Dramatic view of the Delaware state capitol building. White clouds hang low over the colonial style state house that features a tall spire rising above the front entrance.
First State The capitol building in downtown Dover, Delaware. © traveler1116 / iStock

Stories in Delaware

Legislative Priorities: Leading Delaware Forward

Together we can advocate for a greener future for Delaware's environment and communities.

TNC Delaware is committed to creating a world where people and nature thrive. We apply the best available science to protect and restore our lands and waters. And working together, we can advocate for policies that address the causes and impacts of climate change, help our cities become more sustainable, and create opportunities for people to connect with nature.

This work has never been more urgent. 

A large group of horseshoe crabs cluster together on a beach at low tide. The shell of the crab in the middle of the frame is covered in pale colored barnacles and shells.
Horseshoe Crabs Delware's Mildford Neck Preserve provide critical habitat for spawning horseshoe crabs. © Katherine Marro / TNC

Climate change is already impacting the First State and years of aggressive development means we are losing our vital natural resources. We are feeling the impacts of increased flooding, more frequent and severe rain events and rising temperatures. These growing challenges are stressing infrastructure, threatening human and natural communities and overburdening our local governments. We must work together to build more capacity, strengthen coordination, support undeserved communities and increase available resources to fund programs and projects that build resilience.

In Delaware, our public policy goals include:

  • Tackling climate change
  • Protecting land and water
  • Providing food and water sustainability
  • Building healthy cities

We are also challenging ourselves with a renewed commitment to diversity, equity, including and justice (DEIJ). All of our public policy work will have a DEIJ framework that not only seeks to protect and serve nature, but to protect and serve people.

Advocacy Agenda: Conversations with Delaware's Leaders

Each month we will feature a new environmental policy leader or issue in the First State. With support from our volunteers and friends, advocacy to protect the Earth—and Delaware—is an important part of what we do.

January 2022: State Senator Stephanie Hansen

Headshot of Delaware State Senator Stephanie Hansen.
Stephanie Hansen Delaware State Senator Stephanie Hansen. © courtesy Stephanie Hansen

To begin the new year, we're in conversation with State Senator Stephanie Hansen, Chair of the State Senate Environment and Energy Committee. With a master's degree in earth science and former law practice primarily focused on the environment, Hansen represents the 10th Senate District, which includes portions of Newark, Glasgow, Bear, Middletown and other communities along the western side of Southern New Castle County. Elected in a special election in 2017, Hansen is a former New Castle County Council President.

What are the biggest environmental challenges for Delaware?

There are many challenges in Delaware. We have the lowest mean elevation of all U.S. states. We have already experienced a one-foot increase in sea level since 1900 and sea level is predicted to rise an additional 9 to 23 inches by 2050, up to 5 feet by 2100. We should expect to experience more flooding and drainage problems, property and infrastructure damage from extreme weather events, loss of usable land and native species, heat-related and invasive species related-illness for people and animals, and business interruptions.

There is much we can do but a vital step is decreasing our use of fossil fuel. We must increase our use of renewable energy to minimize our CO2 emissions. This means not only developing new renewable energy sources but having an electric grid system that is capable of delivering that energy to the end users. Having an accessible understanding of our current electric distribution systems, reinforcing and upgrading them where necessary, and planning for additional sources and distribution is paramount and represents a very big challenge today.

In addition, research from the University of Delaware and elsewhere has shown that we are losing many of our native species of plants, insects, fish, reptiles, and birds in Delaware. This is a problem as our ecosystem is a web in which the loss of some species affects the vitality and health of all. In short, our health as a human species depends upon the health of the species around us. This understanding led to the creation of the Ecological Extinction Task Force in 2017 which identified the causes of this decline as habitat loss, habitat fragmentation, climate change, and the presence of invasive species. The Delaware Native Species Commission was put in place in 2018 by the General Assembly to address this decline and one of the top recommendations was a ban on the sale of invasive plant species. Senate Bill 22 was passed to implement this ban (see below for more discussion), but the Task Force identified 81 recommendations so there is much work to be done.

