Rob Christensen

The Atlantic Coast Pipeline proposal comes with tough choices

A map provided by protesters shows the route the proposed natural gas Atlantic Coast Pipeline would take through the state.
A map provided by protesters shows the route the proposed natural gas Atlantic Coast Pipeline would take through the state. cseward@newsobserver.com

The dispute over the construction of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline into Eastern North Carolina has echoes of a political fight more than 60 years ago.

Although the issues are different, both involved natural gas and both raised questions about the tradeoffs of providing energy to help develop the poorest section of North Carolina versus other goals such as protecting the environment.

The current controversy involves an energy consortium headed by Charlotte-based Duke Energy and Richmond, Va.,-based Dominion Energy, which is planning to build a 600-mile underground pipeline connecting eight counties in North Carolina as well as West Virginia and Virginia to shale formations in Pennsylvania and West Virginia to supply Duke’s natural gas-fired plants in North and South Carolina.

Industry-based TV ads have featured Eastern North Carolina mayors and residents talking about how the declining region badly needs an economic boost that they hope the pipeline can help provide. The industry argues that the pipeline is needed to operate more than a dozen power plants.

But critics say the pipeline poses environmental risks and would commit North Carolina to using fossil fuels instead of renewable resources in the coming decades. The project is now being reviewed by the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality, while the pipeline company has filed lawsuits against property owners who have not agreed to lease their land.

There was a huge national debate in 1956, when oil-industry interests, led by Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson of Texas, sought to deregulate natural gas at the wellhead. There were huge profits to be made by Southwest oilmen if natural gas was deregulated, but the move drew opposition across ideological lines from senators who feared their constituents would be hurt by rising gas prices.

North Carolina Sen. Kerr Scott was a logical opponent of natural gas deregulation. He had been elected governor in 1948 as a populist opposed by many of the business interests in the state. As governor, he had regularly clashed with the power and telephone companies, pushing them to extend electric and telephone lines to the countryside.

Scott had been no friend of the oil and gas industry. They had opposed his $200 million road bond issue in 1949 (worth $2 billion today in inflation-adjusted dollars), prompting him to lash out at the the industry. During the fight, Scott appointed a commission to look into the possibilities of placing regulations on the retail price of gasoline sold in the state.

When Scott ran for the U.S. Senate in 1954, the oil and gas industry supported his major opponent in the Democratic primary, conservative U.S. Rep. Alton Lennon.

But Scott’s base of support was among rural voters, the so-called Branchhead Boys, many of whom lived on subsistence farms in Eastern North Carolina. Scott had long pushed, threatened and cajoled the power companies to extend more lines into the countryside to allow rural people to have the same modern conveniences as people living in Tar Heel towns.

Scott saw natural gas as something that would help the rural east develop – the same message being made today by industry TV ads.

Scott’s decision to support gas deregulation surprised many of his backers. Scott acknowledged that it was not a popular decision.

“In short, it was a matter of making a choice between a decision that would have been popular and a decision I sincerely feel was in the best long-range interest of the overall development of North Carolina,” Scott explained.

At the same time that he was announcing his support for natural gas deregulation, he asked his brother, state Sen. Ralph Scott, who was planning a trip to Texas, to find out if any of the energy companies would be interested in building a water terminal and supplying it by barge or tanker with propane gas used by farmers to cure their tobacco.

The state’s other senator, conservative Sam Ervin Jr., voted against deregulation, as did a number of other conservative Democrats such as Georgia’s Richard Russell.

The natural gas deregulation bill passed the Senate 53-38 following an intense, high dollar lobbying campaign by the oil and gas industry. Most Republicans voted to deregulate and most Democrats – except those from energy-producing states – voted against it. But its passage had created a stink because of charges that oil and gas industry lobbyists had tried to bribe senators.

Republican President Dwight Eisenhower, although disposed toward deregulation and friends with the oil industry, vetoed the measure, saying he couldn’t sign it without creating “doubt among the American people concerning the integrity of government processes.”

For Scott, one of the leading Southern mid-century progressives, the question regarding natural gas – in this case the tradeoff of economic development versus consumer interests – was not an easy call, just as it is not an easy decision today. Scott, the father of North Carolina’s progressive wing of the Democratic Party in the post-World War II era, voted for economic development.

Rob Christensen: robc@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4532.

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