This story first published online at North Carolina Health News

A rulemaking petition aimed at reducing heat-trapping carbon dioxide emissions from North Carolina’s power plants has made its way to the full N.C. Environmental Management Commission.

Last week, the commissions’ Air Quality Committee recommended that the full commission approve joining the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), a cooperative effort among 11 states from Maine to Virginia that use the initiative to cap and reduce power sector carbon dioxide pollution.

The commission will have the final say on whether to join RGGI, which statistics show has reduced power plant emissions of carbon dioxide by 47 percent over the last decade through cap-and-trade agreements among the participating states.

The commission is expected to consider joining RGGI at a special meeting on July 13. North Carolina probably could not become a member state until Jan. 1, 2023, because of regulatory processes that have to occur first, state officials said at last week’s meeting.

The recommendation from the Air Quality Committee came the same day that Republican lawmakers released proposed legislation aimed at transitioning away from coal-fueled power plants to natural gas plants. Environmental groups criticized the measure and the reported lack of transparency in its development.

“Urgent action” needed

The petition to join RGGI was filed by the Southern Environmental Law Center on behalf of environmental groups Clean Air Carolina and the North Carolina Coastal Federation.

“We filed this petition because North Carolina needs to take urgent action to reduce carbon pollution from power plants given the harm underway from climate change in our communities,” Gudrun Thompson, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, said in a statement. “This rule will push dirty coal generation off the power grid, protecting the people and communities of North Carolina from air pollution while moving our state toward a clean energy future.”

The RGGI initiative puts an annual cap on carbon dioxide emissions from power plants, a cap that diminishes over time. Power companies can buy carbon dioxide allowances that RGGI makes available at auction for their share of the pollution.

Some of that money is returned to the participating states, which use it for clean energy and energy-efficient projects. In North Carolina, the money could be used to reduce electric bills, though officials say it is likely that customers would see a small increase from RGGI before any decrease is realized.

The threat of carbon dioxide, air pollutants

Burning fossil fuels not only produces carbon dioxide but other pollutants that affect human health. The World Health Organization estimates that outdoor air pollution results in the deaths of as many as 4.2 million people annually. Multiple analyses from the past year point to air pollution’s role in increasing the rate of death for people infected with COVID-19, particularly for those living in neighborhoods with high burdens of pollution, such as near highways and industrial facilities.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, carbon dioxide trapped in the Earth’s atmosphere absorbs and radiates heat. Over time, carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases have “tipped the Earth’s energy budget out of balance,” raising the Earth’s average temperature and contributing to an increase in sea levels and more intense storms and flooding. 

Last year, North Carolina broke almost every heat record.

Under Governor Roy Cooper, the state has set a goal of reducing carbon dioxide emissions from the power sector by 70 percent by 2030 and carbon neutrality by 2050. Duke Energy, the state’s leading energy company, has a similar goal to reduce its carbon dioxide emissions.

Proponents and critics

Proponents of RGGI say it is an effective tool to help reach those carbon dioxide reduction goals.

“We’re already watching tropical storms form even though hurricane season just started,” Todd Miller, executive director of the North Carolina Coastal Federation, said in a statement. “It’s imperative to act to reduce carbon pollution so that our coast is less vulnerable to extreme weather, and this vote is a good first step in that direction.”

But not everyone is sold on RGGI.

During the Air Quality Committee meeting, attorney Fern Paterson spoke on behalf of the owners of Charlotte Pipe and Foundry, a family-operated business since 1901.

Paterson argued that it’s not clear whether RGGI has actually led to carbon dioxide reductions, and she questioned whether the rulemaking process is lawful in this instance. She also said the Biden administration has vowed to fight climate change, and the state should wait to see what comes forward.

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