What are the biggest environmental accomplishments you have been involved in?

Senate Bill 33, the Renewable Portfolio Standard (or “RPS”) bill, increased the amount of renewable energy required to be generated in Delaware from 25% by 2025 to 40% by 2035. It also provides consumer protection. The cost of renewable energy, whether it is from solar or wind, has been going down for years, and the technology is maturing. But should that cost go up, this bill institutes a freeze that is triggered by rising market conditions. ;

Senate Bill (SB) 2, Community Solar, removed the roadblocks to community solar projects in and created a regulatory process for the development of these projects through the Public Service Commission and consumer protection through the Department of Justice. Community solar refers to a solar energy generating system that is bigger than a rooftop installation, but not as big as a commercial scale system where you may see hundreds of panels covering many acres.

SB 2 also provides for the widest range of ownership models to exist and compete in the marketplace. So, for instance, a church or other nonprofit could be the owner of the facility, or government, or a private solar developer, or just a group of neighbors. However, there is an important environmental justice component which requires that any project must include 15% low-income households.  These are the households that otherwise would not be able to take advantage of the lower cost of solar energy because they are more likely not own their homes or have less access to financing personal rooftop solar.

Beginning in January 2021, I held a series of large Energy and Climate Forums in order to publicly discuss broad energy policy concepts and specific legislation. These virtual public forums have been very popular and attract nearly 200 participants. There have been four forums held so far on the topics of increasing our Renewable Portfolio Standard, Community Solar legislation, Offshore Wind, and the Clean Energy Standard.

From these large forums, a smaller group of approximately two dozen stakeholders has been identified from government, business, academia, nonprofits, and environmental groups. This Energy Stakeholders Group originally began meeting to discuss and develop the community solar legislation (SB 2 mentioned above) but has continued to meet on broader energy policy issues. All of the meetings are virtual, open to the public, and all documents are publicly available in the Google drive folder.

Another recent bill, Senate Bill 22, bans the sale, transportation, distribution and propagation of approximately three dozen invasive plants in Delaware and requires plants identified as potentially invasive to be sold with a tag denoting them as such. Invasive plant species are those that did not evolve in this area as part of our food web but were brought in by humans. They are very prolific and displace the native plants upon which 90% of our native insects rely as a food source.

Research by the U.S. Forest Service and the University of Delaware has found that almost 60% of the plants in our small-forested areas are invasive species that have escaped from nearby yards and landscapes. From high school science we know that a reduction in the number of native plants (food), leads to a reduction in the number of native insects, then fish, reptiles, mammals and so on up the food chain.

Delaware must also increase its protections of non-tidal wetlands. The prior federal administration’s roll back of EPA regulations protecting nontidal wetlands left more than 10,000 acres of non-tidal wetlands in Delaware unprotected. This is because, unlike many other states, Delaware does not regulate non-tidal wetlands.

Senate Joint Resolution 2 requires DNREC to engage authoritative federal agencies to identify the administrative structure, legal structure, and resource needs to establish a State nontidal wetlands permitting program effectively shifting the permitting program from the federal to the State level. It also requires a report on the results of this review within one (1) year of enactment.

What are your legislative environmental priorities for 2022?

Energy and Distribution Planning is the key to EV, Solar, Wind, and Battery Expansion. Our ability to realize in-state growth of renewable energy sources, build out our electric vehicle charging infrastructure, accommodate offshore wind energy, effectively utilize battery storage, and address energy equity issues is dependent upon having an electric distribution system capable of delivering the renewable energy to the ultimate end user. This starts with having an accessible understanding of our current electric distribution systems, reinforcing and upgrading those systems where necessary, and planning for additional sources and distribution capacity.

