A Failing Grade on the Environment

RALEIGH — Republicans didn’t hide their desire when they took over the N.C. General Assembly last year to reshape the state’s environmental regulations and, along with it, its top regulatory agency, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

Using the recession as its backdrop and rules cost jobs as its mantra, the GOP-controlled legislature slashed the agency’s budget, trimmed it of several divisions, made fashioning new environmental regulations more difficult and passed a number of bills that earned Republicans record low scores for protecting the environment. One bill in particular drew ridicule and scorn from around the world.

Rep. Joe Hackney

Sen. Harry Brown

Critics, like Rep. Joe Hackney, charge that the legislature’s actions in just one and a half sessions have set environmental protection in North Carolina back decades. “They want to take us back to ‘60s and ‘70s,” said Hackney, a Democrat from Orange County and one the legislature’s staunchest environmental defenders.

Republican leaders counter that the actions were needed to reform out-of-control regulations that are hurting the state’s economy. “The rules have happened so fast. (the coast) is a difficult place to live, to run a business and afford a home,” Sen. Harry Brown, a Republican from Onslow County and the N.C. Senate’s majority leader, said at a recent committee meeting. “It’s just a constant attack on citizens on the coast.”

The Budget and DENR

In a time of lean state budgets, North Carolina’s main environmental agency, known as DENR, saw its budget cut in 2010, and Gov. Beverly Perdue’s proposed more cuts in her proposed budget the following year. But GOP leaders, in charge of the legislature by then, took more off the table, slashing the department’s budget by 30 percent in last year’s budget. They cut it again, though not as drastically, this year.

A comparison of pre- and post-recession funding levels by the N.C. Budget and Tax Center found that funding for natural and economic resources from the legislature fell more than 49 percent since the recession began in 2007, with the bulk of the drop in programs and agencies under DENR.

DENR not only lost funding for scores of positions, but almost half of its employees when the Division of Forest Resources was moved to the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, an agency controlled by a Republican secretary. Other parts of DENR went elsewhere while others were simply zeroed out.

This year’s adjustment to the state budget spared DENR another round of deep cuts after its seven regional offices passed a legislature-mandated review and had their funding restored. But the budget continues the parceling out of agencies within DENR to other departments. It shifts the Geodetic Survey Section, which serves as the official state mapping agency, to the Division of Crime Control and Public Safety. Also on the horizon is the possible merger of state’s Wildlife Resources Commission and DENR’s Division of Marine Fisheries. A study bill looks at combining the two and restructuring oversight of the new agency by July 2013.

Dan Conrad, legislative counsel for the N.C. Conservation Network, said while the cuts aren’t as deep this year, DENR continues to be a target.

“It’s the same kind of piling on we’ve been seeing,” he said of this year’s budget.

But aside from hydraulic fracking, which was the headline last week, the legislature has concentrated on changes to rules and regulations that Conrad says are intended to strip away DENR’s ability to regulate. “This session has been death by a thousand cuts,” he said.

While cutting its budget, the legislature has added to DENR’s workload with an accelerated effort to create rules for fracking, a controversial method to drill for natural gas and oil. Banned in North Carolina because of its potential environmental effects, the legislature passed a law last week to allow it.

The legislature took another step toward allowing natural gas fracking wells like this one on Montana. Photo: EPA

The law requires that rules to safeguard the environment and public heath be fashioned in two years, and it charges DENR with doing much of that legwork. Several times during this week’s grueling two-day debate on fracking the focus was on DENR’s ability to handle this added responsibility and its normal duties without more money and help.

At a Wednesday hearing of the House Environment Committee, Robin Smith, one of the department’s assistant secretaries, said DENR would have to pull in staff from other areas to work on fracking. She said to do the amount of work to develop fracking rules within the mandated time would take an additional seven specialists. Pressed by Rep. Chuck McGrady, R-Henderson, Smith said without more money the department would have a difficult time meeting its obligations to enforce state and federal environmental laws.

On Thursday Rep. Mitch Gillespie, R-McDowell, the House appropriations committee chair  who managed the floor debate on the fracking bill, fought back several amendments that underlined DENR’s lack of resources.

“There is plenty of time to get the funding if we need it,” Gillespie said, adding that if the department is having trouble making the deadlines, the legislature can step up funding next January. Gillespie said the department has more than 100 unfilled positions.

Rep. Rick Glazier, D-Cumberland, countered that he has no doubt DENR is having trouble recruiting new staff given the “lack of security and stability of the agency that we’ve laid waste to.”

The Bills

The N.C. League of Conservation Voters has been scoring legislators on environmental issues since 1999. The league’s tabulators, though, had never seen the likes of the new crowd in Raleigh.

The average score in the N.C. House for the 2011 session was 43 percent, down from 67 percent for the 2009-2010 average; the Senate average was a mere 27 percent, compared to 69 percent in 2009-2010.

