Who derailed Dionne Delli-Gatti’s confirmation as DEQ Secretary? No one wants to own it.

Published June 3, 2021

By Lisa Sorg

Dionne Delli-Gatti waited outside the gallery entrance of the Senate Chamber Thursday afternoon to learn whether she would still have a job by the end of the day. 

She carried a keychain that her 8-year-old son had given her earlier this year after Gov. Roy Cooper nominated her to lead the NC Department of Environmental Quality, one of the state’s most complex agencies. 

The keychain read “No. 1 Secretary.”

But her position as the first woman to lead the department was in doubt. On Wednesday, the Senate Agriculture, Energy and Environment committee had voted down her nomination, a move without modern precedent. Since 2016, when Republican legislators passed a law requiring the Senate to confirm the governor’s nominees, the chamber has done so for 16 consecutive cabinet-level positions — until now.

At both that committee hearing and during Thursday’s Senate floor debate, Republican Sens. Paul Newton and Chuck Edwards led the charge against her nomination. They claimed Delli-Gatti was “disqualified” because she “couldn’t articulate the governor’s energy policy” and wasn’t familiar with the details of the MVP Southgate natural gas pipeline project. 

To Democratic lawmakers, that felt like a stretch.

“I urge you to reject this disingenuous process and stand up for what is right,” said Sen. DeAndrea Salvador, a Mecklenburg County Democrat during the full Senate debate. “Ousting a qualified woman from a position she already holds — something else is going on. It doesn’t add up.”

Why Delli-Gatti attracted the ire of the Republican leadership is unknown. Her initial confirmation hearing happened on April 27, and there were no followup meetings. Senate Democrats have said publicly they were blindsided by the news that Delli-Gatti’s confirmation was in doubt.

Two weeks ago, the Senate Energy Committee, with Newton again running the show, received testimony from Duke Energy, Dominion Energy and the American Petroleum Institute about what they view as North Carolina’s need for more natural gas pipelines. Transco is the main provider but if a cyberattack or other disaster should shut down that line, it could create an energy emergency in North Carolina, they testified.

Oddly, Delli-Gatti “wasn’t invited to participate” in that hearing, as Sen. Michael Garrett, a Guilford County Democrat pointed out during the Senate debate.

“When you vote today you are voting to fire a female veteran and the first woman to lead this department and by all standards is eminently qualified,” Garrett said.

And the reason Delli-Gatti didn’t “articulate the governor’s energy position,” said Sen. Julie Mayfield,a Buncombe County Democrat, is because Cooper has not articulated it himself.

“If the governor has not expressed a position on natural gas, is it fair to expect her to know what that position is, given that it doesn’t exist?” Mayfield said.

 Chief Deputy Secretary John Nicholson is the new interim secretary for the NC Department of Environmental Quality.

Over the last day, Democrats have engaged in amateur sleuthing to flush out who had tanked the governor’s choice. Shortly after Wednesday’s committee vote recommending against her confirmation, Duke Energy released a statement supporting Delli-Gatti. By evening, Dominion Energy had done the same. 

Legislative sources told Policy Watch that the NC Chamber of Commerce, Smithfield Foods and the NC Pork Council were not responsible for the confirmation derailment.

That left few options: Either another powerful natural gas company put its invisible finger on the scale or Sen. Newton and several of his colleagues had gone rogue, as one source told Policy Watch, “to send a message.”

Theresa Kostrzewa, a lobbyist for EquiTrans Midstream, a major partner in the MVP Southgate project, told Policy Watch that the company did not oppose the nomination. “They were shocked,” Kostrzewa said of her clients. (She also represents Smithfield Foods; the company did not oppose the nomination, either, she said.)

Kostrzewa acknowledged that EquiTrans representatives met with several senators last week, including Sen. Newton. The purpose of the get-together, Newton told Policy Watch, “was to learn what the MVP Southgate project was all about.”

But Newton is well-versed in energy policy as a former Duke Energy executive; it’s unlikely that he had only a rookie’s knowledge of MVP Southgate. 

