma are men over 50.

This study would follow up on a 2017  investigation, in which DHHS gave a $100,000 grant to the Town of Huntersville, to try to determine if there is an environmental link to the disease in the area.

Another $150 million in the DHHS budget would go toward removing lead and asbestos in schools, child care facilities and residential housing. Lead, often present in older plumbing and paint, is a neurotoxin; children who are exposed to lead and have high levels of it in their blood can suffer irreversible neurological damage. Asbestos exposure can cause cancer and other debilitating or fatal respiratory diseases.

5 takeaways from today’s hearing on the energy bill

Shearon Harris Nuclear Plant, near New Hill in southwestern Wake County (Photo: Duke Energy)

A Senate committee today took public comment on the unpopular energy legislation, House Bill 951, which still faces staunch opposition from nearly everyone but Duke Energy and the NC Chamber of Commerce.

1) In addition to environmental advocates, like the Sierra Club, large industrial customers are united against the bill: Nutrien, a large fertilizer company; several textile companies, and the NC Manufacturers’ Alliance. “If I had two hours, I could tell you just how much industrial customers dislike the bill,” said Alliance President Preston Howard.

Kevin Martin, executive director of the Carolina Utility Customers Association, has projected rate increases of up to 50% over a decade. Duke Energy disputes those figures, at least publicly. Martin submitted an email to lawmakers to support his projections. Policy Watch obtained an email exchange about rates between Duke Energy, CUCA and an energy consultant in which Laura Bateman of Duke, says “I think our totals tie; [it’s] just different timing of the investments.”Duke Energy spokeswoman Grace Trilling Rountree told Policy Watch the exchange addressed the utility’s Integrated Resource Plan, and was unrelated to the proposed legislation.

2) Natural gas and nukes made an appearance. The bill requires the Marshall Steam Station on Lake Norman to change over from coal to natural gas. The measure also leaves that option open for the Roxboro facility, which environmental groups fear could incentivize the construction of the Mountain Valley Pipeline Southgate project — currently in limbo because the main line in West Virginia and Virginia is years behind schedule because of permit violations and successful court challenges.

An American Petroleum Institute representative extolled the virtues of natural gas, even though yesterday’s dire report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change urged nations to sharply curb their methane emissions. Natural gas operations are the primary source of methane because the pipelines, fracking wellheads and other infrastructure leaks the powerful greenhouse gas.

As for nuclear energy, the bill would allow Duke to incur up to $50 million in expenses — borne by the ratepayers — for an early site permit from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for siting of a small reactor at an undetermined location in North Carolina. Nuclear energy proponents, including Robert Hayes of NC State University’s Department of Nuclear Engineering, emphasized that per gigawatt, this energy source takes up less physical space than solar or wind. All the radioactive waste generated since the 1970s, Hayes said, could fit in a football field, 9 feet deep.

However, Chemical and Engineering News reported last year that there are scientific concerns about the integrity of casks and containers in which the waste is stored: “In some cases, the aging containers have already begun leaking their toxic contents.”

Also not mentioned: the amount of water nuclear plants need for cooling. From the Union of Concerned Scientists: “Nuclear power plants consume vast amounts of water during normal operation to absorb the waste heat left over after making electricity and also to cool the equipment and buildings used in generating that electricity.”

3) The NC Utilities Commission is popular. Not because everyone agrees with all of its decisions, but the commission is the only state regulatory body that can tell Duke what to do. Duke Energy enjoys a regulated monopoly, meaning that in exchange for being (nearly) the only game in town, they are subject to the commission’s rulings.

The bill would strip the commission of some of its authority, and in doing so, cut the public out of the decision-making process. Commission hearings are quasi-judicial proceedings, with sworn testimony and public comment. Fewer of those proceedings equals fewer opportunities for the public to be heard.

“The current decision-making process gives us a voice,” said a representative of Nutrien, a larger fertilizer company, with a phosphate mine in eastern North Carolina. “It’s critical that ratepayers participate in the process, and that is jeopardized in this legislation. Public input is essential to sound energy policy.”

