Southern Environmental Law Center
Southern Environmental Law Center
News Article | April 28, 2017
This story was originally published by the New Republic and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration. Most analyses of President Donald Trump’s first 100 days in office have focused on what he hasn’t accomplished. But when it comes to the environment, he’s been active indeed. He has signed at least eight anti-environmental executive actions. His Environmental Protection Agency has ordered delays and reviews of anti-pollution rules. And he has appointed a Supreme Court justice with an anti-environmental bent. These actions aren’t just symbolic. With a few strokes of his pen, Trump has made decisions that could have environmentalists in court for the entirety of his presidency — and which may impact the environment for decades to come. Here are a few ways that Trump, in just 100 days, has already cemented a long-term environmental legacy. In his first week in office, Trump signed executive actions to revive the controversial Keystone XL and Dakota Access oil pipelines, both of which had been in limbo. President Barack Obama had rejected construction of Keystone XL, saying the pipeline would transport relatively dirty Canadian tar sands oil that would undermine U.S. leadership in global climate talks. Trump’s orders changed that. “His decision led to the nearly immediate completion of Dakota Access,” said Vermont Law School Professor Patrick Parenteau. (Oil is now flowing through the pipeline.) With Keystone, it’s a bit more complicated. Environmental groups have filed a legal challenge to Trump’s decision, and are hopeful they can further delay the project. But Parenteau says it’s very unlikely that their challenge will succeed. “Keystone is a done deal,” he said. “Those are major, huge infrastructure investments that mean these oil and gas resources are going to be burned,” Parenteau said. “These pipelines are going to add emissions for probably 40 years.” Trump himself has cited Neil Gorsuch’s confirmation as his biggest accomplishment thus far. Pat Gallagher, the director of the Sierra Club’s environmental law program, agrees. When I asked him to name a Trump decision with the longest-lasting impact on the environment, he said, “Neil Gorsuch. Duh.” Gallagher and other environmentalists argue that Gorsuch has a history of ruling against environmental groups, often by concluding that they don’t have legal standing to bring their suits. Put another way, Gorsuch has historically favored dismissing lawsuits brought by environmental groups because it’s hard for them to prove they’ve suffered actual injury. “You’re talking about a 30-, 40-year legacy of decisions like this,” Gallagher said. “That dwarfs the impact of any executive order.” Trump signed an executive order lifting Obama’s temporary ban on new coal leasing on public lands. While other orders merely begin the process of rolling back environmental regulations, this one was immediate: Interior Department Secretary Ryan Zinke lifted the Obama-era ban as soon as Trump signed the order. Right now, federal land accounts for 40 percent of U.S. coal production, according to The Hill. That translates into 13 percent of America’s energy-related carbon emissions. With Trump’s decision, 600 million tons of coal buried under federal lands are now open for mining. That’s not to say the coal industry is rushing to do so. “Practically, lifting the ban is not going to unleash a whole flood of coal burning, because the market’s already saturated,” Gallagher said. Indeed, the market has been saturated of late — that’s why so many coal companies are going bankrupt. But as Trump continues to deregulate coal power plants, it’s possible that demand could rise, at least temporarily. A lot of Trump’s orders have to do with killing regulations. But they don’t do so immediately; rather, they kickstart a long, fraught process of undoing, or rewriting, those regulations. That doesn’t mean, however, that those actions don’t have immediate impacts on the environment, said Melina Pierce, the Sierra Club’s legislative director. Take Trump’s decision to reexamine Obama’s fuel efficiency standards for cars. While those standards won’t be reconsidered for some time, Pierce says the mere fact that they’re likely to be weakened will impact how automakers make their cars right now. Cars are one of the largest contributors to air pollution and carbon dioxide in the U.S. “Trump’s actions to review miles-per-gallon standards and tailpipe standards to cars; that sends a market signal to automakers about what their fleet should look like,” Pierce said. “With the uncertainty of that review, I think it would have a chilling effect on automakers’ decisions about how efficient to make their cars.” Some of the lasting impacts of Trump’s environmental agenda are cultural; they have less to do with actions he’s taken than the tone he has set. Blan Holman, a managing attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center, said that by proposing to cut the EPA by 31 percent — including the Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance — Trump sends a signal to polluters that federal regulators might go easy on them. “A lot of people have pulled back on purchasing equipment or undergoing cleanups because they think that the standards are going to be weakened,” Holman said. “There is an overall change in political weather just by virtue of that big momentum … People are starting to think, well perhaps the people who are running the place aren’t going to be giving out gold stars for protecting the most wetlands.” In just 100 days, Trump has waged environmental battles that will have lawyers in court for years. He pledged to review pollution regulations for cars and light trucks; promised to undo the greenhouse gas–cutting Clean Power Plan; and vowed to kill the Obama administration’s Waters of the United State (WOTUS) rule, which expands the definition of protected waters under the Clean Water Act. Environmentalists have threatened to take Trump to court over all of these actions, and have set the stage for what E&E News called “prolonged, fierce battles in environmental law.” Parenteau thinks the longest case will be over the WOTUS rule, because there are multiple layers of challenges. Trump will face legal action not only to repealing Obama’s rule, but to whatever he replaces it with. Both will likely reach the Supreme Court. “I’ve never seen anything quite like this, nor have lawyers who have been working on these types of cases for a while,” Parenteau said.
News Article | April 18, 2016
Regulators in North Carolina have refused an advocacy group's request to allow for third-party solar ownership in the state, and hit the organization with a $60,000 fine. NC WARN, a nonprofit environmental group, filed a petition with the North Carolina Utilities Commission (NCUC) last June seeking approval for selling solar power to the Faith Community Church in Greensboro. The nonprofit built a rooftop solar project on the church last year as an act of civil disobedience designed to test a state law prohibiting the direct sale of electricity from any entity other than the utility. The 5.25-kilowatt array was offered with a three-year PPA at roughly half the price of retail electricity. Duke Energy, the dominant utility in the state, argues that the project is illegal and that the NCUC does not have the authority to allow for third-party sales. NC WARN insists that the funding arrangement is consistent with state energy policy and with the constitutional ban of monopolies. NC WARN says it is not acting as a public utility; rather, it is providing a financing service on the church's side of the meter. The group claims this type of no-money-down solar financing has widespread support among churches, businesses, homes and other customers. SolarCity and the nonprofit NC Interfaith Power & Light, represented by Southern Environmental Law Center, are intervenors in the case in favor of third-party ownership. On Friday, the NCUC issued an order stating "there is no provision in the Public Utilities Act that expressly authorizes the Commission to allow third-party sales of Commission-regulated electric utility services to the public for compensation." Duke cheered the decision. “It was clear NC WARN was acting like a public utility while ignoring all the rules to properly do so. We’re pleased the NCUC denied the organization’s request," said Randy Wheeless, Duke Energy spokesperson. In addition to refusing the petition, regulators levied a $60,000 fine against NC WARN for selling power to Faith Community Church, but "suspended" the fine if the group stops selling power and agrees to meet other conditions. Jim Warren, director of NC WARN, said the terms of the suspension are still unclear. He also pledged further action. "This case is going to court," said Warren, in a statement. "In other states, regulators or courts have agreed that third-party financing of rooftop solar is permissible and in the public interest." "In this case, the NCUC declined to hold a hearing over the nine months since the case began despite widespread public interest and engagement among the faith community and the national solar industry," he added. North Carolina is one of four states in the country -- along with Florida, Oklahoma and Kentucky -- where third-party entities are restricted from selling electricity directly to customers. A bill that would enable third-party financing in North Carolina was introduced in the general assembly last year but died in committee. In Florida, a campaign seeking approval of third-party-owned solar in the Sunshine State failed to gain a slot on the 2016 ballot. Meanwhile, Georgia and South Carolina recently modified their laws to allow third-party sales. These developments show that the U.S. remains a mixed market for pure-play rooftop firms like SolarCity, Sunrun and Vivint Solar.
