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North Carolina Regulators To Consider Setting Greenhouse Gas Limits From Energy

David Boraks / WFAE
A mountain of coal at Duke Energy's Marshall Steam Station on Lake Norman is seen in 2016.

State regulators Tuesday will consider a proposal that would shake up North Carolina's energy business in the name of slowing climate change.

Gas- and coal-fired power plants are the largest source of carbon dioxide emissions that contribute to climate change in North Carolina, making up about 35% of those emissions. Electric utilities and state officials have set goals for eliminating carbon emissions by 2050, but there's no agreement on how to get there.

Now, two environmental groups want the state to adopt rules and join a regional initiative committed to limiting and eventually eliminating fossil fuels.

Credit David Boraks
Train cars full of coal await unloading at Marshall Steam Station on Lake Norman in 2016.

The Southern Environmental Law Center petitioned the Environmental Management Commission for the rulemaking, on behalf of Clean Air Carolina and the North Carolina Coastal Federation.

"We're asking North Carolina environmental regulators to put a cap on carbon dioxide from the power sector that would decline over time," said Gudrun Thompson, a senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center.

"This regulatory program is needed in order to meet the state goal of reducing CO₂ 70% from 2005 levels by 2030 and reaching net-zero by 2050," Thompson said. "Right now, those are just goals, and they are laudable goals. But we need a way to turn those goals into action and actually take steps to meet them. And this is our proposed way of doing that."

June Blotnick of Clean Air Carolina said state inaction and the urgency of the climate crisis prompted the request.

"We were not seeing any action at the federal level to put a price on carbon," Blotnick said. "We didn't think we were going to get that from the state legislature. So the idea of a petition for rulemaking made more sense to us if anything was going to happen."

The proposal calls for North Carolina to join the 16-year-old Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, which includes 11 states from Maine to Virginia. Members set limits on carbon emissions and operate a marketplace where power companies can buy and sell carbon allowances — basically the right to pollute.

In industry lingo, it's known as cap-and-trade. Money raised from the sales goes toward energy efficiency, renewable energy, and utility bill assistance programs.

Charlotte-based Duke Energy is pushing its own reform bill at the state legislature that, among other things, allows continued construction of gas-fired power plants. But Duke spokesperson Bill Norton said in an email that the company would not fight a cap-and-trade system.

"If policymakers determine this is the right path forward for the state, we will comply with the state’s policy," Norton said. "Duke Energy’s focus is on a balanced energy transition for North Carolina that ensures the continued reliability and affordability our customers depend on while promoting economic development across the Carolinas."

The commission meetsat 9 a.m.Tuesday. If it votes to move forward, rulemaking could last into 2022. The rules would not require approval from the Republican-controlled General Assembly.

The idea has support from other environmental groups besides the petitioners, including the Sierra Club.

"This is one of the best ways we can get there without having to go through a legislature that so far has been unwilling to commit to a clean energy standard or some more aggressive clean energy actions," said Will Harlan of the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal Campaign. "So this is a way for all North Carolinians to benefit from making polluters pay."

Copyright WFAE 2021.  For more go to WFAE.org