Monthly Archives: April 2013

Regulatory Reform 3.0

April 29, 2013:  Last Thursday, the N.C. Senate’s Committee on Commerce approved a new version of Senate Bill 612 (Regulatory Reform Act of 2013) — the third in a series of “regulatory reform” bills developed since Republicans gained control of both houses of the General Assembly in the 2011. The bill may be on the Senate calendar tonight.

The bill attempts too  much  to describe in one post, but  the  most significant provisions would  repeal stream buffer requirements in the Neuse River and Tar-Pamlico River basins  and  require  repeal or modification of any state rule  that “imposes a more restrictive standard, limitation, or requirement” than a federal law or rule on the same subject. ( See an earlier post  for more detail on the  Senate Bill 612 stream buffer language.) The idea of prohibiting  state agencies from adopting rules (particularly environmental rules) that  go beyond minimum  federal requirements has been around for awhile. The Regulatory Reform Act of 2011     ( Session Law 2011-398 )  prohibited  state environmental  agencies — and only environmental agencies — from adopting  more restrictive standards or requirements  than federal rules on the same subject.   The  law had exceptions  for  rules to address a “serious and unforeseen threat to public health, safety or welfare” and rules required by state law, federal law, state budget policy or a court order.  Even then, the General Assembly had an eye on existing rules as well. The same legislation directed all state agencies to provide the Joint Select Regulatory Reform Committee with a list of existing rules and indicate for each rule whether the rule was mandated by federal law and whether the  rule was more stringent than an analogous federal regulation. (The session law defined analogous to mean that a federal rule regulated the same conduct or activity.)

The Regulatory Reform Act of 2012 (Session Law 2012-187)    did  not follow up on the reports  submitted in the fall of 2011.  Senate Bill 612 also ignores the information submitted by state agencies in 2011. Instead of using the 2011 reports to focus regulatory reform efforts, Senate Bill 612 directs state environmental agencies — and only environmental agencies —  to  repeal or modify any rule that exceeds minimum federal requirements unless the rule fits under one of  the exceptions set out in the 2011 legislation for new rules.  The bill  also takes away the authority of  city and county governments to adopt local ordinances that go beyond state and federal environmental standards.

It isn’t clear how   legislators  mean to interpret the Senate Bill 612 provisions. Even the most detailed federal environmental regulations (like those adopted by EPA under the Clean Air Act and Safe Drinking Water Act) have gaps that need to be filled by state rules.  Federal regulations often lack  detail on program implementation, such as record-keeping and monitoring  requirements. Sometimes the gaps are more substantive; environmental and public health issues of great concern  in North Carolina have not always been national priorities.  Most  federally delegated or authorized  environmental programs  operate under federal regulations  that are much  less detailed than  the Clean Air Act and Safe Drinking Water Act standards. The  state’s  water quality,  solid waste and coastal management programs  all operate under federal  laws  that  create  a framework for state regulatory programs, but  for the most part leave development of specific environmental standards to the state.  For those programs, it will be  difficult to directly compare state rules to federal regulations and determine what is more or less stringent.

So,  the Senate Bill 612 language  raises a number of questions:

— Where fairly detailed federal  standards  exist, would the bill require repeal of state rules that address gaps in the federal regulations?   Or can state rules go beyond  federal regulations to  describe the content of a complete permit application or establish specific  monitoring  and record-keeping requirements?

— In programs that operate under a federal framework for regulation that  leaves  specific standard-setting largely to the state agency (with federal oversight),  will Senate Bill 612 require repeal of  types of standards and requirements not specifically  identified  in the   federal regulations?   Will  the state’s water quality program, for example,  be limited to using regulatory  tools provided under the Clean Water Act (such as wastewater discharge permits) to solve  a water pollution problem? Or can the program continue to address all major water pollution sources and use innovative approaches not contemplated in the federal rules?

— Does the exception for rules addressing a  “serious and unforeseen threat to public health, safety and welfare”    allow state rules to go beyond minimum federal requirements because of particular conditions  in the state or in response to concerns that may not have come up in development of the federal regulation? Or will the General Assembly take the position that if EPA doesn’t think putting a petroleum underground storage tank (UST)  near a drinking water well is a problem, then it must not be a problem?

