Schofield: State lawmakers show abuse for the environment

By Rob Schofield


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RALEIGH — What is it about the far right and its apparent contempt for our natural environment? It can’t be mere greed or obliviousness.

Sure, some politicians will consciously sell out a stream or a forest to help a fat cat constituent or to enhance corporate profits generally. Others simply can’t be bothered by the issue because it just doesn’t seem to directly affect their antiseptic, air conditioned lives.But that can’t explain it all.

When one examines the performance of the 2011 North Carolina General Assembly on environmental matters and the rants of the “think tanks” that egged them on, it’s clear that something more is at work. These people don’t just not care about the environment; for many, it’s as if they really don’t like the natural environment and are somehow threatened by it and the people who champion it.

Indeed, in some ways, it’s reminiscent of an abuser-victim relationship in which the person in a position of power manufactures a delusion of his or her own victimhood, obtains some kind of gratification from exploiting and controlling the weaker party and is easily angered whenever his or her actions are exposed or the victim tries to rebel.

An exaggeration? Maybe. But, consider the legislation that was rammed through the North Carolina General Assembly over the past few months in regarding the environment. Who else passes such an aggressive and no-holds-barred assault on the environment during an era of profound global crisis — a time in which the long-term future and well-being of our species is at-risk?

In case you weren’t keeping score, here’s just some of the damage:

Huge cuts and negative policy changes in the budget — The final state budget cuts the Department of Environment and Natural Resources’ (DENR) recurring appropriation by 12% in FY11-12 and 22% in FY12-13, not including funds lost when programs are transferred to other departments. It also cuts the Clean Water Management Trust Fund by a staggering 88.5% and slashed several other conservation funds.

Dismantling DENR — The budget also includes “special provisions” that downsize and the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources even further by transferring key responsibilities to other departments with no expertise or mandate with respect to the environmental protection.

Eliminating existing protections — Legislators rammed through a series of bills that amounted to a veritable wish list for polluters. They acted to: block new environmental protection rules from being enacted, weaken air pollution standards, weaken open burning rules; weaken riparian buffer rules; expand exemptions from the state Dam Safety Act; transfer liability for leaking underground petroleum tanks from tank owners to taxpayers, reverse a state ban on an obsolete tank technology, and weaken financial assurance requirements for hazardous waste facilities.

Endangering our coastline — Legislators passed at least two bill of real concern in this area: the so-called and mislabeled “Energy Jobs Act,” which promotes drilling for oil and gas off the coast of the Outer Banks and onshore near the Deep River (all while doing nothing to promote wind or solar energy) and a proposal to introduce the harmful practice of building seawalls on state beaches.

Spreading the blight of billboards — One of the final acts of the 2011 session was to approve legislation that will, if signed into law, make it harder for government to limit the destruction of trees and other foliage surrounding billboards.

And still more — These were not the only significant environmental bills to be considered this session.

Lawmakers ended a study of climate change, overturned protections governing a waterway in western North Carolina known as Boylston Creek and advanced a study of the flawed and energy and water intensive natural gas exploration method called fracking. Several other harmful proposals to weaken clean air protections, rules governing riparian buffers, leaking underground storage tanks and protection of Jordan Lake were either: approved in a watered-down format, kept alive for consideration in 2012 or only narrowly defeated. In a few, isolated instances, environmental advocates achieved modest victories, but these paled in comparison to the massive overall rollback.

In other words, the 2011 legislative session marks a new low-point in state environmental legislation. It may also have signified a revival of the kind of exploitative and abusive, “man vs. nature” public policies that had seemed to be on a steep decline in our state. Let’s hope caring and thinking people rally to the side of the victim and help the abusers obtain some intensive “counseling” before it’s too late.

Rob Schofield is the Director of Research and Policy Development at N.C. Policy Watch