NC Senate nixes environment chief, but Cooper rehires her

Politics

Dionne Delli-Gatti, secretary of the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality, speaks to reporters at the Legislative Office Building, on Wednesday, June 2, 2021, in Raleigh, N.C. A state Senate committee recommended Wednesday that Delli-Gatti not be confirmed for the secretary’s position. Gov. Roy Cooper picked her for the job. (AP Photo/Gary D. Robertson)

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — A sharply divided North Carolina Senate on Thursday formally rejected Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s choice to lead his environmental department, with Republicans who insisted the nominee was ill-prepared for the post winning the vote.

The party-line 26-20 margin ousts Dionne Delli-Gatti as secretary of the Department of Environmental Quality and means Cooper must choose a replacement.

Within minutes, however, the governor named Delli-Gatti as his point person on promoting renewable energy in North Carolina, with negotiating legislation — presumably with the same senators who chose not to confirm her — in her job description.

Still, the refusal marks the first time a Cabinet appointment by a North Carolina governor has received a no-confirmation result since the advice-and-consent law for the Senate began as Cooper took office in early 2017. Cooper’s other 16 nominees have been otherwise confirmed by the chamber, including new Administration Secretary Pamela Cashwell earlier Thursday.

Senate Republicans said that Delli-Gatti’s lack of insight on the governor’s natural gas expansion policy and permitting for a proposed pipeline coming from Virginia during her April confirmation hearing disqualified her for the post. That meeting was held days before a water-quality permit for the Mountain Valley Pipeline-Southgate project was denied by a DEQ division and the cyberattack on the Colonial Pipeline carrying liquid fuel laid bare the vulnerability of having just one natural gas pipeline running through the state on supplies.

“North Carolinians deserve a secretary of DEQ who lies awake at night thinking about ways to mitigate the single-source supply risk we face today … (and) to develop a plan for how to find a right balance between environmental protection and new sources of natural gas supply,” Sen. Paul Newton, a Cabarrus County Republican and retired utility executive, said during floor debate. “This nominee did not know her boss’ strategy for the expansion of natural gas in North Carolina.”

Senate Democrats angered by the GOP’s refusal to let Delli-Gatti explain in a committee on Wednesday led them to walk out before a vote. They continued to blast Republican leaders during Thursday’s floor debate, saying that Delli-Gatti, a former Environmental Defense Fund leader and first woman secretary in the environmental department, was eminently qualified to run the agency. She also had stints with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and governments in Ohio and Dallas.

“So what you are seeing that the rest of North Carolina does not?” first-term Sen. DeAndrea Salvador, a Mecklenburg County Democrat, asked Republicans. “This isn’t about what Secretary Delli-Gatti knows or doesn’t. We were blindsided. This came out of nowhere.”

Cooper and Senate Democrats argued her dismissal was based on politics and not merit, pointing out her support from lawmakers, environmental groups and utility giants Dominion Energy and Duke Energy. Delli-Gatti told reporters Wednesday that the pipeline owners could reapply for the permit while making clear federal regulators actually sign off on pipeline construction, not the state.

Cooper had named Delli-Gatti in February to succeed Michael Regan, who was plucked by the Biden administration to become EPA administrator. Cooper reiterated Thursday after the vote that those opposed to a clean environment fought her confirmation.

“The legislature’s baseless political criticism of her credentials is but a smokescreen to thwart North Carolina’s transition to clean energy that she has the knowledge to help put in place,” Cooper said in a news release announcing Delli-Gatti’s new role as state clean energy director. She’ll receive the same $155,526 salary that she had as secretary, DEQ spokeswoman Sharon Martin said.

Republicans said there was nothing political about their decision. They also said it was telling that at least two Senate Democrats defended Delli-Gatti by saying Cooper hasn’t actually expressed a natural gas policy, so answering that question during the confirmation hearing was impossible.

The state constitution already envisions an “advice-and-consent” role for the Senate in scrutinizing certain state appointments, but Cooper challenged in court the 2016 law directing confirmations for his 10-member Cabinet, saying the legislative branch was meddling in how he decided to carry out his duties. The state Supreme Court sided with legislative leaders in late 2018.

Cooper also announced Thursday that DEQ Chief Deputy Secretary John Nicholson will serve as interim secretary, presumably until a permanent choice is revealed.

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