Under the Dome

Bill lifting environmental reviews scaled back

An environmental protection that requires extra scrutiny of publicly financed projects would be scaled back in a bill the House passed Wednesday night.

House Bill 795 passed on a vote of 74-41, and goes next to the Senate.

Bill supporters consented to amendments reducing its impact. Projects costing the state more than $10 million, rather than the original $20 million, or that disturb at least five acres of public land, rather than 20 acres, would trigger an environmental review.

Bill sponsor Rep. John Torbett, a Republican from Gaston County, said the 1971 law was outdated and no longer necessary because of other clean water protections in the law.

"At one time it was the right thing to do for North Carolina," Torbett said. "Now it’s more of a redundancy."

Rep. Chuck McGrady, a Republican from Henderson County, said the real intention of the bill was to repeal not reform the State Environmental Policy Act, and suggested the chamber just go ahead and amend the title to call it what it is.

"Then we would, in fact, be doing what we say we’re not doing tonight," McGrady said.

The N.C. Chamber pushed the bill heavily, saying it was the kind of regulatory reform needed to help the economy. The Sierra Club opposed it, noting that its impact had not been studied and there was little discussion before it was rushed to the floor.

Renewable energy portfolio

In another environmental bill, the House went along with an amendment to a regulatory overhaul bill, HB760, that would freeze the state’s renewable energy portfolio at its current level until it could be studied.

Rep. Paul Luebke, a Democrat from Durham, criticized the amendment by Rep. Charles Jeter, a Republican from Mecklenburg County, because last week a committee rejected another effort to freeze the rate of renewable energy use.

"What we have here tonight is a weakening of the renewable energy program," Luebke said.

In 2007, the General Assembly required electric companies to increasingly include renewable energy sources such as solar and wind in their mix. The law includes subsidies for power companies.

The amendment to HB760 would also repeal the 80 percent property tax abatement that solar energy farms currently enjoy, and would make it easier for electric utilities to meet required goals through energy efficiencies.

The amendment, which passed 98-18, also had the effect of making HB760 not subject to the Thursday deadline to cross over to the Senate, and so it remains on the calendar for a future vote.