Nelson Guardedly Optimistic on Environment

Chapel Hill Herald, Saturday April 30, 2005

In recognition of Earth Day, I decided to interview the Conservation Council of North Carolina's environmental lobbyist, Mike Nelson, known locally as the Mayor of Carrboro. Nelson has been on the job in the General Assembly for 13 months and is now working through his second legislative session.
Earlier that day, Orange County held its environmental summit in the Century Center. Commissioners Alice Gordon and Barry Jacobs assured attendees that the county is committed to clean air and water and to environmental preservation. Jacobs proudly informed the crowd that Orange County is preserving more land than is being developed.
Any discussion of Orange County's environment cannot avoid the troubling fact of our inclusion in a seven-county EPA non-attainment area for air quality. Air pollution is one of the many environmental problems that do not recognize jurisdictional boundaries. That's where Nelson's work in the legislature becomes critical.
This year, environmentalists are pushing a Clean Cars Initiative (S1006) whereby North Carolina would adopt California fuel economy standards. Similar standards have been adopted in six states although they were recently defeated in Maryland after a major campaign by the auto industry.
The Conservation Council is partnering with PIRG and the Sierra Club to support the Clean Cars Initiative.
There is a similar coalition pushing for the creation of a state global warming taskforce (S1134). Although such a taskforce ought to have been established a decade ago, even now Nelson is not optimistic. Facing concerted opposition from the big utilities, he fears that anything passed will be “so watered down that it's close to useless.”
Nelson is also working with a number of groups in support of the Drinking Water Reservoir Protection Act (S 981), a first step in addressing pollution problems in drinking water lakes before damage from pollution is done. The legislation initially focuses on Jordan and Falls Lakes, requiring reports on ongoing Jordan Lake clean up efforts and increasing monitoring of and decreasing pollution into Falls Lake.
Nelson said the 2004 elections were good for the North Carolina environment. Greer Martin of Wake County defeated a Republican incumbent. Martin is a sponsor of the School Children's Health Act (H1502) which seeks to protect children from harmful environmental contaminants while they are on school property. The bill would address arsenic treated wood, diesel exhaust from idling busses, and mold and mildew.
Pricey Harrison of Guilford County beat a 10-term Republican and is a sponsor of legislation that mandates the recycling of mercury switches from junk cars.
Although green legislators are a minority, victories like those of Martin and Harrison indicate to Nelson the possibility of success for the environmental movement in taking a long-term approach and targeting key districts.
Part of Nelson's job is to work with freshmen legislators to help them get established. He also works to help sponsors of environmental legislation answer questions and strategize the best approach to promoting the bill.
Nelson's optimism is tempered by a broadened understanding of “what a mess we're in environmentally. Most people don't understand the problems of Jordan Lake,” he said. “They don't understand the magnitude of coastal water pollution that has decimated an entire way of life in the last 15 years.”
I asked Nelson what were the key differences between legislative politics and those of Carrboro. Working in the general assembly, he said helps him “appreciate the transparency in local government.” While most real decision-making in the legislature takes place behind closed doors, Carrboro has a fairly open process.
Nelson also has a deeper appreciation of the progressive values of Carrboro and Orange County. He stressed “how hard it is to get anything progressive through the General Assembly.”
He seemed pleased, however, that the doors to the legislators' offices were readily open to him. But he was quick to point out that business lobbyists have a different level of access entirely, gained by inviting legislators to dinner, throwing parties for them, or taking them on golf junkets.
Nelson thinks his background in elected office lends credibility to his lobbying efforts. Legislators appreciate that he has been in the same position of sponsoring measures and working to get the votes needed to pass them.
I asked Mike how a legislative lobbyist spends Earth Day. In his case, he analyzed the budget cuts proposed for the Department of the Environment and Natural Resources and drafted a letter to the appropriations chairs suggesting which cuts to reject.
One lesson Nelson cited from his first year as a lobbyist is “not to be so prejudiced, not to see people in black and white in terms of ideology.” That is a lesson that can serve us all as we navigate the rocky shoals of political involvement.



I've been meaning to comment here, but this post keeps slipping off the radar. If anyone is interested in hearing what kind of resistance Nelson is up against fighting for clean air, I'd highly recommend tuning in to the NPR archive show, ‘Ozone Alert' In this ‘The State of Things' program, Joel Schwartz, a rather clever John Locke sponsored adjunct scholar argues against limiting CO2 emissions associated with global warming and tells us not to waste our money on transit rail. What was so striking about the show was how Schwartz overwhelmed the other guests. For anyone who hasn't seen it, this week's Indy has an analysis of Locke's ties to the fossil fuel industry.
I also wanted to know if anyone out there has any insight into what has become of TTA's regional rail. My understanding is that Wake and Durham will use existing rail, and that Orange opted out of the plan because we don't have enough rail stops to make rail feasible. (Much of our rail is in the rural buffer where development can't happen.) Orange may do an alternate light rail option into Durham via 15/501. Can anyone confirm that this is the plan? What are the chances of this regional rail happening? Will homeowners accept it?

Mary--Do you read Grist? Here's the answer Ask Umbra gave for how to deal with those oh-so-certain individuals who don't believe there's a problem (some of who post here):

BTW, is Bill Faison supporting Hackney's global warming bill? Probably not. In the HS this morning John Hood of John Locke was sounding optimistic about Faison's chances of becoming NC's next governor.

