NC energy debates, climate anxiety and sea level rise led WFAE's 2021 environment coverage
Is there anything more precious than our natural resources and the world around us? This year, we expanded our reporting on energy, the environment and climate change. Longtime WFAE reporter David Boraks took on an expanded role covering climate and launched the weekly Climate News newsletter.
Plus, Boraks worked on two special, limited series tied to those beats: Asbestos Town, which focuses on the history of asbestos in Davidson, and The Wood Energy Dilemma, which focuses on North Carolina’s wood pellet industry.
Here are some of the most important — and interesting — stories about climate and the environment from 2021.
As world leaders were meeting in Glasgow to talk about how to slow the effects of climate change this fall, we visited with members of the Gullah Geechee Nation on the South Carolina Coast. Climate change is already affecting their way of life, with rising sea levels, more intense storms, and changes in sea island habitats that affect farming and fishing. "The scientists have been behind,” Gullah Geechee leader Queen Quet told WFAE. “And now they're catching up (and) saying, 'Oh, wow, the Gullah Geechees were onto something' … That something is called balance. You live in balance."
The COVID-19 pandemic has shown us what happens when a global crisis disrupts shipping and supply chains. So it's not hard to see how advancing climate change could do the same - or worse. We talked with logistics expert Simon Keeble who called the pandemic a preview of what will happen as rising sea levels and severe weather affect ports like Wilmington and Charleston in the Carolinas. Analysts already are pessimistic about the ability of major U.S. ports to survive climate change. "Modern man is completely dependent on logistics and we take it for granted," Keeble said in September. He thinks politicians won't be able to sort it out, so it will be up to businesses.
Worries about climate change are taking the form of "climate anxiety" among a growing number of us. That's what some mental health professionals call the range of reactions we have to bad news about the climate. "People are feeling fear. They're feeling anger. They're feeling sadness and sorrow. They're feeling helplessness, not knowing what to do," said Susan Denny, a counselor at Davidson College. We talked to her and other experts for an August feature story and a special segment of "Charlotte Talks" that focused both on the problem and strategies for coping with climate anxiety.
In August, we marked the one-year anniversary of a gas pipeline spill in Huntersville that ranks as the worst in North Carolina and one of the worst in U.S. history. We interviewed Owen Fehr and Walker Sell, two high school students who discovered the spill while out riding in the Oehler Nature Preserve. Their description on WFAE of the gasoline bubbling up out of the earth captured the seriousness of the incident. We also talked to state environmental officials and people from Colonial Pipeline about what happened, how much it cost, and how it could take a decade or more to fully clean up.
We continued to report on Piedmont Lithium's proposed lithium mine in northern Gaston County as the project sought critical approvals. Plans call for four open-pit mines averaging 572 feet deep. They would supply lithium to Tesla and other companies for electric vehicle batteries. Piedmont Lithium says the mines and processing plants will create 500 jobs and could open as soon as 2024. But the project presents a dilemma between a climate change solution and more localized environmental concerns. Amid citizen protests last summer, Gaston County commissioners passed a 60-day moratorium so they could develop new mining rules. In September, commissioners adopted those rules, which spell out how the project can go forward. Citizens continued to speak out in November when state environmental officials held a public hearing on a needed state mining permit. In 2022, we'll find out if that mining permit is approved, and whether Gaston County officials allow a rezoning for the project. Stay tuned.
Over the past decade, North Carolina has emerged as a leader in the wood pellet industry. Forests here are cut, processed into wood pellets and shipped to Europe and Asia, where they're burned as "clean energy." The idea is that wood is renewable because trees can be replanted. But environmentalists and researchers have been pushing back against rules that classify wood pellets as "zero carbon." They argue that wood is actually worse for the climate than coal, which it is replacing. It's also an environmental justice concern: The plants typically are located in communities of color and low-income areas. We talked to experts and visited with neighbors around one plant in Northampton County for NPR.
For more on this, check out our series with our friends at WUNC, The Wood Energy Dilemma.
