In a letter to lawmakers today, Kristi Jones, chief of staff for Gov. Roy Cooper, implied that a $57.8 million mitigation fund for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline could be in jeopardy now that lawmakers have reallocated the money from its original purpose.
“It’s unclear if North Carolina will receive these funds, denying businesses and farms in eastern North Carolina access to natural gas and much-needed economic development,” read the letter, addressed to Republicans Sen. Bill Rabon and Rep. David Lewis.
Divided between Duke Energy and Dominion Energy, the money was to be used to offset environmental impacts from the pipeline’s construction, as well as economic development and renewable energy projects in the eight counties along the route: Northampton, Halifax, Nash, Wilson, Johnston, Cumberland, Sampson and Robeson.
But earlier this week, lawmakers passed House Bill 90, hodgepodge legislation that tied a critical class-size provision to the diversion of the mitigation funds to school districts in the affected counties. Gov. Cooper allowed the bill to become law without his signature.
Dominion Energy co-signed a memorandum of agreement with Cooper’s office; the utility could not immediately be reached for comment.
The fund, though, has been controversial among lawmakers and environmental advocates who view it as financial exchange for state approval of a key water quality permit. The fund would have been voluntary and non-binding. And even with financial help, it’s unlikely that industry in eastern North Carolina could afford the millions of dollars to hook onto the pipeline.
Nor are there assurances that the cost of the natural gas would be affordable, an important point since these counties are among the poorest in the state.
In the letter, Jones also explained the origin of the fund. The details confirm what pipeline opponents have been cautioning for the past 18 months: That despite the utilities’ and economic developers’ public claims, there was private concern that the economic prospects of the project was overblown.
It is also unclear, based on Jones’s letter, whether ratepayers or shareholders would cover the cost of the mitigation fund. If ratepayers were to bear the financial burden — in addition to the $5.5 billion cost of the project — that would further undermine the claim that the pipeline would help eastern North Carolina.
Jones wrote that discussions began in 2017 — although she does not say what month — when “eastern North Carolina economic developers and others expressed concerns about whether the pipeline would bring the economic growth it promised.”
Cooper and his administration were also concerned about the pipeline’s ability to revive eastern North Carolina’s economy as well as the environmental impacts to air, water and forests along the route, Jones wrote. She added that the fund was established independent of permit approvals by the NC Department of Environmental Quality.
The fund would have been administered by a third-party selected by the governor, although Jones wrote that Cooper would not decide what projects would be funded. Distribution of the money to environmental and economic projects would have been based on reviews of applications by “qualified government entities and nonprofits.”
Examples of those entities, Jones wrote, were the Rural Infrastructure Authority and the Clean Water Management Trust Fund, both of which currently award grants to similar types of projects. Jones told lawmakers that Cooper would have signed an executive order that would have made the fund subject to Public Records and Open Meetings Laws, as well as the State Ethics Act.