The  2011 DENR report  to the Joint Legislative Committee on Regulatory Reform identified a number of state environmental rules that go beyond the requirements of  federal rules on the same subject. From a quick review, I found some examples of state rules that may have to be repealed under Senate Bill 612 :

● State waste management rules  requiring minimum separation from groundwater for land application of septage (to prevent groundwater contamination) and maximum slopes for land application sites (to prevent runoff to surface waters).

● State rules requiring water systems to  treat drinking water with excessive levels  of iron and manganese; both can cause discoloration of skin and teeth, as well as odor and taste problems.  Federal rules have only “advisory” standards for manganese and iron and do not require water systems to provide treatment to improve the water quality.

● State rules requiring a public water system to notify  the  owner  if routine water system monitoring  finds  a drinking water standard violation or high levels of fecal coliform bacteria in a water sample from a building. Federal rules only require water systems to provide notice to customers  if the water system overall violates Safe Drinking Water Act standards. Since  a water system can  exceed drinking water  standards at some number of  individual monitoring locations without  being in violation as a system (the exact number varies depending on the size of the water system and number of monitoring sites), the federal rules do not require the water system to notify  individual  property owners of  a problem  confined to a particular site. The state notice rule was adopted in 2006 after complaints that local water systems did not notify  citizens of high lead  levels in their drinking water after it was detected in routine water systems monitoring.

● Rules  prohibiting  location of a petroleum  underground storage tank (UST) within  100 feet from a  well serving the public or within 50 feet of any other well used for human consumption.

● Rules requiring setbacks for land application of all wastewater residuals (both sewage sludge and other solids  from wastewater treatment) and setbacks for disposal of coal combustion byproducts. The  rules include setbacks from property lines, public and private drinking water supplies, other water supply wells, and surface waters.

● Limits on emissions of  three toxic air pollutants (arsenic, beryllium and chromium)  by   industrial, medical, hazardous waste and sewage sludge incinerators.

It isn’t clear that these are the kind of “regulatory reforms”  that the General Assembly actually wants to see.

You can find the full report at:

Note: Why the General Assembly believes  environmental rules  to be a greater burden on North Carolina citizens than other types of regulation will be  a subject for another day.

Renewable Energy Repeal Fails Committee Vote

April 25, 2013

House Bill 298, the bill to repeal the state’s renewable energy portfolio standard (REPS), failed to win approval in the House Public Utilities and Energy Committee yesterday. (See an earlier post for  background on North Carolina’s  renewable energy standard and House Bill 298.)

Although the bill had the backing of conservative political organizations,   the Republican-controlled House of Representatives never seemed particularly enthusiastic.  The bill won approval of the House Commerce and Job Creation Committee two weeks ago by only a one vote margin even after the bill sponsor  revised the bill  to  wind  the REPS program down more slowly.

When the bill reached the Public Utilities and Energy Committee, it  had been modified again to push complete repeal of the renewable energy standard out three more years –from 2018  to 2021. A friendly amendment in committee made two additional changes to soften the  impact of repeal on renewable energy companies that  invested in North Carolina in reliance on the REPS requirement.  The amendment  removed language allowing electric utilities to use power generated by large hydroelectric projects  to meet the REPS standard (returning to language in 2007 legislation creating the  REPS requirement). The change was made to prevent large existing hydropower plants operated by Duke Energy and Progress Energy  from crowding out new renewable energy sources even before the REPS repeal date. The amendment also  extended the time allowed for  electric utilities to recover costs associated with  renewable energy contracts. Americans for Prosperity again spoke in support of the bill and  submitted a letter of support signed by  a number of other conservative political organizations.

In spite of those efforts, the motion to approve the bill failed by a vote of 13-18 in a committee dominated by Republican legislators.  Republicans voting against the bill included members of the House  leadership —  Republican Conference Chair Ruth Samuelson and  Rules Committee Chair Tim Moore.

The bill failed for a very practical reason — the REPS requirement has brought private investment and jobs to North Carolina at a minimal cost to consumers.  “Riders” on electric bills allow the utilities to recover any additional cost of using renewable energy; the riders have never approached  caps included  in the 2007 REPS legislation. The cost of solar energy in particular has fallen by nearly half as solar companies expanded operations in North Carolina in response to REPS incentives and those costs continue to fall.  (Duke Energy’s residential  customers now pay 21 cents per month to cover the additional cost of  solar energy.  In a rate case filed with the N.C. Utilities Commission  earlier this year, Duke proposes to take the residential  REPS rider to -1 cent. Although Duke Energy has proposed rate increases, those increases are  associated with the cost of conventional energy generation.)

