By Walker Davis
December 2, 2016

On Super Bowl Sunday 2014, North Carolina-based utility giant Duke Energy did what many were no doubt doing that day: they spilled something by accident. The company’s spill did not require Rug Doctors to resolve, but medical ones. Duke Energy contaminated North Carolina’s Dan River with a veritable periodic table of toxic chemicals when 39,000 tons of coal ash burst through a stormwater pipe at one of its fourteen ash storage sites in the state, setting off a series of regulatory, legislative, and legal attempts to address the company’s coal ash storage practices.

In the wake of scrutiny following the spill, Duke Energy has targeted state lawmakers with more campaign spending and lobbying than ever before, and scientists in North Carolina are crying foul.

Campaign financing

In the 2014 and 2016 election cycles, Duke Energy’s federal political action committee (PAC) has given more to North Carolina campaigns and political committees and spent a larger portion of its budget in the state than any cycle going back at least as far as the 2004 cycle. According to reports filed with the Federal Election Commission, Duke Energy PAC injected $437,000 into North Carolina state elections in the 2014 election cycle. As of the PAC’s most recent filing, through October 19th, Duke Energy PAC had given more than half a million dollars to North Carolina candidates and political committees in the 2016 cycle, setting an all-time high.

Even adding in state PACs the company has operated in North Carolina, Duke Energy has spent more in the state in each of the last two cycles than any other going back at least as far as the 2004 cycle.

Duke Energy’s PAC tends to spend in bursts, and those bursts often coincide with key moments in state coal ash regulation. The PAC’s biggest state spending spree came one day before the Coal Ash Management Act, the first major legislative response to the Dan River spill, went into effect. On September 19, 2014, Duke Energy contributed $261,000 to the campaign accounts of 114 legislators in the state, more than two thirds of the legislature.

Duke Energy put another quarter million dollars behind state political committees between December 2015 and January 2016. Several of these contributions went to key legislators on the Environmental Review Commission in the days following a January 13, 2016 meeting on the closure of coal ash storage sites. Within a week of that meeting, Duke Energy contributed $27,200 to nine of the commission’s nineteen members, including three of its four leadership members.

In those same months, lobbying disclosures reveal Duke Energy contributed $25,000 to the State Government Leadership Foundation, a dark money non-profit affiliated with a state-spending national group, the Republican State Leadership Committee. The disclosure links the contribution to state senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger (R), suggesting Duke Energy may have earmarked the money to help out Sen. Berger or that Sen. Berger may have solicited the contribution.  He has served in a leadership role with the non-profit.

This summer, a new piece of coal ash legislation, House Bill 630, transferred coal ash clean-up oversight to the Governor’s office. The move was an apparent boon for Duke Energy. Governor Pat McCrory (R) is a former employee of the company and has drawn criticism for cutting the company slack since the spill, allowing Duke Energy to pass clean-up costs on to customers, for example. Critics called the bill a “bailout.” The very day Gov. McCrory signed HB 630 into law, Duke Energy went on another contribution extravaganza, disbursing $58,600 to fourteen state lawmakers.

On August 10th, North Carolina’s state epidemiologist resigned in protest of what she saw as attempts by state officials to “deliberately mislead[] the public” on water safety, prompting the state Democratic Party to call for a probe into pay-to-play between Duke Energy and Gov. McCrory. The next week, Duke Energy blitzed the state with cash again, giving out $140,800.

Duke Energy’s far-reaching influence push may have even seeped into the state’s judicial system. In September 2015, the company scored a legal victory when administrative law judge Phil Berger, Jr., the son of senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger, accepted a fine reduced from $25 million to $7 million for the Dan River spill. Wake Superior Court Judge Paul Ridgeway questioned the breadth of the settlement, saying that Berger, Jr.’s order “has language that in my view goes beyond resolving a penalties case” and suggesting it was written to protect Duke Energy from environmental groups’ litigation.

A year before Berger, Jr. approved the reduced settlement for Duke Energy, he was a federal House candidate raising money from the company. Duke Energy gave $3,000 to his campaign in the 2014 cycle. Additionally, Duke Energy contributed $110,000 to the Republican State Leadership Committee during the 2014 cycle, which gave $95,000 to a federal super PAC backing Berger, Jr. called Keep Conservatives United.

Lobbying

Duke Energy’s lobbying efforts have likewise been refocused to North Carolina. While the company’s federal lobbying expenditures have slightly declined over the last few years, they have skyrocketed in the state. In 2010, the company reported paying its lobbyists less than $200,000. Last year, Duke Energy paid lobbyists $845,650 to represent the utility’s legislative goals to lawmakers. In May, a state toxicologist’s deposition was leaked, revealing that Duke Energy had successfully lobbied for the reversal of a “do not drink” order even though the facts calling the water quality into question remained the same.

On top of those expenses, Duke Energy has spent almost a quarter million dollars in “food and beverages” and “meeting and events” lobbying expenses since the Dan River spill, including more than $60,000 on expenses for events where Gov. McCrory is named as a “designated individual.” Such events give the company opportunities behind the scenes to ingratiate itself with state lawmakers charged with holding the energy giant accountable.

In October, flooding caused by Hurricane Matthew overflowed another of Duke Energy‘s coal ash storage sites, releasing “an unknown amount of coal ash” into North Carolina’s Neuse River. The new ash spill may prolong the energy giant’s state influence push, setting the stage for more campaign contributions, more lobbying, and more events with legislators.