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Duke & Piedmont Execs Argue For Merger, Opponents Protest

State regulators wrapped up a two-day public hearing in Raleigh Tuesday afternoon on the proposed merger of Duke Energy and Piedmont Natural Gas. The two-day hearing included testimony from company leaders and a protest by merger opponents.

Executives including CEOs Lynn Good of Duke and Thomas Skains of Piedmont argued the $6.7 billion deal would create a stronger company and speed Duke's shift toward cleaner-burning natural gas.

"Natural gas will continue as an increasingly important part of the nation's energy mix, as the shift away from coal continues," Good said in her testimony Monday. "Through Duke Energy’s strong balance sheet and electric generation expertise, and Piedmont’s understanding of natural gas markets and proficient operations, the combined company will be well-positioned for a future that may require additional natural gas infrastructure and services."

Outside the hearing Monday, environmental protesters staged a mock wedding. They call the merger a "toxic marriage" and say it will create larger monopoly that will continue Duke's reliance on fossil fuels.

Duke announced plans to buy Piedmont last October, for $4.9 billion in cash and $1.8 billion in assumed debt.

Even before that, they became partners with two other companies in construction ofthe Atlantic Coast Pipeline. The 600-mile pipeline, which is awaiting federal approval, would carry natural gas from shale oil fields in Ohio, West Virginia and Pennsylvania to power plants in Virginia and eastern North Carolina. It's could begin moving gas in 2018.  

Duke is the nation's largest electric utility, with more than 7 million customers. Piedmont would add 1 million gas customers, primarily in North Carolina, but also in South Carolina and Tennessee.

As it closes coal-fired plants and shifts much of its electricity production to natural gas, Duke already is Piedmont's largest customer.

The merger announcement last fall came as other big energy companies complete similar deals. On July 1, the Southern Company of Atlantacompleted its acquisition of gas company AGL Resources.  

On Monday,Skainssaid Piedmont also discussed selling out to another unnamed company before agreeing to the higher bid from Duke.

"Duke’s final bid was superior and offered our shareholders compelling value far in excess of our stand-alone long-term strategic plan and the final bid of the other party," Skains said. After the deal closes, Skains will join Duke's board.

On Tuesday, regulators were hearing testimony from Duke and Piedmont executives, environmental group NC WARN and from the Public Staff, the commission's consumer arm, which has recommended the deal.

NC WARN has raised questions about whether the merger will increase risk, including how future fluctuations in energy prices might affect the company.

“The U.S. supply of shale gas is high unstable, the entire natural gas industry is unstable and that makes the future of natural gas subject to shortages and price spikes,” Jim Warren, NC WARN's executive director, said in an interview.  

But the companies downplay those concerns. "We think it's not material," Duke spokesman Tom Williams said Tuesday.

N.C. Greenpeace organizer Caroline Hansley said the deal would give the combined company too much political clout.

"Joining forces with Piedmont Natural Gas would only magnify Duke Energy's political spending potential, lobbying power, and direct connections to government which is bad for the health of our state and democracy," Hansley said in a statement Monday.

The utilities commission's public staff recommended approval of the deal after the companies agreed to concessions. The companies also reached settlements to win the backing of the Carolina Utility Customers Association and the Environmental Defense Fund.

Concessions include promises of charitable donations ($17.5 million a year for four years), another $7.5 million for energy assistance programs, and small rate reductions for gas and electric companies.

Shareholders and the Federal Trade Commission have already approved the deal. Utilities commission approval is the final hurdle. That's expected this fall, and the companies say they expect to complete their merger by year's end.

Copyright 2016 WFAE

David Boraks is a WFAE weekend host and a producer for "Charlotte Talks." He's a veteran Charlotte-area journalist who has worked part-time at WFAE since 2007 and for other outlets including DavidsonNews.net and The Charlotte Observer.
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