This story originally published online at N.C. Policy Watch.
As a former lobbyist, Elizabeth Biser is accustomed to corralling the lions and the lambs.
Those diplomatic skills helped Biser win over the Senate Agriculture, Energy and Environment Committee, which today voted to confirm her as the new secretary of the NC Department of Environmental Quality. She will be the first woman to lead the department.
The full Senate is expected to take up and approve the nomination Thursday morning.
“My sense was she would be transformative for DEQ,” said Sen. Paul Newton, a Republican and chronic antagonist toward the department.
“Secretary Biser is what North Carolina needs to take us into the future in this administration,” said Republican Sen. Norm Sanderson (R-Carteret, Craven and Pamlico), adding cryptically, “and the next one.”
Biser worked from 2006 to 2010 as a legislative liaison for DEQ — then known as DENR. Later she lobbied on behalf of NC Forever, which advocated for funding land and water conservation projects. NC Forever’s membership included not only the Environmental Defense Fund and the NC Coastal Federation, but also Smithfield Foods and the N.C. Farm Bureau.
Biser also worked as a government relations policy advisor at the law firm Brooks Pierce, where former DEQ Secretary Bill Ross works. There, she successfully lobbied for the $78 million Connect NC bond package for state and local parks.
In addition, Biser served as vice president of policy and public affairs for the Recycling Partnership; she also ran her own environmental consulting business.
Familiar answers, but a different reception
Biser’s smooth path to confirmation contrasted with that of the governor’s previous nominee, Dione Delli-Gatti — even though both women gave similar answers to lawmakers’ questions.
After two fraught and hostile hearings, the committee had refused to confirm Delli-Gatti because she wasn’t sufficiently pro-natural gas to suit many Republicans. Sen. Newton claimed at the time that Delli-Gatti was disqualified because during her confirmation testimony she “couldn’t explain the governor’s natural gas strategy and was largely unfamiliar with the MVP Southgate project.”
Delli-Gatti had given neutral answers to her opinions about natural gas, as did Biser.
“I don’t come into this position with a predestined opinion,” Biser said at yesterday’s 90-minute hearing. She added, correctly, that the NC Utilities Commission is responsible for determining the state’s energy mix.
Newton also quizzed Biser on DEQ’s role in approving the MVP Southgate natural gas pipeline project. Last year, under then-DEQ Secretary Michael Regan — now the national EPA administrator — the department rejected the project’s water quality permit, in part because the main MVP line through West Virginia and Virginia is in limbo. Construction of the southern portion, through Rockingham and Alamance counties, could needlessly harm rivers, streams and wetlands if the main line is never built, DEQ said at the time.
Such environmental damage already occurred in eastern North Carolina after energy giants Duke and Dominion commenced and then canceled the Atlantic Coast Pipeline.
“What is your agency’s role in the MVP Southgate project?” Newton asked.
“Applying existing rules and regulations,” Biser replied.
“Would you support the MVP if it met statutory requirements?” Newton said.
“I would look at it like any other project—Does it meet the rules and regulations?” Biser responded.
GOP Sen. Jim Burgin asked Biser her opinion of the omnibus energy bill that has passed the state House and is now pending in the Senate (HB 951). The measure is vehemently opposed by a diverse array of business and environmental groups that includes nearly everyone but Duke Energy.
“There are a number of folks who have concerns,” Biser said, by way of understatement. “The administration has concerns as well.”
Among other things, the bill includes a provision for nuclear power—Duke could pass along up to $50 million to ratepayers for construction of a small facility.
In response to Sen. Newton’s question about nuclear, Biser said that the energy source, which currently provides about a third of North Carolina’s power generation, is “part of the mix.”
Sen. Newton, a former Duke Energy executive, hammered on an issue he had championed at Delli-Gatti’s confirmation hearings — that North Carolina shouldn’t dial back its carbon emissions if China and India don’t.
“In some parts of the world, carbon is increasing,” Sen. Newton said. “It would overwhelm whatever North Carolina does.”
“Every little bit helps,” Biser said.
“I’m not saying we shouldn’t do our part, but from a scientific perspective … North Carolina’s contribution to improving the climate is zero,” Sen. Newton said.
“Fortunately we’re joined by a lot of other folks,” Biser replied.
Questions on permitting, environmental justice
As for DEQ’s priorities, Biser told the committee that the department’s antiquated permitting process — some of it is still done on paper — needs to be modernized. “If you can track a pizza, you should be able to track a permit,” she said.
If you can track a pizza, you should be able to track a permit.”
She explained that a staffing shortage — the result of a decade of budget cuts by the legislature — has created bottlenecks in the permitting process. “Our staff has decreased while we have a booming economy and more permit applications,” Biser said. Without more money, “it could take until 2045” to get through the workload.
The surprise question of the day — about mining permits — came from Sen. Chuck Edwards, a Republican representing Buncombe, Henderson and Transylvania counties. “I’m hearing from industry that their issues are not being addressed,” Edwards said. “The Mining Commission is running on empty.”
The eight-member Mining Commission has not met since 2012. In part, the lapse can be attributed to former Gov. McCrory, who in 2014 successfully filed a lawsuit challenging the legislative appointments to several commissions as an unconstitutional violation of separation of powers in the state constitution.
The Oil and Gas Commission was peeled off from the mining group, and meets quarterly — but has accomplished very little.
The Mining Commission was reconstituted in 2015; Gov. Cooper appointed Sam Bratton of Wake Stone to the commission last year; there is no chairperson.
However, the lack of a commission has not prevented DEQ from approving mining permits. It okayed a controversial permit last year for an Alamance Aggregates operation in the community of Snow Camp.
DEQ is also holding two hearings next month for Carolina Sunrock, which has proposed a mine and two asphalt plants for Caswell County. DEQ’s Division of Air Quality previously denied permit applications for those operations because they did not meet criteria as required by the Clean Air Act; the company resubmitted them.
Environmental justice took greater prominence — albeit with little effect on the daily lives of communities of color — under Secretary Regan. Nonetheless, Sen. Sanderson has found this development problematic. He asked Delli-Gatti about it, as well as Biser.
“What are your thoughts on environmental justice and its potential to stop projects,” Sanderson said.
Biser cited the EPA definition, which is rooted in Title VI of the Civil Rights Act. The state, as a recipient of federal funds, must comply with Title VI.
“No matter where you live in the state, income, race, everyone has a fair chance to interact with the department,” Biser said.
(A subsequent executive order handed down by President Clinton in 1994 contains stronger language: “identifying and addressing, as appropriate, disproportionately high and adverse human health or environmental effects of its programs, policies, and activities on minority populations and low-income populations to the greatest extent permissible by law.”)
The only unit within DEQ that currently requires an environmental justice analysis in permitting deliberations is the Solid Waste Division, which governs landfills. Even then, the department doesn’t deny permits on environmental justice grounds, Biser said, “but there is more monitoring and transparency in the process.”
“So you won’t throw up roadblocks,” Sanderson said, “but find a way around them.”
The top priority for DEQ, Biser told the committee, is to “get our basic job right, safeguarding our air, water and land.”
Community resilience, especially for flooding in the era of climate change, is at the forefront of DEQ’s priorities, Biser said.
And as she spoke, remnants of Tropical Storm Fred were inundating western North Carolina — including areas of Sens. Newton’s and Edwards’s districts — with tornadoes, power outages, and homes and roads swept away by rising water and landslides.
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