At the same time, private  investment in response to the renewable energy standard brought jobs to the state. See  a 2013 report  by Research Triangle Institute/ LaCapra Associates,   The Economic, Utility Portfolio, and Rate Impact of Clean Energy Development in North Carolina,  for more on the economic impact of the  N.C.  REPS requirement and state renewable energy tax incentives. A  September 2012 clean energy jobs census by the N.C. Sustainable Energy Coalition  identified  over  15,000 jobs associated with clean energy companies.

Conservative political organizations like Americans for Prosperity have made  renewable energy standards a  target for repeal nationwide.  Given extremely low consumer cost and increased private  investment and job creation,  there was little in  the N.C.  REPS experience that could be used  as an argument for repeal.  Supporters of House Bill 298  increasingly had to rely on an ideological argument against energy subsidies in general.  That position has a significant weakness — conventional energy sources  (such as coal, natural gas, and nuclear power) also benefit from subsidies, but conservative  opposition  seems to focus only on subsidies for renewable energy.   Bill supporters  also cited  stories of high cost and renewable energy business failures in other states and countries.

Approving House Bill 298 would have required legislators to ignore  real economic benefits to the state  in favor of an ideological argument against renewable energy subsidies. A majority of committee members chose  reality.

The Legislative Game of Jenga

Jenga: A game of skill played with a stack of wooden blocks. Each player removes a block from the stack and balances it on top, creating a taller and increasingly unstable  tower  as the game progresses. (Hat tip to the  Wikipedia  entry for a simple explanation.)  As you may have guessed, the goal  is to not be the player who causes the tower to collapse.

Since the  1990s, the state has adopted several very complex sets of  water quality rules in response to  excess nutrients  in the Neuse  River, the Tar-Pamlico River and  the Falls Lake and Jordan Lake reservoirs. Excess nutrients  in the water (such as nitrogen and phosphorus) can  cause algal blooms and — particularly in hot weather — lead to large fish kills. In a reservoir, algal blooms may also  affect drinking water quality and increase water treatment costs.

Section 5 of Senate Bill 612 (Regulatory Reform Act of 2013)   would pull one block out of the   carefully  balanced  tower of  nutrient management rules in  the Neuse River and Tar-Pamlico River basins by  effectively  eliminating  stream buffer requirements.   Stream  buffer rules  have been  part of the Neuse River nutrient management strategy from the beginning.  Every  set of state nutrient  rules since 1997  builds on the foundation of the Neuse strategy and all include stream buffers as a  critical block.  Before pulling a block out of the tower, it  is worth looking back at how the tower was built.

The history of the stream buffer rules begins with development of a nutrient management strategy for the Neuse river basin in the late 1990s.  In 1995,   the  N.C. General Assembly responded to a series of large fish kills in the Neuse River estuary and a toxic algae scare by directing the state’s  Environmental Management Commission (EMC) to adopt rules to reduce nitrogen loading in the Neuse by at least 30% (Session Law 1995-572).   To reach the reduction goal, the EMC  allocated the reduction (in pounds of nitrogen)  among  the  largest  nitrogen sources in the river basin. The allocation was done by source category (wastewater dischargers, agricultural operations and developed areas)  based on the  nitrogen contribution from each type of source.

The final Neuse rules required  large  wastewater  treatment plants  to  reduce  the amount of nitrogen being discharged to rivers and streams;  set up a nutrient trading system to allow  wastewater dischargers to generate and trade credits for additional nitrogen reductions; required farmers to develop best management practices to reduce nutrient runoff from row crop agriculture and  animal operations; and required  maintenance of  vegetated buffers along streams in the river basin.  Just as  tighter wastewater discharge standards and agricultural best management practices reduce nutrient  loading from those sources,  stream buffers  reduce nutrient loading from developed areas by allowing  trees and shrubs  to  absorb nitrogen  in runoff from developed areas. The  EMC then modified  an  earlier  nutrient management strategy  for the Tar-Pamlico River  to add stormwater and stream buffer  requirements  similar to those adopted for the Neuse. By August 1, 2000, stream buffer rules were in effect in both the Neuse and the Tar-Pamlico river basins.

