Did Gov. Roy Cooper’s administration require operators of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline to provide Cooper a $57.8-milion “mitigation fund” before the state would approve the portion of the pipeline heading through North Carolina?
Reporting by Carolina Journal suggests it did. The results of a legislative investigation into the issue will be released this week.
The Joint Legislative Commission on Governmental Operations will meet at 2 p.m. on Wednesday, Nov. 20. The only agenda item is a presentation on the ACP investigation.
The 48-member commission is co-chaired by House Speaker Tim Moore, R- Cleveland, and Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham. In December, the commission’s ACP Subcommittee hired a team of former federal agents with an extensive background investigating public corruption and fraud.
At Wednesday’s meeting, the presentation is expected to evaluate media reports, public documents, and comments from officials about the pipeline project’s approval process and outline if any wrongdoing potentially took place.
At a Nov. 8 meeting of the subcommittee, Cooper advisers Ken Eudy and Julia White, took questions from subcommittee chairmen Sen. Harry Brown, R-Onslow, and Rep. Dean Arp, R-Union. Arp, who presided, said the meeting was held to allow representatives for Cooper the opportunity to answer questions so investigators can finalize their report and present it to the full committee.
Eudy told members the entire investigation was a waste of time. A news release Cooper’s office issued after the meeting called the probe a “sham” that entertained “half-baked conspiracy theories.”
The ACP is an underground natural gas transmission pipeline originating in West Virginia, traveling through Virginia, and terminating in Robeson County. The project is a partnership among Richmond, Virginia-based Dominion Energy; Duke Energy; Piedmont Natural Gas; and Southern Company Gas. Gas from the ACP will supplement existing gas resources and fuel new electricity generation plants.
The federal government approved the pipeline in October 2017, but the state did not sign off on a critical water quality permit until the end of January 2018. During that time, state Department of Environmental Quality staff seemed ready to issue a critical 401 Water Quality Permit to move the project forward. But as staff prepared documents to OK the permit, separate documents denying the permit and rejecting the project had been drafted.
During December 2017, Eudy and Cooper’s general counsel William McKinney were quietly negotiating with the ACP for a discretionary fund ACP would pay to the governor. McKinney and ACP Vice President Leslie Hartz signed the final agreement titled “Mitigation Project Memorandum of Understanding” on Jan. 25, 2018. The following day, DEQ announced it had issued the 401 permit to ACP’s Hartz — the same executive who signed the MOU. Cooper’s office announced the MOU immediately after DEQ announced it had granted the permit to ACP.
According to the terms of the MOU, Cooper would have sole discretion over spending from the fund. Money would go for mitigating adverse effects from the pipeline, expanding economic development opportunities, and developing renewable energy projects in and around the ACP’s route.
After the fund was announced, Republican leaders said the deal was illegal. The constitution gives the legislative branch the sole power to collect and appropriate money. In February 2018, the legislature voted to direct the $57.8 million to the school systems in the eight counties along the ACP route. No ACP mitigation funds have been sent to North Carolina. The construction is on hold pending the outcome of a legal challenge in Virginia.