In November, the state legislature received the findings of an investigation into the governor’s handling of state permitting for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline (ACP), a natural gas pipeline which would run through eight counties in eastern North Carolina. The investigators found that “the information [uncovered in the report] suggests that criminal violations may have occurred.”

It is common practice for utilities like pipelines to pay the state for mitigation of environmental damage caused by the project. However, the report indicates that the Cooper administration may have abused its power in negotiating a discretionary fund in exchange for approval of the required state permits – an unethical and likely illegal tactic known as “pay to play.”

Meanwhile, the state permitting process for a second natural gas pipeline, Mountain Valley Pipeline Southgate, is underway. In an abrupt change of heart, the department within the Cooper administration that welcomed the first pipeline has now publicly stated its opposition to the second.

Why would the North Carolina governor approve of a natural gas pipeline in 2018 and speak against a similar project in 2019? Editors at The Raleigh News and Observer asked this very question in an editorial published on the subject in early November.

The NC Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), under the Cooper administration, approved permits for the ACP in January 2018. Cooper, a Democrat, received heavy pushback from environmental extremists, a loud constituency within his political party.

Just over a year and half after the issuance of the pipeline permits for the ACP project, DEQ submitted public comment in the federal regulatory process publicly criticizing a second natural gas project, the Mountain Valley Pipeline (MVP) Southgate, calling the project unnecessary.

Could political expediency be the motivating factor in DEQ’s flip-flop on natural gas expansion in the state? After the scandal caused by the ACP slush fund, it is unlikely that the administration could again bully an energy company into giving them a giant pot of money to use for personal or political gain. With no extra kickback for the governor, it seems there is no reason to risk the political pushback of anti-pipeline activists within the governor’s political party.

While the editorial board was right to point out the hypocrisy from the Cooper administration, their overall message – that neither pipeline should be supported – directly opposes the wellbeing of North Carolinians and the environment. Natural gas is a cleaner alternative to coal-burning power plants, making it a better choice for the environment. The abundance of energy provided by natural gas expansion could help to drive down energy prices, which also disproportionately benefits low-income North Carolinians.

As the investigation into the Cooper administration’s mishandling of one pipeline’s permits continues, North Carolinians should be aware of the on-going permitting process for the second pipeline. The potential for political gain should have no place in deciding the fate of a pipeline project.

Civitas Action is a 501(c)(4) non-profit that educates and informs North Carolinians on policy issues and the actions of their elected officials.