Section 5 of Senate Bill 612 appears to be identical to language supported by the N.C. Homebuilders Association and the N.C. Association of Realtors in 2012.  The proposed exemption is very broad.  It  would exempt   all private property from the buffer rules as long as there was a plat  of the property on record with the Register of Deeds before August 1, 2000.  (The language does not limit the exemption to  residential lots or to lots shown on an approved subdivision plat; it appears that any type of  recorded map  could  qualify a property for the exemption.)  In 2012, concern about this same language led to  compromise legislation.  Session Law 2012-200   extended a stream buffer  exemption that already existed  in the coastal  area to all waterfront lots in the Neuse and Tar-Pamlico river basins.  The exemption (which applies to residential lots platted before August 1, 2000)  allows development activity in the stream buffer if  the lot is too small for construction of a single-family home (and  onsite wastewater system if needed) entirely outside the buffer.

The risk in pulling the buffer rules out of the nutrient management strategy entirely  is that the nitrogen and phosphorus reductions provided by the stream buffers would be lost. Since both rivers have been listed as having  impaired water quality because of excess nutrients,  the  federal  Clean Water Act requires the state to reduce nutrient loading to the rivers.  Loss of the nutrient reductions provided by stream buffers will simply shift more of the burden (and cost) of nutrient reduction to  other sources — local government wastewater treatment plants, industrial wastewater dischargers,  and agricultural operations.

Not to abuse the Jenga metaphor,  but the  General Assembly  has again been asked to  pull a block from  the center of the tower  blindfolded — that is, without being able to see the relationship of one block to the others.  The state’s nutrient management rules are not sacred and untouchable; they were not handed down on stone tablets.  But in developing nutrient management strategies for the Neuse and the Tar-Pamlico river basins,  state environmental programs  began  moving toward something like negotiated  rulemaking — trying to  find the right balance with all of the parties (public and private) at the table. Those other parties also need  a seat at the table before a decision is made to significantly change the rules.

Senate Bill 612 raises two questions. The first:  Can the state solve nutrient problems in the Neuse and Tar-Pamlico rivers without using stream buffers to reduce reduce runoff from developed areas? The second  has implications well beyond the Neuse and Tar-Pamlico rivers: How will the General Assembly  respond to political pressure to change  a rule  in a way that benefits  just one of the many businesses, industries, local governments, and nonprofit organizations who compromised to solve a complicated environmental problem?

The answer to the second question will affect  the state’s ability to   deal with other difficult environmental issues in the future. (Competition for water supply comes to mind.)

N.C. Renewable Energy Update

April 10, 2013:  A little more detail on the new version of House Bill 298. (For some reason, it took a week for the version  approved  in committee last Wednesday to be posted on the General Assembly website).

Instead of  immediately repealing   the entire   2007 renewable energy portfolio standard (REPS)  requirement, the bill would cap the amount of electric generation  to be met by renewable energy sources at 6%  of 2014  retail sales and sunset the REPS requirement  in 2018. The 2007 legislation (Senate Bill 3) required the electric utilities to generate 6% of 2014 retail sales  using renewable energy sources by 2015 and then increased the REPS goal to 10% of retail sales by 2018 and 12.5% of retail sales from  2021 on. SB 298 cuts the renewable energy goal in half and the 2018 sunset means that  the electric utilities could abandon even the 6% renewable energy target after 2018.

Other changes:

●   The amount of the REPS requirement that could be met with energy efficiency measures would immediately increase from 25% to 50%

●   Existing hydropower facilities could be used to meet the REPS goal. Since both Duke Energy and Progress Energy generate a significant amount of electricity from hydropower facilities, the change may allow existing hydropower to crowd out new renewable energy sources.

● Removes the set-aside for solar energy. (HB 298 repeals a Senate Bill 3 provision requiring the electric utiltiies to supply  at least two-tenths of one percent of the electric power sold to retail customers from 2018 on through a combination of new solar electric facilities and new metered solar thermal energy facilities.) The bill keeps the Senate Bill 3 set-asides for energy generated by swine and poultry waste – although those  set-asides  would sunset in 2018 with the REPS requirement.

● Requires any contract between an electric utility and a renewable energy company to end by December 31, 2018 for purposes of cost-recovery.