4) Despite the scientific consensus and overwhelming evidence, climate change deniers still exist. Dave Burton of Cary opposed the bill because it declares a “war on coal” by phasing out that energy source. Burton, a climate change denier, touted the (false) benefits of coal and carbon dioxide, and (falsely) claimed CO2 is the reason widespread famine is rare. Burton was on the board of NC-20, a group of coastal real estate and government interests, behind the now-infamous sea level rise bill. In 2012, that bill restricted state and local governments in using only select historical data to predict sea level rise along the North Carolina coast. With a stroke of a pen, a 3-foot increase suddenly became just 8 inches.

Burton claims to be a reviewer of the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, but that’s a low bar to clear. Most anyone can sign up to be a “reviewer,” which is not the same as being an author.

5) File under unintended consequences: When a large manufacturer closes or leaves North Carolina, that’s a loss in tax revenue. But small towns are harder hit by those losses. Without the manufacturer, the water and wastewater utilities also lose funds, but the costs of maintaining and upgrading the treatment systems, main lines, etc., remains the same.

What happens? The utilities can’t pay their bills or are forced to raise water and sewer rates on their customers. The utilities can become “distressed,” and risk being taken over by the state.

 

Opposed by many, loved by (very) few, energy bill in Senate committee today, with costs to ratepayers still unclear

This is a developing story. Look for updates after today’s Senate Agriculture, Energy and Environment committee meeting on the energy bill. The meeting begins at 10 a.m. and will be livestreamed.

As a Senate committee prepares to hold what is expected to be a heated meeting today about a controversial energy measure, the true cost to ratepayers of House Bill 951 is still unclear.

An analysis conducted by Walmart and obtained by Policy Watch, shows a cumulative rate increase of 41% over the next decade and 53% by 2036.

The Carolina Utility Customers Association, a trade group for industrial ratepayers, estimated the cost increases would add up to 50% over 10 years, based on the bill’s allowance of 4% per year. Large industrial and commercial customers would see their energy bills increase upward of $5 million, to even $10 million a year, depending on amount of energy usage and size of the plant, according to CUCA figures.

At the heart of the disagreement are the costs used to calculate the increase. 

Duke Energy spokeswoman Grace Trilling Rountree called CUCA’s claims “exaggerated” and “not supported by the [utilities commission] Public Staff analysis.”

CUCA’s figures “assume rate impacts related to spending that has not been proposed by Duke Energy or authorized by the North Carolina Utilities Commission,” Rountree said.

Kevin Martin, associate executive director of CUCA, declined to comment ahead of today’s hearing. He plans to provide public comment then, he said.

The Public Staff, a state agency that represents ratepayers in matters before the Utilities Commission, has provided documents showing rates would be far lower. Industrial and commercial customers would see cumulative increases ranging from 11% in 2030 to 31% in 2035.

The 1.3 million Duke Energy Progress residential customers would pay a cumulative increase of $11 to $18 in monthly bills by 2030 and 2035, respectively, according to an analysis by the Public Staff of the NC Utilities Commission. Another 1.9 million Duke Energy Carolinas residential customers would pay an extra $12 to $24 each month by those dates.

However, footnotes on public staff analysis show its figures exclude costs for many provisions that are in the energy bill because they are “infeasible to quantify,” such as multi-year ratemaking.

If the bill becomes law, though, those costs could then be included in rates. And then the rates could increase — calculations the customers and their advocates are accounting for.

Multi-year ratemaking allows the Utilities Commission to lock in customer costs for three years, rather than requiring Duke Energy and Dominion Energy to file annual rate cases. This type of ratemaking is supposed to prevent utilities from “over-earning,” by refunding customers some amount of money if the utilities’ earnings are higher than allowed by the Utilities Commission. 

But the converse is also true: If the utilities don’t hit their projections, they can charge ratepayers to compensate for the loss.

The bill could change the arc of the state’s energy policy for at least a decade. It would lock in natural gas as a replacement fuel for at least one, and possibly two of Duke’s coal-fired power plants.  Natural gas is the main source of methane emissions. Yesterday international scientists issued a key climate change report showing that emissions from methane, along with carbon dioxide, must be sharply reduced in order to slow the global climate crisis.

The bill also would strip some authority from he NC Utilities Commission, which regulates Duke Energy and other energy providers. The measure would allow Duke Energy to incur expenses of up to $50 million for an early site permit from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for siting of a small reactor at an undetermined location in North Carolina. 

It narrowly passed the House in a midnight vote. If the Senate passes the bill without changes, it will go to the governor, who will likely veto it. It’s unclear if there are enough votes to override the veto.

