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Will NC meet climate goals? 'We don't have a choice,' says DEQ Chief Biser

Rescue vehicles cross a flooded road in Columbus County during Hurricane Florence in September 2018. The following month, North Carolina set goals for dealing with climate change.
David Boraks
Rescue vehicles cross a flooded road in Columbus County during Hurricane Florence in September 2018. The following month, North Carolina set goals for dealing with climate change.

North Carolina's top environmental regulator says the state must keep making progress toward climate goals set four years ago and updated this year.

State utility regulators are in the midst of reviewing Duke Energy's plan to reach net-zero carbon emissions from energy generation by 2050. State officials also are promoting a shift to clean transportation, including electric vehicles.

These are ambitious goals and it's not clear if North Carolina can meet them. But N.C. Environmental Secretary Elizabeth Biser said this week these are challenges North Carolina can't afford to ignore.

"Those goals have to be met. I don't think we have another choice," Biser said Tuesday at a conference in Raleigh hosted by the North Carolina Conservation Network.

Biser joined a panel discussion on state environmental policy, where she mainly talked about the billions of dollars in federal environment and climate funding coming to North Carolina.

Reporters were barred from Biser's panel but were admitted for a brief Q&A. It was a tough audience. Questioners gave the secretary an earful about the need for more scrutiny and money to deal with PFAS — so-called "forever chemicals" — in drinking water along the Cape Fear River. And someone pressed her on the need to make sure underserved communities are equipped to apply for all that federal funding.

In a brief interview afterward, Biser talked about the federal funding, Gov. Cooper's climate goals beginning with Executive Order 80 in 2018 and the record-breaking Colonial Pipeline gasoline spillnear Charlotte two years ago. Here are a few lightly edited highlights, beginning with Biser's comments on federal funding:

North Carolina environmental secretary Elizabeth Biser
North Carolina environmental secretary Elizabeth Biser

BISER: Unprecedented resources are coming in from the American Rescue Plan, the bipartisan infrastructure law and now from the Inflation Reduction Act. One of the things I was highlighting today is how we've been able to put to work billions of dollars for water and wastewater infrastructure throughout the state. From the American Rescue Plan, we've gotten about $2.3 billion, which is a billion dollars more than the next closest state, to deploy and communities throughout the state. … We've changed how we do outreach. We've also made sure that we're identifying communities that have traditionally been bypassed from water and wastewater infrastructure. And by doing that, we were actually able to fund five projects for underserved communities that are connecting over 800 residences to public water for the very first time, a lot of whom have been struggling with contamination issues over the years. I told about a particular community in Ivanhoe (Sampson County) that applied because we did outreach through a community group. … And now 130 residents and families who had been struggling for years are going to be connected to public water.

BORAKS: How would you characterize the progress that North Carolina is making toward the Executive Order 80 goals and the other orders that have come into place? Do you think we're going to make those goals?

BISER: Executive Order 80 really put us on the path to achieving those goals. So coming out of Executive Order 80, the department led a process to develop the clean energy plan. That was a stakeholder process. It had everybody around the table say, "How do we meet these goals? How do we make it realistic?" And House Bill 951, the bipartisan energy legislation that was passed last year, is a direct outgrowth of the work from EO 80 and from that plan. And so we're really excited to see the next steps happen to make sure that all of the aspects of making sure that our electricity generation sector is moving towards net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 [and] making sure we're tackling transportation. So in our recent greenhouse gas inventory, we found the transportation sector to be the largest sector contributing to greenhouse gas emissions in the state. And so through Executive Order 246, Gov. Cooper is leading the way to have a clean transportation plan developed, which is an analog to what we've already done with the Clean Energy Plan. So, we're hoping to see even more actions coming out of those efforts in those stakeholder groups to address greenhouse gas emissions to meet its goals.

BORAKS: So are we going to meet those goals?

BISER: Those goals have to be met. I don't think we have another choice.

BORAKS: I've been following the Colonial Pipeline gasoline spill ever since it happened. It's been hard to get people's attention about it. What do you say to people when they ask you about it? Or do they ask you about it?

BISER: People who live in Huntersville ask me about it. What I tell people is based on the most recent estimates from Colonial Pipeline, this is the largest onshore [gasoline] spill in the history of the country. Most people don't know it's happening. And the reason most people don't know it's happening is it happened in the middle of a nature preserve. You know the story of how it was found is some teenage boys on ATVs actually smelled gasand called somebody. It's amazing that that's how we found it.

What we're committed to doing is making sure that we have corrective action plans in place to get everything cleaned up. Those actions are ongoing. And we will continue to make sure that we're holding Colonial accountable and getting to a better result. But I think a lot of folks don't realize the magnitude of what's happened in our backyard.

BORAKS: This is something that's going to take a decade or more. Some smaller spills are still out there 20 years later. Do you think that the $5 million lawsuit settlement is enough? Does that capture the scale of this thing that you just described?

BISER: So the $5 million is a penalty. And so the penalty, as you know, goes to the school system. That's different than a settlement. … So the $5 million penalty is definitely one of the larger penalties that we've assessed,

BORAKS: Is there more to come?

BISER: That remains to be seen.

A version of this article originally appeared in WFAE's weekly Climate newsletter, which is emailed Thursdays. Don't miss the next issue. Subscribe at https://www.wfae.org/climate-newsletter-signup

David Boraks previously covered climate change and the environment for WFAE. See more at www.wfae.org/climate-news. He also has covered housing and homelessness, energy and the environment, transportation and business.