Donald van der Vaart is the state’s first environmental director to come from within the state agency he is now running. A career middle manager, van der Vaart was plucked out of obscurity in January and put in charge of his former bosses.
In his short tenure as Secretary of the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality, the engineer with a law degree has wasted no time in promoting his conservative brand of environmentalism.
Within two weeks of taking the top job at the state’s environmental agency, van der Vaart jettisoned a pair of Republican deputies, including a former state legislator.
In recent weeks van der Vaart has been stumping for nuclear energy, even though the agency he oversees has little say in which power plants are built in North Carolina. And he frequently expresses doubts about the environmental benefits of wind and solar farms.
He is now spoiling for a court fight with the Environmental Protection Agency over greenhouse gas regulations that van der Vaart has denounced as a federal “takeover of our electricity system.”
Van der Vaart says his philosophy is straightforward: balancing environmentalism and economics.
“What it really is protecting the environment while we keep energy affordable,” van der Vaart said during a recent interview. “Because energy prices are absolutely fundamental for developing good paying jobs and as a weapon against poverty.
“Too often that’s lost in the shuffle. There’s obviously a lot of excitement about these new energy sources. But ultimately, it’s absolutely imperative that especially our lower-income folks don’t continue to lose so much of their expendable income on their energy costs.”
Van der Vaart’s outspoken skepticism about the potential of wind energy and solar power troubles many environmental leaders in the state. They say the secretary is anything but balanced when it comes to weighing the risks and rewards of alternative energy sources.
“The comments sound as if they had been prepared by a right-wing think tank,” said Molly Diggins, director of the Sierra Club’s North Carolina operations. “It’s remarkable that the comments have nothing but praise not only for natural gas but for fracking itself, with no stated downside.”
Even some Republicans admit being surprised by van der Vaart’s willingness to openly disparage a sector of the economy that other Republicans have embraced. While Gov. Pat McCrory has attended ribbon-cutting ceremonies for solar farms and the recently announced the Amazon Wind Farm in eastern North Carolina, van der Vaart often points out the limitations of renewables in his presentations.
“It’s a known fact that the Secretary does not embrace renewables,” said Republican Rep. Bob Steinburg of Edenton. “I think there are some who would say he is overstepping his bounds.”
“I’m just offended by the way the department seems to have lost its purpose,” said another Republican, Rep. Chuck McGrady of Hendersonville. “He seems to be the chief promoter of offshore drilling and hydraulic fracturing and any energy except anything renewable.”
But for many conservatives, van der Vaart is the Republican antidote to what they see as decades of misguided liberal policy that entangled North Carolina businesses in a thicket of burdensome regulations.
“What most impresses me about him is the fact that he sees how environmental regulations impact the business,” said Republican Rep. Mike Hager of Rutherfordton, a former Duke Energy engineer. “He thinks outside his little fiefdom there.”
Hager has been leading the GOP effort – unsuccessful so far – to eliminate North Carolina’s renewables mandate that was enacted in 2007 to wean that state’s electric utilities off coal-burning power plants. The energy law is credited with catapulting North Carolina to fourth place in the nation in solar power output.
Van der Vaart’s views on renewables mirror criticism expressed by conservative groups in Raleigh, including the John Locke Foundation and the Civitas Institute. Both pressed for the legislature’s recent elimination of the state’s generous tax credit for renewable energy projects; the tax break, totaling $126.7 million in avoided state taxes last year, will expire at the end of this year.
Conservative critics have argued that subsidization of renewable energy already has cost the state nearly 24,000 jobs and $14.4 billion in personal income. The N.C. Sustainable Energy Association counters that the clean energy sector has created 25,700 full-time jobs.
A conservative approach
Many who know van der Vaart – a 57-year-old Raleigh native who holds a Ph.D. in chemical engineering from Cambridge University – consider him forceful, intelligent, and the most qualified environmental secretary in the state’s history.
Van der Vaart succeeded John Skvarla, a corporate lawyer and executive who oversaw environmental regulation for two years and now heads the N.C. Department of Commerce. Under Skvarla, the agency announced it would become customer-friendly with the regulated industries it oversees.
In 2014, when he was deputy secretary, van der Vaart raised questions in public comments to the N.C. Utilities Commission about the side effects of renewables, particularly solar. “With greater presence, collateral impacts are manifest,” he wrote. He cited a number of concerns, such as land clearing required to build solar farms and the presence of toxic constituents in photovoltaic panels.
Noting that wind farms generate power intermittently and have to be backed up by conventional power plants, van der Vaart expressed concern that “the nature of wind farms actually leads to more pollution than if the wind farms did not exist.”
In September, van der Vaart’s deputy secretary, John Evans, expressed similar concerns to the N.C. Utilities Commission.
When asked if renewables are bad policy, van der Vaart responded that solar and wind have an important role to play. “We’re already high on renewables, and there’ll be more of it.”
Van der Vaart has worked short stints in private industry and academia but spent most of his career in state government, most of it when environmental regulation was controlled by Democrats. He first joined the Department of Environmental Quality, which was then called the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, during the early 1990s.
He left the agency after about two years in 1995 for a job at Carolina Power & Light, the Raleigh utility now part of Duke Energy in Charlotte. He returned to state government in 1997, rising through the ranks of supervisor, manager and finally section chief in the agency’s Division of Air Quality, overseeing emissions permits and other functions.
