When University of Virginia environmental science professor Vivian E. Thomson researched and wrote her thoughtful account of environmental battles during her years on Virginia’s Air Pollution Control Board (2002 to 2010), she could not have known how fortuitously timed her book’s eventual publication would be. But as luck would have it, the just-published Climate of Capitulation: An Insider’s Account of State Power in a Coal Nation (MIT Press) comes out at a particularly opportune moment.
Donald Trump’s election, and his administration’s efforts to dismantle federal climate and environmental protections, means the states have a more important role to play than ever before as the U.S. tries to address the climate crisis. A primary theme in Thomson’s book is the outsized power of the commonwealth’s largest utility, Dominion Energy, over Virginia politicians and regulators. That is also fortuitous, since 2017 appears to be the year when, finally, Dominion’s unhealthy influence over Virginia politics could be a significant election issue. More than 50 candidates for the Virginia House of Delegates this year have pledged to refuse Dominion campaign contributions, as has gubernatorial candidate Tom Perriello. And Dominion’s proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline for fracked gas is a significant issue in the Democratic gubernatorial primary.
Adding to Climate of Capitulation’s uncanny timeliness is Governor Terry McAuliffe’s executive directive this month requiring Virginia’s Department of Environmental Quality to draft proposed regulations to limit climate-disrupting carbon-dioxide emissions from electric-power plants. DEQ must submit its proposal to the state’s Air Pollution Control Board by December 31, just before McAuliffe’s term expires. Electric utilities and environmental groups will be watching that process closely, hoping to influence the final result. And of course the outcome of this year’s gubernatorial race will greatly affect the ultimate fate of McAullife’s effort to reduce carbon emissions.
Another main theme in Climate of Capitulation is DEQ’s lackluster environmental enforcement record over the years, and efforts by politicians of both major parties, including then-governor Tim Kaine, to rein in the Air Board’s efforts to strengthen environmental enforcement. Citing contemporaneous emails obtained from the Library of Virginia’s database, Thomson describes how the Kaine administration, DEQ director David Paylor, and state legislators worked to limit the Air Board’s effectiveness and expand it from five to seven members. According to Thomson, the size increase was specifically designed to weaken the power of the board’s three-member majority, which threatened to run afoul of business interests in pushing for pollution limits well within legal requirements, but significantly more stringent than what DEQ proposed to allow.
With DEQ and the Air Board likely to be in the spotlight for the rest of 2017 and beyond, Climate of Capitulation is must reading for Virginians concerned about climate change and carbon reduction.
Thomson notes that the part-time nature of Virginia’s legislature, combined with a chronically underfunded DEQ, deprives the state’s legislative and executive branches of the technical expertise needed to enforce complex air-pollution laws. As a result, Thomson argues, government officials too often end up relying for technical expertise on the large corporations that are regulated by those laws. The corporations, of course, are more than happy to oblige, and the result is predictable.
Perhaps the most provocative and insightful aspect of Thomson’s analysis is her description of what she calls “the third face of power.” The concept comes from the New York University sociologist Steven Lukes’s “three dimensions of power,” where the third, almost invisible dimension of power is the ability, in Thomson’s words, to shape people’s “perceptions over time without conscious knowledge.” She finds this third dimension of power in Virginia’s “traditionalistic political culture, which devalues public participation and civil servants,” “protects the status quo,” and too often favors corporate interests over citizens. This culture is encapsulated in an expression heard often in Richmond—“the Virginia Way,” although Thomson doesn’t use that term. The Virginia Way sometimes involves politicians in both major parties working to maintain the status quo, especially when that serves to favor large polluters. Thomson says “strong, sustained leadership” is needed to avoid capitulating to such a powerful, inertia-favoring force.
I wish Thomson had devoted more space to fleshing out this dimensions-of-power concept as applied to Virginia, for it seems key to understanding the commonwealth’s slow pace in deploying clean energy and addressing climate change. It further explains DEQ’s failure to take more aggressive, science-based positions that might conflict with powerful polluters’ interests. Inertia and the Virginia Way may not be bad in all situations. But inertia is not our friend in dealing with the climate crisis and multiple threats to clean air and water.
Vivian Thomson has done a great service in describing the sometimes-hidden influences that hinder enforcement of our environmental laws and slow efforts to address climate change. Virginia’s current political leaders, as well those hoping to replace them in this important election year, should read Climate of Capitulation. So should Virginia voters.
Seth Heald received a master of science degree in energy policy and climate from Johns Hopkins University this month. He is chair of the Sierra Club’s Virginia chapter.