Weekly Briefing

Domestic violence writ large?

Legislative conservatives and the abuse of the environment

What is it about the far right and its apparent contempt for our natural environment? It can’t be mere greed or obliviousness.

Sure, some politicians will consciously sell out a stream or a forest to help a fat cat constituent or to enhance corporate profits generally. Others simply can’t be bothered by the issue because it just doesn’t seem to directly affect their antiseptic, air conditioned lives. But that can’t explain it all.

When one examines the performance of the 2011 North Carolina General Assembly on environmental matters and the rants of the “think tanks” that egged them on, one must conclude that something more is at work. These people don’t just not care about the environment; for many, it’s as if they really don’t like the natural environment and are somehow threatened by it and the people who champion it.

Indeed, in some ways, it’s reminiscent of an abuser-victim relationship in which the person in a position of power manufactures a delusion of his or her own victimhood, obtains some kind of gratification from exploiting and controlling the weaker party and is easily angered whenever his or her actions are exposed or the victim tries to rebel.

The 2011 session

An exaggeration? Maybe. But, consider the legislation that was rammed through the North Carolina General Assembly over the past few months regarding the environment. Who else passes such an aggressive and no-holds-barred assault on the environment during an era of profound global crisis – a time in which the long-term future and well-being of our species is at-risk? Who else advances the delusional notion that North Carolina’s heretofore extremely modest (and in many ways only marginally successful) efforts to protect open space, public beaches, clean air and clean water, as well as a few vestiges of greenery along our highways amount to constitution-threatening attacks on “freedom”?

In case you weren’t keeping score, here’s just some of the damage reported by the good folks at Environment NC, the N.C. Conservation Network, the Sierra Club of North Carolina, and the League of Conservation Voters:

Huge cuts and negative policy changes in the budget – The final state budget cuts the Department of Environment and Natural Resources’ (DENR) recurring appropriation by 12% in FY11-12 and 22% in FY12-13, not including funds lost when programs are transferred to other departments. It also cuts the Clean Water Management Trust Fund by 88.5% (from $100 million down to $11.5 million) and explicitly bars the program from using funds for land acquisition. It also cuts the Wildlife Resources Commission’s recurring budget by 25%. The budget also cuts the Parks and Recreation Trust Fund and the Natural Heritage Trust Fund.

On the policy front, the budget includes a special provision explicitly forbidding state rules stronger than minimal federal standards and places DENR’s seven regional offices on the chopping block for 2012 unless the legislature changes its mind.

Dismantling DENR – The budget also includes special provisions that break up the Division of Environmental Health, transferring pieces to the Department of Health and Human Services; and two others that transfer the Division of Forest Resources and the Division of Soil and Water Conservation to the Department of Agriculture. These last two transfers constitute a major shift in policy, as the Department of Agriculture has traditionally focused on production and marketing, and has no expertise in conservation. The provisions received essentially zero substantive discussion in the legislature.

Eliminating existing protections – In the last two weeks of session, legislators passed a sort of omnibus wish list for polluters with the benign title of “Amend Environmental Laws.” The measure, House Bill 119, contains special interest rollbacks to existing protections in such areas as: weakening air pollution standards for small power plants that burn biomass; weakening open burning rules; weakening riparian buffer rules; significantly expanding exemptions from the state Dam Safety Act; transferring liability for leaking underground petroleum tanks from tank owners to taxpayers; reversing a state ban on an obsolete tank technology that fails 50% of the time; and weakening financial assurance requirements for hazardous waste facilities. Governor Perdue has until tomorrow to act on the bill.

Blocking new rules – Early in the session, the legislature enacted a law that bars all new rules that would impose an aggregate cost of greater than $500,000, unless those rules are required to respond to unforeseen threats or expressly mandated by state or federal law. The ban applies even if the benefits of a regulation outweigh the costs. As long as it stays in force, this law means that no major rule can be adopted unless the legislature first mandates (not merely authorizes) its issuance.

Meanwhile, in the closing days of session, legislators passed another bill that requires that all state rules to be “expressly authorized” (a standard that has no clear relationship to existing law – which already requires that rules be authorized – and will invite litigation) and all environmental rules to be “expressly required” – a much narrower standard that effectively repeals the authority for scores of well-regarded rules, ranging from hunting seasons to core pollution controls. This proposal also dumps a mountain of busywork on already underfunded regulatory agencies, including one-sided reviews of existing rules, and extra certifications and impact analyses for proposed rules – even minor or noncontroversial changes. It too awaits imminent action by the Governor.

Endangering our coastline – Legislators passed at least two bill of real concern in this area. Senate Bill 709, the so-called and mislabeled “Energy Jobs Act,” which contains no substantive policy proposal to create jobs in wind or solar energy – where North Carolina has plenty of potential – but instead promotes drilling for oil and gas off the coast of the Outer Banks and onshore near the Deep River. Lawmakers rejected attempts on the House floor to include wind and wave energy in the measure – keeping their singular focus on oil and gas. Meanwhile, Senate Bill 110 will set back North Carolina’s longstanding and largely successful policy of allowing nature to decide the growth and erosion of our barrier islands by permitting a total of four “terminal groins” (i.e. jetties or seawalls) to be built along North Carolina’s beaches. SB 709 awaits gubernatorial action. SB 110 became law when Governor Perdue simply chose not to act.

Spreading the blight of billboards – One of the final acts of the 2011 session was to approve legislation that will, if signed into law, make it harder for government to limit the destruction of trees and other foliage surrounding billboards. Though substantially weaker than the original proposal, which amounted to a billboard industry Christmas list, the bill would still make billboards even more ubiquitous and visible on public highways than they already are. This bill awaits ratification so that it can be delivered to the Governor.

And still more – These were not the only significant environmental bills to be considered this session. Lawmakers ended a study of climate change, overturned protections governing a waterway in western North Carolina known as Boylston Creek and advanced a study of the flawed and energy and water intensive natural gas exploration method called fracking. Several other harmful proposals to weaken clean air protections, rules governing riparian buffers, leaking underground storage tanks and protection of Jordan Lake were either: approved in a watered-down format, kept alive for consideration in 2012 or only narrowly defeated. In a few, isolated instances, environmental advocates achieved modest victories, but these paled in comparison to the massive overall rollback.

In other words…

The 2011 legislative session marks a new low-point in state environmental legislation. It may also have signified a revival of the kind of exploitative and abusive, “man vs. nature” public policies that had seemed to be on a steep decline in our state. Let’s hope caring and thinking people rally to the side of the victim and help the abusers obtain some intensive “counseling” before it’s too late.

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