News Article | February 24, 2017
The Virginia General Assembly wraps up its 2017 session on Saturday, February 25. As usual, the results are a mixed bag for energy. On the plus side is the promise of a new solar purchase option for customers. On the downside, utility opposition to energy efficiency and distributed generation meant a lot of worthwhile initiatives never made it out of subcommittee. Putting it into perspective, it could have been worse. For clean energy advocates in Virginia, that’s what we call a success! Governor Terry McAuliffe has already acted on some of the bills that passed and will have until March 27 to act on the remaining bills. Under Virginia law, the governor can sign, veto, or amend the bills for legislators’ consideration. Negotiations between utilities, the solar industry trade association MDV-SEIA, and the group Powered by Facts produced three pieces of legislation that appear likely to become law (and all of which I’ve discussed previously). The most significant of these “Rubin Group” bills (named for facilitator Mark Rubin) is SB 1393 (Wagner), the so-called “community solar” bill, which is designed to launch a utility-controlled and administered solar option for customers. The utilities will contract for the output of solar facilities to be built in Virginia and will sell the electricity to subscribers under programs to be approved by the State Corporation Commission. Critical details such as the price of the offering will be determined during a proceeding before the State Corporation Commission. This was the only one of the Rubin Group bills that had participation from members of the environmental community (Southern Environmental Law Center and Virginia League of Conservation Voters), and it received widespread (though not unanimous) support from advocates. Broader legislation that would have enabled true community solar programs did not move forward. SB 1208 (Wexton) and HB 2112 (Keam and Villanueva), modeled on programs in other states, had the backing of the Distributed Solar Collaborative, a stakeholder group composed of everyone but utilities. In the Senate, Wexton’s bill was “rolled into” Wagner’s bill, but only her name, not the provisions of her bill, carried over. SB 1395 (Wagner), a second Rubin Group bill, increases from 100 MW to 150 MW the size of solar or wind projects eligible to use the state’s Permit by Rule process, which is overseen by the Department of Environmental Quality. The legislation also allows utilities to use the PBR process for their projects instead of seeking a permit from the SCC, if the projects are not being built to serve their regulated ratepayers. The third Rubin Group bill establishes a buy-all, sell-all program for agricultural generators of renewable energy. Although supported by MDV-SEIA as part of the package deal, passage of SB 1394 (Wagner) and HB 2303 (Minchew) should be considered a loss for solar. The program replaces existing agricultural net metering rules for members of rural cooperatives and could lead these coops to reach their 1% net metering cap prematurely, blocking other customers from being able to use net metering. And while negotiators say the program should be economically beneficial to participants, it appears to offer generators no options they don’t already have under existing federal PURPA law. The governor has until March 27 to act on these bills. Under HB 2390 (Kilgore), the existing pilot program that allows some third-party power purchase agreements (PPAs) in Dominion Power territory will be extended to Appalachian Power territory, but only for the private colleges and universities who could afford to hire a lobbyist to negotiate the special favor, and only up to a 7 MW program cap. APCo is expected to use passage of the bill to assert that PPAs for all other customers are now illegal. The governor has not indicated whether he will sign the bill. SB 1226 (Edwards, D-Roanoke) allows solar developers to keep confidential certain proprietary information that would otherwise be subject to disclosure under the state’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). It resolves a problem that has held up a solar project on the Berglund Center, a public building in Roanoke. HB 1760 (Kilgore) and SB 1418 (Chafin) allow Dominion Power to seek rate recovery for a scheme to use abandoned coal mines for pumped storage facilities. If you think this sounds weird and possibly dangerous, you are not alone. Usually the idea is to keep water out of coal mines to avoid the leaching of toxic chemicals into groundwater. Apparently no one has ever used coal mines for pumped storage before, and neither the company that would construct the project, nor the sites under consideration, nor the technology to be used, have been revealed. SB 1258 (Ebbin) adds storage to the mandate of the Virginia Solar Energy Development Authority. Dominion’s nuclear costs, and the politics of the “rate freeze” HB 2291 (Kilgore) allows Dominion to charge ratepayers for the costs of upgrading its nuclear facilities. Because the charges will appear as a rider on top of base rates, consumers would not be protected by the “rate freeze” Dominion pushed through in 2015’s SB 1349. That 2015 legislation, of course, was supposedly designed to shield customers from the impact of the EPA’s Clean Power Plan, a ruse that has been since laid bare. Instead, it will allow Dominion to keep an estimated billion dollars of customers’ money it would otherwise have had to refund or forego. This year, with the CPP on death row under Trump, Senator Chap Petersen introduced SB 1095, which would repeal the rate freeze. His bill was promptly killed in committee, but continues to gain support everywhere outside the General Assembly. Governor McAuliffe belatedly announced his support for Petersen’s bill, but did not use his authority to resurrect it. Petersen is encouraging the Governor to offer an amendment to Kilgore’s HB 2291 that would repeal the rate freeze, an option allowed by Virginia’s legislative procedure since both provisions affect the same provision of the Code. Dominion, of course, says the CPP isn’t actually dead and buried just yet, and Republicans seem to fear its resurrection. HB 1974 (O’Quinn) requires the Department of Environmental Quality to submit any Clean Power Plan implementation plan to the General Assembly for approval, so they can stab it with their steely knives. The governor is expected to veto the bill. State’s failures on energy efficiency will now be tracked SB 990 (Dance) requires the Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy to track and report on the state’s progress towards meeting its energy efficiency goals. Or in Virginia’s case, its lack of progress. HB 1712 (Minchew) expands the provisions of state law that allow public entities to use energy performance-based contracting. That’s it for energy efficiency legislation this year. Several good bills were offered but killed off in the House Energy Subcommittee, notably HB 1703 (Sullivan), which would have required electric utilities to meet efficiency goals, and HB 1636 (Sullivan again), which would have changed how the SCC evaluates energy efficiency programs. Delegate Sullivan, by the way, introduced a companion bill to SB 990, but his was killed in that same House subcommittee, all on the same day. SB1398 (Surovell) will require Dominion Power to monitor pollution and study options for the closure of its coal ash impoundments, including removal of the ash to secure, lined landfills. Unfortunately amendments in the House will allow Dominion to proceed with capping the waste in unlined pits while it completes the study. As one editorial put it, “Why not do it right the first time?” The editorial—along with a lot of people who have to live near the coal ahs dumps—would like to see the governor offer amendments to the bill, but we’ve heard nothing from the governor’s office on that yet. Republicans keep trying to throw taxpayer money down a rathole; Governor vetoes Governor McAuliffe has already vetoed HB 2198 (Kilgore), which would reinstate the coal employment and production incentive tax credit and extend the allowance of the coalfield employment enhancement tax credit. SB 1470 (Chafin) is identical to HB 2198 and so likely faces a veto as well.