IPCC report on climate change: “a reality check” — and that reality is grim

Graphic: Climate Central

The numerical difference between 1.5 degrees and 2 degrees Celsius is small, but it stands between all that is alive and a potentially cataclysmic capsizing of the natural world.

As soon as 2030 — a decade earlier than previously estimated —the Earth’s average temperature is on track to rise by 1.5 degrees Celsius over pre-industrial times, if warming continues to increase at the current rate, according to a voluminous report published by scientists on the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change this morning.

Today, the planet is already 1 degree Celsius warmer.

If we fail to rein in greenhouse gases, like carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide, then a 2-degree Celsius increase is likely within the next 30 years. That would accelerate a chain of events that’s already begun: thawing permafrost, extreme weather, such as floods, wildfires and prolonged droughts, sea level rise, melting ice sheets, loss of wildlife habitat.

“This report is a reality check,” said IPCC Working Group I Co-Chair Valérie Masson-Delmotte in a press release. “We now have a much clearer picture of the past, present and future climate, which is essential for understanding where we are headed, what can be done, and how we can prepare.”

0.5 degrees Celsius increase = 0.9 degrees Fahrenheit

1.5 degrees C increase = 2.7 degrees F

2.0 degrees C = 3.6 degrees F

For us humans, whose health and viability is intricately linked to that of the global ecosystems, this is an existential threat. Deaths related to heat, flooding and pollution; insect-borne diseases, food shortages, losses of homes and livelihoods, while occurring now would only get worse.  

But even the almost-certain increase of 1.5 degrees Celsius carries significant risks.  “Warming of 1.5°C is not considered ‘safe’ for most nations, communities, ecosystems and sectors and poses significant risks to natural and human systems,” the report said.

Last year, the NC State Climate Office released a report, which estimated the state’s average temperature will rise in all seasons.

The most vulnerable global communities are the poor, the underserved and the marginalized, both in the U.S. and abroad.

Warming from human-made emissions “will persist for centuries to millennia and will continue to cause further long-term changes in the climate system, such as sea level rise, with associated impacts.”

IPCC scientists have “medium confidence” in the projection that of 105,000 species studied, 6% of insects, 8% of plants and 4% of vertebrates would lose over half of their climatically determined geographic range for global warming of 1.5°C.” 

At 2 degrees, 18% of insects, 16% of plants and 8% of vertebrates would lose their habitats, and either have to migrate and adapt or perish.

The primary way to slow down the pace of climate change is through sweeping policies about land use, including agriculture; transportation and energy sources. On the latter note, it’s timely that the International Panel on Climate Change report was released while the state legislature is debating the Duke Energy bill. (The Senate Ag, Energy and Environment Committee discusses HB 951 tomorrow at 10 a.m., in the auditorium of the Legislative Building; the public can comment at the hearing.)

The IPCC report recommends “deep reductions not only of carbon dioxide, but also methane and black carbon” — soot — by more than a third by 2050, compared to 2010 levels. 

Critics of HB 951, which includes nearly every industrial sector, nonprofit group and public advocacy organization, oppose the measure for different reasons: rate hikes, as much as 50% over a decade, but also the inclusion of natural gas as a required replacement fuel for coal.

Natural gas, according to the IPCC report releases methane into the atmosphere, primarily at fracked gas wellheads and through pipeline leaks.

The IPCC report says that to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, the planet must not only reach net-zero carbon dioxide emissions, but also “concurrent deep reductions” in non-carbon dioxide greenhouse gases, “particularly methane.”

“Though CO2 dominates long-term warming, the reduction of warming short-lived climate forcers, such as methane and black carbon, can in the short term contribute significantly to limiting warming to 1.5°C. … Reductions of black carbon and methane would have substantial co-benefits, including improved health due to reduced air pollution.”

Methane emissions can be reduced “as a result of broad mitigation measures in the energy sector,” the report concludes, including decreases of the potent greenhouse gas from agriculture and landfills. 

“Improved air quality resulting from these reductions provide direct and immediate health benefits,” the report said.

Unless greenhouse gas reductions are quick, ambitious and sustained, it will be “exceedingly difficult, if not impossible” to stay under the 1.5 degree Celsius benchmark, the report said.

“Limiting warming to 1.5°C would require all countries and non-state actors to strengthen their contributions without delay.”