US Sen. Kay Hagan and her challenger House Speaker Thom Tillis at odds over climate change

jfrank@newsobserver.com rschoof@mcclatchydc.comMay 31, 2014 

President Barack Obama will announce plans Monday to impose the nation’s first limits on pollution from power plants – a move that is sure to intensify the discussion about global warming in North Carolina’s U.S. Senate race.

Democratic U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan is criticizing her Republican rival Thom Tillis’ stance on the issue. She said last week that North Carolina needs a “senator who believes climate change exists,” although she expresses caution about how to address it.

Tillis, the House speaker, is accusing Hagan of “doublespeak” on the issue, suggesting she supports policies that will hurt the economy, even as he remains coy about his position on climate change.

The Obama administration is expected to set reduction targets for heat-trapping carbon pollution at the state level and offer flexibility about how to reach them.

Power plants are the largest source of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, accounting for 32 percent, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. These emissions have never been limited at power plants the way that the EPA limits soot, mercury and other types of air pollution.

Possible options for states include placing greater emphasis on renewable energy and efficiency to lower electricity demand or “cap-and-trade” systems in which emissions are limited and polluters buy and sell rights to release them.

In a speech to an environmental group in Raleigh last week, Hagan expressed support for the EPA’s role.

“Unlike my opponent who flatly denied the existence of climate change, I know the EPA’s ability to responsibly regulate greenhouse gas emissions is key to protecting our environment for future generations,” Hagan told more than 200 people at a N.C. League of Conservation Voters dinner.

But days earlier, Hagan expressed concern about the timeline for implementing the rules, asking in a letter to the EPA that the public comment period be doubled to 120 days. She declined to sign a stronger-worded letter backed by 45 senators asking for the same extension.

“As I understand it, the rules are very long and very complicated, and that’s why we need to double (the length) of public comment,” she said in an interview after her speech.

Tillis’ campaign said Hagan is trying to have it both ways. But Tillis declined repeated requests last week for an interview on climate change.

A campaign spokesman said the EPA policies could damage the ability of businesses to create jobs.

Questions linger for Tillis

The Huntersville Republican is still trying to explain his answer in the first Republican primary debate in which he said he does not believe climate change is a fact. He later questioned whether human activity is influencing climate change and called global warming “false science,” even as he tried to walk back his initial remark.

“I don’t think we were debating whether or not the Earth’s climate changes over times because it does. It has since the Earth’s beginning,” Tillis said in the second primary debate. “The point is the liberal agenda, the Obama agenda, the Kay Hagan agenda, is trying to use it as a Trojan horse for their energy policy.”

The vast majority of U.S. scientists and those around the world agree that the warming observed over the past 50 years is predominantly from human activities, especially burning fossil fuels and deforestation.

Hagan won big applause in her Raleigh speech Tuesday for hitting Tillis for his stance. “We must work together to fight climate change, and I will continue to stand up to obstructionist efforts to undermine that work,” she said.

But even as she supports federal regulation, Hagan suggested that environmental rules must take into account the economic impact.

Pressed three times to describe the urgency of addressing climate change, Hagan said: “I think we’ve definitely got to be concerned about it, that we need to take action. I think we’ve also got to understand and look into the impact that certain actions would have on families and middle class families in North Carolina.”

Hagan declined to offer specifics about what policies she would support to address it. Tillis has questioned whether any action is needed.

Split on fracking

On the broader level, both support an all-encompassing energy policy, supporting fracking and offshore drilling, with certain qualifications. Both also support the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline from the oil sands of Canada to the Gulf Coast, which is opposed by environmental groups, including the one Hagan addressed in Raleigh.

Last week, Tillis supported a bill now on Gov. Pat McCrory’s desk that would lift the moratorium in North Carolina on hydraulic fracturing for shale gas in 2015.

Tillis also defended the change in law that will no longer require the General Assembly to approve the rules, as Republican lawmakers had promised. “We need to get the industry interested in the research and the necessary steps to really determine the extent to which this is a viable industry in North Carolina,” he said after the vote. “What we are trying to do is provide certainty to the industry so that we are likely to see that kind of investment and ultimately the job creation that comes from it.”

Stances on disclosure

Hagan opposed the legislation because of the proposed rules allowing drilling companies to conceal from the public the mix of chemicals used to extract the gas from the underground rock.

“I am dumbfounded that the Senate has made it a crime to disclose the chemicals used in fracking,” she said in the interview. “I think there has to be public disclosure … of any chemical that is used.”

Tillis said he is comfortable with the disclosure rules proposed. “With innovation, we are talking about future chemicals ... in the not-to-distant future that are safe, they are saying even food grade,” he said. “Hopefully this addresses the short-term concern; long term, I think it will be a non-issue.”

In her speech, Hagan blasted the Republican legislature for rolling back environmental regulations and approving a measure that limits the use of science in considering sea-level rise.

She also touted her efforts as a state senator to pass renewable energy mandates – a measure Tillis once supported but now wants repealed.

Frank: 919-829-4698

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