Shareholder vote shows growing unease over Dominion’s role in climate change

Dominion 2017 Ped Bridge

Black curtains are visible inside the pedestrian bridge over Marshall Street leading to the Richmond Convention Center (background on the left). They were installed to block shareholders’ view of protesters lining the sidewalk outside Dominion Resources’ 2017 shareholder meeting last week. Photo credit: Chesapeake Climate Action Network.

A stunning development occurred during Dominion Resources’ annual shareholder meeting in Richmond last Wednesday. But as shareholders, board members, and company officials left the meeting, no one yet knew about it. What’s more, the Richmond Times-Dispatch’s coverage also missed it, focusing instead on the company’s name change to Dominion Energy. (To its credit, the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot did break the story two days later.) Dominion’s hometown newspaper didn’t just bury the lede; it overlooked it altogether. And therein lies an interesting tale.

What was so stunning? Simply this—some 48 percent of Dominion shares that were voted supported the resolution of a major shareholder, the New York State Common Retirement fund, calling on the company’s board of directors to report on how the company will deal in coming years with the fact that the world needs to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions to an extent consistent with limiting global warming to 2 degrees Celsius. The resolution’s full text is available on p. 60 of Dominion’s 2017 proxy statement.

Understanding why the vote on this resolution is stunning requires some context.

Shareholders have been submitting resolutions for at least eight years urging Dominion’s board to face up to global warming and the company’s role as a major carbon polluter contributing to that warming. In the past, some resolutions have gotten favorable votes as high as 24 percent, while others have been in single digits. Many large investors routinely follow the company board’s advice, and Dominion’s board always recommends a “no” vote on any environment- or climate-related resolution. Getting favorable votes is an uphill battle when a company’s powerful board is working against you.

That’s why the 48 percent vote for the retirement fund’s resolution this year is so huge. The total value of the nearly 198 million shares voting for the resolution was $15.5 billion, based on Dominion’s May 9 closing stock price.

“The vote by Dominion’s shareholders speaks volumes,” said New York State comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli, trustee of the state’s retirement fund. “This is a wake-up call for the company to be responsive and explain how the Paris Agreement’s worldwide effort to rein in global warming will impact its business. Shareholders need to know what steps Dominion is prepared to take to address climate risk.”

But there’s still more to the tale. The stunning vote spike didn’t become known until hours after the meeting, and even then only to those who knew where to find the results and had a calculator handy to compute the vote percentages. That delay was no accident, but the result of Dominion’s efforts to keep the news from coming out during the meeting.

Until a few years ago, Dominion announced vote totals on shareholder resolutions during each meeting. That’s easy enough to do, since virtually all votes are cast in advance, and literally just a handful are cast on paper ballots collected during the meeting. But as favorable vote percentages on shareholder resolutions crept upwards over the years, Dominion discontinued the practice of announcing vote counts during the meeting. Instead it now reports only whether the resolutions got more than 50 percent of the vote. So this year it was simply announced during the meeting that the four shareholder resolutions on the ballot failed to get a majority of votes. End of story; nothing more to see here, folks.

By law, however, Dominion must report the actual shareholder vote totals to the Securities and Exchange Commission for public disclosure. It did so in the afternoon following the meeting, and put its SEC filing on the company’s website. Those who thought to look for them and knew where to look could find the vote results. Then, with a calculator or spreadsheet they could compute the vote percentages.

Dominion’s quiet move to prevent shareholders (and reporters) attending the meeting from learning the vote totals until later in the day is part of a pattern of subtle and not-so-subtle company efforts to tightly control messaging at its shareholder meetings. The control efforts have evolved each year as more shareholders have questioned the company’s environmental and climate record during meetings, and as demonstrators have begun to appear regularly outside to protest.

The company’s control effort reached somewhat absurd levels this year, as shareholders had to show their drivers’ licenses and admission tickets at four separate checkpoints before gaining entry to the meeting. As shareholders crossed an elevated pedestrian bridge across Marshall Street from the parking garage to the Richmond Convention Center, they found black curtains temporarily set up on floor stands to line the glass walls of the bridge, serving no purpose but to block any views of demonstrators on the street below. Then, when shareholders descended an escalator to the hallway outside the first-floor meeting room, they also found a long line of temporary stands of more black curtains. They were about eight feet high—just enough to block views through the wall of windows facing Marshall Street, where protesters had gathered on the sidewalk. This served to cast a bit of a funereal pall over the hallway, as shareholders drank coffee and ate Virginia ham biscuits before the meeting.

