The top 10 environmental stories of 2015

The top 10 environmental stories of 2015

- in Featured Articles, Must Reads

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Editor’s note: The following list was compiled by experts at the North Carolina League of Conservation Voters and first appeared in the year-end edition of the group’s Weekly Conservation Bulletin. You can see all past issues and subscribe by clicking here.

1) Offshore Drilling Debate Rages — The fight over offshore drilling started early for North Carolina in 2015. In late January, in one of its relatively few genuinely poor environmental decisions, the Obama Administration issued its proposal to re-open the Mid-Atlantic region to offshore drilling. In response, hundreds of concerned North Carolinians began turning out to public hearings along the coast to oppose the proposal. Coastal local governments, beginning with Dare County and growing by the end of the year to include dozens of counties and municipalities, joined in opposition. Meanwhile, offshore drilling’s leading North Carolina pitchman, Governor Pat McCrory, called not only for leasing offshore areas for drilling, but for the elimination of the 50-mile barrier between the coast and drilling which was contained in the federal proposal as a protective measure.

2) Coal Ash Cleanup Battles The environmental bill continues to come due from decades of neglect by the state and the power companies as uncounted tons of toxic coal ash accumulated in unlined wet pits across the South. As we start to dig out from this deep problem, the McCrory Administration is doing all it can to stall the rate of progress. In February, federal charges were announced against Duke Energy for the Dan River coal ash spill disaster. In March, NC DENR proposed a weak ‘cleanup’ permit for Duke’s multiple coal ash sites. In April, Duke challenged the state’s fines—and then in May copped a plea to the federal charges. (Duke knows who it can push around, and who it can’t.) At first, a state Superior Court judge ordered a faster cleanup, but in June, the NC Supreme Court threw out his order. In August, DENR/DEQ again challenged the right of citizens to sue for faster action—but citizens were not deterred, and in October sued again to challenge DEQ’s ‘sweetheart deal’ settlement with Duke. Meanwhile, in October a federal judge told DENR/DEQ that they are not doing their jobs to protect the public, and in December the draft report of DEQ’s own staff agreed that the state’s cleanup plans fall short of what’s needed.

3) Solar Energy Soars Amid Political Attacks — An important dual theme emerged throughout 2015, as news underscored the growing impact of solar energy—all while the minions of the fossil fuel industry fought desperately to undermine the tools and policies that are producing the boom in solar and other renewable energy development. In January and again in April, bipartisan supporters of solar energy development won fights in the General Assembly to keep the incentives for solar energy jobs and development intact. But the opponents didn’t give up, and by the end of the legislative session the solar investment tax credits had been allowed to lapse—but the Renewable Energy Portfolio Standard (REPS) was still intact. Seeking to expand solar development by other means, a small non-profit (NC WARN) in June engineered a test case of third-party solar system financing. Duke Energy fought back, and asked the NC Utilities Commission to hammer the non-profit with penalties. The case is still pending. But even many conservatives agree that third-party solar financing is a good idea whose time has come, and they introduced broadly supported bipartisan legislation in the General Assembly to legalize it. (Sadly, legislative leadership in the Koch Brothers’ pockets blocked it from coming to a vote.) In December, Congress approved a multi-year extension of the federal renewable energy tax credits for solar and wind. Meanwhile, North Carolina was recognized as the number two state in the nation for growth of its solar electric capacity.

4) Fracking Push Sparks Local Rebellions – Fracking, the controversial practice of drilling for natural gas by pumping a mixture of water and chemicals into layers of underground shale formations, was again big, controversial environmental news in our state. In February, the state’s Mining and Energy Commission (MEC) adopted hotly contested rules on the practice. In March, the General Assembly weakened the state’s fracking standards by stripping the Environmental Management Commission (EMC) of its mandate to regulate air pollution from fracking operations. As the year progressed, local governments in potentially fracking-impacted counties—both Democratic and Republican—pushed back. Moratoria on fracking were adopted from Chatham County to Lee County to Walnut Cove in Stokes. Some of these moves came in frank defiance of the General Assembly’s late-breaking move in October to pull the plug on local authority to issue such moratoria.

5) Polluter Protection Act, and other terrible legislation — The 2015 NC General Assembly once again proved a hotbed for outrageous assaults on North Carolina’s embattled tradition of protecting our clean air, water, and natural beauty. Some of the worst environmental legislation in modern state history was adopted by the General Assembly and signed into law by Governor McCrory. Most notorious was the Polluter Protection Act, which gutted critical protection programs for clean water and air, and manipulated environmental enforcement rules to reward careless polluters. Separate bills also gutted the state’s long-standing State Environmental Policy Act and dismembered its Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

6) Politicization of DENR/DEQ — From the start of the McCrory Administration, the philosophy of the state’s environmental program was fundamentally altered, to be “customer friendly”—where only polluters, and not the public, are considered ‘customers’. As 2015 developed, though, the Administration’s use of its chief environmental agency and its leaders became increasingly politicized. By November, DEQ spokespeople were penning op-ed columns and making videos attacking citizen conservationists for opposing McCrory Administration policies. In November, the federal EPA formally warned the state that its restriction of public participation in contested pollution permit cases was putting it in jeopardy of losing its right to administer the federal clean water and clean air permit system in North Carolina. Instead of reforming its policies, in December the DEQ leadership publicly attacked EPA for daring to challenge it.

7) Clean Power Plan — A keystone of the Obama Administration’s strategy for dealing with climate change, reduction of carbon emissions from the energy generation sector is the intent of the Clean Power Plan (CPP). Years in the making, the final CPP was announced by the EPA this past summer. By the time the rule itself was formally announced, the battle lines were drawn: citizen conservation groups, public health advocates and the renewable energy industry on the side of the plan, the fossil fuel industry and partisan opponents against it. Unfortunately, in North Carolina the legislature and Governor McCrory came out swinging for the pro-pollution side. In concert, they took one of the most extreme stands in the nation. Without even producing a fallback plan, they sued the EPA to try to block the rule, and drafted a state ‘plan’ literally designed to fail, in support of their scorched-earth opposition strategy. NCLCV and other citizen conservationists organized public support for the plan.

8) Clean Water Rule — The Clean Water Rule (CWR) represents the Obama Administration’s long-awaited plan to restore necessary regulatory protection for critical waters and wetlands of the United States. The CWR responds to the uncertainties created by the U.S. Supreme Court through cases decided in 2001 and 2006 that undercut long-established regulatory definitions of protected ‘waters’. Considered the capstone of Obama’s efforts to protect clean water, the CWR was announced in the early summer, took effect at the end of August, and then was put on temporary hold by a federal appeals court in October. National clean water rules—and the consequent protection of critical waters and wetlands—remain in limbo until a final federal court decision is made.

9) Climate Change Treaty — Culminating in December, the finalization in Paris of a new international agreement to address the crisis of climate change was no doubt the biggest global environmental news of 2015.

10) Showdown 2016 Starts, including the right to vote — The showdown elections of 2016—nationally and statewide in North Carolina – got an early start in 2015. It’s already clear that environmental protection policies will be a major divider between the top candidates for president and governor, as well as for hundreds of candidates for Congress and the NC General Assembly. Relevant news stories started in the spring and continued throughout the year: environmental scorecards for members of Congress and the NC General Assembly, ads and rallies attacking or supporting their environmental positions, and even the basic rules of who will be allowed to register and vote. From advocacy for voting rights to noting Sen. Richard Burr’s flat 0% LCV National Environmental Scorecard rating for 2014, the 2016 contests were already shaping up in 2015.