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RALEIGH — I think the administration of Gov. Roy Cooper favors the construction of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, a 600-mile project connecting natural-gas generation in West Virginia to natural-gas consumers in Virginia and North Carolina. But I’m not entirely sure.
Two of Cooper’s cabinet secretaries have sent conflicting signals, and the governor himself hasn’t weighed in personally on the pipeline, which will traverse eight North Carolina counties. Both friends and foes of the project have asked Cooper to clarify his position, reports Carolina Journal’s Don Carrington, but as yet to no avail.
I wish he would. For eastern North Carolina, the Atlantic Coast Pipeline has major economic and environmental implications.
Green-energy advocates and left-wing activists argue that the pipeline will only enable the continued reliance on fossil fuels. While burning natural gas to generate electricity may emit far less carbon than coal does, it still emits some — and environmentalists argue that methane escaping from pipelines is itself a potent driver of climate change. The NAACP further argues that the placement of the project will disproportionately burden minorities and the poor.
Michael Regan, Cooper’s secretary of the Department of Environmental Quality, seems at least somewhat sympathetic to these concerns. Unlike the other two affected states, North Carolina has yet to approve the necessary water-quality permits. “The state has reserved the right to do what North Carolina has to do to best protect its citizens and the environment,” Regan told the Triangle Business Journal.
On the other hand, North Carolina Commerce Secretary Tony Copeland appears to be a strong advocate. He points out something that people often forget about natural gas: it isn’t just a fuel for power plants. It is also used directly in the production of manufactured goods such as plastic, cement and paper. Natural gas makes up about 14 percent of the inputs used for fertilizer production, for example.
While laying the pipeline will employ thousands of construction workers for a time, the real economic payoff will come from permanent jobs and income gains derived from gas access and lower-cost electricity. “We have counties that are 40 miles from a natural-gas line,” Copeland said. “They will never get manufacturing in without access to natural gas.”
Several of Cooper’s predecessors have faced similar issues with high stakes and political complexities. Former governors Jim Hunt and Jim Martin, for example, were both challenged by long-running disputes about how to dispose of hazardous and low-level radioactive wastes. They felt compelled to exercise leadership on the issue even though they knew critics might be vicious. Martin was actually burned in effigy.
For her part, former Gov. Beverly Perdue vetoed a 2012 bill to allow fracking as part of oil and gas exploration in the state. The Republican-majority General Assembly overturned her veto, which gained her little political benefit and, shocking as it may seem, may simply have reflected her heartfelt opinion on the issue.
As you can tell, I’d prefer that Gov. Cooper come out in favor of the pipeline and ensure that the permitting process is completed in an expeditious manner so the project can proceed. Despite environmentalist claims to the contrary, North Carolina’s decision will have essentially no bearing on the future of natural gas production. It is a valuable and relatively clean product that will be produced and sold in any event.
The only question is whether North Carolina’s government will allow its households, businesses and prospective employees to benefit from that.
Even if Cooper decides to come out against the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, however — because he is persuaded on the merits or at least believes he can’t side against the increasingly strident base of the left-shifted Democratic Party — I still think clarity is better than caginess.
“You have enemies?” Victor Hugo once exclaimed. “Why, it is the story of every man who has done a great deed or created a new idea. It is the cloud which thunders around everything that shines.”
Governors ought to generate some rumbles every now and then. It’s part of their job.
John Hood is chairman of the John Locke Foundation and appears on the talk show “N.C. Spin.” Follow him on Twitter @JohnHoodNC.