News Article | September 2, 2016
"Conservation groups filed a federal lawsuit Thursday seeking to force Drummond Company to clean up its Maxine Mine, an underground coal mine that has not produced coal in decades, but which the Riverkeeper group says is still leaching mine waste and other pollutants into the Locust Fork of the Black Warrior River. The Maxine Mine is located on the Locust Fork near Praco, Ala. The lawsuit was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Alabama by the groups Black Warrior Riverkeeper, the Southern Environmental Law Center and Public Justice."
News Article | September 8, 2016
California lawmakers have been incredibly busy. Governor Jerry Brown signed a suite of bills on climate change and clean energy into law today addressing renewables, energy storage, energy efficiency, demand response and other technologies. With these bills, California will continue to lead other states and countries in the adoption of progressive energy policies. "The bills today really are far-reaching and keep California on the move to clean up the environment and encourage innovation and...the environmental resilience Californians expect," Gov. Brown said at a signing ceremony on Thursday. In this week's roundup, we document several new pieces of legislation in California. We also chronicle other recent state-level policy developments from around the country on the topics of net metering, resource planning, incentives, community solar, third-party ownership, energy storage and electric vehicles (click to jump to a section). As the legislative session came to a close, California passed a slew of clean energy and climate bills to be signed by Governor Jerry Brown on Thursday, September 8. In a hard-fought win, California lawmakers voted to extend the state’s efforts to address climate change by cutting the state's output of greenhouse gas emissions 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030 (SB 32) -- the most aggressive target in North America. The Senate vote to approve SB 32 came hours after the state assembly passed a related bill to increase legislative oversight of the climate change programs run by the California Air Resources Board (AB 197). In addition, the legislature passed AB 1550, which guarantees that at least 35 percent of California’s Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund proceeds from the state’s cap-and-trade program will benefit underserved communities and low-income Californians. California lawmakers also passed AB 1937, which requires utilities to draw on the benefits of clean, renewable power in communities that suffer from significant pollution as part of their procurement plans. As part of AB 2454, the CPUC is required to use the latest studies of demand response potential in determining the availability of resources that reduce energy demand. “The bill will help bring more high-value demand response to California by ensuring the CPUC makes decisions based on the most up-to-date information regarding the kind of demand response available and what it can do to reduce costs and California’s reliance on fossil fuels,” the Environmental Defense Fund wrote in a blog post. SB 840 addresses two state solar programs, according to EQ Research. One section of the amended bill eliminates the repeal of the existing law creating California's Green Tariff Shared Renewables on January 1, 2019, therefore making the program authorization indefinite. Another section facilitates the CPUC's June 2016 decision (in R1211005) extending the New Solar Homes Partnership by requiring any funding made available for the program to be deposited in the Renewable Resources Trust Fund and used by the CEC to fund program activities. California also passed four bills related to energy storage. AB 33 directs the CPUC to consider large-scale pumped hydro facilities as it evaluates utilities’ storage procurement targets. Under current rules, pumped storage hydro facilities larger than 50 megawatts are not eligible to meet storage procurement targets. AB 1637 seeks to double California’s Self-Generation Incentive Program. AB 2868 would allow the state’s three largest utilities to develop an additional 500 megawatts of storage capacity. And AB 2861 directs the CPUC to establish a resolution process to address interconnection disputes within 60 days. Advanced Energy Economy tracked and supported several other recently approved bills that relate to clean energy, including AB 1613/SB 859, which allocates $900 million of the total cap-and-trade budget for fiscal year 2016-2017 to advanced energy investments and programs. The future structure of California’s cap-and-trade program is among the issues left unresolved, however. Nevada PUC Chairman Paul Thomsen reversed a controversial decision this week that prevented SolarCity from participating in Nevada’s upcoming dockets on grandfathering existing solar customers onto older, more favorable rates. Nevada put in place new rates at the beginning of the year. In an order released on August 29, Thomsen determined that SolarCity does not represent the interests of solar customers in the state. “SolarCity is not an association and, therefore, cannot represent the interests of other persons simply because the other persons may have installed SolarCity equipment,” the order stated. Thomsen found that SolarCity’s customers’ interests are already adequately represented by the Attorney General’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. On September 6, Thomsen went back on his initial ruling and concluded that SolarCity could take part in the discussion. The PUC also set the first hearing date for September 19. Regulators could consider a proposed resolution to the grandfathering issue as early as September 28, Thomsen told the Las Vegas Review-Journal. NV Energy asked the PUC in late July to allow existing rooftop solar customers to be grandfathered in under the state’s previous, more favorable solar tariff, rather than be required to adopt a contentious new rate scheme introduced at the beginning of the year. The request was filed in two separate dockets, one on behalf of Nevada Power Company (16-07028) the other on behalf of Sierra Pacific Power Company (16-07029), both of which are subsidiaries of NV Energy. The utility filing came after SolarCity and other solar advocates had already spent months actively campaigning for rooftop solar customers to be grandfathered in under the old rates. The new rates include higher fixed fees and a lower net-metering credit. In February, regulators issued a final decision that adjusted the implementation timeline but upheld the fee changes. Oregon regulators are delaying the release of a solar policy report from September 15 to late October in response to protests from solar advocates. The Oregon legislature passed a bill last year instructing the Oregon PUC to produce a report evaluating the state’s various solar incentives. Regulators opened a docket (UM 1716) to address the “resource value of solar” based on 10 elements that directly relate to the cost of service for utility customers. In July, the Oregon PUC released a draft report on the state of Oregon’s solar industry that elicited a strong backlash. The report, which will inform value-of-solar discussions, recommended phasing out the state’s net metering practice in order to avoid the potential for cost shifts. The report states: “Rather than netting generation against consumption and applying the netted value to the utility’s volumetric rates, as is currently done...in the NEM program, a crediting value of the generation energy would occur on the customer’s bill. A solar metering customer would be charged the volumetric retail rate for energy delivered to the customer. However, the customer would be allowed to offset the charges with the value of the energy the customer generates.” Solar advocates took issue with the PUC’s characterization of Oregon’s solar industry as “well-supported” and “robust.” The report notes there are 8 megawatts of net-metered solar in the state, which solar groups point out is a fraction of Oregon utilities’ overall load. “That is not a thriving industry; that is still an emerging industry,” the Oregon Solar Energy Industries Association (OSEIA) wrote on its website. “While it’s true the solar industry is growing and solar costs are coming down, it is also true that even small changes in the current support structure could lead to a significant contraction of the industry with a loss of employees and likely failure of some solar businesses,” the OSEIA stated. The solar sector mobilized in response to the PUC report, demanding a more thorough analysis. The Portland Business Journal reports that regulators will now submit “a more fully vetted report” to the legislature in late October. Regulators will release a new draft report in the interim. According to OSEIA, comments on the draft are currently due September 30. On September 8, hearings will begin on Tucson Electric Power’s general rate case (E-01933A-15-0322). The proposal includes a 7 percent (an average of roughly $12) rate increase for residential customers, a doubling of the fixed charge from $10 to $20 for residential customers, a new demand charge for solar customers, and a reduction in the net metering credit for solar customers from the retail rate (11 cents per kilowatt-hour) to the utility’s avoided cost (6 cents per kilowatt-hour). TEP introduced the rate case in November 2015. The application requests that new rates come into effect by January 2017. Last month, Arizona regulators rejected a request to impose a demand charge on solar customers and reduce compensation under the net metering policy from