Although the bill looks less like immediate repeal of the REPS requirement, the effect would be the same.  New renewable energy sources could be crowded out by existing hydropower and energy efficiency even before the REPS requirement ended in 2018.  Swine and poultry waste would continue to have a set-aside through 2018 — but uncertainty beyond 2018 would make construction of waste-to-energy facilities a very risky business. In the end, the bill would completely undermine the Senate Bill 3 goal of encouraging development of new renewable sources of energy in the state as a source of energy security and job creation.

The N.C. General Assembly, Water System Operator

The N.C. General Assembly seems to be increasingly tempted to intervene in the operation of local — and particularly municipal — water and sewer systems. Is  this a good idea?

Last year,   Senate Bill 382  tried to  require the City of Durham to extend water service to a  development project outside the city limits.    Senate Bill 382  started  legislative life as  a tax bill, but in  the last few days of the 2012  legislative session  it became the  vehicle for  a House proposal to  legislatively approve a water line extension for a specific development project. (Durham had  refused the developer’s  request for water service in part because of   the high cost of extending a water line to the project.) Senate Bill 382 ultimately failed, but local conflicts over water service  continue to tempt legislators to intervene.

This year, three western legislators have introduced  a bill that would force the City of Asheville to turn its  water system over to the Metropolitan Sewerage District of Buncombe County (MSD).  You will not find any mention of the City of Asheville or the  Metropolitan Sewerage District  by name –the bill avoids naming the parties by using a generic description that happens to only apply to them — but  House Bill 488 is the latest in a series of skirmishes over control of  the Asheville water system.  The history behind the Asheville water system conflict is  long and complicated, but — as in Durham — some amount of the friction has to do with the relationship between water service and development.

One long-standing issue  has to do with  water rates  for Asheville water system customers who live outside the city limits.  Asheville is the only city in the state prohibited by law from charging water customers outside the city a higher rate — a common practice of other municipalities.  (Higher rates may be used to recover higher costs of providing the service or to offset some of the additional taxes paid  by in-town customers.) Just as friction over a development decision  led to the Durham controversy, the history of the Asheville water system  includes a  thread of  concern about the city’s  ability to use water system decisions to influence  development outside the city. Until last year, extension of water and sewer service gave cities a strong basis for forced  annexation and fear of annexation seems to have created some of the tension  between Asheville and surrounding areas.  Although the annexation process has changed,  cities like Durham and Asheville can still find themselves in conflict with developers and county officials over  development conditions tied to extension of city services or (as in the Durham case)  denial of  service  to a new development outside the city limits.  In short, decisions about extension of water and sewer service  touch two hot buttons —   money  and regulation of new development.

These conflicts have a  very direct connection to environmental protection. Water and sewer  systems are creatures of environmental and public health regulation;  environmental protection programs fund water and sewer infrastructure in many North Carolina communities.   Like many other cities,  Asheville and Durham have the challenge of  expanding water service to accommodate new development  while also maintaining or replacing the aging  infrastructure  that serves existing residents.   The land use regulations sometimes attached to extension of water and sewer service can  provide a number of environmental protection benefits, but maintaining the  fiscal health of a water system has its own environmental  value. Decisions about when and how to extend water or sewer service can have significant  financial  implications; a financially strained system will have much more difficulty providing the maintenance needed to meet public health standards and avoid environmental damage.

To run  a water or sewer system responsibly, local officials   sometimes  have to make controversial decisions about service, rates and financing.  It becomes even harder to make  a tough decision knowing the General Assembly may step in and reverse it.    Forcing the transfer of infrastructure from a city without providing for compensation — as in the case of Asheville — particularly sends the wrong message to cities  that need to invest in water or wastewater infrastructure.  Legislation affecting the  capital assets of a water or sewer system also carries the additional risk of  undermining planning and financing for system improvements.

These bills  raise another question — is it in the General Assembly’s power to force an extension of water and sewer service or to divest a city of its water system.? The answer isn’t clear to me. Local governments are  subdivisions of the state — the General Assembly can change municipal boundaries and expand or contract the authority of cities. It is less clear that the General Assembly can directly intervene in decision-making about a water and sewer system without circumscribing local government authority. In 2012, Senate Bill 382 attempted to compel an expansion of the Durham water system without actually changing the law governing the City of Durham’s authority to operate a water system. House Bill 488 directs the City of Asheville  to transfer ownership of its  water infrastructure also without  changing state laws  authorizing cities to own and operate water and sewer utilities. (The sections of House Bill 488 that require the transfer of property from Asheville to the MSD  do not amend existing statutes governing local government water and sewer systems.   The sections of the bill that enact new  statutes to cover the operation of metropolitan water and sewer districts allow, but do not require,  transfers of property between cities or counties and a district.)

