NC Capitol

NC Capitol

The NC Senate rejected his nominee, so Gov. Roy Cooper gave her a new job

Posted June 3, 2021 2:28 p.m. EDT
Updated June 3, 2021 4:40 p.m. EDT

Soon after the North Carolina Senate rejected his nominee to head the state's Department of Environmental Quality Thursday, Gov. Roy Cooper announced a new job for her: clean energy director.

In that new role, outgoing DEQ Secretary Dionne Delli-Gatti will focus on "administrative efforts to promote clean energy in North Carolina, including negotiating energy legislation" with lawmakers who just rejected her, the governor's office said in a news release. Her new salary will be the same as the old one: $155,526 a year.

The governor's office said DEQ Chief Deputy John Nicholson will be the department's interim secretary.

Fifteen minutes before the governor's announcement, Republican Senators had voted to remove Dell-Gatti from the secretary's job, a cabinet-level post she'd been handling since February while her required confirmation languished in the Senate. GOP majority leaders surprised the Cooper administration this week when they decided not to confirm her to the post, saying her lack of knowledge on natural gas and pipeline issues, demonstrated some five weeks ago during a two-hour committee hearing, was the reason.

Delli-Gatti is the first Cooper cabinet secretary the Senate has rejected in the governor's five years in office. She would have been the first woman to lead the Department of Environmental Quality, but Republicans declined to confirm her Thursday on a party-line vote in the Senate.

Democrats say there's more to this than meets the eye.

"Whatever secret backroom deals are actually at the core of this action today, NC can rest easy knowing the Cooper administration will continue working to move NC to a clean energy future and following the law to protect the health/safety of people + our clean land, air and water," Cooper spokesman Ford Porter said in a tweet as the Senate voted not to confirm Delli-Gatti.

Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger's press office shot back in its own post to the social media site: "So much baseless conspiracy theorizing. If you have an accusation to make, and any evidence whatsoever to support it, then please present it."

Berger, R-Rockingham, and other key Republicans in the Senate, have said energy corporations did not press them on Dell-Gatti's confirmation. Both Duke Energy, by far the state's largest power provider, and Dominion Energy, a key player in the region on pipeline and natural gas issues, said Wednesday after Delli-Gatti's nomination publicly hit the skids that they supported her confirmation.

MVP Southgate, the company whose pipeline project DEQ denied a key certification for in recent weeks, said Thursday that it "has not taken a position on any state confirmation proceeding."

"We remain committed to working with state and federal officials to satisfy all permitting concerns in order to build this critical infrastructure project and meet public demand for natural gas in North Carolina," spokesman Shawn Day said in an email.

That project ran into permitting problems under Delli-Gatti's predecessor at DEQ, and then again when the department re-upped its objection to a planned pipeline stream crossing. That second decision came two days after Delli-Gatti's April 27 confirmation hearing before a key state Senate committee.

In that hearing, Sen. Paul Newton, a former Duke Energy executive repeatedly asked Delli-Gatti her position on natural gas, specifically asking if she was against expansion.

Delli-Gatti's previous job was with the Environmental Defense Fund. Newton, along with other state leaders, says natural gas expansion is need to fuel manufacturing growth in North Carolina.

"I don’t have a categorical view of (natural gas)," Delli-Gatti responded. "I do think we need to be thoughtful and make wise investments."

The key questions from that hearing, based on complaints about Delli-Gatti's performance that Newton, R-Cabarrus, and other Republicans raised this week, came next. This is a lightly edited transcript based on a hearing recording WRAL News reviewed Thursday.

Newton: Do you know what the governor’s position is on the expansion of natural gas in North Carolina?

Delli-Gatti: No sir, I do not.

Newton: Are you familiar with the MVP Southgate project? Have you worked on that?

Delli-Gatti: I didn‘t work on it. I have a little bit of knowledge on it. I have some briefing materials on it.

Newton: Do you have a position on the permitting of that project, one way or the other at this point?

Delli-Gatti: Not at this point, sir.

Newton didn't follow up on these points, turning instead to the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, a now-defunct natural gas project from Duke Energy and Dominion that has been a major point of contention for years between Senate Republicans and the Cooper administration.

Republicans senators have said repeatedly the last two days that it was Delli-Gatti's inability to articulate Cooper's position on natural gas, and her limited knowledge on the MVP project, that doomed her nomination. Newton said during Thursday's debate that North Carolina needs a secretary of the environment who "lays awake at night" thinking about the right balance of North Carolina's energy generation, and that natural gas is obviously a major part of it.

Other, like wind and solar, aren't ready to shoulder the load of an ongoing shift from coal-fired power plants, Newton said, and "we cannot afford to hit the pause button on economic growth while we wait for tomorrow’s innovations."

Democrats were incensed that Delli-Gatti wasn't invited back to fill in blank spots after the April 27 hearing, despite Senate Republicans holding a hearing last month specifically on pipelines and meeting in committee Wednesday to discuss her by-then-doomed confirmation. Delli-Gatti was in the room for that second committee hearing, but not allowed to address members.

“At bare minimum, give her the opportunity to publicly refute your claims," Sen. DeAndrea Salvador, D-Mecklenburg, told her Republican colleagues during Thursday's floor debate.

"This process has lacked integrity," she told the chamber, asking why it took Republicans more than a month to raise concerns with her answers.

Another Democrat, Sen. Julie Mayfield, said it was unfair to punish Delli-Gatti for not knowing Cooper's strategy on natural gas because he hasn't really articulated one.

"Indeed I would challenge anyone in this chamber to identify the governor's position on natural gas," Mayfield, D-Buncombe, said Thursday.

Asked later to articulate that position, Porter, Cooper's spokesman, said the back and forth over Delli-Gatti has "never been about natural gas," or her qualifications.

"The governor believes we need a broad energy portfolio, including access to natural gas, and that North Carolina should move toward a clean energy future and that regulators thoroughly review permit applications to protect the health and safety of North Carolinians," Porter said via email.

Berger, the Senate's top Republican, said Cooper's lack of a clear position was the day's biggest takeaway.

"It seems to me that, sort of the headline in this debate, was Governor Cooper has no plan," he said after the Senate vote. "Shouldn't that be something folks are concerned about? That he has no plan to deal with the issue of natural gas in the state of North Carolina? That's their defense."

Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that the governor had not named an interim secretary at DEQ. He announced Chief Deputy John Nicholson's promotion in the same news release announcing Delli-Gatti's new job.

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