My top goal for this session is designing a roadmap which will lead to an understanding of the infrastructure that our current utilities have in place today and address planning for expansions, new renewable sources, discrete increased capacities (batteries), EV infrastructure build out, and resiliency. I suspect that legislation may be necessary on more than one element mentioned.

Energy and Net Metering: If you have solar panels on your roof, the ability to sell excess solar energy back to the grid and receive payment from the utility for that energy is called “net metering”. Under our current law, “if the total generating capacity of all customer-generation using net metering systems served by an electric utility exceeds 5% of the capacity necessary to meet the electric utility’s aggregated customer monthly peak demand for a particular calendar year, the electric utility may elect not to provide net metering services to any additional customer-generators.” 26 Del Code § 1014 (e)(7). Two municipalities, Middletown and Seaford, no longer allow net metering. Within the next year to year-and-a-half, most if not all of the electric utilities in Delaware will meet the 5% threshold and may no longer allow net metering. This would be a tremendous blow to the growth of the solar industry. However, it’s not as simple as just removing the 5% cap because for every 1% increase, approximately $1 million of public program and other costs are spread among the remaining ratepayers. This is a shift that will impact those who are least able to afford an increase in their cost of energy. How to account for these costs in a fair and equitable way is a focus of the current Energy Stakeholders Group and will result in legislation.

Formalization of Energy Policy GroupIn order to continue the collaborative, public and in-depth conversations on our energy policy, problems, and initiatives, I anticipate formalizing the Energy Stakeholders Group as a group recognized in state law with specific membership and reporting requirements.

Exploration of tax incentives for natural area preservation: In order to encourage landowners to preserve their property which either retains or has reestablished its natural character, or had unusual flora or fauna, or has biotic, geological, scenic or archaeological features of scientific or educational value, I am currently exploring allowing property tax incentives.

State leading by example regarding native species: Continuing with the implementation of the recommendations of the Ecological Extinction Task Force, this bill will require that only plant species native to the eastern United States be used for landscaping on state-owned property.

How do you recommend people get involved in the legislative process to make their voices heard?

First, make sure that you know who represents you in the State House and State Senate. Contacting all legislators about a matter of importance to you may not be as effective as establishing a relationship with the specific State Representative or State Senator that represents your district. Know that one of the first things a legislator does when contacted by someone is determine whether or not that person is their actual constituent.

Next, determine who the legislators are that chair or are members of the committee(s) which address your interest area. You may also want to reach out to the committee chair and members about your issue as well.

There are many avenues to contact your legislator, but I find that the most effective from my end is through email. From an email, an in-person discussion (virtual or otherwise) or multi-person meeting can be easily arranged, if necessary. Prior emails can also be accessed as history on the discussion if the issue is one that will continue for some time.

Contact through social media is popular but can also be problematic as it can be difficult to have an in-depth conversation over social media. If you just want to express your opinion without really engaging in problem-solving, then go for it. But, if the issue that you raise needs to be investigated with others in government, social media is clunky. Bringing others into the discussion is difficult and Facebook is not an effective place for a sustained conversation on policy issue. I often find that when contacted through social media on a matter requiring investigation and a resolution, I need the person to re-contact me through email.

Direct contact through a phone call or an in-person impromptu discussion at an event is a good first step, but if the issue is more than just expressing your opinion and it isn’t resolved through this initial contact, follow-up with an email. Legislators are typically working on dozens of issues daily, so the content of a phone call or brief discussion may quickly fade unless a writing can be utilized as a reminder.

To learn how to contact your State Legislator, view bills or attend virtual hearings, visit the General Assembly online.

December 2021: State Representative Debra Heffernan

Headshot of Delaware State Representative Debra Heffernan. A dark haired woman poses in front of the American and Delaware state flags.
Debra Heffernan Delaware State Representative Debra Heffernan is the Chair of the House Natural Resources Committee. © Debra Heffernan

We sat down with State House of Representative House Natural Resources Committee Chair Debra Heffernan, who represents areas of North Wilmington, the Brandywine Hundred and Bellefonte. 

