State Rep. Pricey Harrison is widely regarded by her colleagues as one of North Carolina’s fiercest environmental advocates. The walls of her legislative office in downtown Raleigh are covered with environmental awards, and her filing cabinet is decorated with ‘I Heart Solar’ stickers. The Democrat from Greensboro says she is proud to be the only state lawmaker with a 100 percent lifetime score from the N.C. League of Conservation Voters, an environmental organization that grades legislators based on their voting records.
But for Harrison, the past two years under the new Republican majority have been tough.
The N.C. General Assembly approved a controversial form of natural gas extraction by the slimmest of margins when one legislator accidentally cast a “yes” vote in a late-night session.
A Democratic legislator was forced to give back an environmental award after she allegedly flipped her vote in favor of gas drilling in exchange for the extension of a $60 million film tax credit for her district.
The leading Republican lawmaker on environmental issues told reporters he had drawn a bull’s eye in his office window over his view of the state environmental agency’s building.
One Republican legislator went as far as trying to insert a budget amendment to eliminate specific people at the agency, while GOP leaders brought back a state policy from the 1970s and 1980s-known back then as the Hardison Amendments-that sets federal regulations as the ceiling instead of the floor for new environmental regulations.
Read an overview of environmental issues and bills that were debated in North Carolina in 2011 and 2012.
Supporters of the legislature’s environmental agenda say they’re making the state friendlier for business in a tough economy. Still, environmental advocates and lawmakers who share Harrison’s views worry that rolling back and weakening regulations will harm the state’s environment and harm residents’ health.
“It’s been the worst session from my perspective in the history of North Carolina for environmental protection and public health protection,” Harrison said.
She says she spent most of the past two years playing defense—either opposing or trying to improve bills that she believes unfairly target the environment.
Watch State Rep. Pricey Harrison (D-Greensboro) discuss her disappointment with the legislature’s recent debate over planning for sea level rise on the North Carolina coast.
The icing on the cake? While Harrison had been a member of the N.C. General Assembly’s Environmental Review Commission since she came into office, she was not reappointed to the bipartisan commission in 2011 when Republicans took charge.
“I’m guessing it’s because I’m too strong an environmental advocate,” she said. “I don’t have any committees and I don’t have any of my bills getting heard, so I’ve got a lot more free time.”
As the state’s environmentalists may be borderline despondent, Republican leaders believe they are correcting the course for North Carolina after decades of Democrats adding unnecessary rules and regulations.
State Rep. Mitch Gillespie, the Republican point person for environmental legislation in the state House of Representatives, told The (Raleigh) News & Observer that environmental regulations cost him “tens of thousands of dollars over the years” as a small business owner in Marion, N.C. And Gillespie’s mission of regulatory reform is far from complete. “I’ve not even scratched the surface,” he said.
Republicans take charge
In the 2010 elections, Republicans—riding a national wave of conservative enthusiasm—captured a nearly veto-proof majority in the state House and a veto-proof majority in the state Senate. It was the first time since the 1800s that the GOP claimed control of both chambers of the N.C. General Assembly–substantially shifting how North Carolina approached environmental issues.
The most recent two-year legislative cycle marked a concerted effort to weaken or roll back North Carolina’s more stringent environmental rules as well as promote oil and gas production. Most members of the new Republican majority and a handful of more conservative Democratic legislators have by and large supported the policy changes.
One issue that is almost certain to continue to grab headlines over the next two years is the ongoing development of rules for the hydraulic fracturing industry, better known as “fracking,” which has been the subject of heated debate since the GOP came into power in 2010. Geologic assessments show the state has shale gas reserves throughout the Piedmont.
Drilling could start as soon as 2014, but Jim Womack, the chair of the new Mining and Energy Commission, has drawn criticism for unabashedly supporting fracking despite his position running the oversight panel tasked with developing regulations for the gas drilling industry in North Carolina.
Still, many of the setbacks in environmental programs or policies haven’t been high-profile battles. For example, legislators have dramatically cut funding in recent years to the Clean Water Management Trust Fund, a program run by the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) that gives grants to local governments and other groups to fix water pollution problems. The fund was created in 1996 in response to public outcry over fish kills caused by pollution in the Neuse River. At its peak in the 2007-2008 budget, the trust fund received $100 million annually from the N.C. General Assembly. By 2011-2012, that amount was slashed almost 90 percent to less than $12 million.
“The farmer needs water, the food processor needs water, the power plant needs water,” Bill Holman, director of state policy at Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions, said. “It’s an integral part of public health, the environment and the economy in the state.”
Gillespie, the seven-term Republican from Marion who has been in charge of many of the GOP’s legislative efforts on environmental policy, has readily admitted over the past two years that regulatory reform means a lot to him—personally and financially—as a small business owner. According to the News & Observer, he drew a bull’s eye on his new office window view of DENR, tracing a circle in the dirty glass with his finger and placing a red sticker in the middle. Gillespie declined to comment for this article.
Although Gillespie has been aggressive in targeting DENR, he has also been a voice of moderation within his own party in debates on issues such as fracking, and he has worked to maintain open dialogue with environmental advocates.
