The state Environmental Management Commission voted Tuesday to move forward with the process to develop rules to limit carbon dioxide pollution from the state’s electric power sector.
In a 9-3 vote during its special meeting in Raleigh, the commission cleared the way for the Department of Environmental Quality to begin the rule-making process, which will include opportunities for public engagement.
In January, the Southern Environmental Law Center, on behalf of Clean Air Carolina and the North Carolina Coastal Federation, submitted to the Division of Air Quality the petition for rule-making and a proposed rule. The commission’s Air Quality Committee reviewed the petition during a special meeting June 15 and recommended that the petition be presented to the full commission for action.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, human activities are responsible for almost all of the increase in greenhouse gases, which trap heat and cause the planet to warm, in the atmosphere in the last 150 years. The largest source in the U.S. is from burning fossil fuels for electricity, heat and transportation. Carbon dioxide makes up most of the greenhouse gas emissions from the electricity sector, which also emits small amounts of methane and nitrous oxide. These gases are released during the combustion of fossil fuels, such as coal, oil and natural gas to produce electricity.
The petition proposed that the state join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, or RGGI, which would require North Carolina to commit to setting up a carbon reduction program and adopt a law or regulation similar to the RGGI Model Rule designed for the state’s circumstances and preferences, according to documents. RGGI is an effort to cap and reduce power sector carbon dioxide emissions by Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont and Virginia.
Commission Chairman Stan Meiburg, who voted in favor, noted that while the cost for the state Department of Environmental Quality to implement the rule-making process will have to be addressed moving forward, “the objective remains, for me at least, to achieve reductions as fast as practically possible, and moving to approve this petition to go to rule-making I think moves that ball forward.”
After the vote, Meiburg said that he didn’t want to leave anyone with the impression that the rule-making for this would be simple. He expected the process to be involved and include the stakeholders involved up to this point.
Commissioner Marion Deerhake, who voted in favor of the motion, said during the meeting that improving children’s health had been a goal since her first day on the commission. “And to me, this goes a huge step forward as we develop this rule, because ultimately we are looking to the future generation, benefiting them and giving them a healthy and enjoyable life.”
Gudrun Thompson, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, said in a statement that the commission’s decision was “a common-sense step to reduce harmful carbon pollution from power plants in what a study by UNC and Duke University shows is a cost-effective approach.
“Given the threat of climate change to our state, North Carolina needs to do its part to cut heat-trapping carbon pollution from power plants. Today’s action by the EMC will help move our state towards a clean energy future by pushing polluting coal generation off the power grid,” Thompson said.
According to the petition, the threat to the state due to global climate change “is real, it is present, and it is getting worse.”
The petition says that the Earth’s temperature is rising due to human activity, leading to rising sea levels and other effects. “Extreme precipitation has become more common and will be even more common in the future. The intensity of hurricanes and the frequency of other severe storms will increase. Flooding will increase, but so too will droughts and wildfires. Each of these changes will hit our most vulnerable residents hardest.”
Todd Miller, executive director of the North Carolina Coastal Federation, noted that it’s very early in hurricane season, and two tropical storms already have affected the North Carolina coast.
“While we keep a watchful eye on the tropics, it’s encouraging that state leaders want to find ways to reduce carbon pollution so that our oceans won’t get so warm and spawn as many intense storms,” he said.
The Cooper administration set a goal of reducing carbon dioxide emissions from the power sector by 70% by 2030, reaching net zero emissions by 2050. The proposed rule filed with the commission would help achieve those targets in a cost-effective way by setting a declining limit on heat-trapping carbon dioxide emissions from power plants and setting North Carolina up to join RGGI, according to the law center.
RGGI-participating states saw emissions from power plants fall 47% from 2008 to 2018, 90% more than in the rest of the country. RGGI states over that decade also saw reduced air pollution and fewer premature deaths, heart attacks and respiratory illnesses; a 5.7% decline in electricity prices, compared to an increase in the rest of the country; and economic growth that outpaced the rest of the country by 31%, according to SELC.
“This rulemaking is an opportunity for our state to lead the Southeast in carbon reduction which will result in cleaner air and better health,” said June Blotnick, executive director of Clean Air Carolina, in a statement. “For the past few years, North Carolina has lost ground as a clean energy leader. RGGI is an opportunity to put the right market mechanisms in place to properly value clean energy generation without arbitrary mandates.”