2/1/2016: Going backwards on clean energy

NC’s environmental chief is trying to push our state backwards on clean energy. This week in CIB.

Executive Watch: State Environmental Chief Expands Attack on Renewable Energy

NC’s Secretary of Environmental Quality, Donald van der Vaart, wants to make solar farms harder to build in North Carolina. Van der Vaart last week told the NC Energy Policy Council (EPC) that the legislature should create a new permit for solar energy farms, requiring them to be approved at the state level prior to construction. Van der Vaart’s proposal would allow the state to forbid a property owner from leasing land for a solar generation facility and require the posting of a bond for the costs of removing the equipment. It would represent another centralization and expansion of state authority to block new renewable energy projects, ignoring and overriding existing local authority and model ordinances which have been prepared with broad stakeholder involvement.

At the same EPC meeting, van der Vaart also continued to push his proposal to open up the state’s Renewable Energy Portfolio Standard (REPS) to provide an additional incentive for construction of new nuclear power plants. REPS was created to provide a boost for green energy development as part of the electric power supply, and is presently open only to use for energy efficiency measures (a limited part) and genuinely renewable energy sources (especially solar and wind power). Van der Vaart’s proposal would turn the program on its head, using it instead to promote the construction of old-style centralized (and extremely expensive) nuclear plants.

Only in an Orwellian nightmare can a major state environmental policy-maker argue with a straight face that a mined resource, which is acquired, refined and used through a cycle which produces dangerously toxic wastes at all stages, should be counted as “renewable.” The good news is that most EPC members seemed skeptical of both van der Vaart proposals. They decided to hold the proposals in council for further review. Ultimately, any recommendations from the EPC would go to the NC General Assembly for consideration.

The bad news is that this attack on the policies which have promoted the ongoing solar energy development boom in our state reinforces the picture of a state administration actively hostile to genuinely clean energy. It seems increasingly clear that this hostility can only be resolved by changing the players involved.

Judicial Watch: NC Supreme Court Sides with Governor on Commissions

In a decision released Friday, the NC Supreme Court ruled in favor of Governor Pat McCrory’s challenge to the NC General Assembly’s composition of three environmental commissions. The Court said that the legislature’s decision to appoint a majority of the commissions’ members, with no authority to the governor to remove those members, unconstitutionally interferes with the governor’s ability to run the executive branch of government.

The three commissions are the Coal Ash Management Commission, the Oil and Gas Commission, and the Mining Commission. While the suit has been moving forward to this final judicial resolution, the work of those commissions has been on hold due to a Court of Appeals order. Work on setting standards for coal ash handling, and consideration of any requests for fracking permits, will stay on hold until the General Assembly resolves the commissions’ membership issues in a fashion consistent with the Supreme Court’s ruling. The legislature is scheduled to reconvene for its ‘short session’ in April, after the March primary elections.

In the short run, this case resolves a power dispute between a governor and legislative leadership, neither of whom has been regarded as environmentally friendly. In the longer run, the case bolsters the independent authority of the governor to manage the executive administration of state environmental laws and programs. That is likely to have real environmental significance when there is more of a policy divide between the legislative and executive leadership—and reinforces the importance of electing an environment-friendly governor this year.

A more detailed description of the decision (including a view of the Court’s 50-page order) can be found here

Environomics: Coal Companies Taking the Deep Dive

Coal stockpiles in the US have been growing since 2014, as the number of jobs in the American coal industry have continued a long-term decline. Several major mine companies have declared bankruptcy.

A continuing drop in domestic demand for coal is part of the basis for the coal industry’s ongoing dive, as well as China’s cutback in the once precipitous rise in its demand for coal. (China’s change is fueled in part by the severe air pollution problems now plaguing that nation due to heavy coal use and poor pollution controls.) As the shift away from coal as the mainstay of electricity generation continues, analysts don’t look for the coal industry to recover its once dominant economic position. New energy, and new jobs, will need to come from the rising renewable energy sector.

Education & Resources: Poll Shows NC Supports Clean Power

In addition to checking on the status of major election contests, the political surveying firm Public Policy Polling (PPP) often asks questions to gauge public opinion on major issues. In its latest North Carolina poll, released January 21, PPP found strong public support for the Obama Administration’s Clean Power Plan (CPP).

The poll asked, “As you may know, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, or E-P-A, has announced a plan to address climate change by placing limits on the amount of carbon pollution from power plants. Would you strongly favor, somewhat favor, somewhat oppose or strongly oppose this plan?”

Sixty-five percent of respondents said they would favor the plan (including 42% strongly in favor), compared to only 27% opposed. (The remainder were undecided.)

Clean power had support across party lines. The favor/oppose splits were Democrats 76/13, independents 64/29, and Republicans 49/44. Perhaps someone should tell the governor.

The full poll with all questions and cross-tabs can be reviewed here.

That’s our report for this week.

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