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Republican Obstructionism Meets Pipeline Hysteria in North Carolina

GOP leaders’ choice to block the nomination of a key environmental official for Governor Roy Cooper may prove counterproductive in the long run.

North Carolina state Capitol building
The state capitol building in downtown Raleigh, North Carolina

The transition was supposed to be a smooth one. After President Joe Biden tapped Michael Regan, head of North Carolina’s Department of Environmental Quality, to run the Environmental Protection Agency, it made perfect sense that North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper would tap Regan’s no. 2 to head DEQ. Every one of Cooper’s previous Cabinet picks had been seated without too much of a fuss from the state Senate, despite it being under Republican control. But with Dionne Delli-Gatti’s nomination, the GOP, or at least a faction within it, had other plans.

On Thursday, the North Carolina state Senate’s Agriculture, Energy and Environment Committee voted 26–20 against Delli-Gatti’s nomination, effectively killing her bid. The rejection came to pass despite the fact that Delli-Gatti had been efficiently running the department in an interim role since Regan left in February and was widely held by both industry and environmentalist groups as a reasonable fit for the job. The committee’s action shocked politicos in Raleigh, as well as organizations and communities across the state with a vested interest in seeing competent leadership at DEQ.

“I literally didn’t have any inkling; it was just a whirlwind in 24 hours, to be quite honest,” state senator and Democratic committee member DeAndrea Salvador told me. “It certainly just frustrated myself and my colleagues, because we felt like the governor put forward a highly qualified candidate, and the reasons that were presented didn’t seem to be completely applicable to the role of the DEQ secretary.”

At this point, it is difficult to be surprised by North Carolina Republicans taking rash, short-term action in the name of obstructionism. But something did feel different this time around—the party’s leadership, following its typical antagonistic tack, is adapting to a new era of pipeline anxiety by the region’s behemoth natural gas providers. But in blocking Delli-Gatti’s ascent, the conservatives may have harmed their own cause and that of their beloved pipeline pals in the process.

Delli-Gatti’s nomination came at a pivotal moment for pipeline projects in this region. Last month, the state and much of the Eastern seaboard found itself in a sudden gas shortage after hackers broke into the Colonial Pipeline system. (To be more specific, Colonial Pipeline was reportedly capable of transporting and distributing gas via the pipeline, but the company’s ability to bill its customers for said gas was reportedly hampered by the hack, and so the company elected to shut it down.) The resulting fracas was entirely predictable and entirely avoidable. People throughout the region, and particularly in North Carolina, descended on their local gas stations until their supplies ran dry, prompting a weeklong shortage and providing gas-loving politicians and their corporate backers all the ammo they needed for a pipeline push.

The man-made shortage arrived as both the Tar Heel State and the nation struggle with energy transition. As coal plants shutter left and right, the private corporations and utilities with a financial stake in the energy sector have sought to ensure their existing infrastructure—namely natural gas pipelines—are made an integral part of the transition to a more sustainable model. In North Carolina’s case, the major player is Duke Energy, which effectively commands a monopoly consisting of heavy investments in coal, natural gas, and the state’s electricity grid, though it is slowly attempting to corner the market on solar energy, too. While Duke contributes to both parties in election season, it has recently directed the majority of its contributions to Republicans. Ahead of the 2020 elections, its political action committee spent twice as much on GOP candidates, especially in key elections, as it did on Democratic counterparts.

Delli-Gatti’s nomination hearing, during which the agriculture committee questioned her for two hours, was held in late April, two weeks before the Colonial cyberattack. As Lisa Sorg of N.C. Policy Watch wrote after its conclusion, Delli-Gatti’s experience in comparison to Regan’s in 2017 made the latter look like “a beer league softball game.” The committee’s Republicans thoroughly grilled her, with Senator Paul Newton, representing Cabarrus and Union counties, asking her directly whether she believed natural gas should be phased out. Delli-Gatti responded sensibly, pointing out that for the large part, the regulation and permitting process for pipelines is not within DEQ’s responsibilities. “We evaluate each permit on its merits,” she responded. “The need for natural gas is under the North Carolina Utilities Commission.” When pressed on her personal opinion, she stated plainly, “I don’t have a categorical view of ‘no natural gas.’”

