By Elizabeth E. Payne and Molly Moore
While national political headlines might dominate newsstands and newsfeeds, there is also plenty of action happening in state legislatures across the region. Here’s an overview of some of the energy and environmental topics at hand.
Session is expected to run from Jan. 9 through late March or early April.
According to the Georgia Conservancy, an environmental organization, key issues in the 2017 state legislature will include efforts to establish more transparency and environmental protections for any future petroleum pipelines, as well as legislation to protect freshwater sources by enhancing buffer zones.
Conservationists also hope to see passage of the Georgia Outdoor Stewardship Act, which would establish a permanent source of funding for environmental efforts such as establishing buffer zones around military bases and protecting the gopher tortoise, the state’s official reptile.
Session runs from Jan. 3 to March 30
Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin began the year by announcing state budget cuts. According to the Courier-Journal, the Energy and Environment Cabinet’s budget will fall 9.7 percent from 2016 to 2018, and that’s on top of a 16-percent cut from 2012 to 2016.
Meanwhile, Bluegrass State legislators have introduced a suite of anti-environmental bills. Among them, H.B. 37 would exempt unmined coal reserves from state and local property taxation — these taxes support the Kentucky Heritage Land and Conservation Fund.
Other bills would make it more difficult for citizens to challenge environmentally harmful land uses, remove the requirement that any nuclear power facilities have a permanent waste disposal plan and make it more difficult for sewer districts to fund green infrastructure. H.B. 165 would restore a coal incentive tax credit that sunsetted for most facilities in 2009.
But there are also several bills that could benefit the state’s natural resources. H.B. 35 would establish public benefit corporations, where the business is accountable not just to shareholders but also to fulfilling a public-interest mission. And H.B. 61 would enhance the share of coal and mineral severance taxes that go to local governments.
The Kentucky Student Environmental Coalition is advocating for passage of the Energy Opportunity Act, which would lead to increased renewable energy and energy efficiency in the commonwealth.
Session runs from Jan. 11 to April 10
Maryland’s Republican governor, Larry Hogan, has outlined a 2017 budget that offers $65 million in environmental investments including workforce training for green jobs, incentives for electric vehicles and efforts to improve water quality in the Chesapeake Bay.
Yet in 2016 the governor vetoed the Clean Energy Jobs Act, a bill that supporters say would have created jobs by requiring that Maryland derive 25 percent of the state’s energy from renewable sources by 2020, instead of the current target of 20 percent by 2022. The Maryland League of Conservation Voters intends to push for a legislative override of the veto in the 2017 session.
Session runs from Jan. 25 through July
At the beginning of 2017, North Carolina welcomed Roy Cooper, the state’s new Democratic governor, and welcomed back its Republican-controlled legislature.
The 2017 legislative session picked up where the December 2016 special session called by then-Governor Pat McCrory left off. In December, legislators limited the power of local election boards and limited the power of the incoming governor. Many of these initiatives are being challenged in court.
Cooper chose Michael Regan to head the state’s Department of Environmental Quality. Regan served at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency under both the Clinton and G.W. Bush administrations and recently worked with a nonprofit environmental advocacy organization.
Due to the restrictions on gubernatorial powers imposed by the special session, Regan’s appointment must now be confirmed by the state Senate.
If passed, two bills filed in the House could help smooth the way for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. H.B. 3 would add a section to the state’s constitution expanding the situations in which government can apply eminent domain to take private property for public use.
H.B. 10 uses this revised definition to extend eminent domain to infrastructure projects including “facilities related to the distribution of natural gas, and pipelines or mains for the transportation of petroleum products, coal, natural gas, limestone or minerals.”
Session runs from Jan. 3 to late June or July as needed
In December 2016, Gov. John Kasich, a Republican, vetoed a bill passed by the state’s Republican legislature that would have frozen the state’s renewable energy standards. Gov. Kasich had signed off on the freeze in 2014.
