By Brian Sewell, J.W. Randolph and Nathan Jenkins
At the state level, the public often has greater access and input on decisions and the processes of their governments. But so do special interests — especially campaign funders and industries that play a significant role in state and large-scale economies.
State governments in Appalachia create their own environmental policy and decide how much to fund the agencies that enforce it. Some pass modest laws to incentivize renewable energy, but all put their weight behind fossil fuels.
Federal policies influence state leadership, too. In the three years since the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, many states including North Carolina and Tennessee have repealed or rewritten campaign finance laws, altering the way races are run.
Like all state legislatures, this year elected leaders in Appalachian states will grapple with transportation and infrastructure projects, budget shortfalls and unemployment. But states in the region must also meet the challenge of regulating industries that simultaneously present economic benefits and major environmental risks.
A new era in North Carolina politics began on Jan. 5, as state leadership and the legislative agenda shifted completely under GOP control for the first time since 1870. Pat McCrory, a former mayor and executive at Duke Energy, was sworn in as the state’s first Republican governor in more than 20 years. Gov. McCrory has been outspoken about making North Carolina a player in energy production by tapping into the nation’s shale gas boom and the potential for offshore wind development.
This year, the N.C. Mining and Energy Commission, which was formed after fracking was legalized in the state last year, will continue developing regulations of future drilling in the Piedmont region, including controversial issues related to land ownership rights. Legislation passed last year requires the N.C. Division of Air Quality to revise the state’s air toxics program. So far, proposed rule changes ease restrictions on industry by exempting pollution sources from state oversight if they are covered by federal rules and do not pose an “unacceptable risk” to human health.
Residents of the commonwealth are familiar with bitter battles and partisan politics. Republicans retained control of the state Senate in the most recent election, while the Democratic party controls the House of Representatives and governor’s seat — Gov. Steve Beshear was re-elected to a second four-year term in 2011.
This year, declining coal severance taxes and a debate over which state projects will be funded by the tax are at the top of the legislative agenda. Democratic Rep. Fitz Steele introduced a bill to require all severance taxes to be returned to coal counties. In response to declining revenues from the coal industry, the state legislature is expected to review environmental and mining regulations. House Majority leader Greg Stumbo, a supporter of mountaintop removal coal mining and development on post-mining land, recently announced that lawmakers would redraw district maps early this year. On the federal level, speculation has begun over who will challenge longtime senator Mitch McConnell in 2014.
In the 2012 election, incumbent Democratic Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and the Democratic party maintained control of the state legislature. In his inaugural speech, Gov. Tomblin promised to continue representing the interests of the coal industry, saying that he would fight the “federal government to get off our backs and out of our way.” Meanwhile, up to three-quarters of streams in the state are too polluted to support their designated uses such as recreation, providing drinking water or simply supporting aquatic life. Last year, the state passed SB 562, a bill that allows the secretary of the Department of Environmental Protection to raise the threshold for considering a waterway biologically impaired. Recently, the agency has been plagued with the threat of lawsuits, and because of a lack of funding and shortage of staff is struggling to meet required inspections.
Virginia residents may face a year of political posturing as Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell, who has sought to make Virginia “the energy capital of the East Coast,” forms his legacy and candidates looking to replace him develop policy positions. On the legislative side, the Republican-controlled House of Delegates and Senate are currently debating proposed legislation to change the state’s renewable portfolio standard. Originally established in 2007, the law is meant to encourage power companies to invest in renewable energy, but utilities have received credits for meeting goals without constructing any new wind or solar generation.
Some lawmakers have suggested eliminating bonuses for clean energy altogether, while other proposals would require the development of renewable energy projects in the state. Although a bill to life the ban was recently withdrawn, state lawmakers have proposed lifting a 30-year ban on uranium mining — an issue that doesn’t fall cleanly along partisan lines.
Tennessee turned deep red at the state level in the 2012 elections, as Republicans achieved a supermajority in both the House and Senate. Just four years ago, Democrats held majorities in the legislature as well as the governor’s seat, which also now belongs to a Republican. The state stands closer than ever to becoming the first to pass a ban on mountaintop removal mining — a platform current Gov. Bill Haslam ran on during his 2010 election race.
In 2012, the Scenic Vistas Protection Act reached the floor of the state Senate, making it the first mountaintop removal ban to ever make it to the floor of any legislative body in the country. On the federal level, Senator Lamar Alexander has introduced legislation to curb mountaintop removal in the U.S. Senate, and also championed the Tennessee Wilderness Act to protect a large swath of Cherokee National Forest, which has gained support from other Tennessee Senator Bob Corker as well as three Republican House members from East Tennessee. The coal industry in Tennessee employs approximately 500 miners, while the state’s mountain-based tourism industry employs more than 175,000.