Last week, North Carolina's Department of Environmental Quality issued
a crucial water-quality permit for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, a $5 billion mega-pipeline project slated to run through eight eastern North Carolina counties.
Since its introduction, the ACP has been incredibly controversial
. The six-hundred-mile project, spearheaded by Duke and Dominion energies, would carry fracked gas from West Virginia through Virginia and into North Carolina, ending in Robeson County. In order for developers to start building the pipeline, they needed to get a range of permits, including one from the DEQ assessing the project's impacts on the state's wetlands and waterways. The DEQ's decision last week brought the pipeline one step closer to construction, and environmental groups were not pleased. In a statement, the environmental group Appalachian Voices called the DEQ's decision "a shameful day for North Carolina."
Now there are concerns about an agreement Cooper made with the pipeline developers the day before the DEQ signed off on the permit. The approval
contains a nearly $58 million payment from the project's operators to a third-party fund chosen by Cooper, which, according to the agreement's memorandum of understanding
, will be used to mitigate the environmental impacts of the pipeline, support development projects in the counties that would be affected by the pipeline, and beef up renewable energy projects in those areas. Cooper's office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The agreement would ostensibly operate outside the legislature's budgeting functions. In a statement
provided to the Carolina Journal
, the conservative John Locke Foundation (which produces that publication) likened the agreement to "extortion."
“The $57.8 million payment from the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, Dominion Power, and Duke Energy is clearly the quid for the Department of Environmental Quality’s quo of approving water permits for the pipeline. The dictionary defines something like this as bribery or extortion," said Joseph Coletti, a senior fellow at the foundation. “The payment was made under threat to move the project forward. The structure of the deal seems designed to skirt the constitutional requirement for the General Assembly to approve the raising and spending of funds. An escrow account approved by the governor with expenditures tied to the governor’s wishes is surely not in keeping with the spirit of the law or the constitution.”
Former governor Pat McCrory picked up on that story to complain about media bias. “Where is WRAL TV, The News & Observer, The Charlotte Observer, and other media outlets?” he asked on Facebook. “Their lack of curiosity when a Democrat is in office should concern us all, regardless of political affiliation.”
Of course, it’s not altogether unreasonable for a project with some environmental risk to have money set aside to ameliorate damages, and the allegation of bribery seems like a stretch.
Still, McCrory and his allies at Locke aren’t the only ones upset about the agreement. Amy Adams, the program manager for Appalachian Voices, says she doesn't feel better that there are funds now allocated to offsetting the project’s environmental impacts.
"There's more admission of guilt to me in this mitigation money than there is trying to make this project better. It's just an admission that this project is not going to give us the economic development, it's going to give us lots of impacts, and so here, in addition to required mitigation, is an extra fifty-seven million dollars, which does come off as a bribe."
Asked if this might be the rare moment that Appalachian Voices agrees with the John Locke Foundation, Adams says: "Oh God, please don't make me say I agree with the John Locke Foundation. Please don't make me say that! But yeah, in this particular instance, projects are supposed to stand on their own merit. Not whether corporations have deep enough pockets to entice people. It begs the question: If the people of North Carolina had come up with fifty-seven million, would we have stopped the pipeline?"
Adams continues: "Now I'm going to go have a shot of whiskey. That's a tough day when you agree with the John Locke Foundation. But in this case, they kind of are right."