Setbacks For Environmental Extremists

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Pete Sepp President, National Taxpayers Union
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It’s been a bumpy road lately for some overreaching environmental activists, who’ve encountered legitimate skepticism over several of their most excessive schemes for tax hikes and regulations.

Eight major labor unions sent a scathing letter to AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka openly opposing get-out-the-vote efforts funded by billionaire environmental activist Tom Steyer. Exposing a rift within the political ranks, the labor unions said the Democratic Party has been “infiltrated” by “financial and political interests that work in direct conflict to many of our members” (i.e., quality jobs).

A second environmental effort, now falling back on its heels is the “Keep it in the Ground” movement aimed at blocking access to oil and natural gas resources. Democratic Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper recently had to speak out about how this “small minority” is “not an accurate representation” of his state. Hickenlooper also said a shortsighted effort to turn off America’s oil and natural gas resources would do “significant damage to our economy.”

The battle for common sense policy has most recently shifted to North Carolina, where the state Department of Environmental Quality is now in the process of re-evaluating Duke Energy’s 30-plus coal ash sites, so as to ensure responsible storage of the substance. Over the next 18 months, remediation efforts already underway by Duke could address most of the remaining concerns over water quality and the ecology near the sites.

Despite the fact that North Carolina water quality has always met federal health safety standards, state regulators sent frightening “do not drink” warning letters to some residents. Then the state had to recall those health warnings after water taken from city run wells across NC showed similar test results. Environmental extremists, who constantly pressured officials, were obviously not satisfied.

A measure in the General Assembly offers a commonsense approach that protects the environment while providing a cost-effective assessment of how to handle each site. For fear-mongers, that’s not enough: they demand that Duke fully excavate every storage site in NC, regardless of the cost. And that’s where National Taxpayers Union comes in.

Shaking down Duke’s executives won’t cover that cost, or anything near it. Instead, the company’s 3.3 million North Carolina residential and business customers would take a hit, in the form of higher electricity bills.

But why couldn’t the company just absorb the pain in other ways? It certainly could – by delaying expansion plans, cutting its workforce of 30,000 (not counting contractors), or disappointing hundreds of thousands of shareholders with lower stock returns. Also, the environment itself could pay, if Duke is forced to slow some of its power-plant conversions to lower-emission natural gas because of worse remediation bills.

Taxpayers enter the picture in many ways. State and local government pension funds across the country are invested in energy stocks (including Duke); during the recession, they were among the only investments helping to cushion a dramatic fall in asset values. If those values fall again because of orchestrated campaigns against energy producers, taxpayer liabilities will rise.

There are other taxpayer issues looming. In addition to the cost of needlessly excavating every coal ash site, Duke estimates 800,000 truck trips over the next two decades are needed to relocate the substance from just one site alone. That means state residents will have to pay for the heavy pounding of NC’s highway infrastructure. North Carolina’s gas tax is already the eighth worst in the nation and nearly the highest in the south.

But equally daunting – and instructive for other states – would be the erosion of North Carolina’s steadily-improving business climate. Three years ago, North Carolina led one of the most sweeping state tax reforms in the nation, making great progress. Since that time, the state has had the fastest-growing economy in the country and had the most dramatic improvement in its comprehensive business climate ranking that the nonpartisan Tax Foundation has EVER measured, going from 44th to 15th in record time. A capricious economic and regulatory act can send a signal to other businesses, and can start a downward spiral all over again.

It’s election season and we’re certain to see more attacks on the energy industry, nationally and in states like North Carolina. But, voters should see through the hype. Americans do care about the world around them, but they also want a strong economy close to home that gives their kids a better future. It also happens to provide the financial resources as well as the entrepreneurial spirit to help make the planet greener.

Pete Sepp is president of the National Taxpayers Union.