Article II, Section 24 of the  N.C. Constitution prohibits the General Assembly from adopting a piece of legislation relating to “health, sanitation or the abatement of nuisances”  that applies  to  only one local jurisdiction. Since water systems fall into  all three categories, the Constitution seems on its face  to prohibit  the  General Assembly from reaching down to make decisions related to an individual water system. Legislators frequently try to draft around the Constitutional restrictions on local acts by using language that appears to be generic, but in fact only describes a single city or county. At some point, the fiction simply becomes too strained.

For  constitutional law junkies: Since state law treats cities as “persons” for many purposes, can city property be taken (even by the State) without compensation? Would the U.S. Supreme Court consider a city to be a “person” under the Fifth Amendment’s just compensation clause? A research project for another day.

Odds and Ends on Energy

April 6, 2013

Wind Energy

Offshore: Last fall, the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) finished  a  renewable energy lease plan for the waters of the Atlantic Ocean off the  North Carolina coast. BOEM  asked companies interested in  developing  wind energy in the designated lease areas to submit a proposal by March 7, 2013. Five companies sent in wind energy development proposals (Virginia Electric and Power Company, EDF Renewable Energy, Fisherman’s Energy LLC, Green Sail Energy LLC, and Outer Banks Ocean Energy LLC.) Find complete information on the proposals  here .  The BOEM website provides more information  on the   renewable energy lease plan  for  waters off the North Carolina coast.

Onshore (and near shore): Bills have been introduced in the N.C.  General Assembly  to create a state permitting process for wind energy facilities. Senate Bill 491  (= H 484)  creates a new state permit to be issued by  the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR).   The permit review would look at both environmental impacts and  impacts on military operations.  Last year, two land-based wind  projects proposed for sites near the North Carolina coast (one in  Beaufort County and  the other in Pasquotank and Perquimans  counties)  raised concern at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base near Goldsboro.  (There are more onshore wind energy projects  proposed for  the coastal counties, but  not as far along in the planning/site approval process.)

The  military has two concerns about the siting of wind turbines:  radar interference caused by  movement of the blades  and  risk of  collision between low-flying military aircraft and wind turbines that may be more than  500 feet tall. North Carolina’s  coastal counties have a large amount of  military special use airspace, including training routes  that have “floors” as low as 200 feet.  Wind energy development could be a real  economic boost to  interior and largely rural areas of the coastal counties. The trick will be to make wind energy development compatible with military operations that  contribute significantly to the broader state economy and have an important role in national defense. The Department of Defense has a clearinghouse for review of development projects that may affect military operations.   The new state wind permit would provide a  way to consider military concerns in state decision-making.

Note: State jurisdiction only extends three miles from shore in the Atlantic Ocean, so most offshore wind projects  only require  federal permits.  North Carolina can influence federal permitting and lease decisions  for   offshore energy development  (whether wind turbines or oil and gas production) through the state’s coastal management program.

Study Links Underground Disposal of Wastewater and 2011 Oklahoma Earthquake

This  New York Times article provides a good overview of a recent study (published in the journal Geology) concluding that underground disposal of wastewater from oil production caused a 2011 Oklahoma earthquake that measured 5.7 on the Richter scale, destroyed a number of homes and injured two people. The Oklahoma Geological Survey reached a different conclusion.

Could Fracking and Renewable Energy Make a Happy  Marriage?

Kevin Drum,  writing  for Mother Jones, has an interesting blogpost on  fracking and renewable energy.

Renewable Energy: Predictions (and Politics) Meet Reality

April 4, 2013

Yesterday in the North Carolina  General Assembly, the House Committee on Commerce and Job Development took up  House Bill 298. (For background on the bill, see an earlier  post  about the proposed repeal of North Carolina’s renewable energy portfolio standard.)   Rep. Mike Hager presented a slightly revised bill, but repeal of the 2007 renewable energy portfolio standard (REPS)  remains at the center of the legislation. The committee approved the bill on a very close vote (11-10);  two Republican committee members voted  with Democratic committee members to oppose the bill.

