This week, the Joint Legislative Commission on Government Operations Subcommittee on the Atlantic Coast Pipeline met to discuss updates – or lack thereof – from the governor’s office about the situation.
To recap – In late 2017, the Atlantic Coast Pipeline (ACP) applied to the state Department of Environment Quality (DEQ) for the necessary environmental permits to construct a natural gas pipeline.
Throughout December 2017 and January of 2018, Governor Roy Cooper’s office negotiated a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with ACP that included an additional $57.8 million payment from the company above and beyond the $11 million required by the state for environmental mitigation. According to the MOU, the fund’s use would be determined by the governor’s office, outside of the normal state legislative budget process. The MOU conditioned that the governor could use the funds not only for environmental mitigation, but also economic development and renewable energy projects along the pipeline’s path.
Senator Harry Brown (R-Jones) chaired the subcommittee meeting. Brown pointed out that the main question was whether the governor held the environmental permits hostage until the company agreed to provide a sum above and beyond the legal and regulatory requirements.
If so, this raises significant questions for the state’s business climate. Will businesses have to jump through arbitrary hoops to do business in North Carolina? Will government officials be allowed to circumvent the state constitution when it fits their political agendas?
Legislators on the committee raised similar questions. Representative Dean Arp (R-Union) shared information with the subcommittee about the MOU, detailing changes that were made to different versions of the MOU. Of note, the different versions reveal the Cooper administration’s additions of putting the fund under the sole control of the governor and tying it to the DEQ permit process by saying that half of the fund would be provided upon permit approval. To view other notable evidence, check out Rep. Arp’s full presentation here.
Senator Paul Newton (R-Cabarrus) presented evidence about the suspicious nature of the MOU negotiation process. He pointed to evidence that suggests that DEQ may have been instructed to threaten ACP with permit denial if they did not agree to the governor’s special fund request. For example, a member of the Cooper administration admitted that the permit process was “wrapping up” by mid-December 2017, but the permit was not granted until January 26, 2018. Despite the permit being due for approval, the DEQ file on the subject contains a drafted denial letter from January 22, 2018 with no specific reasons listed for denial. View Sen. Newton’s full presentation here.
Senator Floyd McKissick (D-Durham) commented that he, too, thinks that the questions raised by the presenters need to be answered. He cautioned against a “witch-hunt,” but he specifically acknowledged that the public deserves to have answers that have yet to be provided by Gov. Cooper.
No one from the Cooper administration or the Department of Environmental Quality was at the subcommittee meeting, despite the subcommittee honoring Cooper’s request to reschedule the meeting. Cooper’s staff claimed that they weren’t invited.
After hearing from the presenters, the subcommittee passed motions to allow the subcommittee chairs to hire private investigators for the matter and to put in official public records requests with the Department of Environmental Quality itself.
This subcommittee meeting produced bipartisan consensus that the people of North Carolina deserve answers to the shocking questions raised by the Cooper MOU and subsequent special fund. Is the Cooper administration withholding information that should be available to the public and creating a perception of pay-to-play? Do the actions of Gov. Cooper and his administration display a complete disregard for the integrity of the state’s business environment and budgeting processes? Either way, the Cooper administration seems to be hiding behind a veil of secrecy.
The ultimate irony is that Gov. Cooper was more than happy to welcome a natural gas pipeline when he was able to maneuver a political slush fund from the deal. But, once that option was taken off the table, the Cooper administration now opposes natural gas pipelines – such as the Mountain Valley Pipeline – coming to the state?
Gov. Cooper and his administration need to be held accountable for lack of transparency and unethical dealings as they come to light. The people of North Carolina deserve no less.