After years of on-and-off negotiations, a set of sweeping energy policy changes sailed through the North Carolina General Assembly this week after a deal by legislative leaders and Gov. Roy Cooper cleared the way for its passage.
On Thursday, House Bill 951, Energy Solutions for North Carolina, was approved by a vote of 90-20 in the House after passing the Senate 42-7 a day earlier.
Cooper was expected to sign the bill as soon as this weekend.
The legislation would require Duke Energy and other major electricity producers to reach carbon-reduction goals of 70% by 2030, and a zero-carbon goal by 2050.
The goals are in line with Cooper’s 2018 Executive Order 80, which called for the state to commit to aggressively lowering its carbon dioxide emissions.
General Assembly leaders were cool to the idea at the time and both chambers have generally avoided taking up carbon-reduction goals directly.
An earlier version of the new energy legislation did not include the targets but relied on an extensive framework of rules and standards for a mix of energy sources that would have the effect of reducing emissions. That version of the bill, which passed the House in mid-July, ran 49 pages. At the time, its sponsors admitted it was imperfect and promised it would be very different once it returned from the Senate.
As predicted, it is.
Trimmed down to 10 pages, most of the proscriptive language on the mix of energy sources has been cut and the bill puts the responsibility for creating the rules and standards for the strategy, including the phaseout of Duke’s fleet of coal fired units, with the North Carolina Utilities Commission.
The commission is a seven-member board whose members are appointed by the governor but who must be confirmed by the Senate.
The new legislation, put together and negotiated in a behind the scenes stakeholder process over the course of the session, started on its quick course to passage last week following the announcement of an agreement.
On Friday afternoon, in a rare moment of unanimity in messaging Cooper, Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, and House Speaker Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, put out identical statements heralding the deal.
The bill quickly moved through the Senate Tuesday and Wednesday without amendment, although Sen. Paul Newton, R-Cabbarus, a key negotiator, acknowledged that he would seek changes in response to criticisms through a technical corrections bill later in the session.
The House took up the legislation Thursday as a concurrence vote on the Senate version, which does not require a committee hearing, and passed it shortly after noon as the last item of the week.
During floor debate, Rep. Dean Arp, R-Union, an original House sponsor, said the Senate simplified the legislation by removing carve-outs and mandates for use of specific energy sources and putting policy choices like the mix of sources and the schedule for phaseout of coal-fired units in the hands of the Utilities Commission. He stressed that the commission was charged with doing so in a way that prioritizes using a “least-cost” method to protect consumers and an array of sources that guarantee reliability.
Opposition to the bill focused on the potential impact of sections of the bill that could allow multiyear rate hikes, instead of the current system which requires utility companies to take rate hikes to the commission on an annual basis.
Opponents said the bill allows too much wiggle room for Duke Energy to get around goals and raise prices.
House members who voted against it said it was being rushed through and that Newton’s promise of tweaks to the plan weren’t enough to satisfy concerns.
“I do like what we have in part one, about the carbon reduction,” Rep. Marcia Morey, D-Durham, said Thursday. “I think we are in a climate crisis. I think science has proven it, and we should have these goals to reduce the carbon, and to go down 70% by 2030. I think is admirable, but I think it’s aspirational.”
Morey said she was worried that the goals would never be met without more teeth in the bill because the bill allows the commission to reset the goals every two years. She also questioned whether it would be able to keep rate hikes from hurting low-income customers.
Environmental and consumer advocates have also expressed a divided view of the bill.
A statement from the Southern Environmental Law Center said the bill did not go far enough to make sure reductions would actually be achieved.
“While the Southern Environmental Law Center strongly supports the goals to reduce heat-trapping carbon pollution in House Bill 951 and appreciates the efforts to negotiate a bipartisan energy bill, we are concerned that the current bill will not achieve those reductions and fails to spread the clean energy transition to include low-income customers,” according to the statement.
House and Senate members who shared similar concerns but opted to vote in favor of the bill, said it was important to move forward in climate policy.
Rep. Graig Meyer, D-Orange, said he wanted to support the spirit of compromise among legislators who came together to advance the goals in the bill. He said he was disappointed the legislature deferred to the Utilities Commission to work out the details, but said that there is a consensus to put a process in place to reduce carbon emissions is significant.
“I think that’s why I’ll end up voting for the bill, because it sets a goal that I think is so critically important,” Meyer said, “and I appreciate those members of the Republican Party who haven’t been very vocal in support of major climate change legislation for being willing to vote and be on board for this bill.”
In all, a dozen Democrats voted against the bill. They were joined by eight Republicans, including Rep. Larry Pittman of Cabbarus County, who gave a lengthy speech in support of carbon dioxide, called anthropogenic climate change “a farce and a fraud” and called on members of his caucus to vote against the bill.
“All this hysteria about the production of CO2 and the supposed need to reduce it is nothing more than a not-so-well-hidden agenda of government control of the people and our lives,” Pittman said.
It is not.
Despite objections from both sides of the aisle, the bill has enjoyed strong support.
Sen. Julie Mayfield, D-Buncombe, and co-director of the Southern Blue Ridge advocacy organization Mountain True, said it marks a tangible change in attitudes on climate change.
“This is a first step to protecting future generations of North Carolinians,” Mayfield said in a statement after the Senate vote. “With this legislation, we can say that combating climate change is a bipartisan issue.”
Andrew Hutson, Audubon North Carolina executive director and National Audubon Society vice president, also called it a turning point.
“We know the stakes of climate change for birds and people, especially communities on the front lines who are already facing the impacts of extreme weather and air pollution. This bill will clean up our power sector and deliver carbon reductions at a time that we can’t afford more delays,” Hutson said.