In mid-August, the high season’s last hurrah, the packed beach at Nags Head is veiled with blue umbrellas that match the color of the ocean and the sky. Yet at just three feet above sea level, Nags Head is sinking, and portions of the beach are receding, both natural geologic occurrences that have shaped the coastline for thousands of years.
But what’s not natural is the sea level rise that will eventually engulf the area where beach-goers relax under their umbrellas. What’s also unnatural is the state legislation that jeopardizes the environmental and economic viability not only of the coast but the entire state, as well.
“I can’t think of an individual whose had more of an impact on the environment in a negative way than Jeffrey Warren,” said State Rep. Pricey Harrison, a six-term Democratic lawmaker from Guilford County.
Without the name recognition of a legislator, Warren has operated largely beyond the public eye. But now Warren’s track record deserves scrutiny. His name has been floated as the director of the North Carolina Policy Collaboratory, an environmental think tank at UNC Chapel Hill, created and in part, funded by the legislature — and the job hasn’t even been posted yet.
Neither Berger nor Warren responded to requests for an interview. However, on his LinkedIn page, Warren touts 56 pieces of legislation on which he has been an “advisor/strategist” for the Senate. (See sidebar.)
By his own admission, Warren’s fingerprints are on the bills, most of which became law. They relax regulations on fracking and hamstring local governments and state agencies from toughening rules on pollution. They promote offshore drilling and stonewall rules that would protect Jordan Lake. They prop up fossil fuels, like coal, and undermine renewable energy.
Considering Warren boasts on his LinkedIn page of providing “insight and input into the appropriations process” it’s reasonable to wonder if he created the collaboratory for himself: a political job masquerading as academia.
“He’s smart. He’s a very hard worker,” Harrison said. “And he had a plan.”
Warren initially came to prominence in the 2011-2012 session, when he helped engineer what was widely criticized as the “sea level rise bill.” It’s not surprising that Warren had a hand in the bill; he suggested to the American Association of Petroleum Geologists that he deliver a talk entitled “Sea Level, Schmea Level: What’s the Big Deal?”
However, the national ridicule, which included a segment on the Colbert Report, forced lawmakers to soften the language.
“The primary problem is symbolic,” said Rob Young, the director of the Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines at Western Carolina University. “It’s anti-intellectual. It’s bad planning. It certainly diminishes the respect with which our coastal management is held nationally. We used to be the most progressive state in the country in protecting the environment and economy of the coast.”
Yet even in its final version, the bill dictated to scientists the historical data they could use to measure sea level rise. This has dire consequences for development along the coast, as houses and businesses that could be devastated by higher seas. But those very development interests resist slowing the growth on very lucrative beachfront property.
There are more pressing and imminent issues facing the coast. Legislation passed within the past five years has lifted bans on hard structures — jetties, terminal groins — along the coast. These barriers are supposed to stop or slow erosion, but they are a short-sighted solution, Young said.
“They cost a lot of money and you have to maintain them forever,” he said. For example, on Figure 8 Island, officials are spending $2 million to study the structures and $7 million to build them — all to protect just 18 houses. Relocating buildings — and stopping construction of new ones — in vulnerable zones would be a permanent solution.
“We don’t have any community seriously considering moving houses or businesses out of hazardous areas,” Young said. “We have a strong mindset that we have to protect everything from the ocean front forever. None of it makes any sense to me.”
Bonus read: Jeffrey Warren’s Greatest Hits
Before Warren arrived at the legislature in 2011, many knew him as a friendly, environmental advocate, particularly as a Coastal Hazards Specialist with the state Division of Coastal Management. “I considered him an ally,” said Harrison, who worked with him on coastal issues.
From 2008 to 2011, Warren also worked as an adjunct associate professor at the Duke University Nicholas School of the Environment. Adjuncts are common at Duke, a university spokesman said, and can be hired as researchers and collaborators without teaching duties. During Warren’s talk at Duke, he gave one talk but did not teach a class, according to university records.
In 2009, Warren was appointed by Democratic House Speaker Joe Hackney to the Legislative Research Commission Advisory Subcommittee on Offshore Energy Exploration. Warren was one of 24 committee members that studied the potential environmental impacts of offshore and onshore drilling.
And then Sen. Berger hired him.
Therese Vick, a community organizer with the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League, served on a fracking panel in 2014 with Warren and other pro-drilling Republican legislators.
“He said there weren’t any instances of contamination from fracking,” Vick said. “He said it could be done safely, that we’ve got the best rules in the country.”
Those are common talking points among fracking advocates (including Ken Salazar, the former Interior Secretary who’s now heading Hillary Clinton’s transition team). But there have been many confirmed cases of water contamination in Pennsylvania.
Warren was also instrumental in other legislation that allowed companies to withhold information from the public about the chemicals in fracking fluids, Vick said. He also influenced legislation regarding compulsory pooling — requiring property owners to allow drilling on their land if a certain percentage of their neighbors permit it on theirs.
The Coal Ash Management Act is one of the most high-profile bills that Warren has worked on it. Among its many environmental insults, such as prohibiting local governments from regulating coal ash, CAMA allows ash to be buried in former mines in Lee and Chatham counties that are near low-income neighborhoods.
“The community has been suffering from these bad bills,” Vick said,
Given Warren’s tenure as a development geologist at Phillips Petroleum, it’s not surprising that he has advocated on behalf of the fossil fuel industries, both oil and gas. But his penchant for penalizing renewables that has angered clean energy interests. The recent farm bill prioritizes swine and poultry waste over wind and solar as renewable energy sources.
Wind power took a hit after a bill Warren worked on added regulations and requirements on wind farms. He and other lawmakers tried to repeal the state’s Renewable Energy Portfolio Standard, largely credited for jumpstarting the successful solar industry.
In fact, the only solar-powered initiative that Republican lawmakers supported was the SolarBees project on Jordan Lake. Instead of implementing the Jordan Lake rules, Warren and company delayed a requirement that local governments enforce them. The SolarBees failed, and for all intents and purposes, Jordan Lake has few protections.
Mike Schlegel is the water resources program manager at the Triangle J Council of Governments. He said that mandatory rules are local governments’ best tool to keep pollutants — from development, from agriculture — out of Jordan Lake. Cities and counties are also on the financial hook to clean up the water. If the there is a delay in enforcing the rules, the cost to clean the lake can total tens, even hundreds of millions of dollars.
“Everything on land impacts the water,” Schlegel said. “ And most land use decisions are local decisions, whether it’s protecting sensitive areas or if and how parcels are developed. It’s how communities want to shape their character.”
There was no House counterpart who could match Warren in his influence and his power. Certainly not the Democrats, who were outnumbered in both chambers, and not even moderate Republicans like Chuck McGrady or Ruth Samuelson.
Mitch Gillespie, a former DEQ assistant secretary, went to work for House Speaker Tim Moore in 2015. (Tom Reeder, a central figure in the Ken Rudo scandal, succeeded him.) Gillespie seemed to be a better foil for Warren. “Jeff has been less successful since Mitch came,” Harrison said. “Mitch is from the mountains. He understands water and environmental protection.”
If Warren leaves the General Assembly his legacy could take years to undo. But if he gets the job at the North Carolina Collaboratory, he will be subject to transparency and open records laws, provided they’re enforced. Warren will no longer be in the shadows. He could be forced to operate in the sunlight, and like the environment, with little protection.