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N.C.'s fossil fuel fury 

National agreement does little to ensure protection

The social justice/planet-hugger types have been on an emotional roller coaster, y'all. On Nov. 11, while many of us were still fuming about the midterm elections, President Obama jumped completely out of the climate closet by way of a surprise, historic, joint agreement with China to limit carbon emissions. Many were impressed China and the U.S., the world's biggest polluters and greenhouse gas contributors, broke the inaction modus operandi on climate change with a promise to reduce greenhouse gases and increase clean energy. (For our part, the POTUS agreed to reduce our greenhouse gas levels by at least 26 percent below 2005 levels by 2025.)

Though a step in the right direction, the accord between the U.S. and China has some dips and curves and is, essentially, an impressive distraction — much like Kim Kardashian's behind.

Despite the fanfare, the dirty fuel industry and U.S. environmentalists are neither perturbed nor sated by Presidents Obama and Xi Jinping's handshake for two reasons: 1) their agreement is non-binding; and 2) the U.S. actually needs to cut at least 50 to 60 percent below 1990 levels in order to meet Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) standards for mitigating the seemingly small yet dangerous increase in global temperature.

With or without the U.S./China plan, North Carolinians are vulnerable to the environmental and health costs of fracking, offshore drilling and coal because nothing has overcome the weak regulations and environmental obstructionism that has, so far, prevented a mandate to replace the majority of fossil fuels with renewable energy at the state level. While I hate to splash the Dan River in your faces, 100 million tons of heavy metal-laden coal ash still remain in unlined pits, many situated on drinking water reservoirs in North Carolina. (State legislation has only mandated cleanup of four of the 14 sites where 33 coal ash dumps leak into land, water and air. To add injury to insult, the Coal Ash Commission is poised to charge Duke Energy rate payers for the cost of coal ash management.)

The latest on coal ash cleanup is that Duke Energy is planning to relocate the slag to clay mines, nature's equivalent of Play-Doh™. I'm just as confident about that being ironclad as I am about state regulators and politicians having my best interests at heart. If the past is a good indication of what to expect from the energy industry, policymakers and regulators, pollution and climate disruption will be in the N.C. forecast for generations to come. Duke Energy's energy portfolio for the next 15 years still relies heavily on fossil fuels and gives only 3 percent of its total to renewable energy, such as wind and solar, despite the state's potential to produce more solar and wind energy to power homes and business here and beyond. Policymaker decisions have resulted in more losses than gains for the environment and public health.

Still, because of looming potential for the federal government to step in by way of the Clean Power Plan and coal ash regulations from the EPA, North Carolinians have more power to battle pollution and climate change now than we did when we were hoping and praying that the state legislature would do the right thing on coal ash, fracking and offshore drilling. Unlike at the state level, the EPA has to record and consider every comment, and the White House answers the phone.

I haven't given up on state level advocacy or making a mockery of Duke Energy during my lunch hour and protesting at the capitol, but the EPA's coal ash regulations and Clean Power Plan have my full attention and support during these next weeks. Why? Because they are designed to do what has yet to be done by NCDENR and the state legislature: hold power plants accountable for the majority of domestic greenhouse gases (at least one-third of carbon emissions) and the coal ash mess.

I've already submitted my public comment to the EPA and everyone else has until Dec. 1 to do the same. On Monday, Nov. 24, I, like others tired of being at risk of the next big corporate foul-up, will call the White House hotline (202-456-1111) and express my support for strong safeguards on coal ash by the end of the year.

A groundswell of public support for coal ash regulations and reduced carbon emissions from power plants would be a real game-changer. If the U.S./China agreement is the climate action bark, EPA interference in business as usual at the power companies is the much needed bite.

Danielle A. Hilton is a blogger and mompartisan activist who works as a field organizer for Moms Clean Air Force, a national nonprofit environmental organization. She also serves as a member of Charlotte Environmental Action and serves on the Clean Air Carolina Board of Directors.

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