How North Carolina's Political Turmoil is Impacting the Environment
"Hallelujia - the NC Legislature has adjourned for the year! Read below for final damage estimates."
So read an email from the Haw River Assembly, reflecting the deep, visceral anger felt by many environmentalists in North Carolina.
It is, of course, no secret that North Carolina is the center of a political firestorm right now. (Although many folks around here prefer to prefix the term "storm" with a different, shall we say "more earthly" substance.) On the one hand, there's a Republican super majority in the House and Senate, and a Republican Governor to boot, pushing through controversial legislation on almost every hot topic, from reproductive rights to teacher funding, unemployment benefits and voter ID laws.
On the other hand, a broad coalition of progressive groups—lead by the NAACP—have initiated a sustained and vocal campaign of non-violent civil disobedience to shine a light on these issues. Every Monday hundreds, sometimes thousands, of protesters have been gathering outside the legislature in what have become known as Moral Mondays—many of them deliberately getting arrested in the process.
The deep divisions in our State have garnered national headlines—with a New York Times' op ed column opining "the decline of North Carolina". This national attention has, so far, focused on social and economic concerns. But in an age of LEED bashing, and in a a state which forbids planners from using scientific projections in calculating sea level rise, it should come as little surprise that sustainability has also become the subject of fractious, hyper-partisan maneuvering.
Here are some of the key environmental "highlights" (I use that term ironically) from this year's legislative session:
Offshore Drilling Encouraged
The legislature approved SB 76, a bill which requires that NC join with other mid-Atlantic states to push for offshore drilling. It also exempts oil and gas production from some of North Carolina's procedural requirements.
Fracking Still Stalled
Fracking, on the other hand, received a mixed bag. Legislators in the Senate continued to push for a provision that would have repealed a moratorium on fracking permits, even before rules governing the fracking process had been drawn up and reviewed. The House, however, resisted this measure and it remained stalled at the close of the session. It is still on the books for 2014.
Fast Track Review of All Environmental Rules
Under HB 74, all existing state environmental rules will be required to be reviewed on an accelerated time table. In order to be retained, they'll be required to go through a "new rules and readoption" process which the NC League of Conservation Voters describes as "excruciating".
Other Provisions Weakened or Removed
Several key environmental provisions were weakened or removed, including "environmental justice" legislation preventing clustering of landfills around poor communities, groundwater protections governing runoff from contaminated sites, the restrictions on tree cutting along public rights of way (the changes allow tree cutting to ensure better visibility of billboards. Yay!), and a repeal of limits on air pollution from heavy duty trucks.
Perhaps searching for a silver lining on what feels like a pretty ominous cloud, environmentalists did breathe a sigh of relief that efforts by the NC Home Builders Association to weaken protections of isolated wetlands did not go through. Similarly, a proposed ban on all new local government ordinances protecting air or water quality more stringent than federal or state minimums, and a repeal existing local rules that do so, failed to pass - replaced instead with a scaled back one-year moratorium on the same.
Of course, one can expect anger from the environmental community to legislation that they have fought hard to see enacted. And in a state which holds a proud tradition of civil rights activism, we should not be surprised to see ninety-year-olds getting arrested to defend their right to vote. What remains to be seen is whether the NC business community, which includes prominent green business leaders, will step up and call BS on the lie that being "business friendly" means slashing environmental protection.
From Cotton of the Carolina's hyper-local t-shirts supporting NC farmers through a "new Silicon Valley for the smart grid" to Mayberry going solar and Apple's 100% renewable-powered data center, many of the bright spots in a pretty dismal economy have come from businesses stepping up and doing things differently.
It's a shame our legislators appear tied to business-as-usual, and convinced that the term sustainability means government control.
Meanwhile, the protests continue: