The air was literally and figuratively chilled at last week’s Clean Power Plan public hearing at Roland Grise Elementary Auditorium on Jan. 5. About 75 to 100 people remained bundled and determined to speak, or at least have their presence known. As the evening progressed, it became increasingly harder to tell which was lower: the temperature or the public’s trust in our state government.
It was one of three public hearings held across North Carolina—the other two were held in Charlotte on Dec. 16 and Raleigh on Dec. 17—in regards to the state’s approach to the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Clean Power Plan. Presented by President Obama and EPA in August 2015, the plan includes proposed limits to carbon pollution from power plants.
In the plan EPA determined the best system of emissions reduction (BSER) consists of three building blocks outlined on their website, www.EPA.gov: 1: “reducing the carbon intensity of electricity generation by improving the heat rate of existing coal-fired power plants”; 2: “substituting increased electricity generation from lower-emitting existing natural gas plants for reduced generation from higher-emitting coal-fired power plants”; and 3: “substituting increased electricity generation from new zero-emitting renewable energy sources (like wind and solar) for reduced generation from existing coal-fired power plants.”
Each state is responsible for meeting the building blocks; however, North Carolina’s plan only addresses building block one. Under EPA’s Clean Power Plan, NC would need to reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions by 12.5 percent, but the proposed plan would only reduce CO2 emissions by 0.4 percent and there is no mention of clean power.
The NC Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) has approached the Clean Power Plan with a primary plan designed to comply with building block one, paired with a legal challenge to the other two blocks presented by the EPA. NC is joined by 23 other states in this approach, but DEQ developed a backup approach to comply with EPA’s federal power plan in case legal action does not work.
“The backup plan will only be submitted to EPA in the unlikely event that our legal action is not successful,” said Stephanie Hawco, DEQ deputy communications director. “DEQ believes like other EPA rules before it, the federal power plan could cost billions of dollars to implement before it is ultimately overturned in court.”
Hawco points out NC has reduced greenhouse gas emissions by nearly 25 percent since 2005. It puts them on track to meet President Obama’s previously stated goal of a 30-percent reduction by 2030, but the federal power plan uses 2012 as a baseline. Thus it prevents NC from receiving credit for reductions made between 2005 and 2012.
“[It] ignores the state’s prior investments in making its power fleet more efficient,” Hawco continues. “The federal plan would force North Carolina to seek reductions at a far more expensive rate than states that waited to improve their coal fleet and invest in natural gas.”
Critics of the this “designed to fail” plan, who came out to the Wilmington public hearing, include members of Sierra Club, Oceana, Southport Coastal Water Watch, and NC Conservation Network, along with doctors, lawyers, local legislators (such as County Commissioner Rob Zapple), college students, and concerned citizens from across the Greater Wilmington Area. Comments were limited to three minutes at the hearing, which lasted about two hours. Roughly 30 people who stood to speak had a lot to say in their allotted time:
“We need to stop valuing dirty fossil fuels and corporate profits over human life,” Dr. Lauren Horton stated at the podium.
“If you support jobs, if you support economic impact in revenue in this state, then you support the Clean Power Plan,” Cape Fear Economic Development Council board member Scott Johnson insisted.
“Make no mistake, 10 years from now no one will say, ‘Those boys in Raleigh sure showed the EPA.’ Instead they’ll use words like ‘disaster,’ ‘corruption’ and ‘criminal. We deserve better, we require better, right now.” New Hanover County resident Ashley Daniels suggested.
The hearing was overseen by Charlie Carter, Chair of the Environmental Management Commission of the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR). While the Environmental Management Commission (EMC) is a board independent of DEQ, multiple speakers implied DEQ, DENR and Gov. Pat McCrory’s administration were siding with politics and the coal industry, rather than the best interest of NC public health, environment and economy in the proposed plan.
Former mayor of Kure Beach and NC League of Conservation Voters Vice President Mac Montgomery was among the first to speak:
“As a former elected official, it is especially disheartening to see current elected officials pursue political games rather than work to reduce dangerous carbon pollution that is impacting North Carolinians each and everyday.”
Others directly addressed Carter himself as having conflict of interests. “All of us who are here speaking today are speaking to a hearing officer who happens to be the preeminent advocate in the state of North Carolina on issues of the Clean Air Act, especially as it relates to the defense on behalf of industry,” attorney Ryke Longest said in his statements. Longest represents 13-year-old Hallie Turner, who is suing North Carolina to adopt rules to reduce greenhouse gasses.
“Your advocacy on behalf of industry has been exemplary; it has awarded you many accolades, praise and admiration by the regulated and the regulators alike,” Longest continued. “But that very effective advocacy makes you unsuitable to serve as a hearing officer for these proceedings.”
Longest also pointed out that Carter served on the board of directors for the John Locke Foundation (which publicly opposed greenhouse gas rules) before leaving the floor to a standing ovation.
“As someone with extensive experience in air quality issues, the chairman of the EMC’s Air Quality Committee, and former assistant general counsel for the EPA, [Charlie Carter] is highly qualified to oversee the public comment process,” Hawco responded to concerns.
Wasteful spending involved with the state’s primary Clean Power Plan and its lawsuit is another point of interest by opponents. “The governor and the Department of Environmental Quality are putting forward the most costly option to address the EPA’s Clean Power Plan,” Montgomery continued in his comments. “This designed-to-fail plan is wasting taxpayer dollars and is wasting our time.”
Gerald Benton, Republican candidate for NC House of Representatives, was in attendance. A fiscal conservative, he believes compliance in this case is cheaper and more beneficial to NC. “We should create a plan to comply and let the other states pay the legal bills to challenge the EPA,” he said. “NC will still reap the benefits from court’s ruling in the future without the legal costs.”
Benton says NC should focus on green energy, including wind farms, and says NC’s Clean Power Plan should have included Duke Energy’s self-initiated natural gas conversions. It would have made it compliant with EPA—which should be the goal.
“This plan should be designed to meet EPA standards; this is not the proper channel to bring about a needed green energy revolution,” he noted. “Climate change is a concern for the coastal areas, rising sea levels threaten our very homes. The state should be eliminating regulations that stand in the way of progress of green energy.”
DEQ maintains EPA cannot legally regulate emissions in the manner set forth by the federal Clean Power Plan. Hawco cites the Natural Resources Defense Council and Earthjustice, along with New York and Massachusetts, as agreeing “EPA can’t regulate emissions of coal-fired power plants under the provision of the Clean Air Act that the Clean Power Plan relies on.”
“Developing a primary plan that complies with building block one, the only legal component of the plan, is the best way to comply with the law, protect energy rates and prevent a federal takeover of the state’s energy program,” she continued. “North Carolina cannot comply with a federal plan that is illegal and likely to be thrown out by the courts, as has been the case with so many other costly EPA rules.”
Once the public comment period has ended on Jan. 15, the question remains as to how they will be considered. Hawco says public input is important to DEQ and will be compiled, reviewed and taken into consideration by staff as the department finalizes its primary plan.
Comments can be submitted at www.cleanpowerplan.org/comments.