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At DENR, the new boss promises to protect

February 2, 2013 

One day last week the temperature pushed past 70 and the forecast called for thunderstorms, possibly even tornadoes — in January. Pedestrians wore shorts at midday, but by late evening, it was coat weather.

With nature in such confusion, it seemed an appropriate time to visit the man who some environmentalists fear will turn the regulation of North Carolina’s environment inside out and upside down. That would be John E. Skvarla III, the newly appointed secretary of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR).

Skvarla’s job will be to translate Gov. Pat McCrory’s pledge of better “customer service” in a domain where some “customers” think the best “service” would be looser rules governing how much they can pollute, bulldoze and extract on their way to maximum profits.

Skvarla, 64, of Pinehurst, is a lawyer who comes to his post after heading a company that specialized in restoring streams and wetlands. He says there’s no need to worry about his agenda, he wants to collaborate. “Nobody has to be at war with each other here,” he says. “We all want clean water. We all want clean air.”

Skvarla says he wants to change DENR’s environment, not North Carolina’s. He wants his agency to help businesses comply with state laws that he says make North Carolina “one of the most highly regulated states in the United States.”

“You don’t change the regulations, you don’t go backward, but you have much more of a service mentality,” he says. “You say, ‘I’m going to help you through this. Let’s all play within the confines of the rules here and let’s have a positive outcome.’ ”

The man who would streamline DENR works out of the top floor of a five-story environmental Taj Mahal on Jones Street. DENR’s headquarters are in a new environmentally correct Green Building whose windows let daylight flood in. One of the last monuments erected by the now lost civilization of state Democrats, the grand headquarters sit just a block from where the GOP-controlled General Assembly has taken aim at cutting staff, spending and rules at the agency that has 4,000 employees and a $749-million budget.

Skvarla has been working long hours in his new post, but he says he’s “still in kindergarten” when it comes to understanding his department’s many responsibilities. People in the environmental community, and likely many within DENR, are equally unfamiliar with Skvarla.

Concerns among some environmentalists grew when Skvarla tapped Mitch Gillespie, an eight-term Republican member of the state House, to become one of three assistant secretaries at DENR. Gillespie, a developer and surveyor whose campaigns have been backed by development and energy interests, says he supports the agency’s core mission. Skvarla says the changes he and Gillespie plan will be welcomed by all sides, particularly by taxpayers who will see more savings in DENR’s operations.

“I have no intention, I don’t think anybody here has any intention of going backward,” he says. “You know if there are regulatory changes, it’s probably going to be more efficiency things, not material things.”

One thing that will change will be the adoption of rules to allow fracking – using drills and high-pressure water to extract natural gas from shale deposits. DENR is helping the N.C. Mining & Engineering Commission develop fracking standards, but a dispute has flared about how much advice the commission wants from an advisory panel assembled by the agency.

Commissioner George Howard, who co-founded the Raleigh company Skvarla left to join DENR, Restoration Systems, said some of the advisory group’s members had grown “too big for their britches.” Howard later apologized and Skvarla laughed off the remark, but a few weeks into his job he was learning that conflicts will rise fast between state regulators and business interests who feel newly entitled by the governor’s commitment to business-friendly government.

Skvala says fracking will need close and smart regulation based on best practices in other states. “We get one bite at this apple,” he says. “We can’t screw this up.”

With his large tortoise-shell glasses and flop of silver hair, Skvarla has an engaging manner and none of the hard edges of an anti-regulation zealot. Indeed, the protector of the environment may be a rare bird himself – a moderate among the new Republican leadership in Raleigh. (He is an independent.)

But through all Skvarla’s talk of practical efficiencies, there peeks a view of science that may create big problems for a boss who oversees scientists and researchers. Skvarla is not convinced that global warming is an immediate and man-made threat, but getting him to say so is harder than tracking an endangered species.

He says he doesn’t want “policy driving fact” at the agency. He doesn’t want regulators saying things are so because they say so. He wants them to consider all sides.

“I’m just telling (staff) we want to tell the citizens of North Carolina we were thorough in our approach and we weren’t afraid to hear some other part,” he says. “When you get to global warming, many people don’t even want to hear the other side of the argument.”

Editorial page editor Ned Barnett can be reached at 919-829-4512 or at nbarnett@newsobserver.com

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