After Republicans gained control of the legislature and executive branch in 2013, they sought to promote like-minded employees within state agencies. Van der Vaart was a beneficiary, winning an appointment as the state’s first Energy Policy Advisor in January 2014, and then environmental secretary 11 months ago. He is paid $129,000 a year to oversee about 1,700 employees and an annual budget of about $158 million.
Among this first acts: firing assistant secretary Brad Ives and reassigning assistant secretary Mitch Gillespie to Asheville, a move widely seen as a demotion for the 15-year lawmaker. Both had been brought in by the McCrory administration. Ives now is an associate vice chancellor at UNC-Chapel Hill; Gillespie left the agency and now is a senior policy adviser to N.C. House Speaker Tim Moore.
Ives and Gillespie declined comment, but van der Vaart said Asheville was a better fit for Gillespie’s background in politics and his acumen for “working with people.” The move blindsided some, because in the office Gillespie was seen as a leading critic of what some condemned as heavy-handed environmental regulation. He had once even drawn a bullseye on his office window facing the state environmental agency’s office to express his frustration with its policies.
Francis De Luca, president of the conservative Civitas Institute in Raleigh, applauds van der Vaart’s decision: “Clearing out Mitch Gillespie was the probably the best thing he did.” De Luca said Gillespie was no true conservative when it came to environmental issues because “he likes a lot of regulation.”
One of van der Vaart’s changes at DEQ this year, proposed to the Environmental Management Commission, is the elimination of the permitting requirement for small industries. The EMC is set to hold a public hearing Nov. 4 on the request.
The change would benefit about 1,440 businesses that account for just 3.4 percent of air emissions, and it would free up DEQ staff to focus on big industry, van der Vaart told a lunchtime gathering at the John Locke Foundation in September. These concrete plants, rock quarries and auto body shops would save an estimated $770,000 a year in avoided permit fees and associated costs, according to a DEQ analysis.
Terry Lansdell, program director at Clean Air Carolina, fears the proposal is a capitulation to let businesses police themselves rather than relying on state oversight. Clean Air Carolina is one of several organizations that plans to oppose DEQ’s proposal.
In March, two months after van der Vaart took over the agency, it issued a record $25.1 million fine against Duke Energy for coal ash violations, settling in September to avoid a court battle with Duke. Asked by Duke’s lawyers about his role in the fine, van der Vaart said in a deposition that his role isn’t to espouse policy but merely “to manage the folks” at the agency.
Van der Vaart has been a vociferous critic of the EPA’s Clean Power Plan and other federal involvement in state affairs. He considers the EPA’s strategy for mitigating greenhouse gases to be illegal and has joined a group of two dozen states in a legal challenge to the federal rule. Van der Vaart expects EPA to lose in court, but as a precaution DEQ plans to submit a compliance plan that critics say is designed to be rejected. His confrontational approach, without seeking outside input, has been controversial.
“I’m fine with the idea of challenging the authority of EPA – go ahead and do that,” said McGrady, a former national president of the Sierra Club. “At the same time, you’ve got Duke Energy, the Sierra Club and everything in between saying we need a process to make sure we get this right, so we just don’t default to bureaucrats at DEQ to put together a plan.”
Van der Vaart believes the EPA’s plan – which requires North Carolina to reduce its carbon dioxide emissions from power plants by 36 percent from 2012 levels by 2030 – could cause the utilities to raise bills by $434 a year per household in 2020 as they pass along the costs. Currently, residential customers of Duke Energy Carolinas pay $78.36 a year for renewables and economic efficiency programs, while Duke Energy Progress customers pay $60.96 a year. The money largely pays for the rebates given to individuals who buy energy-efficient appliances, and also for the electricity utilities are required to buy from solar farms.
Van der Vaart has said the only way to make drastic reductions in carbon emissions is by aggressive development of nuclear power. That option would be costlier than wind farms and solar farms, according to an analysis by Lazard, the global asset management firm. But van der Vaart countered that when assessed over many decades, rather than the standard 40-year lifespan, nuclear energy becomes cost-competitive.
At a September presentation to the N.C. Chamber, the state’s powerful business lobby, van der Vaart explained that for decades North Carolina law has required electric utilities to generate the cheapest power, not the cleanest power. This is known as the economic dispatch model.
The EPA, van der Vaart warned, is sabotaging that long-cherished principle.
“Do you want to go from an economic dispatch system to an environmental dispatch system?” van der Vaart challenged the audience. “Let me know.”
Donald van der Vaart
Eduation: Ph.D. in chemical engineering from the University of Cambridge in England; M.S. in chemical engineering from N.C. State University; Law degree from N.C. Central University; B.S. in chemistry from UNC-Chapel Hill
Career: Started his career as an assistant research engineer at the Shell Development Co. in 1985-86; was a research engineer at Research Triangle Institute in 1986-88; moved to the Virginia Polytechnic Institute as a research scientist in 1989-1992. In the mid-1990s, he worked as a manager of environmental programs and services at Carolina Power & Light, the Raleigh electric utility that now is a subsidiary of Duke Energy. Since 2014, he has been the Department of Environmental Quality’s Energy Policy Advisor, Chief Deputy Secretary. He was named Secretary in January.