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North Carolina Self Destructs
Newly elected Tar Heel politicians see the relationship between business and the environment as a zero-sum game. Guess which one is losing?

I have lived in the state of North Carolina for just short of a decade now. My daughter, Hadley, turns 10 in May and has never called any other place home. During those 10 years, I have grown to love this place—its people, of course, but also its great bounty of water, birds, beaches, and barrier islands. And now, during the last few months, I have watched—stunned—as state lawmakers have done their best to make sure that this bounty will not be around for Hadley and future generations to enjoy.

Only three months into the 2013-2014 General Assembly, Tar Heel senators have already approved a bill that would lift the state moratorium on hydraulic fracturing—a process of drilling for natural gas that poses serious pollution and health concerns—without first enacting adequate safeguards. The bill would also allow drillers to freely inject polluted waste fluids from fracking back into the ground, which is particularly dangerous here, given the fact that the shale gas layer is shallower in North Carolina than in many other parts of the country, and therefore closer to the water table. The same bill would also formally embrace offshore drilling (despite recent disasters like BP’s Deepwater Horizon spill, from which tar balls and oil are still washing up on Gulf Coast beaches nearly three years later). These ideas are being seriously considered, even as states that earlier embraced fracking are now facing some dramatic water pollution issues, and despite the fact that our state’s scientists keep warning us about the threats to our own water.

Of course, if you think that North Carolina legislators take their cues from science, then you don’t really know the people who are passing these laws. Many of them are the same folks who wanted to make it illegal to mention sea-level rise in legislative sessions (see “North Carolina Buries Its Head in the Disappearing Sand”), even as that very same (and very real) sea-level rise threatens to erode the beautiful chain of barrier islands known as the Outer Banks. Perhaps to drive home that point, one of the earliest bills to be introduced in the 2013-2014 session, Senate Bill 10, proposed eliminating scientists—or pretty much anybody else with any environmental concerns—from serving on our various state commissions. As the News & Observer’s Craig Jarvis has reported, the bill would reduce the state’s Coastal Resource Commission “from 15 to 11 members, and eliminate slots that are currently set aside to represent commercial and sports fishing, marine ecology, coastal agriculture, forestry and conservation interests.”

Simultaneously, this bill would make it far easier to replace these slots with new ones to be filled by Realtors, developers, and lobbyists. Other priorities for the new lawmakers include removing water and air experts, as well as the state geologist, from North Carolina’s Mining and Energy Commission, and re-christening the state’s Energy Policy Council the “Energy Jobs Council”—just as soon as all those pesky regulators who have been serving on it have been replaced with (you guessed it) more businessmen and lobbyists. As Environment North Carolina executive director Elizabeth Ouzts puts it: “This is going to let the foxes guard the henhouse.”

The speed with which these bills (both of which passed in the N.C. Senate and are now in committee) have been introduced is dazzling. In fact, if you try not to think too much about how these lawmakers are bringing about the destruction of our state’s land and waters, you can’t help but be impressed by the sheer audacity of their legislative assault. At every turn, it seems, they’re working to undermine North Carolina’s flourishing alternative-energy businesses, as if somehow offended by the fact that these businesses are doing so well. Can you really claim to be pro-jobs and then be against businesses that have created $1.7 billion dollars in economic benefits and more than 15,000 jobs since 2007—which happens to be one of the toughest economic stretches in the state’s history? The importance of these businesses to the state is so obvious that 75 percent of Republican voters say they support alternative and renewable energy sources. But although our solar-energy companies are too visibly successful to be derailed entirely, wind is another matter. That much seems clear from House Bill 298, which seeks to repeal the renewable energy standards the state adopted in 2007. Forced to acknowledge (however regretfully) the fact that North Carolina’s geographical placement makes it the perfect host for offshore wind farms, legislators at first hoped to hamper the progress of this particular renewable-energy effort through Orwellian means: by re-defining the word renewable to their own satisfaction. Just take a look at this bluntly line-edited portion of an early draft of HB 298 that lists various sources of renewable energy:

While the General Assembly is taking a strike-thru approach to science and replacing environmentalists and scientists with lobbyists and businesspeople, North Carolina’s newly elected Republican governor, Pat McCrory, is sending clear signals that he’s on board, ideologically speaking. North Carolina has always been (rightfully) proud of its top-tier public university system. Yet in January, McCrory told a conservative talk-radio host that an “educational elite” within that same system was wasting students’ time and taxpayers’ money by offering classes in certain subjects, singling out gender studies and Swahili as two examples. McCrory made clear his intention to revamp public education in North Carolina so that it would be more in line with “what business and commerce needs.” (As a creative writing professor in this same state university system, I suspect I’m not what he has in mind.) At last check, business and commerce weren’t expressing a need for more environmental studies majors, either—perhaps in part because those students might be inclined to take what they learned in school and use it to get in the way of fracking, offshore drilling, and overdeveloping the Outer Banks. Which can only mean, one supposes, that as the legislature goes about approving bills that would hasten the destruction of our state’s beautiful shores and mountains, the governor will not just be signing these bills, but also doing his part to dissuade public universities from inspiring future generations to save these same resources.

McCrory was once the fairly moderate mayor of our state’s largest city, and a vocal smart growth and public transit supporter. But he’s since thrown in his lot with Art Pope, the state's largest political donor and a close ally of the Koch brothers. Now serving as the governor’s chief budget writer, Pope has a well-documented history of opposing environmental (or pretty much any other form of) regulation, and has spent years building a massive conservative infrastructure in the state. He’s also the guy considered most responsible, though his fund-raising apparatus and political spending, for helping the GOP's most right-wing elements take control of state government.

From the vigorous way that the legislature is working to slash environmental regulations, you might think it had a mandate from the voters. In fact, the disconnect between the represented and their representatives has never been greater. In the wake of the 2012 election, North Carolina has become well-known for its gerrymandering, which has already led to a Republican increase (and a corresponding Democratic decrease) in the state’s delegation to the U.S. House of Representatives—despite the fact that the majority of North Carolinians voted for Democratic Congressional candidates in the last election. Less well known is the impact gerrymandering has had on the state level. Although Republicans did win the state in 2012, they did so in relatively small numbers that are not commensurate with the landslide of General Assembly house seats that gave them their current supermajority. And make no mistake: it’s that very same supermajority that is currently allowing anti-environmental forces to run roughshod over North Carolina’s land and water.

This past Saturday, while swimming with Hadley at Wrightsville Beach, I indulged in a little thought experiment. If we keep going the way we’re going, what will this state, and these shores, be like in 40 years, when Hadley is my age? Does anyone here, Republican or Democrat, really think we can frack and drill for that long without a spill of some sort, or without poisoning our waters? Does anyone really think it’s a good idea to inject the waste from drilling operations into the ground? That we will benefit by eliminating scientists from our guiding commissions, and by allowing ourselves to be counseled on environmental matters by business interests? Doesanyone, regardless of his or her politics, really believe this? I’m pretty sure that most of the North Carolinians I have come to know and love in my 10 years here don’t.

For now, I live in a state where the environment is under legislative assault. A state where even actively caring about the environment seems to be under assault. And a state where, over the course of three short months, a governor and his like-minded cronies in the General Assembly have accomplished what most of my fellow North Carolinians had once thought impossible: they have made South Carolina look good.

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image of David Gessner
David Gessner is the author of eight books, including My Green Manifesto and The Tarball Chronicles, both of which grew out of reporting for OnEarth. He has won the John Burroughs award for best natural history essay, taught environmental writing at Harvard, and founded the literary journal Ecotone. He currently teaches creative writing at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. MORE STORIES ➔