The article in today's CHH on UNC's zipcars was well-timed and interesting. I wonder if we could replace all the Town's "leather-seated" SUVs with them?

If the Town manager would like to investigate replacing vehicles with zipcars, one approach other businesses investigating this idea take is to put a form in all vehicles that requires all those who use the vehicle to enter the following information:

1. Starting mileage

2. Ending mileage

3. Department

4. Were any materials transported that required a SUV/full-size vehicle to complete this trip?

5. If yes to #4, which materials?

After 2-4 months of usage, the patterns should be reasonably clear and the town can decide whether or not having multiple large-size vehicles make sense.

Zipcar does have fleet management as a business model:

could any of the town non-patrol car (police) fleet be swapped for hybrids? i don't know what kind of cars the town currently uses but I'm going to guess that its the standard crown vic or chevy caprice. prius' are cheaper than both of those models and the savings in gas could be enormous. i've read that other towns have made similar switches and reaped the benefits...

The Town of Carrboro is currently investigating more fuel efficient vehicles for its non-emergency fleet. I hope Chapel Hill is doing likewise. Of course, this is a long-term strategy since it will take several years for us to deplete the useful life of all of our current vehicles. But it is a worthwhile plan. Hybrids are specifically under consideration, but so are other higher efficiency non-hybrids.

The Town is also engaged in an evaluation of the use of biodiesel by experimentally running a few vehicles on B100. Several area local governments are also experimenting with propane vehicles as well.

Just to add to Mark's post---
The notion of considering hybrids for fleet vehicles was kicked about when they were first offered.This was concurrent with the need to replace our old 'pool' car, an ancient Chevy Cavalier. At the time, the jury was still out on the long-term reliability of these machines, and given that our staff was in virtual revolt over having to use a vehicle that Jed Clampett would have hesitated to put Granny in (Confession: The Board's resident skinflint---Yers Truly---resisted this until I had run out of remotely reasonable justifications), the Town bought an Impala (the downsized V-6 version) on State contract---you get a BIG discount this way.

It's worth noting that our experience with this vehicle led our police department to replace the monster Crown Vics with these more efficient vehicles, and by all accounts our officers are quite happy with them (they still go like scalded cats). Now that the efficacy of Alternative Fueled vehicles has been more reliably established, this appears to be a promising direction.


Alex, just out of curiosity, how much does an imapala cost (under the fleet vehicle deal)? i know prius are cheaper than crown vics but i didn't know how much of a discount a town or municipality gets off what a consumer would pay...Thanks!

Bill, This was a few years ago, and I don't have the budget in front of me, so I don't have the precise figures. But it varies, depending on the price that the state negotiates for the fleet deal. It is usually several thousand off MSRP. However, price wasn't the central consideration. As I mentioned, at the time, no one knew what maintenance issues might arise in the hybrid system which was brand-new. Moreover, different manufacturers use very different systems. It was considered prudent to wait until the systems proved reliable and any kinks sorted out. It's well known that it's not a particularly good idea to buy from the first year's production using a new technology (Anybody remember the aluminum-block Chevy Vegas?---On the first overheat, that lovely casting would melt into a 300 lb. paperweight. Ouch.)


Sorry to chime in belatedly, but I've been away....Mary are you referring to H1191, the global warming bill ?? Bill Faison is a co-sponsor. And BTW, what does that have to do with being governor?

Thanks for doing my homework for me. Interesting no one else set me straight. Good for Faison.
You seem to know a lot about Faison. Educate me. What's his relationship to the John Locke Foundation? How would you rate John Locke on environmental issues?

Hey Mary,

Sorry it took me so long to respond, but I needed to check a few facts before I chimed in.I don't really know that much about Bill faison. We serve together on the OCDP's finance committee, but I missed the first meeting while in Chicago. Here's what I do know. In the last 8 months, I've emailed every single legislator that represents me at various times. That would be Verla Insko, Ellie Kinnaird, David Price, Elizabeth Dole, John Edwards, and now, of course, Richard Burr. The only two who responded were John Edwards and Bill Faison, and Mr. Faison has responded every time I've contacted him. I don't agree with him on many issues, but he is advocating for his constituents in meaningful ways. Every few weeks I pop in to and see what he's up to.
It's worth mentioning the fact that both Ms. Kinnaird and Ms. Insko pulled a Pontius Pilate during the annexation debacle, despite both being on the record against involuntary annexation. Over 80 residents of the area contaced them. No one reports a single courtesy response.

To the best of my knowledge, Bill Faison has no connection at all to the John Locke Foundation, which BTW, has surprisingly little to do with the teachings of John Locke, as I remember them from a 7 AM college philosophy course.

The Locke Foundation has a pretty standard libertarian spiel, so they aren't going to be pretty dismal on environmental issues. The bad news is, in the math of electoral politics, being "green" has never won anybody a major election.

Thanks Katrina for the thoughtful response. We're practically neighbors. We should meet. I'll give you a call.

Actually, the Locke Foundation is more of a front for Big Energy, as last week's Independent revealed in their story on global climate change. They advocate against anything that would advance an alternative energy future or protect against climate-changing behavior. They are more aptly described as - this is Jim Warren of NCWARN's term - consultitutes.

Oops..I actually meant "are going to be pretty dismal on environmental issues", as any organization spewing quasi-libertarianism would be. ( note to self- read posts before hitting submit. Review feature is gone)

Thanks for the correction Mark!

And Mary, feel free to call anytime. I'd love to get to know the neighbors better.


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