A career environmental toxicologist, Heffernan was first elected in 2010. In addition to chairing the State House environmental committee, she has served on the state’s Hazardous Substances Clean Up Act Advisory Committee which is focused on protecting Delawareans from pollutants while making the state greener and more economically viable. Heffernan also chairs the Bond Bill Committee which makes annual capital improvement decisions for the state.

What are your legislative priorities for 2022? 

Our state is currently experiencing a population boom and with it, a huge demand for development. I’ve heard from many Delawareans who are worried that the seemingly never-ending development will ruin our beautiful open spaces and further pollute our air and waterways, but I’m working on a solution that will accommodate Delaware’s growing population while conserving our natural wonders by channeling proposed development to already underutilized spaces which may face some environmental challenges. 

By transforming our existing brownfields, which are pieces of land that have been seen development and may contain contaminants, into usable property, we can make our environment safer while revitalizing communities. Delaware has a robust brownfield redevelopment program that has proven to be both effective and successful.

What are the biggest environmental challenges for Delaware? 

Delaware is the lowest-lying state in the country, so sea-level rise and water infrastructure issues have always been a huge concern. Having lived in this state for more than 40 years, I’ve seen increasingly severe drainage problems, flooding, and drinking water contamination. 

My constituents are always bringing water and drainage issues to my attention, and I regularly engage with state agencies to solve these problems through stormwater and infrastructure investments. The flooding and increases in precipitation, though, are not happening independently, they are closely linked to climate change. We cannot only look to the federal government and Congress to address climate.  We must continue to act locally and collectively to address this issue.  

What legislative accomplishments are you most proud of? 

We’ve made progress on environmental issues, particularly in the area of drinking water the past two years, even though we have much more work to do to protect Delaware’s natural resources and environment.  

PFAS and PFOS chemicals, also known as “forever chemicals” have long been a problem in Delaware but remain largely unregulated. I sponsored a bill, House Bill 8, that requires the state to set a PFAS standard so that water carriers must address PFAS contamination. While the science is still evolving, these contaminants have been linked to hormone disruption, cancer, liver and kidney damage, developmental and reproductive harm, changes in cholesterol levels, and immune system toxicity.  

I couldn't discuss environmental progress in Delaware without mentioning Rep. Longhurst’s House Bill 200 The Clean Water for Delaware Act. I was proud to be the lead co-sponsor of this landmark legislation to provide a $50 million investment to rebuild drinking water infrastructure statewide, protect our waterways, address flooding and stormwater management, and provide clean water to vulnerable communities. 

Invasive plant species are a serious problem in Delaware. They crowd out native species and require more water and chemicals to thrive. Working with State Sen. Stephanie Hansen on Senate Bill 22 and based upon the recommendation of the Delaware Native Species Commission, which I helped found, we banned the sale of the invasive plant species that have been wreaking havoc on our fragile ecosystem.  

Lastly, we must do more to protect against climate change. As chair of the Bond Bill Committee, I’ve worked with members to make sure we are securing the investments needed to make our infrastructure more resilient to the impacts of rising waters and more aggressive storms. 

How can Delawarean’s make their voices heard in Dover? 

With much of our world still operating in a “hybrid” online and in-person mode, it’s never been easier for citizens to get involved in our legislative process. I’d encourage everyone to tune in or provide public comment at one of our Natural Resource Committee meetings, which are live-streamed through the Delaware General Assembly website usually on Wednesdays when the legislature is in session from January - June. Additionally, many lawmakers are still holding virtual town hall meetings and welcome public participation. You can also follow your local elected officials on social media, where we post regular legislative and community updates. Of course, the best way to make your voice heard is by directly contacting your local representative either by phone or email. 

To learn how to contact your State Legislator, view bills or attend virtual hearings, visit the General Assembly online.

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