Discussion in committee set up an interesting conflict between the reality of North Carolina’s REPS experience and the politics of renewable energy.  Those supporting repeal of the REPS requirement   cite both  ideological reasons  (opposition to  energy subsidies in general and subsidies for renewable energy in particular) and fear that the higher costs of renewable energy will hurt consumers and damage  the   economy.  The problem for bill supporters is that the state has had five years of experience with the REPS requirement and none of the predicted economic  horrors have materialized.  Instead, bill opponents can point to  real economic benefits  in jobs created and  private investment attracted to the state –- at minimal cost to consumers.

Of the fifteen (by my count)  members of the public who  commented on the bill in committee, only three supported repeal of the renewable energy portfolio standard. All three represented conservative political organizations — two  speakers from Americans for Prosperity and  another   from the Civitas Institute.  One argument for repeal laid the responsibility for increased electricity rates at the feet of the renewable energy standard.  In reality, REPS costs have been  low and and continue to decline.  For a residential Duke Energy customer, the  fee (or “rider”)  to cover the additional cost of  meeting the REPS requirement  is now 21 cents per month and  falling.   Although Duke Energy has filed a proposed rate increase  with the N.C. Utilities Commission, the justification for the increase has been recovery of capital costs associated with conventional power generation facilities and improvements to transmission infrastructure  — not  the cost of renewable energy.

Dallas Woodhouse, state director of Americans for Prosperity,  and Brian Balfour from the Civitas Institute also argued that the  higher  cost of renewable energy hurts the state’s economy and leads to job loss.   Their  argument  seems to be rooted in a 2009  report on the  projected  economic impact of  North Carolina’s renewable energy portfolio standard  that was put out by  the John Locke Foundation and the Beacon Hill Institute (BHI)  at Suffolk University. The  Locke/BHI Report looked at two different scenarios and even under the more favorable of the two predicted  that:

“… North Carolina will lose 3,592 jobs, investment will decrease by $43.20 million and real disposable income will fall by $56.80 million by 2021. As a result, the state economic output measured in real state Gross Domestic Product (GDP) will be $140.35 million lower than without the mandate.”

That prediction was made  early in implementation of the state  REPS requirement and the 2013 reality looks very different.    The actual impact of North Carolina’s support for green energy:  $1.4 billion in new green energy investment, more than 15,000 jobs in green energy as of September 2012  and an increase of $1.7 billion in the state’s overall economic output.  (My  earlier post has  links to both a 2013  Research Triangle Institute/La Capra report on the economic impact of the state’s green energy policies and a green energy jobs census conducted by the N.C. Sustainable Energy Association.)

Why were the predictions in the  Locke/BHI Report so wrong?  The costs of meeting the REPS requirement have turned out to be much lower than  the report projected.  The Locke/BHI Report assumed that the electric utilities would need to go  to the maximum cost recovery  rider  allowed under the 2007 REPS legislation (Senate Bill 3).  The report also evaluated a second, even more pessimistic, scenario that assumed actual renewable energy costs would exceed the fee caps.  As it turns out, the  REPS  riders are nowhere near the  statutory caps and  the riders continue to drop from year to year.  Senate Bill 3 capped the  REPS cost recovery rider for residential customers at $1 per month for 2012; the  current  Duke  Energy  rider for residential customers is  21 cents per month. In March, Duke filed an  application with the N.C.  Utilities Commission to set the residential REPS rider for 2013-2014 at  -1 cent, which would result in a  rebate to residential customers.  Costs to  non-residential customers have also come in   below the Senate Bill 3 caps and will continue to fall under the riders proposed by Duke Energy for 2013-2014.

The twelve members of the public who spoke against House Bill 298 in committee represented renewable energy companies  with significant investments in North Carolina; large swine producers  investing in waste-to-energy projects as an innovative  way to dispose  of swine waste;   the Warren County economic development director who pointed to the benefits that solar energy development  has brought to an economically struggling  rural county; and a wind energy developer interested in the North Carolina coast.

Based on the committee discussion yesterday, House Bill 298 has the potential to cause serious heartburn for conservative legislators who are being forced to choose  between a real bright spot in the state’s economy and policy positions advocated by conservative political organizations. The bill still has three more committees to get through in the House; the next stop will be the Environment Committee.

