With a new president and North Carolina governor taking over from their political opposites in January, 2017 shapes up as an interesting year for energy and the environment.
Will President-elect Donald Trump’s promise to open up oil and gas drilling extend to the Carolinas coast?
Will Gov. Roy Cooper be able to reshape his environmental leadership despite a Republican-led legislature that undercut his power?
Five story lines to follow this year:
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Supporters see offshore drilling for oil and gas as a job-producing step toward energy independence, but many beach communities envision spills and industrial infrastructure that could hurt tourism. The advocacy group Oceana says 50 Carolinas beach communities have signed resolutions against drilling or seismic surveys.
President Obama, in his final days in office, used his executive authority in December to permanently ban drilling in federally-owned Arctic waters and 3.8 million acres of ecologically rich canyons in the Atlantic from the Canadian border to offshore of Virginia’s Chesapeake Bay. Trump is expected to try to overturn the action.
Obama had previously removed waters off the Southeast from the federal government’s 2017-2022 leases for offshore exploration. That leaves in play seismic surveys, which detects oil and gas deposits using underwater blasts that may hurt dolphins and whales, and the longer-term potential for drilling off the Carolinas.
Environmental advocates’ refrain throughout Gov. Pat McCrory’s term was that his administration went easy on polluters. Their prime example: the state’s handling of Duke Energy’s 2014 coal ash spill into the Dan River.
Advocates’ yen for a change in tenor at the Department of Environmental Quality, whose leaders have been skeptical of renewable energy and climate change, was their biggest expectation for Democrat Cooper.
But the Republican-dominated legislature may have spoiled those hopes by requiring Senate confirmation of Cooper’s cabinet appointments, including the new DEQ secretary. McCrory’s DEQ secretary, longtime staff member Donald van der Vaart, demoted himself to a position believed to be protected from political firing. Legislators pared the number of political appointees who Cooper can fire from 1,500 to 425 across state government.
A 2007 state law that requires utilities to include renewable energy, coupled with the state’s application of a federal law that makes utilities buy green energy, made North Carolina the second-largest solar state in less than a decade.
But the gold rush may be nearing its end. Duke Energy, the state’s dominant electric company, has proposed regulatory changes before the state Utilities Commission that would give utilities more say over the process.
Some in the solar industry say Duke’s proposal to solicit competitive bids for new projects, rather than sort through a large backlog of proposals that don’t fit its needs, would squeeze out small developers. Complaints before the commission also claim Duke has unfairly placed a freeze on new connections to its system, a charge the company denies.
The environmental problem that dogged McCrory’s term is still with us, with key decisions left on what to do with Duke’s millions of tons of coal ash and how to allieve fears of people who live near it.
After McCrory scrapped an ash oversight commission and legislators tinkered with a 2014 law requiring Duke to close its ash ponds, the final word on those decisions rests with DEQ.
The department has to decide whether to approve a Duke proposal that would leave two-thirds of its ash in the ground, rather than excavate and haul it away as advocates prefer. DEQ also has until Jan. 15 to make an initial decision on Duke’s proposal to extend water lines or install filtration systems, and offer cash payments, for the 950 well owners who live near ash ponds.
North Carolina’s first wind farm, built for online retailer Amazon and covering 22,000 acres near Elizabeth City in the state’s rural northeastern corner, was scheduled to begin operating by the end of 2016.
Apex Clean Energy plans a second farm in the same region but officials in Perquimans County denied a permit, saying the 599-foot-tall turbines didn’t fit the heavily timbered region and could hurt property values. Residents have complained that the structures will make noise, produce headache-inducing shadows and kill birds.
Republican legislators, meanwhile, have said they will continue to fight for a measure that failed in 2016 but would ban wind farms that might interfere with military airspace, which covers large swaths of the state.