Ned Barnett

Cooper lost in ACP fund fiasco, but so did eastern NC

Roy Cooper

The Atlantic Coast Pipeline now has a new route. It runs into Gov. Roy Cooper’s left ear and out of his right ear.

And yes, it’s giving him a terrible headache.

The proposed 600-mile natural gas pipeline always presented a political problem for the Democratic governor. Many environmentally conscious Democrats oppose the $6 billion project that would run from the fracking fields of West Virginia through Virginia and down North Carolina’s I-95 corridor to the state’s southern border. They consider it a monument to fossil fuel dependency that will contribute to climate change that is already bringing rising seas and heavier flooding to eastern North Carolina.

The governor doesn’t care much for the project either, but resisting it was also unappealing. A long court fight over the need for the pipeline and its environmental impact could end in defeat with nothing to show for it but legal expenses. Negotiating with the utilities developing the project to offset its impact could yield benefits to eastern North Carolina.

Cooper chose the latter option, but it posed its own complication. How to get the pipeline’s developers – Charlotte-based Duke Energy and Dominion Energy of Virginia – to pay for a mitigation fund without the General Assembly’s Republican leadership demanding control of the money? Cooper’s staff negotiated an agreement for the utilities to pay $57.8 million into a fund that would be controlled by independent state authorities or trusts and subject to public records laws. The fund would help offset environmental damage, support local renewable energy projects – a nod to pipeline opponents – and help pay for several industrial parks to gain access to the pipeline’s natural gas.

Details of the fund’s oversight and its beneficiaries were vague when it was announced. A three-page “memorandum of understanding” between the state and the utilities left a lot of gaps. Republicans quickly filled them all in with just three words: “governor’s slush fund.”

From there, Cooper’s quiet plan unraveled amid a cacophony of Republican charges. The Republicans promptly passed legislation taking control of the fund and committed its dollars to public school systems in the eight counties the pipeline will pass through. The change was tied to legislation to alleviate a public schools funding crisis over a mandate to reduce K-3 class sizes, leaving Cooper unwilling to veto it.

Cooper either overestimated his political skills or underestimated his adversaries’ ruthlessness. Maybe he did both. Now he’s stuck with a “slush fund” charge, but no funds.

At a news conference last week, the irritated governor said of the Republican maneuvers: “This charade has to stop. Using our kids and now our schools as tools for their power grab and their partisan attacks is pretty low, even for them.”

State Sen. leader Phil Berger no doubt got a chuckle out of out-lowing even Cooper’s low expectations. But his successful gamesmanship was hardly a victory for North Carolina.

Cooper’s idea, though awkwardly executed, was a good one. The mitigation fund as he designed it would have helped local businesses that now may not be able to afford the pipeline extensions needed to tap the river of natural gas that will pass through their counties. And it could have compensated for environmental damage as the massive infrastructure project cuts into forests and runs through wetlands.

“This pipeline issue was too important. We needed to make sure the money went where it needed to go,” Cooper said.

There’s rich irony in Berger crowing about snatching the mitigation fund to redirect it to poor school districts. He has put corporate tax cuts ahead of public school funding for years even as the state’s per pupil funding has slipped to among the lowest in the nation.

Furthermore, the Republican gambit may not work. The utilities agreed to pay into the fund to compensate for environmental damage, not pay for schools. Even if they are still willing to pay, they may not be able to if shareholders disagree or the state Utilities Commission refuses to pass a schools expense on to ratepayers.

In the end, this pipeline saga is about a broken pipeline within state government. The work of running North Carolina no longer flows between the legislative and executive branches. The legislature cannot be trusted to protect the public on environmental issues as we’ve seen with the coal ash clean up, hog farm waste controls and the GenX pollution of the Cape Fear River. And the executive branch, hampered by budget cuts and legislative moves to strip the governor of his powers, has trouble taking action on its own.

Cooper took a political hit from Republicans who would rather thwart the governor than serve the public, but the real loss was to rural eastern North Carolina.

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