Fracking Chemicals: The Most Secret of Trade Secrets

April 2, 2013

An earlier post talked about the N.C. Public Records Act and protection of trade secrets. Drilling companies and their suppliers sometimes want to withhold the  identity of a chemical used in hydraulic fracturing as a “trade secret”  to avoid sharing commercially valuable information with competitors. The N.C. Public Records Act generally gives the public a right to information gathered by  a state agency in doing the public’s business, but makes an exception for certain types of personal  data  and for information that is legitimately a  trade secret.

Last week, the Mining and Energy Commission’s (MEC) Environmental Standards Committee approved a draft rule requiring  disclosure of chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing. The  draft rule allows a drilling operator to withhold from the public the identity of a fracking chemical that the operator or  supplier designates as a trade secret.   In  the  required  disclosure  to  the public,  the drilling operator would identify a trade secret  chemical  by its chemical  “family”.   More specific information could be  requested by  a health professional or  by emergency   response personnel if necessary to diagnose and  treat a health condition  or to respond to  an emergency.

The rule draft  presented at the start of the  meeting  also  allowed  a drilling operator  to withhold  trade secret  information  from regulatory staff in the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR).    The trade secret information would only have been provided to DENR if  requested  by the department in response to a spill or health concern.  Entirely relying on disclosure  after an environmental emergency or health impact  raises at least two concerns.  In a real-time emergency — such as a major spill or fire —  it may be difficult to  get information from the drilling operator or  supplier quickly enough. For longer term problems (such as groundwater contamination),  the length of time between completion of the well and discovery of the problem may make it difficult to get accurate information at all.

The committee amended the trade secret protection  language  to require the operator to provide  the  trade secret information  to DENR  at roughly the same time the operator  claims the trade secret protection and discloses other  information to the public.   (All disclosure — to DENR and to the public —  would still happen after completion of the hydraulic fracturing operation.) The new language also requires the operator to provide the justification for trade secret designation.

The rule approved by the committee  limits the ability of the public to challenge a decision to  keep information about a fracking chemical  confidential — directly conflicting with the N.C. Public Records Act.  The Public Records Act allows “any person” to request records from a public agency and to take legal action  challenging an agency decision to withhold  the information. That includes the right  to challenge the appropriateness of a decision to keep information confidential under the trade secret exception. Under the  draft MEC rule, a decision to  keep   the identity of a fracking chemical confidential  could only be challenged by  a person who owns or rents  land where  a wellhead is located; the owner of  land adjacent to  a wellhead site; any other person who has “a legal interest in real property”; or a state agency having an interest that may be adversely affected by a chemical used in the fracturing fluid.

Under the draft rule, some  people  who  have a right  under the Public Records Act  to challenge  the withholding of  requested information  would not be allowed to challenge a decision to withhold information about  a fracking chemical.  Renters  would  be unable to challenge the withholding of information about chemicals used in nearby drilling operations.  Depending on how the rule is interpreted, it may also  affect the ability of  nonprofit organizations, news media, and local governments to challenge the appropriateness of  treating a fracking chemical as a trade secret.

An amendment to remove this  language from the rule and simply  follow  the Public Records Act  was voted down in committee.  Some committee members acknowledged the inconsistency with the Public Records Act, but indicated an intent to ask the General Assembly to change the law.  Two  things to note about the committee action:

On  several  issues, members of the Mining and Energy Commission have  discussed the possibility of adopting a rule that  conflicts with  existing state  law on the assumption that the commission can persuade the General Assembly to  conform the law to the rule.    The chemical disclosure rule is the first MEC rule to receive committee approval and may be the test of how these conflicts will be resolved.   This would not be the first controversy over consistency of a  rule with  state law, but  usually  the argument comes out of  differing  interpretations of the law.  I can’t think of another example of an agency proposing a rule knowing that it is inconsistent with  existing  law.

To make the Public Records Act consistent with the proposed  MEC  rule,  the General Assembly would need to change the Public Records Act to  either: 1.  limit challenges to all  trade secret claims;  or 2.  give  hydraulic fracturing  special treatment, making it more difficult to challenge  those particular  trade secret claims .  It isn’t clear  how much interest legislators will have in  a fight over public records law in order to provide special treatment for the oil and gas industry.

From here, the draft chemical disclosure rule goes to the Rules Committee of the Mining and Energy Commission  and then to the full commission for discussion.

NOTE: The original post has been revised to  make it clear that the draft rule  as amended on March 25  requires that trade secret information be provided to DENR staff  at the same time the operator discloses  nonconfidential information to the public.