NC attorney general asked to probe possible fracking conflicts of interest in state government

An environmental watchdog group opposed to fracking has called on the North Carolina attorney general to investigate apparent financial conflicts of interest and what it calls a "pattern of political patronage" involving state leaders responsible for overseeing the oil and gas industry.

The complaint sent this week to Attorney General Roy Cooper, a Democrat, names Gov. Pat McCrory (R), members of the state Mining and Energy Commission, and members of the Republican-controlled General Assembly.

"Before North Carolina starts granting permits to the fracking industry, voters have a right to know the truth about who in our leadership stands to gain financially,” said Jorge Aguilar, Food & Water Watch's Southern regional director. “We also have a right to put public health and the environment ahead of the conflicted interests of a select few who are leading the push to frack North Carolina."

Last year the North Carolina legislature overrode by one vote former Gov. Beverly Perdue's (D) veto of a bill to allow fracking. Rep. Becky Carney (D-Mecklenburg) mistakenly voted in favor of the veto override, and the House leadership would not allow her to correct the vote. Since then, the Republican-controlled legislature has begun pushing a proposal to speed up the state's move to the controversial natural gas drilling process.

Among the apparent conflicts of interest Food & Water Watch cites:

* McCrory spent almost 30 years working for Duke Energy, which besides being an electricity supplier also distributes natural gas. In turn, the company, its political action committee, and employees have given his campaign over $240,000. And as Facing South first reported, McCrory holds at least $10,000 in Duke Energy stock. He also has significant holdings in Spectra, a natural gas pipeline company.

* Three former Duke Energy employees have landed high-level positions in North Carolina state government. They include Sharon Decker, commerce secretary; Neal Alexander, state personnel director; and Tony Almeida, senior economic adviser. Decker holds at least $10,000 in stock in SCANA Corp., a natural gas utility. In addition, McCrory has appointed as his state budget director leading conservative benefactor Art Pope, who holds significant investments in BP, ConocoPhillips, and Exelon -- all of which profit from fracking.

* Several appointed members of the N.C. Mining and Energy Commission, which is charged with writing fracking regulations, stand to gain financially if fracking is allowed in the state -- including the two appointed to represent conservation interests. They are Ray Covington, whose company helps landowners negotiate drilling leases in exchange for a share of the profit, and George Howard, whose company restores streams and wetlands, including those damaged by fracking. (Howard's business partner was John Skvarla, who McCrory appointed to head the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources; Skvarla and his business associates contributed $20,000 to McCrory's campaign.) In addition, commission member Vikram Rao worked for Halliburton, a leading fracker, for over 30 years and maintains stock holdings in that company as well as in BioLargo, a business that handles disposal of fracking wastewater.

* The state legislature is considering a bill that would give Gov. McCrory the power to replace members of state government commissions with his own appointees, including commissions charged with environmental and energy oversight. The lead sponsors of that legislation have received over $102,000 from Duke Energy and its Progress Energy subsidiary.

"The North Carolina Department of Justice should investigate the aforementioned conflicts of interest in regard to the development of fracking regulations in North Carolina," Aguilar wrote in the letter to Cooper.