TEP’s sister utility, UniSource Energy Services. The decision also introduced a new credit scheme and upheld the principle of grandfathering existing solar customers on existing rates, so that they don’t find themselves affected by a change in the regulatory landscape. The commission decided to hold off on addressing future solar rates until they conclude a separate docket on the value of solar, expected in October. That investigation is intended to provide solid data to use as the basis for future rate changes regarding solar. In response to increasing adoption of home solar and energy efficiency measures, Ohio’s American Electric Power (AEP) is seeking to more than double the fixed distribution charges all customers must pay, Midwest Energy News reports. AEP claims the increase in net-metered solar customers is creating a cost shift onto non-net metered customers. AEP Ohio currently serves 1.5 million customers, and has seen a jump in its solar net metering customers from 286 in 2011 to 983 customers today. The utility has proposed increasing the fixed charge from $8.40 per month to $18.40. AEP says the proposal is “revenue-neutral,” while clean energy advocates say it cuts the economic attractiveness of efficiency and solar. On August 18, Arkansas regulators established a working group to address net metering rates as part of a docket launched in April. According to AEE’s PowerSuite, the net metering working group is expected to issue a recommendation to the commission by September 15, 2017. A public hearing on all other aspects of this proceeding (i.e., net metering contracts, rules, and appropriate terms and conditions) is scheduled for October 4, 2016. In July, as part of a nearly three-year study of the state's policy on distributed generation, the Iowa Utilities Board directed MidAmerican and Alliant to file new distributed-generation tariffs, to be tried on a pilot basis for three years. The utilities’ initial pilots were rejected for being too burdensome for self-generating customers. Regulators requested new tariffs that encourage the adoption of distributed generation and said the revised tariffs must increase the cap on net metering from 500 kilowatts to 1 megawatt for up to 100 percent of a customer's load. Midwest Energy News reports that the latest proposals have raised red flags for solar advocates. MidAmerican proposed to allow net metering for solar installations financed through a third party; however, Alliant proposed to establish a maximum size for a net-metered system based on peak demand rather than total annual usage. Solar advocates have characterized the proposal as “non-transparent” and “very complex.” On August 11, PG&E filed an application for approval of a plan to retire the Diablo Canyon nuclear power facility in 2025, accompanied by plans to replace the output of the facility with zero-carbon emission resources. In its application, PG&E identifies three tranches of zero-emission resources that would partially replace the facility’s historic output of approximately 18,000 gigawatt-hours annually. According to EQ Research, the proposal includes the following: PG&E stated that any remaining replacement generation needs would be addressed as part of the CPUC Integrated Resource Plan proceeding. PG&E has requested permission to recover costs associated with energy efficiency procurement through non-bypassable charges, as well as the establishment of a "Clean Energy Charge" to recover costs associated with zero-emission generation resource acquisition under Tranches #2 and #3. Officials from Connecticut, Rhode Island and Massachusetts have joined with electric utilities to evaluate more than 50 solicitations from companies to build clean energy plants that would serve all three states, Electric Light and Power reports. The states are hoping to leverage their purchasing power for better terms. The aim is eventually to lower consumers' electricity bills, while also meeting each state’s respective clean energy and environmental goals. Last month, the Iowa Utilities Board approved MidAmerican's $3.6 billion, 2-gigawatt wind farm that will raise the utility’s generation portfolio to over 85 percent renewables. On August 29, Florida voters approved a constitutional amendment in the statewide primary that clears the way for solar and other renewable energy systems to receive a property-tax exemption, creating the opportunity for distributed solar to expand in the Sunshine State. Amendment 4 specifically authorizes the Florida legislature to exempt solar projects on commercial and industrial properties from both the tangible personal property tax and the ad valorem real estate taxes. The amendment builds upon existing law that exempts residential customers from paying property taxes on renewable energy systems, including solar PV, wind turbines, solar water heaters and geothermal heat pumps. On September 7, Floridians for Solar Choice launched a new campaign opposing Amendment 1 -- a utility-backed amendment that ensures consumers can “own or lease solar equipment installed on their property” and that “consumers who do not choose to install solar are not required to subsidize the costs of backup power and electric grid access to those who do.” Floridians for Solar Choice introduced its own ballot initiative last year to allow for third-party ownership of solar projects. The initiative failed as a utility-supported group, Consumers for Smart Solar, advanced an opposing initiative to block a policy change. This week, Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians, Greens and non-partisan advocacy groups launched the “Vote No on 1” opposition efforts. “In true ‘David and Goliath’ form, this grassroots campaign must compete against the nearly $19 million contributed by utilities and their supporters to date,” Floridians for Solar Choice wrote in a statement. Opponents of Amendment 1 claim that the ballot initiative will stifle Florida’s solar market because: A Virginia State Corporation Commission hearing examiner has rejected a claim from Appalachian Power that customers in its area are forbidden from entering into PPAs with third parties, according to the Southern Environmental Law Center. The hearing examiner determined that third-party financing for residential solar installations is legal under state law while evaluating Appalachian Power's request for an experimental rider for nonresidential customers to purchase renewable generation from a third party developer, but keeps the utility as a middleman. In 2013, the Virginia legislature set up provisions for a pilot program that allowed PPAs in Dominion Virginia Power’s service area. In 2015, regulators approved the first PPA in the state under that program. Appalachian Power attempted to argue that PPAs were only allowed under approved utility pilot programs like Dominion’s. The hearing examiner’s ruling must still be accepted by the full utility commission, but if upheld, solar advocates believe it will further open Virginia markets to new solar businesses and jobs. On August 23, Southern Maryland Electric Cooperative (SMECO) and Choptank Electric Cooperative filed a petition for a declaratory order with FERC, requesting that FERC find that the Maryland PSC’s newly promulgated community solar regulations do not comply with PURPA and the Federal Power Act. According to EQ Research, the petitioners argue that the cost of purchases of excess or unsubscribed energy for a community solar facility do not align with express requirements of Maryland statutes because the arrangements involve virtual net metering, where subscribers are provided retail-rate credits. Specifically, the cooperatives requested that FERC determine: 1) to the extent that community solar regulations require Maryland electric companies to purchase energy from community solar facilities at a particular price, Maryland regulations are pre-empted by federal law unless such facilities are qualifying facilities under PURPA; and 2) community solar regulations that require payment to community solar facilities at prices higher than avoided costs violate, and are pre-empted by, PURPA. On August 19, 2016, the Oregon PUC issued draft energy storage project proposal guidelines, competitive bidding requirements and proposed storage potential evaluation requirements, according to AEE’s PowerSuite. The guidelines were mandated by the state legislature under HB 2193 and are due by January 1, 2017. Utility-scale energy storage project proposals are to be submitted by January 1, 2018. Comments on the evaluation requirements are due by September 16, and comments on the proposal guidelines and competitive bidding requirements are due by September 30, 2016. In January 2016, Nevada opened an investigation into electric-vehicle charging infrastructure (16-01018). The PUC held a workshop on August 23, 2016. Participating parties may submit supplemental comments by October 3, 2016. On August 15, 2016, Ameren Missouri proposed a three-year, nearly $600,000 pilot program to install and operate six electric-vehicle charging stations along Interstate 70, according the St. Louis Dispatch. All of the charging stations would be open to the general public for a flat fee per fixed interval of 15 minutes, the value of which is to be determined by the commission. Ameren Missouri claims that a majority of the costs for the pilot project would be borne by shareholders, and not the rate base. The utility has asked for a final decision by October 15, 2016. Policy developments are tracked in partnership with EQ Research, which offers in-depth subscription services covering regulatory developments, legislation and general rate cases in all 50 U.S. states.
