Democrat Dan Blue should address his conflict of interest with Duke Energy

Senator Dan Blue speaks in opposition to Senate Bill 3 during the first extra session of the Legislature on Tuesday, July 24, 2018 in Raleigh, N.C.
Senator Dan Blue speaks in opposition to Senate Bill 3 during the first extra session of the Legislature on Tuesday, July 24, 2018 in Raleigh, N.C.

Jim Warren, executive director of NC WARN, stood at noon near the state Legislative Building last Wednesday like a street preacher decrying moral failures. Adults and swarms of visiting school children passed by and paid him no attention, but Duke Energy’s customers should.

Warren and several other members or supporters of his utility watchdog group used their sparsely attended new conference to announce that NC WARN has filed a complaint with the state Ethics Commission over state Sen. Dan Blue’s arrangement with Duke Energy.

The group says Blue, a Wake County Democrat and the Senate minority leader, has a glaring conflict of interest. He is the lead sponsor of legislation, Senate Bill 559, that would change the state’s utility commission’s rate-setting structure even as Blue’s law firm — which includes his two sons — is representing a holding company tied to Duke Energy in eminent domain cases related to the Atlantic Coast Pipeline.

Warren said Blue “can’t serve the public interest when he’s being paid so heavily to serve Duke’s interest.”

Blue says he thinks it is OK to sponsor the bill and take legal fees from the holding company because changing the setting of utility rates “does not give Duke anything.”

What the bill would give Duke is a change that allows utility rates to be set in five-year blocks, reducing scrutiny from the state Utilities Commission. It has passed the Senate and is pending in the House.

The Atlantic Coast Pipeline is being constructed by a holding company almost entirely owned by Duke Energy and Dominion Resources, a Virginia-based utility. The pipeline will carry natural gas from West Virginia, through Virginia, along a north-south path through North Carolina and end in Robeson County on the South Carolina border. The pipeline’s construction has been stopped and its targeted completion pushed back a year to 2021 by disputes over environmental permits. Meanwhile, cost estimates for the 600-mile pipeline are ballooning, rising from an original estimate of between $4.5 billion and $5 billion to $7.8 billion.

It’s unclear how SB 559 would affect costs connected to the pipeline. But given Duke Energy’s efforts to pass on to customers the cost of cleaning up its coal ash pits, it is fair to worry that at least some the cost of a pipeline boondoggle would find its way into customers’ electric bills. Given that prospect, utility rate reviews should be made more vigorous and frequent, not less so.

NC WARN’s complaint touches on a chain of issues. One is the rate-setting process. Another is the lax rules that allow legislators who are lawyers to take on legal business that could conflict with their official duties. Another is the misbegotten pipeline itself. Apart from its cost in dollars, it presents an even higher toll in terms of greenhouse gases. Now is the time to invest in renewable energy and rapidly evolving battery storage technology instead of sinking billions of dollars into pumping gas extracted by fracking.

Blue should stop doing business with Duke Energy or recuse himself from legislation related to the utility.

Over three decades, Sen. Dan Blue has rendered distinguished service to North Carolina, but he’s putting his reputation at risk with this arrangement. He should pull the plug on his ties to Duke Energy and the whole sorry saga of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline.

Barnett: nbarnett@newsobserver.com, 919-829-4512.