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Uncharted territory: Senate committee rejects nomination of NC DEQ Secretary Delli-Gatti

[1]
Sen. Paul Newton (R-Cabarrus and Union) and Secretary of the Environment Dionne Delli-Gatti

In a snub to Gov. Roy Cooper and an apparent affirmation of the political power of energy utilities, the Senate Agriculture, Energy and Environment Committee rejected the confirmation of Secretary of the Environment Dionne Delli-Gatti today during a tumultuous and heated hearing.

This is the first time lawmakers have rejected a cabinet-level nomination since 2017, the start of Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s first term, when Republican lawmakers decided to begin holding confirmation hearings for his nominees. The committee’s recommendation will eventually go to the full Senate. If ultimately confirmed, Delli-Gatti would be the first woman to lead the Department of Environmental Quality.

Ford Porter, spokesman for Gov. Cooper, issued a statement shortly after the vote:

Secretary Delli-Gatti is eminently qualified to run DEQ. This has nothing to do with pipelines and Republican excuses for voting her down are a red herring to prevent her from protecting clean air and water and holding utilities accountable while they negotiate a secret energy bill.”

The so-called “secret energy bill” is legislation that is reportedly being hammered out by a few lawmakers and the major utilities. It is widely referred to as the “secret energy bill” because those on the committee have agreed to keep all discussions confidential; anyone leaking information could be removed from the committee.

Sen. Paul Newton (R-Cabarrus and Union) [2], who formerly worked for Duke Energy, did not mention the utility by name today, but hinted at recent testimony received by the Agriculture, Energy and Environment Committee in which invited representatives from Duke, Dominion and the American Petroleum Institute underscored the need for more pipelines and natural gas in North Carolina.

That testimony before the committee was heard after Delli-Gatti’s initial confirmation hearing [3]. In retrospect, it appears to have teed up or reinforced senators’ objections to her confirmation.

After today’s vote on her confirmation, Delli-Gatti told reporters that “the timing is a little curious. A week after people started asking for opinions a decision that’s been lingering for five weeks suddenly becomes urgent. I hope it’s not that. I hope it was truly a misunderstanding about the pipeline and we can clear that up.”

Duke Energy could not be reached this morning via email for comment about whether the utility has a position on Delli-Gatti’s confirmation. Update: At 3:20 p.m. Duke Energy issued the following statement: “We are committed to a clean, reliable energy transition for North Carolina. While the communities we serve are seeing the benefits of this transition already, we understand there are many opportunities left to further this good progress. 

“Based on our many years of experience working with DEQ Secretary Delli-Gatti, we fully support her confirmation to lead the Department of Environmental Quality. Secretary Delli-Gatti previously served on our North Carolina president’s advisory council, and we have appreciated her willingness to collaborate on key energy issues and the perspective she brings as the state works together to chart a path forward.”

Newton said Delli-Gatti was disqualified because during her confirmation testimony [3] she “couldn’t explain the governor’s natural gas strategy and was largely unfamiliar with the MVP Southgate project.”

“She’s not fully aware of a major pipeline project under her review,” Newton said. “North Carolina deserves a secretary that has a plan to mitigate those threats and an understanding of the threats. Dominion Energy warned that the Transco pipeline won’t meet demands as early as next year. This isn’t a simple matter of policy differences.”

[4]
MVP-Southgate’s proposed route

MVP Southgate [5] is a proposed natural gas pipeline that would run 45 miles through Rockingham and Alamance counties. Under former Secretary Michael Regan, DEQ denied a water quality permit for the project [6] over concerns that the main MVP running through Virginia would not be built. That segment of the pipeline has been held up by permitting and legal challenges in Virginia.

MVP Southgate appealed the denial. A federal court determined [7] that DEQ acted within its authority to do so, but needed to better explain its rationale. DEQ did so [8] and denied the permit on April 29, under Delli-Gatti’s tenure.

During Delli-Gatti’s initial hearing, lawmakers spent two hours cross-examining her especially on energy issues. She told Newton in response to questions about the MVP that she has “no position on it.”

“What’s your position on natural gas?” asked Newton asked at the time. “Do you think it should be phased out?”

“We don’t have an official position,” Delli-Gatti replied during that hearing. “We evaluate each permit on its merits. The need for natural gas is under the North Carolina Utilities Commission.”

“How about you personally?” Newton said then.

“We need to be thoughtful to see what the generation mix is,” Delli-Gatti replied. “We are seeing a lot of commitments from companies to go to net-zero carbon. As we progress, it’s yet to be seen what the best mix is. I don’t have a categorical view of ‘no natural gas.’”

Newton’s argument about her alleged unfamiliarity with the pipeline project seemed to run contrary to previous criticisms leveled by GOP lawmakers at then-DEQ Secretary Michael Regan. During the permitting for the now-canceled Atlantic Coast Pipeline, they lambasted Regan for allegedly meddling in the process.

Today, Democratic Sen. Michael Garrett [9] of Guilford County yelled as he addressed his colleagues: “We owe her and the department and the people of North Carolina more respect than this. I know many of you as individuals are not OK with this.”

[10]
Sen. Chuck Edwards prohibited Sen. Mike Woodard from asking Delli-Gatti additional questions.

Committee chairman Sen. Chuck Edwards [11], a Republican from western North Carolina, also prohibited Sen. Mike Woodard, a Durham Democrat, from asking Delli-Gatti additional questions.

“The committee has heard all the testimony we need to make a decision,” Edwards told Woodard.

“I believe this is a total sham of a nomination process and I object that we can’t ask more questions,” Woodard replied. “She has a deep understanding of a wide range of issues. Energy is one piece of a very broad portfolio. She’s extremely qualified to serve.”

A native of New Carlisle, Ohio, Delli-Gatti served in the Air Force and holds both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in environmental science. Her experience includes a stint at the Ohio EPA and the City of Dallas, as well as an environmental specialist at the consulting firm Turner Collie & Braden, Inc. She also worked as  a congressional liaison for the EPA Region 4 office and as director of Southeast Climate and Energy at the Environmental Defense Fund.

Sen. Natalie Murdock [12], a Durham Democrat, told her colleagues, “We are setting a very dangerous precedent. Her resume speaks for itself. I am very disheartened this process more was politicized than it should have been. She is the best secretary at this time … Her work has been thrown in the trash, in the shredder, for no reason. The process lacks transparency and integrity.”

After the hearing, Delli-Gatti said she does not intend to step down. “I serve at the pleasure of the governor. My understanding is he wants me to be here, and I will stay.”