It is worthwhile to note here that Newton formerly served as the president of Duke Energy’s North Carolina branch and was removed from that position—or “retired,” in corporate speak—in the wake of the massive coal ash scandal, in which Duke Energy’s coal operations leaked toxic materials into public water sources across the state due to the company’s inept handling of the coal ash generated from its power plants.

The committee then held a separate hearing, following the Colonial hack, in which the Republican members dedicated their time to waxing poetic about the beauties of natural gas. They underscored their belief that North Carolina needs more pipelines. They did not spend the sessions voicing much concern for the fact that the Colonial Pipeline burst in Huntersville last August—a spill that was not detected by Colonial’s monitoring system but by two teenagers riding their ATVs through the woods, and, after months of repeated underestimates by Colonial, now stands as the single largest pipeline spill in state history. Instead, they hosted executives from Duke Energy, Dominion Energy, the American Petroleum Institute, and a former Utilities Commission official, with the first three all predictably characterizing North Carolina’s reliance on a single major gas pipeline as a serious problem. In other words: More pipelines is the answer to bad pipelines.

Notably, nobody from DEQ—such as, say, the interim director—was asked to speak at the hearing, presumably because the committee understood that DEQ has an extremely limited role in greenlighting pipeline proposals, only stepping in when they are projected to cross a waterway. So it was incredibly odd, early last week, when Newton, along with Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger, began privately, and then publicly, posturing that Delli-Gatti’s inability to answer questions on natural gas would be the reason they decided to nuke her nomination. (Neither Berger’s nor Newton’s office responded to TNR’s requests for comment on this piece.) Even odder was the fact that when the time came on Thursday for the actual hearing to vote against Delli-Gatti, committee Chairman Brent Jackson—who typically leads all committee hearings and votes and, more broadly, is a massive figure in the legislature as it relates to agriculture matters and was thought to have a healthy working relationship with Delli-Gatti—did not wield the gavel and did not speak in favor of the move. (Jackson did ultimately toe the party line, voting against Delli-Gatti’s nomination.)

As with Newton’s background as a Duke Energy crony, it might be useful to take a moment to contextualize the process that ultimately did in Delli-Gotti’s nomination. North Carolina’s Republican legislators in the General Assembly have famously spent the past decade developing the blueprint now adopted by the national party in Congress. Since taking over the legislation in the 2010 midterms, they’ve passed a series of drastic corporate tax cuts, gutted public education funding, hollowed out labor protections, attacked the civil rights of trans citizens, and gerrymandered the electoral map to minimize the impact of nonwhite voters. But when Roy Cooper narrowly edged out Pat McCrory in the 2016 election, the resulting fit they threw featured an unusually blatant power grab.

In McCrory’s final month as a lame-duck governor, the Republican-controlled legislature called a special session, ostensibly to deal with hurricane relief from Hurricane Matthew. Instead, party leaders used the session to pass controversial legislation designed to undercut the hiring and appointment powers granted to the governor by the state constitution. Until that point, North Carolina governors, including McCrory, had been able to nominate and appoint their Cabinet heads without having them approved by the Senate. Both Cooper’s office and the Democratic members of the General Assembly voiced their outrage, but as with the Senate’s rejection of Delli-Gatti’s nomination this week, there was ultimately little recourse by way of the courts.

This marks the first time since Cooper took office that the General Assembly has rejected one of his nominations. The governor and his office swiftly voiced their disgust with the move, with Cooper vociferously defending Delli-Gatti’s résumé to the media on Wednesday ahead of the vote. “And I’ll say this to anybody who’s listening, any lobbyist or whoever—nothing is going to stop this administration from working toward a clean energy future for North Carolina, and protecting our air and water,” Cooper concluded.