The project would enter North Carolina in Rockingham County, which is in Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger’s district, and route southeast to Alamance County, where it would end near Haw River. It is an extension of the main Mountain Valley Pipeline, which runs through Virginia. The main MVP project has stalled because of permitting violations and successful legal challenges in Virginia.

Kostrzewa was more specific about the meeting with Newton and his fellow Republican senators: She said her clients wanted to know “how to get the permit through,” referring to the water quality permit that DEQ denied during former Secretary Michael Regan’s tenure.

MVP Southgate appealed the denial to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled DEQ actedwithin its authority, but needed to better explain its rationale. 

DEQ’s Division of Water Resources denied the permit again in late April, with a fuller explanation, two days after Delli-Gatti’s initial confirmation hearing.

In correspondence with MVP Southgate about the permit denial, DWR Director Danny Smith expressed concerns that if the main MVP pipeline through Virginia isn’t built, then environmental damage to streams and waterways caused by the construction would be for naught. Without the main pipeline, there is no reason for the southern portion to exist, DEQ said.

This was the same reasoning behind the agency’s initial denial.

“It appears that the permit denial angered some people,” Mayfield said on the Senate floor. “I suggest this is the real reason.”

There is a precedent for DEQ’s concerns. Before Duke Energy and Dominion Energy canceled the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, their contractors had clear-cut forestland, excavated parts of farm fields and used eminent domain to try to seize property for the route. Now that property must be restored, the plan for which is still in a draft stage nearly a year after the cancellation.

Yet Newton did not mention this contingency on the Senate floor. He called the 46-mile MVP Southgate project the “single most important piece of infrastructure in the state.”

It is contradictory that Newton and Edwards disqualified Delli-Gatti over her unfamiliarity with MVP Southgate’s permitting status. Republicans, including Newton, had lambasted former DEQ Secretary Michael Regan for allegedly meddling in the permitting for the now-cancelled Atlantic Coast Pipeline. 

Now Delli-Gatti was getting heat for not meddling enough.

“You’ll be denying the state a leader with qualification to direct one of our most complex agencies,” said Sen. Mike Woodard, a Democrat from Durham. “DEQ’s work is much broader and deeper and more complicated than just one narrow issue. You will be taking a steady hand off the rudder of a complex agency at a critical time.”

After more than an hour of debate, the Senate voted 26-20, along party lines, not to confirm Delli-Gatti.

The law requires Delli-Gatti to step down immediately, according to former DEQ Assistant Secretary Robin Smith, who is also an environmental attorney. Smith wrote on her blog that a department head “cannot continue to serve once the Senate has adopted a disapproval resolution. … That language seems to foreclose the possibility of a defeated nominee continuing to serve as acting department head until the Senate confirms a new appointee — although the courts have never been called on to interpret the law.”

The courts will not have to weigh in on Delli-Gatti’s confirmation. By mid-afternoon she had a new job. Not the secretary’s job — Gov. Cooper appointed Chief Deputy Secretary John Nicholson to serve in the interim — but a key job within the agency, nonetheless.

Delli-Gatti is now North Carolina’s Clean Energy Director. From this position, the governor’s press release said, “Delli-Gatti will work on administrative efforts to promote clean energy in North Carolina, including negotiating energy legislation, advancing regulatory efforts, implementing Executive Order 80 and more.”

DEQ issued a statement expanding on Delli-Gatti’s role. The agency “reallocated the vacant State Energy Director position to encompass the state’s clean energy goals and policymaking, an expansion of duties that was previously underway. Delli-Gatti looks forward to focusing on clean energy on behalf of the agency and the people of North Carolina.”

Ironically, had Delli-Gatti been confirmed, her attention would have been stretched over the gamut of environmental issues: water, air, mining, landfills, emerging compounds, and more. In voting not to confirm Delli-Gatti, 26 senators have narrowed her focus to solely energy — her specialty. Now they could find out exactly how much she really knows.