An investigation launched by the Republican-controlled General Assembly has concluded that Gov. Roy Cooper improperly handled negotiations over a $57.8 million fund related to the Atlantic Coast Pipeline project.
The project is a 600-mile natural gas pipeline being developed by a consortium of power companies, including Duke Energy.
“For me, I’m deeply concerned that the governor’s office interfered with the objective permitting process in an improper manner,” state Rep. Dean Arp (R-Union) said Wednesday at a hearing of the Joint Legislative Commission on Governmental Operations, which used $83,000 from taxpayers to hire a private investigation firm run by three former federal agents.
In their report released yesterday, the firm concluded the governor improperly used his authority to pressure the pipeline developers to commit to the mitigation fund. They say he did so by holding up a key environmental permit, which was needed so Duke and its partners could start clearing trees along the proposed pipeline route.
“Some of the processes occurred concurrently but they’re trying to make linkages that just aren’t there,” said state Sen. Mike Woodard, a Durham Democrat and member of the joint commission.
During the commission’s public discussion of the report on Wednesday, Woodard asked one of the investigators whether any Duke Energy officials indicated they felt coerced into agreeing to the mitigation fund—in other words, was there any quid pro quo?
“They held that it was not related and that the funding was not related to a condition to get the permit," said Mr. Greene. "They consistently said ‘We do not pay for permits.’”
The report shows that officials with the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality also maintained they felt no pressure with respect to the pipeline permit.
Nonetheless, the report’s conclusion hinges on some inconsistencies in statements from Cooper staffers on whether the governor or the DEQ officials controlled the permitting process.
Cooper was adamant that he did not interfere in that process. He addressed reporters on the lawn outside the governor’s mansion as kids and other guests gathered for a pre-Thanksgiving turkey pardoning.
“This is a partisan General Assembly that is distorting facts. I know this, that the facts are on our side and Republicans know there was nothing wrong with this fund because they took it and spent it themselves," Cooper said. "It’s all about their control.”
Indeed, after the mitigation fund was announced the GOP-led legislature passed a bill redirecting those monies to schools in eight counties along the proposed pipeline path.
The two other states involved in the pipeline project--Virginia and West Virginia--also have mitigation funds.
North Carolina hasn’t received any money from the pipeline developers yet and the project is bogged down in federal court over environmental litigation.
At the conclusion of Wednesday's meeting, the joint commission put off taking any action until members could digest the report’s findings.
While it may not lead to any substantive action, the findings are almost certain to end up in select campaign ads during the 2020 election cycle.