The state’s dominant utilities, American Electric Power and FirstEnergy, are also pushing the legislature to change to the way Ohio regulates utilities, in part to help keep AEP’s fleet of older coal-fired power plants profitable.
Session runs from Jan. 3 to June 30
Pennsylvania’s Democratic governor, Tom Wolf, is advocating for a severance tax on natural gas. It’s the third year he’s tried to institute such a tax — earlier efforts were defeated by the legislature’s Republican majority.
Several legislators introduced memos supporting use of the potential new tax revenue for various projects, including pension obligations and low-income utility bill assistance. The state faces a $3 billion budget shortfall, according to the Associated Press.
Session runs from Jan. 10 through June 1
State Sen. Campsen introduced a bill to reauthorize and fund the South Carolina Conservation Bank, a land protection institution that also facilitates public access to these areas. Another of Campsen’s proposals aims to restore certain wetlands.
In the House, Rep. Neal proposed an Environmental Bill of Rights asserting South Carolinians’ rights to clean air and water and allowing local governments to enact environmental protections that are stronger than state standards.
Another House bill, from Rep. Atwater, would allow all regulations to expire after five years unless they meet specific provisions, while a bill from Rep. Pitts would create an industrial hemp agriculture program.
Session runs from Jan. 10 through mid-April
One bill headed for the Senate would amend the tax code for oil and natural gas severance payments in order to provide more resources to impacted communities. If passed, funds could go towards infrastructure, which expands economic opportunities and decreases respiratory ailments caused by dusty roads.
Another Senate bill seeks to expand broadband internet service to underserved rural communities in Tennessee. Gov. Bill Haslam has also proposed a plan to invest $45 million in expanding broadband access over the next three years.
Environmental groups are seeking support for a bill that would expand how families and companies could finance energy upgrades, according to WMOT Radio.
The state’s environmental agency is also planning to privatize portions of Fall Creek Falls State Park.
Session runs from Jan. 11 through late February
Parallel bills introduced in the Virginia House and Senate would encourage pumped hydroelectric storage facilities powered by renewable energy in Southwest Virginia. In facilities of this sort, wind or solar energy would pump water from a reservoir at a lower elevation to one at a higher elevation. That water can then be used for hydroelectric power whenever there is need on the energy grid.
Gov. Terry McAuliffe is expected to veto H.B. 2198, which would extend until 2022 tax credits to the coal industry that were set to expire in 2017. S.B. 990 aims to reduce electricity usage in the retail sector.
H.B. 1678 would exempt as “trade secrets” any chemicals and ingredients submitted to the DMME — such as those used in fracking — from requests under the Virginia Freedom of Information Act.
In the Senate, three bills sponsored by Sen. Frank W. Wagner focus on renewable energy. One bill would create community solar pilot projects in Dominion Virginia Power and Appalachian Power territories. Another bill sets parameters for small-scale generators at agricultural businesses that use renewable energy to sell any excess electricity. A third bill would allow wind and solar facilities up to 150 megawatts to benefit from an easier permitting process.
Read more about Virginia state legislation on the Front Porch Blog.
Session runs from Feb. 8 through April 8
West Virginia’s Democratic governor and coal-mine owner Jim Justice appointed Austin Caperton, another man with deep ties to the coal industry, secretary of the state’s Department of Environmental Protection.
On Jan. 27, Caperton fired Wendy Radcliff, the department’s environmental advocate. He also fired the department’s communications director.
“This is troublesome news,” Angie Rosser, executive director of the West Virginia Rivers Coalition, told the Charleston Gazette-Mail. “Radcliff has been the direct line for citizen concerns to help make sure the agency is accountable to the public.”
When the state’s legislature convenes, the West Virginia Mineral Owners Coalition intends to lobby for legislation that would support landowners, such as protecting a landowner’s right to deny access to pipeline surveyors and upholding minimum royalty payments for minerals.
Maintaining water quality standards, promoting energy efficiency upgrades in commercial buildings, and advocating for disclosure of campaign financing are among the legislative priorities of the West Virginia Environmental Council.