News Article | March 15, 2016
The Obama administration announced Tuesday that it is dropping its year-old plan to allow companies to search and drill for oil and natural gas in the Atlantic Ocean off of four southeastern states. Department of Interior Sally Jewell said in a statement that objections from the Pentagon and strong opposition from nearly a hundred coastal communities in Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia factored into the decision to not offer leases to companies starting in 2017. [The government’s Atlantic drilling plan takes friendly fire — from the Pentagon] “We heard from many corners that now is not the time to offer oil and gas leasing off the Atlantic coast,” Jewell said. “When you factor in conflicts with national defense, economic activities such as fishing and tourism, and opposition from many local communities, it simply doesn’t make sense to move forward with any lease sales in the coming five years.” There were added issues as well. The statement from the department, which received more than a million comments on its draft plan, listed commercial interests, current market dynamics and limited infrastructure as factors also driving the decision. Other aspects of the president five-year energy plan, which has already undergone several rounds of public hearings, will move forward, such as a plan to offer 10 new leases in the Gulf of Mexico, one of the world’s most productive sources of oil Jewell said. Three leases will also be explored in the Alaskan Arctic. According to Interior’s estimates, more than 3 billion barrels of oil is recoverable on the outer continental shelf, plus more than 30 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) had expressed support for oil excavation as long as it was done responsibly, with the protection of the state’s lucrative beach tourism in mind. McAuliffe had little comment Tuesday, other than to say that Jewell’s announcement provides “an opportunity to work with the Department of Defense” to address its concerns moving forward. U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) said in a statement he has long felt that the ban on Atlantic drilling should be reconsidered. He said he was struck by the Pentagon’s objections because he’d never heard them previously, even when he was governor from 2006-2010. “The DoD has been relatively quiet during this public debate and has never shared their objections with me before.” The military’s more recent objections to the Atlantic drilling plan appear to have carried significant weight. The Pentagon said Sunday that it drafted an assessment, at Jewell’s request, that identified “areas where the [Defense’s] offshore readiness activities are not compatible, partially compatible or minimally impacted by oil and gas activities,” spokesman Matthew Allen said in an email. Officials also argued that oil exploration such as seismic testing and platforms could compromise training naval exercises “from unit level training to major joint service and fleet exercises.” Reaction from oil industry advocates was immediate and negative. “The decision appeases extremists who seek to stop oil and natural gas production which would increase the cost of energy for American consumers and close the door for years to creating new jobs, new investments and boosting energy security,” said American Petroleum Institute President and Chief Executive Jack Gerard. “This decision stunts the safe and responsible path to securing the domestic energy supplies future generations of Americans will need,” he said, adding that it ends a chance to create jobs for Americans along the Atlantic coast and nationwide, and “also erasing millions more in revenue to the government.” Karen Harbert, president and CEO of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Institute for 21st Century Energy, also lashed out. “America’s job creators have become accustomed to the relentless drumbeat of anti-energy policies from the Obama administration,” she said. But closing off the Atlantic coast to offshore drilling “is nevertheless remarkable for its catering to fringe constituencies at the expense of energy security and the American economy.” Environmentalists, however, praised the administration. “With this decision, coastal communities have won a ‘David vs. Goliath’ fight against the richest companies on the planet, and that is a cause for tremendous optimism for the well-being of future generations,” Jacqueline Savitz, vice president of Oceana for the United States, said in a statement. “This is an incredible day for the Southeast,” said Sierra Weaver, senior attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center. “It represents the hard work of thousands of people and protects some of our most cherished places, from the Chesapeake Bay and the Outer Banks to the South Carolina Low country and Georgia barrier islands.” The decision was the second rejection of a major project involving oil since the administration turned down the Keystone XL pipeline in November. Both actions are a nod in favor of environmentalists, who have been disappointed with some of President Obama’s energy initiatives during his two terms. Like Obama’s decision on the Keystone pipeline, this one runs against public opinion. A Yale University survey last fall found 60 percent of Americans supporting expanded drilling for oil and natural gas off the U.S. coast. Fifty-seven percent of Democrats opposed expansion, while 62 percent of independents and 79 percent of Republicans supported it. Coastal communities that supported the possibility of Atlantic drilling six years ago turned against it following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The city of Virginia Beach abruptly reversed course when its council voted to rescind its 2010 resolution after some of the city’s biggest business alliances campaigned against drilling. This New York storm barrier could have slowed down Sandy. But European settlers ate it United Airlines is flying on biofuels. Here’s why that’s a really big deal The more we learn about Antarctica’s past, the scarier the present looks For more, you can sign up for our weekly newsletter here, and follow us on Twitter here.
