News analysis: Conservative lawmakers move to undermine NC environmental protection efforts

News analysis: Conservative lawmakers move to undermine NC environmental protection efforts

- in Environment, Top Story
Image: Adobe Stock

Of all the enemies to single out, conservative lawmakers have targeted nature – the wind, sun and trees – as a way to thwart the potential benefits of the governor’s executive order on climate change.

Four proposed bills – and there are more – would essentially penalize Duke Energy ratepayers, buyers of low- or zero-emissions cars, birds, forests, current inhabitants of the planet and future generations, for political payback.

The anti-renewable energy portfolio standard bill seems likely to stall; even Duke is making money off the sun. But the electric/hybrid vehicle tax has gained traction. And while the anti-wind, anti-tree ordinance measures could fail on their own, later in the session their bitterness could pervade other more palatable bills.

SENATE

SB 446 – Electric/Hybrid Vehicle Registration Fees

HOT TAKE: Among its many clean energy provisions, Gov. Roy Cooper’s Executive Order 80 sets a goal of registering 75,000 more electric vehicles in North Carolina in order to help wean the state from the teat of fossil fuels.

SB 446 sponsors, however, seem intent on kneecapping the executive order by increasing current annual registration fees on electric vehicles by more than a third, from $130 to $175 next year, and to $275 by 2022.

Further disincentives also would apply to hybrid vehicles, which use both gasoline and a battery-powered electric motor. They would be taxed extra for the first time: at $87.50 next year and $137 by 2002.

Bill sponsors argue that the fee will compensate for the lost gas tax revenue, the main revenue source for road maintenance and repair. But a fairer fee assessment would be one based on miles driven. When a car receives its annual inspection, the odometer reading is recorded, compared to the previous year’s, and the tax calculated. (Disclosure: I drive a Prius.)

STATUS: The Finance Committee gave it a favorable report; it now heads to Senate Rules.
PRIMARY SPONSORS:Sens. Tom McInnis and Jerry Davis

SB 367 – Clarify Property Owners’ Rights

HOT TAKE:  If this bill becomes law, the legislature would further meddle in the business of local government, in this case regarding tree protection. The bill language prohibits cities, towns and counties from passing ordinances to prohibit tree removal on private property. The homebuilder and real estate lobbies are no doubt cheering on this measure because trees, while providing countless environmental and public health benefits, get in the way of erecting apartment buildings and subdivisions.

It’s not a coincidence that this measure was introduced while Pittsboro residents are fighting with the developers of Chatham Park. At 7,000 acres, Chatham Park would essentially become a small city on what is now forested land. If this bill passes, Pittsboro would have no say-so on how to protect the trees.

STATUS:  Putting down roots in Senate Judiciary
PRIMARY SPONSORS:  Sens. Tom McInnis, Joyce Krawiec, Brent Jackson

SB 377 – Military Base Protection Act

HOT TAKE: Last week’s epic committee meeting on this anti-wind energy bill devolved from the language of hostility  (“bare knuckle fights,” “make effects on the enemy”) and the creepy (“we try to own the night”) into a befuddling argument over missing airspace maps and meeting minutes.

The gist of the meeting, though, revolved around two retired military officers brandishing their dueling opinions over whether military bases are more likely to be closed by the Defense Department if wind farms are developed nearby.

Anti-wind advocates claim the turbines could interfere with military training exercises, although there is an entire division within the DoD to prevent that from happening.

Retired F-16 pilot Dave Belote was the first executive director of the DoD Siting Clearinghouse, which works with developers to avoid encroachment conflicts. He now works in the renewable energy industry. He said the clearinghouse process “works.” And on a case-by-case basis, the clearinghouse’s decisions “honor federal law and property rights.”

“We can’t stop somebody from putting something on land just because we have to fly over it,” Belote said.

Gen. Gary McKissock called BRACs – Base Realignment and Closures – decisions “bare knuckle fights,” and spoke in support of the bill.  “You have to position yourself so you can defend against the BRAC,” he said. “You protect your airspace. Every arrow you have in your quiver will help you.”

“Pass this bill and things may change in 10 years,” McKissock said. “It doesn’t have to be forever.”

A decade, however, is likely be too late. Climate scientists say that by 2030, if the planet doesn’t cap the average temperature rise by 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit, then the consequences of global warming will be catastrophic and likely irreversible.

STATUS: At cruising altitude in the Commerce and Insurance committees
PRIMARY SPONSORS: Sens. Harry Brown, Paul Newton, Norm Sanderson

HOUSE

HB 726 Repeal Renewable Energy Portfolio Standard

HOT TAKE: Sen. Brown: “I’m going to kill clean energy in North Carolina.”
Rep. Larry Pittman: “Hold my beer.”

The preamble to House Bill 726 states that its purpose is to “provide just and reasonable rates and charges for public utility services without unjust discrimination, undue preferences or advantages, or unfair or destructive competitive practices … by avoiding wasteful, uneconomic and inefficient uses of energy.”

If you didn’t read the bill title, you might think the measure was referring to the $7.8 billion Atlantic Coast Pipeline, whose costs would be passed to ratepayers. Or the Mountain Valley Southgate Pipeline, whose price tag is still unknown.

But no, this bill is about hamstringing renewable energy.

Passed in 2003, the Renewable Energy Portfolio Standard (REPS) requires investor-owned utilities like Duke Energy to provide a certain percentage of their power – either through generation or purchase – from renewable sources. Currently, the standard is 10 percent, but it is scheduled to increase to 12.5 percent in 2021.

North Carolina was the first state in the Southeast to implement a REPS. It’s been widely credited with helping to propel North Carolina to No. 2 in solar-producing states in the nation. Production grew by 36 percent just last year.

Stephen De May, Duke Energy’s North Carolina president was quoted last month by WLOS TV as saying the utility is “promoting smart, cost-effective solar options for our customers.”

In addition to killing the REPS, the bill would allow utilities to recover costs from the ratepayers for complying with the law.

However, Duke Energy is financially benefiting from its renewables division. The Charlotte Business Journal reports that the utility “expects  its commercial renewables division to more than double its segment earnings to $230 million in 2019.”

And Forbes reported in February that Duke has more than 1,000 megawatts of wind and solar projects in late stages of development. “As additional consumers switch to renewable energy and with continuous decline in the cost of solar and wind energy generation,” Forbes reported, “the segment is expected to be the fastest-growing operating segment of the company.”

STATUS:  Chilling in House Rules
PRIMARY SPONSORS: Reps. Larry Pittman, Jerry Carter, Keith Kidwell, Michael Speciale