Loss of pipeline also means end of controversial ‘mitigation fund’

File-In this file photo taken Dec. 19, 2018 North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper takes a question during an interview at the Governor's mansion in Raleigh, N.C. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome, File)

RALEIGH – The decision over the July 4th weekend by Dominion Energy and Duke Energy to cancel the Atlantic Coast Pipeline project also means the $57.8 million ‘mitigation fund’ negotiated by Gov. Roy Cooper will not be coming to the state.

Following the January 2018 announcement of the pipeline’s 401 water quality certification permit approval by the governor’s office and the N.C. Dept. of Environmental Quality, a ‘mitigation fund’ worth $57.8 million was announced by Duke Energy and the governor’s office. This ‘mitigation fund’ soon became a point of controversy.

Many state legislators and reporters noticed the curious wording of the fund, which was a “Mitigation Project Memorandum of Understanding by and between Roy Cooper, Governor of North Carolina, in his Official Capacity and Atlantic Coast Pipeline, LLC.” The agreement also put control of the fund solely in the hands of Gov. Cooper, with the fund to be held in a third-party escrow account and not deposited into state coffers.

Upon learning the details of the MOU, the General Assembly passed House Bill 90 in 2018, which directed the funds to be used to provide additional funding for public schools in the affected counties of the pipeline. Those counties were Northampton, Halifax, Nash, Wilson, Johnston, Sampson, Cumberland, and Robeson. Gov. Cooper let the bill become law without his signature.

N.C. Civitas filed a complaint with the N.C. Ethics Commission following the announcement of the MOU and the General Assembly established a select committee to investigate the details of the ‘mitigation fund’ after the announcement was made.

In 2019, an 82-page investigative report authorized by the General Assembly revealed that Gov. Cooper’s office was directly involved in negotiating the MOU, the permitting process with DEQ, and the agreement made between the pipeline operators and the solar industry.

Funds from the Atlantic Coast Pipeline partners would have been triggered by the final federal approval for the project. Those funds will now not be coming to the public schools in those eight counties.

State Sen. Danny Britt (R-Robeson), who represents one of the counites affected, commented on the decision.

“It’s disheartening to see the Atlantic Coast Pipeline not come to fruition. This project would have been transformative for Eastern North Carolina, providing an economic boost for existing industries and creating new jobs and much-needed infrastructure,” said Britt. “Gov. Cooper has said he’s for economic growth in rural North Carolina, except of course when the growth is politically inconvenient for him.”

Donald van der Vaart, the former secretary of the N.C. Dept. of Environmental Quality, now serving on the state’s environmental rulemaking commission, proposed rulemaking that would make money exchanged for permits illegal this week.

“The public deserves a permitting process that is fair,” said state Sen. Paul Newton (R-Cabarrus). “An applicant is in a horrible negotiating position with the government if they can be required to pay.”

Newton, who was an executive at Duke Energy before joining the state Senate, said, “no state official should be allowed to extract more value than a permit requires. If an applicant meets the legal standard, the permit should be granted without the requirement of additional compensation.”