Politics, not science, will influence legislation | North Carolina | Indy Week
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Politics, not science, will influence legislation 

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Think of science as a seawall. The anti-science, anti-environmental movement washing down the halls of the Legislature is a powerful wave pounding the seawall, threatening to drown the people of North Carolina living behind it.

The first wave hit in early January when Gov. Pat McCrory appointed John Skvarla as Secretary of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR). In an interview with WRAL, Skvarla questioned the science behind climate change and perpetuated the false notion that oil is a renewable resource.

The second wave arrived on opening day of the legislative session. The Coastal Resources Commission, which adopts rules and policies for development in environmentally sensitive areas—such as those prone to sea level rise—was one of several targets of Senate Bill 10. That legislation would permit lawmakers to fire members of specific oversight commissions and allow McCrory to install new people in their place.

The third wave happened in early February when John Droz, a member of NC-20—a government and real estate group and powerful adversary of the Coastal Resources Commission—was invited by Rep. George Cleveland, a Republican from Onslow County, to speak to lawmakers about science.

Droz's cachet among conservative lawmakers indicates that science may have little influence in environmental policy-making this session.

For example, Droz is not a scientist, but nonetheless, he delivered a bewildering 155-slide Powerpoint presentation that attempted to discredit scientists, the scientific method and, by extension, climate change, global warming and sea level rise.

Sam Pearsall, a senior scientist with the Environmental Defense Fund, called it an "anti-science presentation disguised as science" and "propaganda disguised as anti-propaganda."

Droz's scientific credentials include a master's degree in electronics, not ocean or earth science. He works in real estate on the coast and is a senior fellow at the conservative American Tradition Institute, which counts among its experts and fellows many fossil fuel proponents. Droz himself masterminded a confidential national campaign against wind power.

Yet he is the science advisor to NC-20, for whom rising seas are inconvenient to their profit motives: Eliminate rules so developers can build on the coast without consequence.

NC-20 would like to downplay, at least publicly, those motives. In an email obtained by INDY Week, NC-20 board member and homebuilder Bill Price last year cautioned his colleagues that "ANY comment as to what [rules] will cost developers or business will nullify our credibility."

NC-20 also tried to dismantle the scientific community's credibility in supporting 2011's failed "sea level rise bill." House Bill 819 essentially would have required scientists to measure the ocean levels in such a way to show that they weren't rising, even if they were.

And the seas will rise: Although the anti-science crowd envisions a modest 8-inch increase, real scientists predict average increases on the North Carolina coast of at least 3 feet by 2100. The state ranks as the third most vulnerable to sea level rise, with at least 800 miles of dry land that lies less than 3.3 feet above high tide, according to NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Despite these facts, emails obtained show the pressure NC-20, including Droz, leveraged against the Coastal Resources Commission in successfully forcing its Science Panel to soften several conclusions in a draft study on sea level rise.

Droz dogged commission chairman Bob Emory, demanding responses to arcane and dubious points. "I'd like to resolve the situation about the commission's ... sea level rise assessment report, mano-a-mano," Droz wrote to Emory (emphasis in the original).

NC-20 Chairman Tom Thompson sent Emory a draft of a letter to the editor of the Wilmington StarNews, in which Thompson equated some scientists with eugenicists, including Adolf Hitler.

Emory responded: "It is always bad form to compare someone to Hitler."

Thompson replied: "Good points. Quite frankly, I was targeting [Duke University earth and ocean scientist Orrin] Pilkey and others who have attacked us directly and by name. I shall revise."

Emory then asked Thompson to stop sending him drafts, saying "further review by me might imply that I endorse the letter."

Emory is out of his office until Feb. 20 and could not be reached for comment.

In addition, Droz wrote to Emory that he wanted to foil North Carolina's wind energy movement, which could help offset the state's reliance on natural gas and coal-fired power plants:

"My hope is to eventually get one major environmental group to break ranks [about wind power]. That in turn may have a cascading effect and the whole house of cards might come down.

"I'm writing today to tell you that there is now a distinct possibility that this might happen with Audubon.

"Please keep this confidential (emphasis in the original). I'm not at liberty to discuss specifics, but I need your help, ASAP."

Unpersuaded, Emory responded that in general, he "would like to see an expansion of renewable energy, including wind, biomass and solar, as long as policies and incentives are reasonable."

Reached this week, Delta Willis, senior communications manager for the national Audubon organization, told the INDY that Droz's assertion about the group is untrue.

"We're in favor of renewables and wind is one of that. We're concerned about where turbines are put, to locate them away from areas of wildlife density."

Expect special interests such as Droz, NC-20 and the fracking proponents to help craft anti-environmental bills this session.

"The fact [Droz] was invited here shows he has the Legislature's ear," said Dustin Chicurel-Bayard of the Sierra Club.

McCrory did little this week to assuage the scientific and environmental communities' fears that politics and profits would trump fact. During his address to 350 DENR employees on Monday, McCrory, with Skvarla at his side, was asked how the agency would handle input from DENR scientists.

"I don't know yet," McCrory said. "I want to hear all sides of an issue before making a decision."

If the first month of McCrory's administration is an accurate indication of the next four years, the side of science may fall on deaf ears.

INDY Week interns Jane Porter and Elizabeth Van Brocklin contributed reporting to this story.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Science takes a beating."

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