News Article | September 29, 2016
A federal district court in North Carolina issued a preliminary injunction Thursday barring the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service from capturing and removing red wolves in the state or issuing permits that allow private landowners to kill the animals when they stray onto their property. The ruling by Judge Terrence W. Boyle at the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina was the latest shot in the war over the federal government’s management of a small population of wolves in North Carolina. Fish and Wildlife placed red wolves at the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge 30 years ago in the hopes of reestablishing them in the wild. But opposition to the presence of wolves from landowners and state officials led the federal agency to capture some nuisance wolves and permit others to be killed. Conservation groups pushed back with a recent lawsuit that resulted in Thursday’s decision. Fish and Wildlife is “enjoined from taking red wolves, either directly or by landowner authorization without first demonstrating that such red wolves are a threat to human safety or the safety of livestock or pets,” Boyle wrote in a decision. The judge said any other decision would ignore that Congress had mandated the program to prevent the extinction of red wolves. “It is not for this court to permit action or inaction which would have an effect counter to Congress’ goals,” Boyle wrote. Unless Fish and Wildlife decides to terminate the program, the court must respect the wish of Congress over loud, vocal opposition against red wolves, the judge said. The decision comes slightly more than two weeks after Fish and Wildlife announced that it was considering a proposal to remove most of the red wolf population from North Carolina and place the animals in zoos run by its management partners throughout the country. [Red wolves will still be protected – but more in zoos than the wild] Cindy Dohner, southeast regional director for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said doubling the number of captive wolves would allow the agency to increase the number of mating pairs in an effort to save them. Dohner said the 29 mating pairs currently in the wild cannot sustain the population. The goal is to reach 52 pairs. After a long public comment period, the agency will decide whether to finalize its newest management proposal in December 2017. It wasn’t immediately clear how the court ruling could affect those plans. “We have the judge’s ruling and are talking with our lawyers over at the Justice Department,” said Jeff Fleming, a spokesman for the southeast region. “Nothing to add beyond that at this time.” The lawsuit challenging Fish and Wildlife management was filed by a coalition of wildlife groups that hailed the court’s decision. They are Defenders of Wildlife, the Red Wolf Coalition, the Southern Environmental Law Center and the Animal Welfare Institute. “We want to make sure nothing is done to hurt this population while Fish and Wildlife is deciding what should be done for their future,” said Jason Rylander, a senior staff attorney for Defenders of Wildlife. Rylander said Fish and Wildlife declined to remove wolves from the population for decades, then suddenly in recent months “a vocal set of landowners caused them to manage differently. They stopped all the things that made this a successful program.” The wolves were already imperiled because North Carolina game officials allowed coyotes to be hunted in the middle of their habitat. As a result, many wolves mistaken for coyotes were shot. To compound that problem, Fish and Wildlife captured wolves that strayed on private land or wandered off from the wildlife refuge. One female was captured and taken away from pups that needed her to survive and another was hit by a car while crossing a road back to its territory, Rylander said. [Ten animals that would disappear without the Western sagebrush] According to the coalition, a majority of North Carolinians — more than 70 percent — support red wolf recovery. “This is a great day for red wolves and for anyone who loves nature in eastern North Carolina,” said Sierra Weaver, an attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center. Another conservation group outside the coalition had a harsher view of what it called Fish and Wildlife’s capitulation to landowners. Ron Sutherland of Wildlands Network said Fish and Wildlife encourages the policing of poaching and wildlife slaughtering elsewhere while standing by as it happens in North Carolina. “Americans see images of elite anti-poaching rangers in Africa everyday in our social media feeds and TV screens,” Sutherland said. “Why is it that here at home, our own federal wildlife agency … sat on their hands while the red wolf has been slaughtered to the brink of extinction in the wild?”
News Article | November 11, 2016
This story has been updated. Donald Trump is preparing to take office with a broad plan to dismantle many of the environmental policies and priorities established under the Obama administration. And, to the dismay of environmentalists, he’s vowed to make the controversial Clean Power Plan — a proposed rule under the Clean Air Act that would compel power plants throughout the nation to slash their carbon emissions — one of the first rules to be scrapped. The question that remains is how — and while the threat remains substantial, killing the plan may not actually be that simple, legal experts say. Currently, the Clean Power Plan is the subject of a highly fraught legal battle being waged in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, which will decide whether the proposal’s carbon-cutting requirements overstep constitutional boundaries. The Environmental Protection Agency stands on one side, along with environmental groups, climate activists and even several large corporations, and on the other side are two dozen states, supported by industry groups and utilities. The rule is a key part of the Obama administration’s broader plan to tackle climate change and reduce domestic greenhouse gas emissions by more than a quarter by the year 2025, relative to their 2005 levels. This ambitious pledge is also the centerpiece of the nation’s individual commitment to the Paris climate agreement (from which Trump has also promised to withdraw, with potentially disastrous global consequences). As such, the fate of the Clean Power Plan has substantial implications, both nationally and internationally. It could take months for the court to issue a ruling, meaning the process could potentially drag out past the presidential inauguration in January. Even after the D.C. circuit court makes its ruling, regardless of the outcome, it’s almost certain that the case will be appealed to the Supreme Court. The question that remains is how Trump’s administration will choose to handle the ongoing legal proceedings, and what it will do if the rule is upheld. Once Trump takes office, it’s possible that the new administration could simply decline to continue defending the Clean Power Plan in court, whether by withdrawing from the current proceedings or failing to bring its defense to the Supreme Court in the case of an appeal. But this would hardly kill the rule or bring the litigation process to a halt, experts say. “There are states and municipalities and environmental and public health organizations that have intervened in the case in support of EPA and the rule,” said Jack Lienke, a senior attorney with New York University School of Law’s Institute for Policy Integrity. “And they have party status, they have standing to defend the rule.” In other words, even if the Justice Department stepped out, other groups would almost certainly take up the rule’s defense. However, there are other ways the administration could attempt to kill the proposal, even before it makes it out of court. “There is a possibility that [the new administration] could file what is known as a motion for voluntary remand,” said Frank Rambo, a senior attorney and leader of the clean energy and air program at the Southern Environmental Law Center. When permitted, this action essentially halts the case and allows federal agencies to review the complaints argued by the plaintiffs and potentially revise their rules. That said, attempting to rewrite the Clean Power Plan under these circumstances would be a complex and time-consuming process involving a public comment period and all of the other hoops required in the federal rule-making process, Rambo added. “They just can’t do that with a wave of a wand,” he said. And the same would apply if the new administration attempted to change the rule after it’s been upheld in court. “EPA has finalized this rule, this rule is now law — it’s not as if EPA can say ‘nevermind,’” Lienke said. “It would have to go through a new notice and comment rule-making process as it did when it first issued the rule, and it would need to have rational reasons for undoing it. And that itself would inevitably be litigated.” Congressional legislation could also kill the rule, Lienke added. “Presumably if both chambers of Congress were to pass some sort of [bill] blocking the Clean Power Plan, and a President Trump wanted to sign it, that would be law, and that would render the litigation over the rule moot,” he said. Barring any of these possibilities, it’s possible the EPA under the new administration could simply choose to be lenient when working with individual states on their compliance with the rule. “EPA has a major role in approving state plans to comply with it, and there’s a certain amount of leeway they might try to exercise fulfilling their role in that implementation process,” Rambo said. But he added that environmental organizations could also legally challenge the EPA’s actions in such a scenario. “Certainly in our states we would be looking very closely at what EPA does,” he said of the Southern Environmental Law Center. “We would be looking very closely at those state plans themselves, and whether EPA approves or disapproves them on those grounds.” The takeaway is that there are still plenty of checks and balances that will be applied to any action a Trump administration might choose to take against the Clean Power Plan. It doesn’t mean the rule isn’t in major trouble — but it’s unlikely to go down without a fight, either. “I don’t think panic is called for in any event,” Rambo said. “But I think it’s safe to say that this is one of the instances in which elections have consequences, and the fate of the Clean Power Plan is certainly going to be very different now than it would be if the election had turned out differently.”