But enough about the voting process and window curtains. Understanding the true significance of the big vote spike for the retirement fund’s climate resolution requires a brief look at how Dominion addresses, and fails to address, the climate crisis. Dominion occasionally talks up its reductions in carbon intensity in electricity generation over the years. That’s the amount of carbon dioxide emitted per unit of electricity. And the company touts new solar projects, which are growing, but not nearly fast enough to catch up with Virginia’s neighboring states or to reduce carbon emissions on the needed timetable.

But Dominion has plans to increase its total carbon-dioxide emissions over the next fifteen years. And what the company never, ever does, is link its plans and its planned future greenhouse-gas emissions to what climate science tells us is needed to keep global warming to no more than 2 degrees Celsius. Indeed, as I wrote last year, Dominion executives studiously avoid even mentioning climate change in public, even when the topic is right in front of them, begging for attention. George Mason University climate-communication expert Edward Maibach and coauthors reported last year that silence on climate change can lead to more silence, in what they call a “climate spiral of silence.”

Meanwhile, while publicly silent about climate, Dominion still belongs to and supports the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which has a long track record of misinforming state legislators about climate science and working to block meaningful action to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions.

That’s why the 48 percent vote for the retirement fund’s resolution is so huge. Shareholders owning nearly half of the Dominion shares that were voted last week told the company’s board of directors and management that they need to start publicly talking and seriously thinking about climate change, and to explain how they will operate a business that is consistent with the need to keep global warming under 2 degrees.

Perhaps Dominion’s board believes, as at least one Dominion executive does, that climate change is an overblown issue that is pushed by “warmists,” that there’s been no global warming for fifteen years, and that global warming (which by the way isn’t happening) may not be human-caused. Such a belief would allow the board to ignore this shareholder vote, and assume that in future years the resolution will never get a majority vote because climate change concerns will go away as more people see climate change as a hoax. But maybe Dominion’s board, or at least a majority of its members, know better and will listen to the wake-up call delivered to them last week.

As I left the meeting I passed again by the black curtains in the convention hall windows and on the pedestrian bridge over Marshall Street. Just as Dominion used curtains to block views of protesters, its executives seemingly wear blinders to avoid looking at (and talking about) climate change. It’s past time for the blinders to come off and for Dominion’s management and board to look around at the wider world out there.

On May 22, Seth Heald will receive a master of science degree in energy policy and climate from Johns Hopkins University. His final paper in the program was about climate silence and moral disengagement. He is a Dominion Energy shareholder, and chair of the Sierra Club’s Virginia Chapter.

For minorities and the poor, “cheap” energy comes at a high cost

Utilities and other energy companies often resist clean energy mandates and tighter environmental regulation, but they swear it’s not about their lost profits. No, it is their single-minded devotion to the public good that drives them to defend fossil fuel pollution. Only by fouling the air and water can they keep energy costs low, especially—cue the crocodile tears—for minorities and poor people. Guest blogger Kendyl Crawford weighs in with a closer look at the real effect of fossil fuels on the folks polluters say they care about.

Children from the Southeast Care Coalition make their point about the link between air quality and asthma.

Children from the Southeast Care Coalition make their point about the link between air quality and asthma.

By Kendyl Crawford

There is an old adage that goes, “When White America sneezes, Black America catches pneumonia.” It describes the way problems affecting the economy as a whole are magnified for African-Americans, whose place on the economic ladder is already tenuous. The same can be said for Latinos, recent immigrants, and members of low-income communities. And just as these Americans are the ones hardest hit by economic setbacks, so they are the ones who suffer most from an energy economy based on fossil fuels.

Worse, they are often used as pawns by fossil fuel companies who declare that poor people need cheap energy, without accounting for the true cost of that energy. And that true cost can be very high. Over half a million people in Virginia live within 3 miles of coal-fired power plants. Of this group, 52% are minorities and 34% are members of the low-income community. This doesn’t seem like much of a disparity until you realize that Virginia has a total minority population of 35% and a low-income population of 26%.