“I’m grateful to him for making a lot of really bad legislative efforts a lot less bad,” Harrison, the Greensboro representative, said of Gillespie.
For environmental advocates, the toughest pill to swallow has been a loss of influence. Dan Crawford, director of government relations with environmental lobby group N.C. League of Conservation Voters, says that he and other environmental advocates feel shut out of the policy-making process in Raleigh.
Before the 2010 election, he said he was accustomed to being heavily outnumbered by industry representatives, but he could count on having a seat at the table. Now, he said, environmental advocates “are not even invited in the room.”
Crawford said the political shift has created a new landscape for environmental advocates. “I don’t think anyone had an idea or an assessment that we’d be up against what we’ve been up against the past two years,” he said.
Watch N.C. League of Conservation Voters director of government relations Dan Crawford discuss environmental advocates being shut out of the legislative process over the past two years.
Moving away from bipartisan consensus
State Rep. Chuck McGrady is Republican from Hendersonville who was just re-elected to his second term in the House. He also served as the national president of the Sierra Club in the late 1990s. It’s a peculiar contradiction that McGrady said causes many people to scratch their heads—he jokingly refers to himself as an endangered species in today’s political climate.
McGrady, who started out his political career as a staffer for a rather green-minded young Congressman from Georgia named Newt Gingrich, said he views protecting the environment as philosophically conservative. He is one of the few Republicans who voted against most of his party in the past two years on key environmental bills dealing with fracking and regulatory reform. While he represents a strongly conservative district in western North Carolina, McGrady managed to hold off a primary challenge in May 2012.
“Environmental issues used to be an area of broad consensus between Republicans and Democrats,” McGrady said. “In the 1970s and early 1980s, Democrats and Republicans broadly agreed on where they wanted to go and had some only minor differences as to how to get there. That’s no longer true.”
Even in the first decade of the 21st century, the two most significant pieces of energy and environmental legislation in North Carolina—the Clean Smokestacks Act in 2002 and the Renewable Energy Portfolio Standard in 2007 —were bipartisan legislative efforts that passed with nearly unanimous support. The Clean Smokestacks Act set in place stringent new standards to reduce pollution from North Carolina’s coal-fired power plants, and the portfolio standard mandates that utilities provide the state with 12.5 percent of its electricity through renewable energy and energy efficiency by 2021. McGrady said disappointed environmentalists shouldn’t write off Republicans in the legislature. “Republicans breathe air and drink water just like everybody else—surprise, surprise,” he said. “There are opportunities to work with Republicans that the environmental community has simply missed.”
For example, McGrady sponsored and negotiated House Bill 609, a piece of water efficiency legislation that passed almost unanimously but did not garner support or endorsements from environmental groups.
Watch State Rep. Chuck McGrady (R-Hendersonville) talk about how the business community and environmental groups have deprived North Carolina of a reasonable debate about fracking.
The N.C. League of Conservation Voters regularly rates state lawmakers according to their votes on environmental issues. When an intern for the league calculated this year’s scores, they were so low that Crawford, the group’s lobbyist, says he told the intern that the numbers must be wrong and that they should be recalculated. But the intern’s numbers were right: The league handed out a record 44 scores of zero in 2012.
“You see a lot of Tea Party influence, I think you see some caucuses being shifted further to the right than they actually are with this anti-government sentiment,” Crawford said.
The N.C. League of Conservation Voters’ scorecard show a substantial divergence between the two parties on their voting records starting after the 2010 election, indicating that the two political parties have becoming increasingly polarized on environmental issues. The most contentious bills passed largely along party lines, although a small group of more conservative Democrats has generally joined the Republican majority.
“As has happened in other legislatures where they’ve flipped control, the more conservative Democrats have sort of aligned themselves with the majority party and helped move measures that might not be considered too public health-friendly,” Harrison, the Democratic state representative, said.
A business agenda
For the N.C. Chamber of Commerce, the political shift has been a plus. The business group, which lobbies on behalf of more than 35,000 employer members in the state, has advocated successfully in support of numerous regulatory reform bills and pro-fracking legislation that became law over the past two years. According to the Chamber, the state has enacted thousands of regulations over the last decade, making the regulatory process increasingly difficult and complex for businesses.
“We noticed that we generated more regulations in North Carolina in the past few years than in the rest of the Southeast combined,” said Gary Salamido, vice president for government affairs at the Chamber. Though it’s not necessarily true that all of those regulations are burdens on the business community.
“Usually rules get more complicated as you make compromises and provide exemptions and extensions and incentives,” Bill Holman, director of state policy at Duke, said.
It’s not unusual for DENR to be the target of legislative criticism. “The state environmental agency is always the whipping boy of the legislature, even in the best of times,” Molly Diggins, state director for the North Carolina chapter of the Sierra Club, said.
Salamido said the legislature’s tilt towards accommodating business interests is nothing new. “North Carolina has had a history, whether it’s a Democrat or a Republican, of having a business-friendly environment,” he said. “If we go on party lines, North Carolina Democrats have historically been business-friendly.” North Carolina has been routinely ranked among the top states to do business in the country by publications like Forbes, CNBC, Site Selection and Chief Executive.
