NC Senate denies Cooper’s environmental secretary pick, but he hires her for new job

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The N.C. Senate voted Thursday to reject the appointment of Dionne Delli-Gatti as the secretary of North Carolina’s environmental regulatory agency.

But shortly after the vote, Cooper announced that Delli-Gatti will serve as North Carolina’s clean energy director, filling the vacant State Energy Director position. In the new role, Delli-Gatti will work on a suite of clean energy matters, including implementing Cooper’s Executive Order 80 while also negotiating energy legislation and working on regulatory matters.

Thursday’s vote marks the first time that the Republican-led Senate has denied the approval of one of Gov. Roy Cooper’s Cabinet secretaries since creating the approval process at the beginning of Cooper’s first term. The final vote was 26-20, along party lines.

Senate Republicans said their primary concerns about Delli-Gatti came from an exchange with Sen. Paul Newton during Delli-Gatti’s April confirmation hearing. Delli-Gatti said she did not know Cooper’s stance on the expansion of natural gas and did not at that point have a position on permitting the MVP Southgate Pipeline that would run from Virginia into North Carolina.

During a May meeting of the Senate Agriculture, Energy and Environment Committee, petroleum industry and utility officials told Senators that all of North Carolina’s natural gas supply comes through a single pipeline and that a disruption would have widespread impact.

Thursday, Newton said, “North Carolinians deserve a secretary of DEQ who lies awake at night to develop a plan for how to find the right balance between environmental protection and new sources of natural gas supply so that the economic engine of North Carolina can continue to run.”

Cooper nominated Delli-Gatti to head DEQ in February, after Secretary Michael Regan left to serve as Administrator of the Biden Administration’s Environmental Protection Agency. Delli-Gatti attended both Wednesday’s committee meeting and Thursday’s vote.

“Dionne Delli-Gatti has the experience and qualifications to serve as Secretary of DEQ,” Cooper said in a written statement after Thursday’s vote, “and the legislature’s baseless political criticism of her credentials is but a smokescreen to thwart North Carolina’s transition to clean energy that she has the knowledge to help put in place.”

Democrats seek to delay vote

Senate Democrats touted Delli-Gatti’s qualifications on Thursday even as they asked their Republican counterparts to postpone the vote until they had a chance to hear further testimony.

Sen. DeAndrea Salvador, a Charlotte Democrat, said Delli-Gatti’s nomination process “has lacked integrity,” pointing to the fact that both environmental organizations and the large utilities publicly supported Delli-Gatti. After Wednesday’s committee meeting, numerous environmental groups released statements supporting Delli-Gatti’s nomination. Both Duke Energy and Dominion also released statements saying that they also were in favor of her confirmation.

“We can sit here and make every excuse as to why a qualified woman is about to be ousted from a position that she already holds or we can confirm her,” Salvador said. “At bare minimum, give her the opportunity to publicly refute your claims.”

Delli-Gatti has stressed that DEQ does not have the power to decide if there should be more pipelines, only to approve or deny select environmental permits that regulate the projects’ potential impact to natural resources.

Democrats also called into question Republicans’ demands for Delli-Gatti to outline the Cooper Administration’s natural gas plan. Sen. Julie Mayfield, an Asheville Democrat, said she has looked for such a plan in recent days and has been unable to find one.

If anything, Mayfield said, environmental groups were concerned about the Clean Energy Plan developed under Executive Order 80 because it did not clearly oppose new natural gas projects.

“(Delli-Gatti’s) answer was not wrong or insufficient or disqualifying,” Mayfield said. “Again, I would challenge anyone in this chamber to articulate the Governor’s clear position on natural gas.”

Republicans’ response

After Thursday’s vote, Sen. Phil Berger, the Senate leader, said Democrats’ defense raised further concerns in his mind.

“Shouldn’t that be something folks are concerned about? That (Cooper) has no plan to deal with the issue of natural gas in the state of North Carolina. That’s their defense to what’s going on here: She shouldn’t have known because he has no plan,” Berger said.

The MVP Southgate project provides an example of the kinds of decisions DEQ makes about pipeline projects. In August 2020, under the leadership of then-Secretary Regan, DEQ denied a water quality certification for the pipeline due to uncertainty about the completion of the MVP mainline that would run from West Virginia to southern Virginia.

After a federal court asked DEQ to explain why the agency had denied the permit instead of providing a conditional approval on the mainline moving forward, the agency reissued the denial.

That reissuance came two days after Delli-Gatti’s April confirmation hearing. Delli-Gatti previously told The News & Observer that lawyers and permit writers were still reviewing the denial at the time of the April 27 confirmation hearing and that she was fully briefed before the agency announced its decision on April 29.

Sen. Chuck Edwards, a Hendersonville Republican, said Thursday, “It was the decision of the committee that this point disqualified Ms. Dionne Delli-Gatti not because of a decision that was made, (but) because here was great unfamiliarity with such a crucial, important decision that was being made in that agency at that very time and that she seemed to fully delegate that responsibility to her staff with no knowledge of what was taking place.”

Dawn Baumgartner-Vaughan contributed to this report.

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