NC Senate Republicans Ready To Block Cooper's Environment Chief Pick

Jun 2, 2021

North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper's pick to lead the state's environmental agency appears doomed in the state Senate, where Republicans on a key committee formally opposed the Democrat's choice on Wednesday.

The Senate Agriculture, Energy and Environment Committee voted not to recommend the confirmation of Dionne Delli-Gatti as secretary of the Department of Environmental Quality. Committee leaders criticized what they called Delli-Gatti's lack of knowledge about the governor's views on natural gas expansion and on industry regulation during a confirmation hearing in late April.

They said Delli-Gatti's answers took on added significance in light of the early May cyberattack on the Colonial Pipeline, which transports most of the gasoline in the state. The Transco pipeline, meanwhile, is the lone interstate natural gas transmission line for North Carolina. Speakers from the energy industry at another committee meeting after the cyberattack highlighted the vulnerability of natural gas supplies in the state.

“These are urgent, fundamental problems facing North Carolina and North Carolinians right this moment. This isn’t a simple matter of policy differences,” said Sen. Paul Newton, a Cabarrus County Republican and committee member. “Our objection to Ms. Delli-Gatti isn’t over the merits of the strategy. It’s the fact that she’s unable to articulate any strategy whatsoever.”

Democrats on the Senate committee berated their Republican colleagues and walked out before the panel's confirmation vote in protest. They said Delli-Gatti, who attended Wednesday's meeting, was ready to respond to their concerns more fully. The committee chairman declined to invite her to speak, saying no members had follow-up questions following the late April hearing that lasted two hours.

“This is a total sham of the nomination process,” Sen. Mike Woodard, a Durham County Democrat, said before the vote, calling her the most qualified person for the secretary's post. “Secretary Delli-Gatti deserves a chance to respond to some of the allegations that have been made to her today.”

Senate leader Phil Berger told reporters later that he expected a confirmation vote by the full Senate on Thursday. While Woodard said Democrats would work until then to secure her confirmation, the likely outcome is that Delli-Gatti will be out of a job later this week. Republicans hold 28 of the 50 seats in the chamber and Berger said he told Cooper by phone that there aren't enough votes to confirm her. Berger said the Senate Republican Caucus discussed her nomination Tuesday.

Should Delli-Gatti’s nomination be rejected, it would mark the first time that a Cabinet nominee has been blocked since the legislature passed a law in late 2016 requiring Cabinet members to be subject to confirmation.

Cooper showed no signs Wednesday of withdrawing the nomination of Delli-Gatti, a veteran leader from the Environmental Defense Fund that the governor named in February to succeed Michael Regan, who is now the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency administrator. She has been performing the secretary's duties since.

“Secretary Delli-Gatti is eminently qualified to run DEQ,” Cooper spokesman Ford Porter said in an email statement. “This has nothing to do with pipelines and Republican excuses for voting her down are a red herring to prevent her from protecting clean air and water and holding utilities accountable." His statement also referenced a “secret energy bill” being negotiated in the legislature this year.

Cooper's first 15 Cabinet nominations were confirmed by wide margins since he took office in early 2017. Cooper would have to choose a replacement, who would also be subject to the confirmation process. Berger said Delli-Gatti can't be renominated.

Cooper previously challenged the 2016 law in court, saying the legislature can't interfere with how the governor carries out his duties. But the state Supreme Court sided with legislative leaders in late 2018. An "advice-and-consent" provision is contained within the state constitution.