Watch the N.C. Chamber of Commerce’s vice president for government affairs Gary Salamido talk about the state’s changing political climate.
Diggins says that while passing pro-environmental legislation was never exactly a walk in the park, the legislature’s new political climate is a world completely unfamiliar.
“Fact is really just viewed as another form of opinion,” she said. “We have had nearly a complete disregard for the input from experts, from academics, from scientists,” she said.
Watch state director of the North Carolina Sierra Club Molly Diggins criticize the legislature’s efforts to limit consideration of input from the public, academic experts, and scientific facts.
The Chamber’s Salamido said he believes there’s a moderate group of Republicans that does understand the balance between environmental concerns and business interests, and that the new Republican legislature is “more open to dialogue” than previous legislatures when Democrats were in charge.
“That opening of the dialogue with the current change probably has been better,” Salamido said. “To be very candid, there’s a lot of pent-up frustration that’s happened over the years. So I think the business community now is saying: ‘OK, our people are listening a little bit more. Here’s a long list of issues (to address).’”
While business interests have been generally successful in moving forward their policy agenda, conservative causes haven’t necessarily been so lucky. The John Locke Foundation, North Carolina’s most prominent free market think tank, has advocated without any luck for the repeal of Senate Bill 3, which established the state’s Renewable Energy Portfolio Standard.
Roy Cordato, vice president for research and resident scholar at the John Locke Foundation, said the standard has no quantifiable benefits and restricts the free market from working effectively to provide low-cost electricity. The biggest obstacle to repeal, Cordato said, is the fact that utility giant Duke Energy, headquartered in Charlotte, supported the bill when it passed and doesn’t want it repealed.
Cordato described Senate Bill 3 as the product of a backroom deal between the utility companies, environmental advocates and state lawmakers that will cost consumers. With one of the largest political action committees in North Carolina, Duke Energy has a significant influence on politicians from both parties. As of Oct. 20, Duke’s PAC had spent roughly $400,000 in North Carolina on the 2012 election, mostly on donations to political campaigns. That number dwarfs the campaign spending by the state’s environmental groups.
Watch the John Locke Foundation’s resident scholar Roy Cordato explain the group’s free-market opposition to North Carolina’s Renewable Energy Portfolio Standard.
According to the Sierra Club’s Diggins, the business community has occasionally interjected as a force for moderation. “To their credit, industry has at times stepped in to help rein back some of the excesses, because there are forces in the General Assembly right now that really actually go beyond even what the regulated industry is asking for,” Diggins said.
In addition to opposing changes to the portfolio standard, she said business advocates had also stepped in to keep legislators from completely removing funding for local DENR offices. That move, she said, would have actually made obtaining permits more difficult for businesses.
What’s next in 2013?
With the 2012 election behind us, North Carolina’s shift towards the GOP has deepened. Governor-elect Pat McCrory will be the first Republican chief executive in North Carolina in 20 years. Republicans in both chambers of the N.C. General Assembly expanded their majorities.
“A key question will be whether or not McCrory will be independent of the legislature on environmental issues or a rubber stamp,” Diggins said. “Obviously, we’re rooting for the former.”
In interviews, observers suggested that water will be a dominant legislative issue next year and in the future. “Water allocation is a big issue facing our state,” Crawford, the environmental lobbyist, said. He said finding ways to protect the state’s water supply and clean drinking water would be a priority for the N.C. League of Conservation Voters.
It’s not clear whether they’ll agree on how to solve it, but the business community also wants to address water issues. “You’ll see us working collaboratively with a lot of folks on water storage policy, water security for the future,” said Salamido, the N.C. Chamber’s vice president for government affairs.
Developing rules for the fracking industry, pushing to allow third party sales to increase the competitiveness of renewable energy, and continuing regulatory reform efforts will also likely be environmental issues to watch for in 2013 and beyond.
Holman, the state policy director at Duke’s Nicholas Institute and a former DENR secretary for former Democratic Gov. Jim Hunt, said much of the state’s environmental policy has been crafted in response to disasters in the state such as fish kills, floods, or hog lagoon spills. Reversing the recent trend on rolling back environmental regulations in North Carolina might require the same kind of calamity that leads to public outcry, he said.
Watch Duke University’s Nicholas Institute state policy director and former DENR secretary Bill Holman talk about how the state’s political dynamic has changed since the 1970s, and how environmental disasters have worked to shape North Carolina policies.
While continued GOP control may continue the state’s shift on environmental policy, some of these recent trends are bigger than political parties.
“In the old days, I could talk to the textile industry, I could talk to the furniture industry, because they were local people,” Holman said. “And you could try to figure out where that common ground was and solve your problems.”
“What strikes me now is that there’s this national ideological agenda, and there’s a lot more national money sloshing around politics,” he said. “It’s harder to have the conversation about what’s really right for North Carolina.”
This story was written for “Reporting on issues,” a course at the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at UNC-Chapel Hill. Stewart Boss, a senior public relations major, is a member of UNC Sierra Student Coalition.