Pipeline politics? Maybe so, but NC still needs answers

The Atlantic Coast Pipeline would run through eight eastern North Carolina counties.
The Atlantic Coast Pipeline would run through eight eastern North Carolina counties. cseward@newsobserver.com

Politics are endlessly played in Raleigh, but that doesn’t mean there are never legitimate questions for one side to ask the other.

Take the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, a deal Gov. Roy Cooper struck with energy companies that has Republican legislators on the hunt for wrongdoing. Regardless of whether they are motivated by scoring political points or a thirst for the truth, Republicans are right to press for answers about some aspects of the deal. Cooper and his administration should be more forthcoming than they have been to this point.

Cooper’s Department of Environmental Quality granted permits a year ago for the controversial natural gas pipeline to run through eight counties in eastern North Carolina. At the same time, his office announced that the utilities would contribute $57.8 million for environmental mitigation, economic development and renewable energy. It was an unusual arrangement and a large pot of money that Cooper’s office, not the legislature, would control, with few specifics for where the money would go.

Kristi Jones, Cooper’s chief of staff, told legislators last week that the administration would not allow investigators hired by the General Assembly to interview state employees about the project. She said the administration feared “underhanded or even illegal methods to interrogate” employees. She called it an “extraordinary open-ended political fishing expedition.”

Shielding relevant state employees from legitimate questions is not a good look for Cooper. Jones worries that employees will be subjected to “oppressive interrogation” about their personal lives. There’s no reason to believe pipeline investigators would go that route, and the employees could have their or administration lawyers by their side in any case.

Two of the investigators spent three decades each as special agents for the Internal Revenue Service, and the other was an FBI special agent for 27 years. All three specialized in public corruption, money laundering and other areas.

With Cooper blocking their access, it appears Republicans might ask their questions – including about whether pipeline approval was linked at all to a solar deal involving Cooper and a one-time business partner – in an open committee meeting. Sen. Harry Brown, co-chair of the pipeline committee, told the Observer editorial board last week that that might be the next step. And Ken Eudy, an adviser to Cooper, told the Observer editorial board that the administration would welcome that.

Republicans mistreated some of Cooper’s folks at earlier hearings, which undermined any potential trust. And any future hearings would surely be full of political showboating – not the most efficient way to get answers.

But at least they would have a chance of providing some transparency in what to this point has been a murky episode. The investigators and members of both parties should thoroughly review the thousands of pages of documents the Cooper administration finally provided. Then get the resulting questions answered, publicly and promptly.