Virginia, Energy Suburb

Today marks the start of the third Governor’s Conference on Energy in Virginia, which means it is the third year of the Governor’s Confusion of Virginia with some other state, because he is once again promoting the slogan, “Virginia, Energy Capital of the East Coast.”

The first year, nobody said anything. He was a new governor, and it didn’t seem polite to point out the error. Rookie mistake, the conference attendees told each other. Someone will clue him in.

The second year, the slogan reappeared, and we were dumbfounded. People nudged each other and said, “You tell him.” “No, you tell him.” We drew straws, but apparently whoever got the short straw welched. And now, after three years, well, it would be really, really awkward to point out that while the slogan is charming, it is not exactly factual.

In factual terms, Virginia isn’t an energy capital, or even an energy major city. If Governor McDonnell were to call Virginia the Energy Suburb of the East Coast, that would be closer to the truth. We’re a bigger importer of electricity than any state except California. Of course it’s not like we’re importing our electrons from a hostile foreign nation. West Virginia isn’t suddenly going to cut us off if we don’t release their political prisoners.

And really, you might think there is something to be said for letting other states foul their own air with power plants while sending the electrons over to us. It’s like outsourcing manufacturing to China; they get the jobs and the pollution, we get cheap electronics that we toss in our landfills every time there’s an upgrade. In the case of out-of-state power plants, we get the electricity to run the cheap electronics.

But since emissions from power plants sneak across state lines and head straight for anyone who happens to be breathing, we are getting the pollution as well as the electrons, and all we’re losing to other states is the jobs. To a governor, losing jobs to other states is the Worst Thing Ever. If you are a governor, your highest priority is luring businesses to your state instead of to the state next door, to keep up with whatever luring that state is doing to get business away from your state. The governor with the most jobs wins.

So Governor McDonnell has been trying very hard to develop energy projects in Virginia. His signature plan was to open our coast to environmentally safe offshore oil drilling, with Congress cutting Virginia in on the royalties so we could fund our transportation priorities without taxing ourselves. But while Congress was still giggling at the revenue-sharing proposal, an environmentally safe offshore oil rig exploded and sent 5 million barrels of environmentally unsafe crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico, shutting down the fishing industry and fouling several hundred miles of Louisiana shoreline.

Our governor did not blink. He is not a man to learn from mere actual events. Nonetheless, he turned his attention to other projects that could still make Virginia an energy leader. After all, McDonnell is an “all of the above” man, so in addition to oil, he likes nuclear, coal and natural gas. These haven’t worked out so well, either. The Energy Information Agency has since announced that the price tag for new nuclear now exceeds that for solar energy. Since Virginians regard solar as a luxury for wine-sipping liberal urbanites, that can only be a bad sign for nuclear.

And then there’s coal. McDonnell came into office a champion of coal, in proportion to the amount of campaign money he received from coal and coal-burning utilities. You cannot accuse the man of disloyalty. When some critics tried to suggest that taxpayers should not be shelling out $45 million per year in handouts for coal mining, he took umbrage. He also took more money. All that give and take did nothing to prevent the coal industry in Virginia from continuing its long decline.

This leaves natural gas. One of the panels for this year’s conference is titled, “What do we do with all this natural gas?” There isn’t an exclamation point at the end of the question, but there should be. Nationally, gas fracking has saved energy’s Old Guard, just when it looked like fossil fuels were washed up. The old energy guys are ecstatic. It’s not like they would ever have admitted that God’s carbon gifts might be finite, but there was an ugly shadow looming for a while that has backed off. They are hoping they can shove it into a closet with other difficult ideas, like groundwater pollution, global warming, ocean acidification and sea level rise.

From Governor McDonnell’s perspective, the only problem with Virginia being the Fracking Capital of the East Coast is how little shale gas we have, compared with Pennsylvania and New York. Still, a few counties in the western part of the state could host drilling rigs if they chose, along with the round-the-clock truck traffic, land disturbance, noise, and inevitable spills of contaminated wastewater. For some reason, they’ve rejected the idea. Look for legislation this year to take away their right to refuse.

Meanwhile, what can our governor do to make Virginia a leader on energy? There’s only one area left untried: renewable energy. We could build wind and solar facilities in Virginia, adding jobs without pollution. We know we have the resources and the businesses eager to build if the state wants them.

Until 2008, our annual energy conference was known as the Commonwealth of Virginia Energy and Sustainability Conference (COVES). Governor McDonnell discarded  “sustainability,” and since then the conference has offered less and less to interest wind and solar businesses. Yet there’s no law saying the only way to become the Energy Capital of the East Coast is by burning coal and gas.

At least, there isn’t yet. I shouldn’t give the governor any ideas.