News Article | December 14, 2016
A group comprised primarily of Virginia utilities and solar industry members has proposed four pieces of legislation for the 2017 Virginia legislative session. The bills address four areas the group agreed to work on: creating a pilot program to offer solar energy to customers on a voluntary basis, under the name of “community solar”; raising from 100 MW to 150 MW the size limit for wind and solar projects that can take advantage of the streamlined Permit by Rule process, and allowing utilities to use that process in some circumstances; creating a program to allow farmers to sell some surplus solar to the grid; and allowing utilities to earn a profit on solar facilities they don’t build themselves (an incentive for them to do more deals with developers, whose costs are less and who receive more favorable tax treatment). The group, referred to as the Rubin Group after its moderator, Richmond lawyer Mark Rubin, formed earlier this year when the Commerce and Labor Committees of the General Assembly refused to act on a suite of renewable energy and energy efficiency bills offered during the 2016 session. The committee chairmen, Senator Frank Wagner and Delegate Terry Kilgore, said members needed more time to consider the proposals, though they were similar to ones submitted (and killed) in previous years. Wagner and Kilgore assigned a special subcommittee to study the legislation and make recommendations for next year. The subcommittee met once in the spring to hear summaries of the bills. It took no further action until December 8, when four members showed up to hear presentations from the Rubin Group and ask a few questions. The hearing took half an hour. No one mentioned energy efficiency. Setting aside more contentious issues, the Rubin Group had agreed to focus on drafting legislation where they felt compromise between the solar industry and the utilities was possible. That left out a lot, including the many bills dealing with net metering issues and third-party ownership. They also chose not to bring in environmental or consumer groups until they had nearly completed drafting their bills, though they did include an advocacy group called Powered by Facts that focused on agricultural customers. Representatives from Southern Environmental Law Center and League of Conservation Voters were finally brought in to review and comment solely on the community solar bill. Other stakeholders were briefed on the bills in late November but not allowed to see the legislation until today. (As of this writing, the bills had not yet been posted anywhere I can link to.) The community solar bill has generated the most interest, especially from residential customers who can’t put solar on their own roofs and are eager for options. And a review of the language suggests that in concept, at least, this bill holds a great deal of promise for bringing solar to average Virginians. However, the name “community solar” is something of a misnomer for the Rubin Group’s bill, which might better be described as enabling a program for utility-administered, community-scale solar. The legislation provides for the utility to solicit bids for new solar facilities to be built by private developers around the state. The utility will contract for the output of the facilities and sell the electricity to customers who want to buy solar. Customers will never own the projects. The bill is labeled a three-year pilot program. It consists of generating facilities up to 2 megawatts in size, for an initial total of 4 MW for APCo and 25 MW for Dominion. When a program is 90% subscribed, the utilities will add facilities up to a total of 10 MW for APCo and 40 MW for Dominion. Each utility will issue requests for proposals (RFPs) from developers, and will purchase the output and the associated renewable energy certificates (RECs). The utility will retire the RECs on the customer’s behalf, which assures customers they are actually getting solar. Electric cooperatives are also authorized to conduct similar pilot programs. The utilities will be allowed to recover all of their costs through a rate schedule, including for squishy categories like administrative and marketing charges, plus a margin determined by the “weighted average cost of capital.” The legislation does not set the price of the electricity, something left to the State Corporation Commission to decide under tight parameters. Leaving the price out of the legislation is reasonable, given that the RFPs haven’t even been issued yet, but it does mean we have no idea at this point whether customers will see a savings from the program either immediately (highly unlikely) or in the future. But the legislation does allow customers to lock in a fixed price for as long as they are in the program, giving them the price stability that is one of the major benefits of solar. In addition, the members of the Rubin Group say they have agreed to abide by a Memorandum of Understanding they drafted to guide implementation of the bill at the SCC. This MOU has not been made public, and in any case the SCC would not be bound by it, but it may help ensure that regulations implementing the pilot program meet the parties’ expectations. So how much of a difference could this program make? As a rule of thumb, supplying an average Virginia household with 100% solar energy requires the output of 10 kilowatts (kW) worth of solar panels. Thus the program total of 50 MW (50,000 kW) would be enough to supply 5,000 average Virginia households if they were to meet their entire electric load this way, or more if they are energy efficient or plan to meet only a portion of their load with solar. By comparison, Dominion alone claims to have over 30,000 customers in its Green Power Program. That program offers mostly wind RECs from other states, and does not reduce customers’ use of ordinary grid power from fossil fuels and nuclear. Thus there seem to be more than enough customers primed to sign up for a program that is infinitely better than what they are paying extra for today. The astute reader will wonder why Dominion didn’t just change its Green Power Program to a Virginia solar program, something it could do through the State Corporation Commission without new legislation. If any astute reader figures that out, please let me know, because I’ve been wondering about it for years. Regardless, the Rubin bill holds promise as an option for customers who can’t put solar on their own rooftops. It would mean more solar projects get built in Virginia, creating jobs and bringing new economic development to localities across the state. It would decrease demand for dirty power and possibly persuade our utilities that the future really does lie with solar, not with fracked gas. Calling it community solar seems unwise, however. Virginians are wary of a bait-and-switch from a utility with a long history of promising the moon and delivering green cheese. For real community solar, we will have to look to legislation developed by the Virginia Distributed Solar Collaborative. This broad-based group of solar stakeholders includes consumers, local government employees and environmentalists as well as solar industry representatives (but not utilities). The Collaborative developed its own model bill this summer based on legislation from other states. The model bill gives much greater freedom to customers to cooperate in the development and ownership of renewable energy facilities for their own benefit. Customers don’t have to wait for their utility to choose a developer, and they can choose to own a share of a facility, not just buy some of the electricity generated. Utilities can own facilities, but so can non-profit or for-profit entities. Utilities are required to purchase the output of the community facilities, and to issue bill credits to its customers who are subscribers. As a practical matter, members of the Virginia Distributed Solar Collaborative don’t expect the General Assembly to adopt their model instead of something that comes with the Dominion Power seal of approval. But it’s important for legislators to understand what the alternative looks like, and why their constituents may feel that a utility-operated program shouldn’t be the only option.