Another kind of bioenergy also was in the news this year. In July, Gov. Roy Cooper signed into law a bill that will make it easier for hog farms in North Carolina to get permission to turn hog waste into biogas. On its face that sounds like a solution to two problems: promoting renewable energy and eliminating hog waste. But environmental and social justice advocates say the law limits community input, weakens site restrictions and fails to address public health concerns. Among other things, it leaves in place the current system of collecting hog waste in lagoons and spraying it onto nearby fields. "The pollution and public health harms that result from the use of this lagoon and spray field system are disproportionately borne by black, Latino and Native American communities," said Blakely Hildebrand of the Southern Environmental Law Center.
This year saw leaders pushing big goals for wind energy off the U.S. coast. Cooper issued an executive order in June calling for the development of 2.8 gigawatts of offshore wind in the state by 2030 and 8 gigawatts by 2040. That followed President Joe Biden's March announcement of a national goal of 30 gigawatts of offshore wind power by 2030. If it all gets built, it will reduce our reliance on fossil-fuel plants for electricity. The goal-setting has set off an economic development race among states hoping to become staging grounds for offshore wind development. In September, 10 advocacy groups formed the Offshore Wind for North Carolina coalition to lobby for the industry. "There's still a ton of economic opportunity for North Carolina to make its mark on the industry," spokesperson Jaime Simmons told WFAE in September.
Amid all the doom and gloom about climate change, there are a few people around who actually see the glass as half-full, instead of half-empty. We heard from climate optimist Howard Frumkin, a physician, epidemiologist and professor emeritus at the University of Washington School of Public Health. He thinks emerging technology, improving economics, shifting public opinion and activism will make a difference. "There are a lot of solutions at hand, and there is a lot of reason for hope," he said.
On Oct. 1, the Federal Emergency Management Agency unveiled the biggest changes in the National Flood Insurance Program since it started in 1968. New rates are described as fairer than current rates because they incorporate individual property values and conditions. Meanwhile, it's also the first time the flood insurance program has taken climate change into account. We talked with property owners and experts, including Roy Wright of Charlotte, who ran the flood insurance program from 2015 to 2018. He told WFAE that price changes would better reflect risks. "As the effects of climate change continue to worsen the impact of flooding, then more people are going to need this flood coverage. And there is no better risk communication tool than a pricing signal," Wright said.
Lawmakers, businesses and utility executives spent much of this year haggling over the future of energy in North Carolina. The question was how to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change. In October, Gov. Roy Cooper signed a compromise energy reform bill, HB 951. The legislation is designed to promote cleaner energy and change the way electric utilities are regulated. Cooper said he signed the bill even though business, environmental and consumer groups say it doesn't go far enough and could lead to big price increases. Among other things, the bill requires state utilities regulators to spend 2022 figuring out how to implement major changes. They include closing coal-fired power plants and setting rules for how Duke Energy and other utilities can receive multi-year rate increases and bonuses for meeting goals.
Electric vehicle sales are booming nationwide, though the Southeast is lagging because of a lack of incentives, experts say. But when it comes to electric vehicle manufacturing and related businesses, the Carolinas are becoming a hotspot. Three economic development announcements in December will bring EV battery plants from Toyota (Randolph County), British bus and van maker Arrival (Charlotte) and electric bus maker Proterra, in Greer, South Carolina. That means hundreds of new clean energy jobs and a new industry specialty for a region already known for banking, pharmaceuticals and tech.
With all the talk about rising electric vehicle sales, buying one is still strange territory for most of us. Where to begin? In a two-part series in November and December, WFAE's "FAQ City" podcast tried to answer all your basic questions. In Part 1, host Claire Donnelly talked with David Boraks about different EV brands, how much they cost, rebates and tax breaks, and how far they go on a charge, among other things. In Part 2, they dove deeper into types of electric vehicle chargers, maintenance costs (way lower than your gas guzzler) and what to say if your buddy challenges the climate-friendliness of EVs.