Of particular interest were the average scores of the incoming freshman legislators as compared to the lifetime scores of those they replaced. In the House, the average score for the 27 new representatives was 35 percent, drastically down from the outgoing legislators’ lifetime average of 73 percent. The Senate scores were even more shocking with the 15 new senators averaging just 18 percent as compared to their predecessors at 70 percent.

Dan Crawford

“Legislators in the 2011 long session made poor choices when it comes to protecting our natural resources and quality of life,” Dan Crawford, director of governmental relations for league, said on the group’s web site. “With North Carolina consistently ranking at the top of lists for best places to live and do business in the country, the legislators failed to realize the impact their decisions will have on our quality of life for the long-term.”

Here is a rundown of some of the major bills that the legislature passed or is considering that weaken environmental protection :

  • Rules: A bill to “reform” rulemaking makes it much more difficult to pass environmental rules and prohibits any new rule that adds “additional costs of $500,000 on the aggregate of persons subject to the rule” unless “required to respond” to some new legislation, federal rule, court order, or “serious and unforeseen threat.” It also prevents new rules from being more stringent than equivalent federal standards.
  • Terminal Groins: The bill creates a large hole in the state’s longstanding ban on groins, jetties, seawalls and other types of hard structures along the oceanfront by allowing up to four small jetties at inlets.
  • Funding for Clean Water: The budget bill last year sliced funding to the N.C. Clean Water Management Trust to about $11 million, the lowest appropriation in the fund’s 16-year history. The budget that the N.C. House passed this year keeps funding at that level and no longer guarantees any funding in the future. By statute, the fund is supposed to get $100 million. The fund has spent almost a billion dollars all over the state on innovate measures to control water pollution and buying environmentally sensitive land.
  • Fracking: The bill allows this controversial method of drilling for natural gas and oil. It creates a new commission to regulate the activity on which seven of the 11 voting members will have ties to the oil and gas industries. It also prevents local governments from passing ordinances that prevent or restrict fracking
  • Offshore Drilling: The bill encourages the drilling for oil and natural gas off the N.C. coast and requires the state to enter into compacts with neighboring states to encourage drilling. Perdue vetoed the bill, and it’s awaiting a possible vote to override her veto.
  • Toxic Air: The bill severely weakens the state’s law to control toxic air emissions by exempting the largest polluters, which have to meet similar but not as stringent federal requirements.
  • Boards and Commissions: A proposed bill revamps the state’s two major regulatory commissions, the Environmental Management Commission and the Coastal Resources Commission, by cutting membership that will give industry more votes.
  • SeaLevel Rise: The bill prevents the state from using modern scientific methods to calculate the future rate of sea-level rise because of global warming. It has been the subject of hundreds of newspaper articles and editorials, TV broadcasts and blog posts. It has been roundly ridiculed for ignoring science. The bill passed the Senate and is awaiting action in the House.

Hackney, who is retiring after 16 terms in the House, said that during his tenure strengthening environmental protections has never been easy.  “It’s always been an uphill battle,” he said. But the going has gotten tougher, he said, as GOP leaders made the effort to reshape DENR and the state’s approach to regulation a key part of their legislative agenda. Finding GOP allies to protect the environment, Hackney said, has become much more difficult.

Other Matters

Boards and Commissions Bill Stalls: A bill to revamp the state’s numerous boards and commissions has stalled. The bill, which includes the elimination of at-large and public health appointments to the state’s Environmental Management Commission and reduces the size of the Coastal Resources Advisory Council, has yet to move out of the Senate’s Finance Committee after changes to the bill were approved last week.

Key House members are said to be wary of the sweeping legislation, which gets rid of 50 boards and commissions and adjusts the size and scope of membership to dozens of others.

Omnibus Environmental Bill Moving: A major revision to environmental laws ranging from protections for Venus fly traps to stormwater rules for airports is on the calendar today for consideration by the state House.

On Thursday, opponents managed to delay a final vote on the bill, S229 which was not heard by a House committee.

Hackney, the House minority leader, said the 25 page bill contained a number of items most legislators had not seen before. “We’ve managed to slow it down and make some improvements,” he said.

About the Author

Kirk Ross and Frank Tursi

Kirk Ross is a longtime North Carolina journalist and photographer who splits his time between Chapel Hill and Pleasure Island. He was the founding editor of "The Carrboro Citizen," where he publishes a weekly column. He also writes news stories and a monthly column on state politics and public policy for the "Independent Weekly" in Raleigh. The author of three books and a 30-year newspaper veteran, Frank Tursi is now an assistant director at the N.C. Coastal Federation and the editor of "Coastal Review Online." Before joining the federation in 2002, Frank was the senior environmental reporter in North Carolina.