By Ned Barnett
Jim Warren, executive director of NC WARN, stood at noon near the state Legislative Building last Wednesday like a street preacher decrying moral failures. Adults and swarms of visiting school children passed by and paid him no attention, but Duke Energy’s customers should.
Warren and several other members or supporters of his utility watchdog group used their sparsely attended new conference to announce that NC WARN has filed a complaint with the state Ethics Commission over state Sen. Dan Blue’s arrangement with Duke Energy.
The group says Blue, a Wake County Democrat and the Senate minority leader, has a glaring conflict of interest. He is the lead sponsor of legislation, Senate Bill 559, that would change the state’s utility commission’s rate-setting structure even as Blue’s law firm — which includes his two sons — is representing a holding company tied to Duke Energy in eminent domain cases related to the Atlantic Coast Pipeline.
Warren said Blue “can’t serve the public interest when he’s being paid so heavily to serve Duke’s interest.”
Blue says he thinks it is OK to sponsor the bill and take legal fees from the holding company because changing the setting of utility rates “does not give Duke anything.”
What the bill would give Duke is a change that allows utility rates to be set in five-year blocks, reducing scrutiny from the state Utilities Commission. It has passed the Senate and is pending in the House.
The Atlantic Coast Pipeline is being constructed by a holding company almost entirely owned by Duke Energy and Dominion Resources, a Virginia-based utility. The pipeline will carry natural gas from West Virginia, through Virginia, along a north-south path through North Carolina and end in Robeson County on the South Carolina border. The pipeline’s construction has been stopped and its targeted completion pushed back a year to 2021 by disputes over environmental permits. Meanwhile, cost estimates for the 600-mile pipeline are ballooning, rising from an original estimate of between $4.5 billion and $5 billion to $7.8 billion.