News Article | January 28, 2016
Coastal South Carolina has long been recognized by locals and tourists alike for its warm waters, dazzling natural landscapes and prime seafood cuisine. But lately, communities up and down the shoreline have been making a name for themselves in another way: They’re leading the historically conservative state in a shift toward support for alternative energy and away from fossil fuel energy development. In the past year, the waters off the coast of South Carolina have captured the federal government’s attention with their potential for several forms of energy development: offshore oil and gas drilling on the one hand, and offshore wind development on the other. And while both are mere proposals for now, they’ve garnered huge amounts of attention from local coastal communities — and it looks as though support for wind is winning by a long shot. It’s a trend that’s been growing throughout the rest of the nation as well. Despite tumbling oil prices, the U.S. has been increasing its expansion of renewable energy, making major investments in both solar and wind energy. The country saw $56 billion worth of investments in clean energy last year, according to an analysis from Bloomberg New Energy Finance, and wind energy — alongside solar — is a growing interest. There are about 50,000 operating utility-scale wind turbines in the U.S., according to the American Wind Energy Association, with $100 billion invested in new projects since 2008. And protests against the idea of offshore drilling, which has been proposed in regions up and down the Atlantic coast, have cropped up in many of the other Southeastern states as well, some of which have also been involved in talks with the federal government about the development of wind energy. What makes South Carolina notable, aside from its historically conservative stance on energy development, is the fact that its negotiations on oil and wind development are taking place at the same time. Coupled with the state’s recent expansion of solar power, the increasingly passionate energy debate in South Carolina points to a shift in public opinion that may mirror evolving attitudes toward alternative energy in the country as a whole. “What we’re seeing is a transformation in views about what folks want,” said Christopher DeScherer, a managing attorney in the Southern Environmental Law Center’s Charleston, S.C., office. “Folks want cleaner forms of energy that create jobs that are consistent with the South Carolina Lowcountry and everything that folks care about in terms of fishing and recreation and that way of life.” Oil and gas drilling, he said, is not consistent with these values. The commotion over oil and gas drilling began more than a year ago when the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) began eyeing territory up and down the Atlantic coast for potential oil and gas development. The bureau released a draft proposal on January 2015 for a five-year oil and gas leasing program, which would go into effect from 2017 to 2022, on the outer continental shelf, including a region in the south Atlantic off the coast of South Carolina. Following a public comment period, the bureau began work on a second proposal which will be released this year. The proposal has since raised bitter controversy in the Southeast, and particularly in coastal Carolina. According to a recent poll commissioned by the American Petroleum Institute, 68 percent of South Carolinians support offshore drilling for oil and natural gas. This poll was cited in a recent letter to the editor published in the Charleston-based Post and Courier, written by Bonnie Loomis, executive director of the South Carolina Petroleum Council. “Gas prices are at their lowest levels in a decade, largely due to surging U.S. energy production over the past dozen years,” she wrote. “Given these great results, it makes sense for South Carolina to join the American energy revolution, and we can also enjoy more than 35,000 new jobs across a variety of industries.” Loomis, who mentioned that she grew up on the coast, also wrote, “Discussions about offshore energy exploration that ignore the large numbers of average South Carolinians who support the idea don’t tell the whole story.” However, the most vocal opinions on the matter have come in the form of strong opposition from coastal communities, who are hoping to gain the support of Gov. Nikki Haley and ultimately have the region removed from BOEM’s list of proposed leasing areas. According to a grassroots coalition called Don’t Drill Lowcountry, every coastal municipality in the state has passed a resolution opposing the drilling. And dozens of businesses along the coast have joined the coalition and expressed their opposition as well. Meanwhile, other states up and down the coast, including conservative Georgia, North Carolina and Virginia have also organized similarly vocal protests over their inclusion in the proposal. Concerns about the drilling include the potential for large-scale spills, such as the Deepwater Horizon spill that occurred in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, according to Hamilton Davis, energy and climate director at the South Carolina Coastal Conservation League. In addition, citizens are concerned about the potential impacts of the day-to-day drilling operations on both humans and wildlife. “Folks believe that drilling would threaten everything from the environment to the economy, which includes commercial and recreational fishing and tourism,” said DeScherer. “But overall I think the bottom line is folks realize this is simply inconsistent and would threaten the quality of life along the South Carolina coast.” Advocates of the oil and gas industry have argued that drilling would be an economic boon to the Southeast, citing a 2013 report commissioned by the American Petroleum Institute and National Ocean Industries Association. However, a 2015 study prepared by the Center for the Blue Economy at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey concluded that these benefits were overestimated — a finding that’s been much-publicized in the ongoing local debate. The January 2015 proposal — which was just a draft — leaves plenty of room for changes before any final decisions are made and effected. A new proposed program, revised in response to public feedback, is supposed to be released early this year. Another public comment period will accompany that proposal, and that feedback will be used to issue a last proposed final program, which must then be approved by Congress. At any point along the way, zones may be removed from the list of proposed leasing areas. All public feedback has the potential to be taken into account by BOEM between now and 2017, which is one reason the coastal communities have been so vocal. However, the most important feedback will come from policymakers, particularly state governors — which is why the communities have largely focused their efforts on pressuring Gov. Haley to change her stance on the drilling and request the state’s removal from the leasing zones. Haley has heretofore supported the drilling proposal. The coastal communities are in a unique position to make a case on this issue, given the fact that they are the municipalities whose economies and way of life will be most affected if the proposal were to be enacted. And it’s likely that their concerns will be taken most seriously by their own elected officials. To that end, the communities’ arguments against drilling have largely centered on its potential impact on local economies — most notably, the fishing and tourism industries — as well as its threats to the unique ecology found along the shoreline. And they’ve made headway already with other elected officials. South Carolina U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford, a Republican, came out in opposition of the drilling last year and has since pushed strongly for the Obama administration to abandon its plans, citing his constituents’ overwhelming concerns about threats to tourism and the coastline’s natural resources. Wind development in the region is an even newer project. In November 2015, BOEM released a proposal to award commercial leases off the shore of South Carolina for wind energy development — a step that would help allow the U.S. to finally get its offshore wind industry, which is now getting started but currently lags behind countries like China and the UK, off the ground and into the water, so to speak. The move is part of a broader strategy to develop wind farms up and down the Atlantic Coast, with 11 commercial wind energy leases having already been granted in other locations, according to BOEM director Abigail Ross Hopper, although development has not yet been completed on them. While the official announcement is only a few months old, the bureau had spent several years before that point discussing and narrowing down potential sites with representatives from federal, state, local and tribal governments, Hopper said. By November, the bureau had identified four “call areas,” or areas that are potentially open for leasing. These call areas span regions up and down the length of the state. The bureau also opened a public comment period in November, which closed this week and also marked the deadline for wind developers to express an interest in leasing. As of Wednesday, Boem was expecting at least two nominations to develop either part or all of the four South Carolina call areas, according to an email from Tracey Moriarty, a public affairs officer with the bureau. “Upon their receipt, BOEM will review the nominations to assess the companies’ legal, technical, and financial qualifications,” she said in the email. In the meantime, the response from coastal communities so far has been positive, according to BOEM officials. The bureau has already hosted three public meetings throughout the state to solicit input on the proposal, which BOEM environmental protection specialist Brian Krevor said were favorably received. “They were extremely well attended and we got some very good, well-informed questions from the public,” he said. So far, only one major point of contention seems to have arisen in regard to the wind proposal. Some local organizations, including the Coastal Conservation League, feel that one of the call areas should be removed from the proposed leasing grounds on the basis of its environmental importance. The site, called the Cape Romain call area, is located close to Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge, known for its importance to native plants, marine life, birds and other wildlife. However, Davis stressed that the League otherwise supports offshore wind development in the state. For now, both wind development and drilling are still up in the air. When it comes to oil leasing, BOEM still needs to submit several more proposals, the last of which must be submitted to Congress, before it can move forward with leasing, which would begin in 2021 at the earliest. And on the wind development front, the bureau will need to complete its review of the development nominations before assessing its next steps. Many citizens along the coast appear to determined to continue pushing back against oil and gas drilling. Charleston newspaper The Post and Courier reported last month that more than 400 businesses had presented Gov. Nikki Haley, who has supported the proposal, with a letter urging her to oppose the development. Such action from the South Carolina coast is a notable development in a state whose leaders have often supported the interests of the fossil fuel industry. In 2015, for instance, South Carolina was among two dozen states that filed lawsuits challenging the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan. But some experts feel that the recent activity is continued evidence of a growing shift in attitudes toward energy state-wide. Despite her support for oil and gas development, Gov. Haley also signed legislation into effect in 2014 loosening previous restrictions on solar energy. Since then, solar power initiatives have been expanding in the state. “I think it does represent this dichotomy of perspective where traditional resources like oil and gas are not viewed as advantages to the state, whereas clean energies are being increasingly utilized and promoted through policy and also supported by public opinion,” said Davis. And David Carr, another attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center specializing in alternative energy, noted that the interest in renewable energy has been a growing movement in recent years. “I think this interest in the local communities in offshore wind, a clean, green, zero-carbon resource — that interest has been growing over time,” Carr said. “And I think this expression of interest is the culmination of increased interest in renewables — solar, wind, offshore wind — in South Carolina.”