What’s maybe the most confounding about the GOP’s decision to block Delli-Gatti’s nomination is that, in both the short and long term, it won’t really derail the Cooper administration’s environmental goals. Cooper quickly hired Delli-Gatti to serve in the role of clean energy director and appointed DEQ Chief Deputy Secretary John Nicholson as the interim DEQ secretary. What the nomination spike could do, however, is harm one of the state Republican Party’s favorite donors, Duke Energy, by sinking bipartisan cooperation in Raleigh.

At the moment, Republicans in the state House are constructing an energy bill, according to both Salvador and multiple sources in the state capital. The details of what the bill contains have thus far not been leaked to the public, but if the recent actions and hearings undertaken and held by the Senate Agriculture, Energy and Environment Committee are any indication of its direction regarding natural gas, it feels safe to say that the legislation will push North Carolina in the direction of constructing more pipelines. This would please not just Duke Energy but also the state’s dominant agriculture outfits (Smithfield had all three of its lobbyists attend the GOP press conference announcing its intention to block Delli-Gatti’s nomination), which have been drastically ramping up their biogas infrastructure, which in turn requires pipelines.

While there’s no evidence Delli-Gatti is hostile to pipelines as a general rule, in April, the DEQ re-denied a water quality permit to the Mountain Valley pipeline extension project slated for Alamance and Rockingham counties. (This pipeline would also fall within Berger’s district.) This was merely a reissuance of a denial drafted by the DEQ when Regan was in office. The Mountain Valley pipeline is primarily backed by Equitrans Midstream, Con Edison, and Next Era Energy, the latter of which is the largest electric utility in the nation and last year proposed a merger with Duke Energy.

Smithfield, Equitrans, and Duke Energy have all publicly denied that they backed the opposition to Delli-Gatti’s nomination since Thursday’s vote. Any other statement, of course, would be foolish—Governor Cooper, now in his second term, holds a veto that is no longer symbolic, thanks to the 2018 midterms breaking the GOP’s supermajority in the General Assembly. While Cooper has maintained a commitment to pushing his state toward a sustainable energy future and more moderate liberal-leaning policies, so far he has been more or less willing to work with the major industry players, as well as Republican leadership. Were Smithfield, Equitrans, or Duke Energy to oppose Delli-Gatti publicly, it would risk this working relationship.

But the GOP’s move to block Delli-Gatti also risks that relationship. It is reasonable to expect that any major forthcoming legislative goals held by the Republican leadership will be intensely scrutinized by the governor and his veto stamp. That means that, in order for a major bill like the secret energy legislation to pass, the GOP would need Democratic members of both the House and Senate to cross the aisle and side with them to obtain a veto-proof majority—which almost certainly will not happen now with the Democrats unified against this week’s actions. So now, even with the companies all putting on their best “I’m not with him” act, the state GOP may have tanked any hopes of partnering and negotiating with the governor on pipeline projects in the near future.

In short, North Carolina’s recently all-powerful Republican Party, by undermining an eminently qualified and fundamentally moderate candidate, has managed to alienate the governor and state Democratic cohorts, all while likely firing a shot into the foot of their biggest corporate allies, who are now ducking and hiding behind their P.R. teams. It’s a beautifully representative anecdote for a trailblazing conservative machine that has spent a decade doing everything it can to galvanize and solidify its base while not actually accomplishing much by way of forward-thinking policy. The problem that faces the GOP now is that, as its once-firm grasp continues to slip, both its leadership and its rank-and-file seem to be split on how best to piss off Democratic leaders and rile up its own base. That’s how you get chaos like last week’s, wherein nobody, from Newton to Berger to their donors, seems to have a clue what’s actually going on. The line between destructive and self-destructive grows slimmer and slimmer.