The fossil fuel industry has a long history of siting power plants strategically, avoiding upper class, white areas whose residents have the power and influence to be able to cry NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard). Communities with less political and economic power got stuck with the facilities—often along with other unwanted neighbors like highways, heavy industry, and waste dumps. In many cases, the communities were there first and then became the victims of zoning changes that gave the green light to polluting facilities. Residents ended up with higher environmental health burdens and lower home values, often with no compensating economic boost from the presence of the facility. The term for siting highly-polluting facilities in these communities now even has its own acronym: PIMBY, for “Put it In Minorities’ Back Yard.”

The 2014 NAACP Coal Blooded: Putting Profits before People report gave five Virginia power plants an F for their environmental justice performance, a grade based on how much a particular plant impacts both low-income and minority communities. The score takes into account the amount of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides air pollution; total population within a three-mile radius of a facility; median income; and the percentage of minorities that make up the population in the close vicinity.

The NAACP report also gave a failing environmental justice performance score to Virginia’s largest utility, Dominion Resources. Dominion ranked as the 6th worst performing company in the U.S. and a “worst offender” in terms of environmental justice.

It’s not just coal. The Clean Air Task Force report Gasping for Breath highlights the fact that nationwide the oil and gas industry releases 9 million tons of pollution such as methane and benzene annually. Many of these toxic pollutants have been linked to cancer and respiratory disorders as well as increasing smog. Every summer there are 2,000 visits to the emergency room for acute asthma attacks and more than 600 hospital admissions for respiratory diseases that are directly related to the ozone smog that results from oil and gas pollution.

Not surprisingly, asthma takes its greatest toll on minorities. According to the EPA, black children are about four times more likely to die from asthma than white children. They are also twice as likely to be hospitalized for asthma. From 2001 to 2009, the asthma rate for black children increased almost 50%. African Americans, with lower rates of health insurance coverage, have fewer resources to manage these added stressors.

Latino children fare similarly poorly. Higher poverty rates and lower rates of insurance coverage mean Latino children have more severe asthma attacks than non-Hispanic white children and are more likely to end up in emergency rooms.

Of course, it’s not just minorities who suffer the harmful consequences of fossil fuels. Low-income people in general have fewer choices in where to live, have less access to health care, and often have little political power. In Virginia, this includes many residents of coalfields communities, whose families may have worked in coal mines for generations and yet have little to show for it.

Climate change will only increase the burden on minorities and low-income communities. For instance, many African American communities have historically been relegated to the least-valued land in a particular city or county, and this land is often low-lying. A recent article exposed the fact that when public housing is destroyed due to sea level rise, stronger storm surges and more extreme storms, it often doesn’t get rebuilt, forcing folks to relocate permanently.

Atmospheric warming will also lead to more health issues related to air pollution, which tends to increase with higher temperatures. But heat itself will take a toll, too, especially for those in substandard housing or who can’t afford air conditioning.

Most at risk will be those who work outdoors, among them construction workers, landscapers and farmworkers. Again, these are disproportionately minorities. Latinos make up about 48% of farm workers and almost 30% of construction workers in the U.S. As noted in the report Nuestro Futuro: Climate Change and U.S. Latinos, Latinos are already three times more likely to die from heat-related causes on the job than non-Hispanic whites. Climate change is expected to increase temperatures further. Hispanic communities are also generally located in areas of cities that are the hottest due to lack of vegetation and green spaces and the use of heat-trapping building materials.

These health impacts will be compounded by high poverty levels and low rates of health insurance. A Hispanic who is employed has less of a chance of having health insurance than a non-Hispanic person. When conditions like cardiovascular disease or diabetes are not treated and controlled, they can trigger visits to the emergency room after being exposed to extreme heat. Not to mention, language barriers can make it harder to obtain care.

Recent immigrants may also face greater difficulties following severe weather events, which are expected to increase in both frequency and intensity. Depending on their immigration status, disaster assistance may be hard to obtain or even completely unavailable.

