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NC Senate Republicans Ready To Block Cooper's Environment Chief Pick

Secretary Delli-Gatti Profile 2021_0.jpg
North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality

North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper's pick to lead the state's environmental agency appears doomed in the state Senate, where Republicans on a key committee formally opposed the Democrat's choice on Wednesday.

The Senate Agriculture, Energy and Environment Committee voted not to recommend the confirmation of Dionne Delli-Gatti as secretary of the Department of Environmental Quality.

Committee Republicans criticized what they called Delli-Gatti's lack of knowledge during a confirmation hearing in April about the governor's views on natural gas expansion and a key natural gas pipeline project examined by her agency. Cooper pushed back later Wednesday and suggested opponents were trying to block environmental progress.

A rejection threatens to fray relations between Cooper and GOP Senate leader Phil Berger during a year in which both expressed optimism of finding consensus, particularly on the state budget.

The Republicans said Delli-Gatti's answers took on added significance in light of the early May cyberattack on the Colonial Pipeline, which transports most of the gasoline in the state. The Transco pipeline, meanwhile, is the lone interstate natural gas transmission line for North Carolina. Speakers from the energy industry at another committee meeting after the cyberattack highlighted the vulnerability of natural gas supplies in the state.

“These are urgent, fundamental problems facing North Carolina and North Carolinians right this moment,” said Sen. Paul Newton, a Cabarrus County Republican and committee member. “Our objection to Ms. Delli-Gatti isn’t over the merits of the strategy. It’s the fact that she’s unable to articulate any strategy whatsoever.”

Democrats on the committee berated Republican colleagues and walked out before the panel's confirmation vote in protest. They said Delli-Gatti, who attended Wednesday's meeting, was ready to respond to their concerns more fully. A committee chairman, Sen. Chuck Edwards of Henderson County, declined to invite her to speak, saying no members had follow-up questions following the April hearing that lasted two hours.

“This is a total sham of the nomination process,” said Sen. Mike Woodard, a Durham County Democrat. “Secretary Delli-Gatti deserves a chance to respond to some of the allegations that have been made to her today.”

Berger told reporters later he expected a confirmation vote by the full Senate on Thursday. While Woodard said Democrats would work until then to secure her confirmation, the likely outcome is that Delli-Gatti will be out of a job later this week. Republicans hold 28 of the 50 seats in the chamber. Berger said the Senate Republican Caucus discussed her nomination Tuesday.

In a statement released Wednesday afternoon, Duke Energy supported Delli-Gatti's confirmation:

“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.”

“There are no mulligans in confirmation hearings,” Senate Rules Committee Chairman Sen. Bill Rabon said, referring to do-over shots in golf.

Should Delli-Gatti’s nomination be rejected, it would mark the first time that a Cabinet nominee has been blocked since the legislature passed a law in late 2016 requiring Cabinet members to be subject to confirmation.

Cooper showed no signs Wednesday of withdrawing the nomination of Delli-Gatti, a veteran leader from the Environmental Defense Fund whom he named in February to succeed Michael Regan, who is now the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency administrator. She has been performing the secretary’s duties since. The governor urged senators to delay the floor vote.

“It doesn’t have anything to do with her knowledge or qualifications,” Cooper told reporters. “She is eminently qualified to do this job. It has everything to do on whether we’re going to have a clean energy future and whether we’re going to protect our air and water.”

Republicans cited Delli-Gatti's “cursory knowledge” of the proposed Mountain Valliey Pipeline-Southgate, which would bring natural gas from southern Virginia into North Carolina for Dominion Energy. A division within DEQ reissued the denial of a water quality permit for the project a couple of days after her confirmation hearing. The project would help increase the natural gas supply.

Delli-Gatti, who became the first woman as department secretary with Cooper’s pick, told reporters Wednesday that the water permit denial originated from the department when Regan ran the agency and that the pipeline operators can reapply. She also said the federal government, not DEQ, actually decides upon pipeline permit construction.

“It’s unfortunate that we didn’t get to clarify that in the hearing,” Delli-Gatti said, adding that while her rejection isn't settled, “it was my great honor to serve this state in the capacity that I have.” She previously worked at EPA and for other government agencies.

Cooper's first 15 Cabinet nominations were confirmed by wide margins since he took office in early 2017. Cooper would have to choose a replacement, who would also be subject to the confirmation process. Berger said Delli-Gatti can't be renominated.

Cooper previously challenged the 2016 law in court, saying the legislature can't interfere with how the governor carries out his duties. But the state Supreme Court sided with legislative leaders in late 2018. An "advice-and-consent" provision is contained within the state constitution.