A $102 million Duke Energy settlement of coal ash-related charges headlined North Carolina’s energy and environmental news this year, but it will be the public’s turn to speak in 2016.
Comment periods on ash, offshore drilling and climate change will open or continue. The forums begin with a Jan. 26 public hearing on a Duke power plant proposal in green-leaning Asheville.
Legislators may also make a key decision on energy policy, and a federal agency on the fate of one of the world’s rarest animals.
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The Department of Environmental Quality has until Thursday to recommend hazard rankings for Duke Energy’s 32 coal ash ponds in the state. The classifications, which are required by state law, will determine the order in which the ponds are closed between 2019 and 2029.
DEQ will open a comment period and hold public hearings on the recommendations before they go to an oversight commission. Dates haven’t been set.
Duke expects to file cleanup plans for contaminated groundwater around its ash ponds in February and March.
After months of tests, 2016 “will be the place where a lot of the science and engineering will meet community input,” said Duke’s Erin Culbert. “This will be the time when we get to talk to folks about what the real problems are and what the practical options are.”
Duke still faces four federal lawsuits over ash contamination that were filed by advocacy groups. And while Duke reached a $7 million settlement with DEQ over groundwater issues – an agreement advocates are challenging in court – state and federal agencies continue to investigate pollution of rivers and lakes.
President Obama’s proposal in January to open federal waters off the southeastern coast to drilling for oil and gas will come up for public reaction in early 2016.
A draft environmental analysis will be released for comment on the plan to sell one drilling lease 50 miles off the coast, from Virginia to Georgia, in 2021.
The governors of both Carolinas support drilling, but communities closest to the action are decidedly less enthused.
The advocacy group Oceana says 23 North Carolina beach towns have passed resolutions against offshore drilling or seismic tests that pinpoint where to drill. The state rejected offshore oil and gas exploration a quarter-century ago.
An industry report predicted that drilling could employ more than 55,000 North Carolina workers by 2035 and pump $4 billion a year into the economy. But a report this month for the Southern Environmental Law Center disputed those estimates, saying drilling could disrupt coastal industries that already employ 41,000 people and add $1.8 billion a year to the economy.
A public comment period on how North Carolina will comply with Obama’s Clean Power Plan continues until Jan. 15. The plan is intended to cut carbon dioxide emissions from power plants 32 percent by 2030, compared to 2005 releases.
Public hearings in Charlotte and Raleigh this month tilted heavily against the state plan. Duke, one of the nation’s biggest carbon emitters, may wait until January to comment.
DEQ, which has joined 23 other states in challenging the federal proposal, cites a study estimating it will drive up North Carolina electric rates by $434 a year by 2020. The Environmental Protection Agency predicts electric bills will drop $7 a month by 2030 due to energy efficiency savings.
The state compliance plan is expected to go before the rule-making Environmental Management Commission in February, then to an agency that reviews rules adopted by state agencies. It must be filed with EPA by Sept. 6.
North Carolina’s legislature, in a marathon 2015 session, ended a tax credit that helped propel the state to fourth-largest in solar capacity. But a key leftover might spill into the short session that starts April 25.
A measure to freeze the state’s green-energy mandate, part of a bill that passed the House but not the Senate this year, is still on the table.
The landmark 2007 law requires that renewable energy and energy efficiency account for increasing amounts of utility sales, reaching 12.5 percent by 2021. It sets specific goals for solar power and energy made from swine and poultry wastes.
House Majority Leader Mike Hager, a Rutherfordton Republican who pushed for a freeze, said the remaining solar targets might be transferred to the swine and poultry sectors.
The thriving solar industry no longer needs state support, Hager says. Swine and poultry producers, in contrast, have had little luck in turning waste into energy.
“We’re going to find ways to help swine and poultry,” he said.
The fate of red wolves, a species once declared extinct in the wild but now clinging to a toehold on the North Carolina coast, could also be decided this year.
Wolves were released in the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in 1987. But resentment has grown in recent years as wolves wandered onto private land.
Gunshot deaths rose and the wolf population dwindled to as few as 50 animals. Questions intensified about red wolves breeding with coyotes and whether the wolves are even a distinct species.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service began to reassess the program last year, saying it could alter or end it. In October the agency formed an advisory team to “get the science right and foster trust with stakeholders,” extending a decision until this summer.
That hardly calmed the clamor over the wolves. Three advocacy groups sued the federal agency in November for failing to protect the animals.