So when utilities and fossil fuel companies urge our political leaders to keep energy costs low for the poor folks, we should recognize that what they really want is to keep profits high for themselves. They aren’t doing their customers any favors.

Kendyl Crawford is a Program Conservation Manager with the Virginia Chapter of the Sierra Club.

 

Sen. Mark Warner’s tolerance of climate disinformation

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CREDIT: VIRGINIA STUDENT ENVIRONMENTAL ASSOCIATION

 

Virginia’s senior U.S. Senator Mark Warner cast a vote this week that will come back to haunt him in coming years. It will also haunt our commonwealth and nation in future decades and centuries. Warner voted to confirm President Donald Trump’s nominee, former ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson, to be Secretary of State.

Tillerson, sad to say, may not be the most extreme or unqualified of President Trump’s cabinet nominees. One can hope that Senator Warner will vote against some of the worst of the worst, such as climate-science denier Scott Pruitt to head the Environmental Protection Agency. Pruitt has pledged to unravel bedrock environmental protections like the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts.

But opposing one or two other Trump nominees won’t excuse Senator Warner’s vote to make Rex Tillerson Secretary of State.

Tillerson’s former company has spent millions of dollars over recent decades to promote climate-science denial, to the detriment of many millions of vulnerable people all over the world, including many here in Virginia. ExxonMobil’s climate-denial promotion has been documented in academic studies, and Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring is investigating ExxonMobil’s role in promoting climate-science disinformation.

To his credit, Virginia’s junior U.S. Senator, Tim Kaine, brought out Tillerson’s connection to climate-science denial at Tillerson’s confirmation hearing. Tillerson dodged Kaine’s questions. Following the hearing Kaine tweeted: “It’s shameful Tillerson refused to answer my questions on his company’s role in funding phony climate science.” Kaine voted against confirming Tillerson.

By all accounts Tillerson has personal virtues. He’s an Eagle Scout who long supported and recently headed the Boy Scouts of America. He was once a good juror in a criminal case, as one of his fellow jurors recently explained in The Dallas Morning News. In many respects Tillerson is an upstanding Christian who contributes to mission work to help others.

But his former company’s longtime, immoral promotion of climate-science disinformation will harm exponentially far more people than his personal good deeds have helped.

There’s a term to explain how people like Tillerson can be good Boy Scouts, jurors, and churchgoers while also doing great harm that will cause great suffering to others. It’s called “moral disengagement.” The concept is explained in detail in a recent book by emeritus Stanford psychology professor Albert Bandura, titled Moral Disengagement: How People Do Harm and Live with Themselves. Bandura describes several mechanisms by which corporate polluters try to distance themselves from the harm they cause. They use front groups to do their dirty work with politicians. ExxonMobil and other fossil-fuel companies do that through groups like the notorious American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which promotes science misinformation to state legislators.

And Bandura notes that corporate polluters themselves promote scientific disinformation as a mechanism of moral disengagement. That is precisely what ExxonMobil has been doing for years, as Senator Kaine noted at Tillerson’s confirmation hearing. These lies and half-truths have real consequences for real people, here in Virginia and around the world.

Penn State climate scientist Michael Mann (formerly of UVA) has said that history will judge harshly those who promote climate-science denial. But, Mann added, “history will be too late.”

Senator Warner hasn’t himself promoted climate-science denial, but he just voted to make someone who has our nation’s Secretary of State.

History, and (one can hope) Virginia voters as well, will judge Mark Warner harshly for that.

Seth Heald is chair of the Sierra Club’s Virginia Chapter. He expects to receive a Master of Science degree in Energy Policy and Climate from Johns Hopkins University in May, 2017. His article on climate change and moral disengagement was published in the May-June, 2016 issue of Environment: The Journal of Sustainable Development.

How can we address climate change if we don’t talk about it?

cncartoons029881-549The Daily Press, Virginia’s fourth largest newspaper, recently ran an ambitious series of insightful articles on climate-change adaptation. The series movingly showed the daily reality of the many Virginians living near the coast, on the front lines of climate change.

