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When Democrat Roy Cooper is inaugurated as North Carolina’s next governor on Jan. 1, it will likely mean a major shakeup in agencies that regulate the state’s energy industry.
It is anticipated that the current heads of both the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) and the Department of Commerce – both cabinet-level positions – will be replaced, among other appointed positions. Commissioners for both the Environmental Management Commission (EMC) and the Utilities Commission (UC) are also appointed by the governor, though EMC commissioners can also be appointed by legislative leaders.
Several new appointments are expected for the Utility Commission during Cooper’s term: six of seven commissioners’ terms will expire within the next four years; three of those end on June 30, 2017. Current Gov. Pat McCrory’s appointment of Edward S. Finley, Jr. to the commission’s chair also expires in 2017, though his term doesn’t end until 2019.
Additionally, it’s unknown what will happen to the Energy Policy Council, which McCrory reinstituted in 2014 after a period of irregular meetings. During the McCrory administration, the council published a report in March which found that industrial energy rates were “headed in the wrong direction.” (Since then, Duke Energy announced a rate decrease.)
Per the council’s website, “The Energy Policy Council is an independent body staffed by the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality.” But McCrory appointed some of the council members, others are appointed by legislative leaders, which include the heads of DEQ and the Dept. of Commerce along with several energy industry executives.
Cooper’s energy policy
Governor-elect Cooper has yet to outline his energy policy, but his campaign website and past statements offer clues as to what it might look like.
“I am glad North Carolina has become a leader in renewable energy technology and that energy companies are shifting toward more sustainable power supplies than coal,” Cooper’s website reads. It also cites his support of the state’s Renewable Energy Portfolio Standard and the Clean Smokestacks Act.
A letter Cooper sent to the state’s General Assembly in Aug. 2015 also offers clues. Sent prior to announcing his bid for governor, and while the state was deciding whether to sue the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency over its Clean Power Plan, Cooper wrote, “I encourage you to avoid the path of litigation and instead work on a cooperative effort we can all be proud of. Piecemeal litigation like this can significantly harm our effort to implement our own clean power plan, along with risking a federal takeover of North Carolina energy policy that we could otherwise avoid.”
In the letter, Cooper also wrote, “North Carolina’s Clean Smokestacks Act, our renewable energy standard and other forward-thinking efforts were forged by collaboration among interested parties such as utilities, environmentalists, businesses and consumer advocates.”
The Renewable Energy Portfolio Standard became law in 2007, a first for a southeastern state. Under that law, investor-owned utilities are required to meet 12.5 percent of their energy production needs, and cooperatives 10 percent, via renewable energy.
Enacted in 2002, the Clean Smokestacks Act is credited with improving the state’s air quality. It was also heralded at a recent Duke University forum on health and the environment as a bipartisan success story that was “creative” and “innovative,” according to former DEQ (then Dept. of Environment and Natural Resources) secretary William Ross.
Finally, Cooper has said little about how his administration will handle the coal ash issue. In a political ad, McCrory stated, “Cooper claims to fight polluters, but he really fought cleanup efforts as the attorney general. He did nothing, while his friends made it harder to prevent coal ash spills.”
Raleigh news station WRAL fact-checked the claim and found it lacking. In 2014, the station reported that Cooper, then the state’s Attorney General, said, “Duke Energy should clean up the coal ash at its own expense, and we will fight for consumers if the company tries to charge them.”
The Cooper campaign did not respond to request for comment on this story.
McCrory appointees criticized
When McCrory took office in Jan. 2013, he made it clear that he wanted his Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) – now known as the Dept. of Environmental Quality (DEQ) – to be more industry-friendly, a promise reflected in the department’s new mission statement and in his appointments. Many of those appointees were criticized for their connections to Duke Energy, McCrory’s former employer of 28 years and the largest energy producer in the nation, headquartered in Charlotte.
McCrory’s first DEQ Secretary was John Skvarla, a climate skeptic who once characterized oil as a “renewable resource.”
Within three months of Skvarla’s appointment, WRAL reported that links to information about climate change disappeared from DENR’s website. He’s now the Secretary of the Dept. of Commerce and oversees the state’s Utility Commission.
After Skvarla, McCrory appointed Donald van der Vaart, an engineer, lawyer and a long time DENR employee and former program manager for the N.C. Division of Air Quality.
Following van der Vaart’s appointment in Jan. 2015, The News & Observer described him as “a polarizing figure,” writing that the new secretary “wasted no time in promoting his conservative brand of environmentalism” and noting that he was “stumping for nuclear energy, even though the agency he oversees has little say in which power plants are built in North Carolina.” The article, written by John Murawski, also noted that van der Vaart’s “outspoken skepticism about the potential of wind energy and solar power” troubled environmental advocates.
On Nov. 16, van der Vaart sent a letter to president-elect Donald Trump congratulating him on his victory and asking for, among other things, “a moratorium on currently proposed and new federal regulations.” The letter cites the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan, which van der Vaart has vigorously opposed.
Van der Vaart himself may be under consideration for a position within the Trump administration, according to The Carolina Journal, a publication of The John Locke Foundation, a Conservative think tank in North Carolina.
According to The News & Observer, McCrory may also be under consideration for an appointment by Trump.
Editor’s note: This article has been updated to correct minor errors and make other clarifications.