NC moves toward joining cap-and-trade program for carbon

"This would drive a lot of dirty fossil fuel generation off the grid," an environmental attorney says.

Posted Updated
Roxboro energy plant
Travis Fain
, WRAL statehouse reporter
RALEIGH, N.C. — North Carolina stepped Tuesday toward a major goal for climate change activists: joining the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a multi-state agreement to cap the amount of carbon dioxide power companies emit.

What comes next would be a long and complicated regulatory road before something changes. But environmental groups said they were pleased by Tuesday's decision from the Air Quality Committee of the North Carolina Environmental Management Commission.

The committee, after a morning hearing, recommended that the full EMC vote next month to join RGGI. The next step comes July 13, when the commission meets. If the EMC backs the plan, a months-long rule-making process, with public hearings along the way, begins. Those rules would have to go through the state's Rules Review Commission and could ultimately be blocked by the General Assembly.

“There certainly are some hurdles and some potential roadblocks in the process," said Gudrun Thompson, senior attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center, which filed a petition in January to get this process moving.

RGGI is a coalition of 11 states that limit carbon dioxide, a byproduct from burning coal and other fossil fuels to generate electricity, by capping the amount that power producers can emit and selling carbon allowances by the ton. The money generated is often reinvested in clean energy or other environmentally friendly efforts.

The governor appoints nine of the EMC's 15 members, and Gov. Roy Cooper has made cutting greenhouse gas emissions a priority for his administration. A Cooper spokesman said Tuesday that joining RGGI "is a policy option under consideration" to help meet goals the governor set down in an executive order nearly three years ago.

"The governor believes we must work toward a carbon-neutral future and that the Environmental Management Commission should work to identify policy changes that will best fit North Carolina," Cooper spokesman Ford Porter said in a statement. "If the EMC votes to move forward in July, (the state Department of Environmental Quality) will begin working to implement the policy, including soliciting public input and approval from the Rules Review Commission."

The EMC's other six members are appointed by General Assembly leadership. Spokespeople for House Speaker Tim Moore and Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger, the top Republican leaders in the legislature, didn't immediately weigh in Tuesday. A spokeswoman for Duke Energy, which did not publicly oppose the proposal Tuesday, said that, "if policymakers determine this is the right path forward, we will implement the state’s policy."

"Our focus is on a balanced energy transition for North Carolina that ensures the continued reliability and affordability our customers depend on," spokeswoman Grace Rountree said via email.

The state is at something of a crossroads on energy policy, with last year's cancellation of a plan to build a major natural gas pipeline through the state and Duke pressing the General Assembly for as-yet-unseen regulatory reforms. The governor signed an executive order last week meant to boost offshore wind development.

Joining RGGI would help meet the state's carbon reduction goals, the Southern Environmental Law Center and other environmental groups pressing the issue said. It would be the state's first carbon reduction policy for the power sector, and it would better position the state to implement federal rules that may come down from the Biden administration, Thompson, the SELC attorney, said.

“This is not the only answer," Thompson said. "There are other policies that could and should be put in place. … But this would drive a lot of dirty fossil fuel generation off the grid.”


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