John Skvarla, North Carolina's top environmental regulator, said Monday he is overseeing 15 reorganizations simultaneously at the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources in an effort to streamline the agency he has been running since January.
Skvarla said he doesn't know how many people will be laid off from the 4,000-employee agency, but noted that the purpose of the reorg is not to maximize body counts. Rather, Skvarla said, his goal is to make DENR more responsive in its dual mission of protecting the environment and growing the economy.
"Historically, the philosophy has been that corporate America is the enemy," Skvarla told a lunchtime crowd of several dozen at the conservative John Locke Foundation in Raleigh.
"We can't take people who are going to build the economy and treat them like the enemy," Skvarla said. "Everything we do in DENR has to involve some consideration of economics."
Skvarla said the agency is processing permit applications more quickly, but he also insisted that environmental protections haven't been sacrificed on the altar of corporate profit. He cited DENR's recent court filings of 14 enforcement actions against Duke Energy for alleged drinking water contamination at the Charlotte power company's coal ash pits throughout the state.
But he joked that if environmental advocates had their way, "we would live in lean-tos and wear loincloths."
With regard to the agency-wide reorganizations, Skvarla said "we've got that place upside down." He assured that if layoffs happen, they won't be drastic, and motivated employees will thrive.
"This isn't going to be burdensome," Skvarla said. "This is going to be an epiphany for most of these folks."
DENR's responsibilities include regulating shale gas exploration and enforcing penalties for chemical spills and other violations. As part of that task, DENR oversees and advises the N.C. Mining and Energy Commission, which is writing 120-some rules to govern all aspects of shale gas exploration, or fracking.
Skvarla assured the mostly conservative, business-friendly audience at the John Locke Foundation that this state's fracking standards would not be onerous for industry.
"We don't want the most severe" rules, Skvarla said. "We want the rules that re the most appropriate in North Carolina."
He also echoed Gov. Pat McCrory's enthusiasm for the potential of fracking in North Carolina. While the U.S. Geological Survey has estimated that North Caorlina contains only about 1.7 trillion cubic feet of shale gas, a fraction of the amount in Texas and Pennsylvania, some fracking advocates have said that estimate underestimates the state's gas potential
While natural gas prices are depressed worldwide, Skvarla said the state's gas reserves could hold a significant amount of "wet gas," the price of which is pegged to crude oil. Wet gas includes ethane, propane and butane, which condense into liquid when they rise to the surface.
"If we got wet gas, then Katy bar the door," Skvarla said. "It could be the panacea from heaven."
A video of Skvarla's hour-long speech and subsequent Q&A will be posted here Monday afternoon by the John Locke Foundation: