Second of a series
The Republican-controlled state legislature steered environmental protections in a new direction this past session, speeding up energy exploration and cutting back regulations.
North Carolinas next governor could determine whether the broad changes that are remaking the states landscape both political and natural continue or are reined in.
The candidates havent said much about the environment, leaving advocacy groups and voters uncertain about what they would do if elected. When it does come up, the public discussion tends to be about energy development and its risks.
There are differences between the two candidates, but both Democrat Walter Dalton and Republican Pat McCrory predominantly define themselves as business-friendly centrists who recognize the environment is worth protecting, if not for its intrinsic value then because clean air and water is good for the economy.
While the economy has eclipsed other issues, environmental concerns will play a role for some voters when North Carolina voters choose a governor in November.
The legislature is fairly hostile to environmental protection now, said Bill Holman, a former state environmental secretary who is now at Duke Universitys Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions. Itll be up to the next governor to set the tone for what direction the state goes in.
Taking different sides?
During his 14 years as mayor of Charlotte, McCrory was endorsed more than once by the Sierra Club; he was a strong advocate of public transportation and smart growth urban planning, a proponent of bike- and pedestrian-friendly streets, a defender of trees and air quality and an occasional foe of development interests and the billboard industry.
While as a candidate for governor he has reached out to the right wing of his party on many issues, McCrory as mayor was firmly in the role of green-tinged moderate. He was not only instrumental in bringing light rail to Charlotte, but he pushed through a half-cent sales tax increase to pay for it and then fought off a referendum attempt to do away with the tax.
Yet this year he made a point of expressing support for the state GOP resolution against Agenda 21, one of the Tea Partys favorite causes. The 20-year-old United Nations resolution encouraged environmental stewardship, but some portray it as a one-world-government plot against property rights.
Campaigning against sustainability seems like a far cry from the man who was mayor, yet McCrory embraces both positions, which is one reason the states environmental organizations have not yet decided whether to endorse one of the gubernatorial candidates.
As a mayor, Pat McCrory took the long view and used a lot of political capital to advance light rail and transit, which is generally anathema right now in conservative circles, said Molly Diggins, executive director of the state chapter of the Sierra Club. Which Pat McCrory would the state get as the governor?
Diggins said Charlotte is becoming a leader in green business and energy technologies, but its former mayor instead has chosen to focus almost exclusively on this fiction you can balance North Carolinas budget and solve our financial woes with negligible oil and gas resources that wont be developed for years, if ever.
McCrory has been promoting oil and natural gas drilling both drilling off the states coastline and fracking in recent appearances, as a way to supplant the revenue from tax cuts he advocates.
He has come out in favor of using all potential energy sources and has criticized Dalton because Democratic leaders didnt explore fracking as early as some other states.
McCrory says that he hasnt changed.
Absolutely not, he said in a recent interview, explaining that he occasionally ruffled interests on the right and the left. Because what I did was I got the community involved and found solutions, working together in partnerships, not adversarial relationships.
McCrory said he believes he can transfer those consensus-building skills to govern statewide.
For instance, he said, businesses complain the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources is inconsistent and arrogant in how it enforces regulations.
As an executive, I would work through those problems and identify solutions, he said, noting he chaired the energy and environment committee of the U.S. Conference of Mayors. I know the issue extremely well.
McCrory says as governor he would develop a 25-year plan on transportation, energy and water for the entire Southeast, crossing state and political boundaries to do it. A big part of that plan would be walkable communities, upgraded streets and mass transit, he said.
What often happens, we come up with an economic development plan, then the environmental organizations jump in and stop it after the plan is developed, he said. They ought to be working as a team not as separate interests. I think you can have the best of both worlds.
Still, environmentalists are wary.
They point to McCrorys former employment with Duke Energy, the fact that the law firm he works for lobbies on behalf of the petroleum industry, and that his campaign manager had ties to the natural gas industry. McCrory dismisses that criticism by noting he worked for Duke while he was accumulating his green record as mayor.
Others are skeptical that he could be as successful in Raleigh as he was in Charlotte.
Hes staking out the middle of the road, but he has to figure out, if elected governor, how he can work with a Republican legislature that is, in all likelihood, a whole lot more conservative than he is, said Bill McCoy, former director of the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute.
Accusations of rhetoric
Dalton has characterized McCrorys aggressive fracking message as political rhetoric not based in reality.
He says he, too, is for a broad range of energy development, including nuclear, but is relying on the most recent projections that North Carolina has a small supply of natural gas and any jobs drilling would create would be many years away.
I am not opposed to it, Dalton said. I think we have to be realistic about it.
Dalton says he is skeptical of the Republican call for widespread deregulation, which tends to be general in nature rather than about specific instances of overbearing government.
He said hed like to see opposing sides of a regulatory issue be able to work on a resolution that satisfies them and still protects the environment.
A lot of times I hear political rhetoric that says were over-regulated and have to address it, Dalton said. Well, tell me where we are over-regulated.
He notes that Forbes magazine rated North Carolina high among the best states for business. Several magazines and business groups have come to the same conclusion.
Dalton served six terms in the state Senate before winning election as lieutenant governor in 2008. He earned a lifetime scorecard from Environment North Carolina of 73 percent for his votes in the Senate.
Dalton crossed environmentalists by supporting Duke Energys plan to build two coal-fired power plants in the Rutherford County community of Cliffside.
As a state senator, he represented a conservative part of the foothills of North Carolina, and he reflected his constituency, said Holman, the former state official.
Dalton was instrumental in securing $15 million from the legislature to create Chimney Rock State Park, a nearly 1,000-acre scenic attraction.
Acquiring that land and neighboring property, he said, not only saved one of the states most prominent landmarks but it also enhanced development nearby.
Another of his environmental accomplishments had been protecting the Clean Water Management Trust Fund, which once amounted to $100 million a year.
Gov. Bev Perdue emptied it to cover budget shortfalls in 2009. Half that amount was replenished the next year, but GOP lawmakers last session cut the annual contribution to approximately $11 million.
Dalton says those funds not only bought land to conserve, but also improved water and sewer projects. Slashing the fund, really is hurting the growth of the economy and jobs, and particularly in rural areas that struggle more than urban areas, Dalton said.
These kinds of projects, he said, provide the kind of environmental protections that people have taken for granted in North Carolina.
And then when they see that beauty begin to erode, that their water has issues, sewer systems that are not working efficiently and properly because of age and not being repaired in a timely manner, then theyre going to pay attention, he said.
Environment a priority?
People do still care about the environment, even if the candidates havent been making that topic a priority, environmentalists say.
The candidates position on the environment, along with social justice, will influence how Meredith Leight votes.
The owner of Granite Springs Farm, an organic vegetable farm north of Pittsboro that provides produce to restaurants and to weekly subscription customers, says she is leaning toward Dalton and is vehemently opposed to fracking.
I would like to see us spending the kind of money theyll put into creating regulations allowing the industry to operate put into renewable energy sources, Leight said. That makes a lot more sense to me.
Bill Price, a developer in Pine Knoll Shores, says that people are talking more about finding work and keeping their homes than they are about the environment. Thats why he is pretty sure hell vote for McCrory.
Predominantly, hes pro-business, pro-jobs, Price said. People have got to have jobs.
Next Sunday: Education issues