The Newport News-based paper serves the Hampton Roads region, with particular focus on the Peninsula and Middle Peninsula. The paper’s readership territory is mostly low-lying, much of it adjacent to or near tidal waters, so there are plenty of sea-level rise and storm-flooding stories to cover. But one thing about the eight articles in the series that I’ve reviewed is odd, and also sad. Not one of them mentions “climate change” or “global warming.” To be sure, “sea-level rise” is mentioned often, along with “coastal flooding.” But the articles avoid mentioning the primary cause of those phenomena—global warming, aka climate change.

The Daily Press series’ focus is hyper-local: articles by six different reporters, each focusing on sea-level rise and other climate-change effects in a particular neighborhood or jurisdiction—Newport News, Carmines Island, Hampton; and York, Mathews, James City, Isle of Wight, and Gloucester Counties. Many residents and local officials were interviewed. The articles’ tone at times is elegiac, as people describe the way things were not long ago, and how they’ve changed for the worse as the waters rise. While climate-adaptation terms like “retreat” and “abandonment” aren’t mentioned, an official in Mathews County notes that property owners are beginning to donate their land to a nonprofit, a trend that he says is likely to accelerate. (Landowners can claim tax benefits for donating their property to qualifying nonprofits.)

In one of the saddest comments, an official in Hampton notes that the city’s building code may need to be updated to prevent houses from getting knocked off their foundations by “wave action.” Sadder yet, a Carmines Island resident says “We’re drowning down here. We need some help.”

The Daily Press deserves great praise for this detailed, ongoing coverage of the climate crisis. This is the type of quality, in-depth local reporting that could earn a Pulitzer Prize. It focuses on human faces in nearby places dealing with a problem that is global, abstract, and too often easy for many Americans to ignore. Every Virginia official from Governor Terry McAuliffe on down, including all members of the General Assembly and our representatives in Congress, should read these articles.

But still, why the climate-change silence? Why not at least mention or better yet analyze the real issue—the underlying cause? True, the articles do frequently use the term “sea-level rise,” a phrase that Republican Delegate Chris Stolle of Virginia Beach once called “a left-wing term,” presumably because he recognizes that rising seas are caused by our greenhouse-gas emissions, which heat the planet, and knows that politicians in his party aren’t supposed to admit that. He received well-deserved ridicule for that comment, and at least some in his party are now willing to utter the expression “sea-level rise,” as long as they studiously avoid linking it to climate change. But when six Daily Press reporters write a series about rising seas and more-intense storms while failing to note the larger climate-change causes, something is amiss.

Perhaps the best clue for what is happening can be found in the comment of Garrey Curry, assistant Gloucester County administrator. He told the Daily Press: “Locally when we talk about sea level rise we try not to get bogged down to the whys and hows. We want to understand the trends.” Left unsaid, and apparently unchallenged by Daily Press reporter Frances Hubbard, was how one can understand the trends and implement solutions if one doesn’t talk or think about, much less act on, the “whys and hows.” Curry in effect admitted that he wants to avoid talking about climate change, apparently because he thinks it is too “controversial.” He of course is entitled to his views, but a newspaper ought not to avoid underlying causes to avoid controversy. Indeed a newspaper’s mission should be to enlighten readers about what’s causing the problems it’s reporting on.

At first I thought another clue explaining the Daily Press’s climate silence might be found in a rather appalling 2014 editorial, in which the paper blasted some local officials for taking climate change seriously. The officials’ crime back then? They had “jumped on the global warming bandwagon” which the paper called “trendy” and “a cult-like fad.”

But in the intervening years, as sea levels (and temperatures) continue to rise as predicted, the paper’s editorial staff seems to have had a change of heart (or perhaps a change of personnel). A powerful editorial this month summed up the findings of the paper’s series of articles on the human costs of the region’s flooding. The editors acknowledged (without mentioning the 2014 editorial): “Our global climate is getting warmer and th[e] temperature is rising faster than it has in the past. Glaciers are melting, and sea levels are rising. Human activity is the primary cause, or at least one of the primary causes, for these changes.” The editorial concluded: “We are in the eye of the storm, and our region can either take on a leadership role [in addressing climate change] or serve as a cautionary tale.”

Well said. The Daily Press editorial page’s change-of-heart since 2014 gives one hope. But the editorial also noted that the paper got complaints from some readers of the series who “buy into the counterintuitive argument that climate change is either a gross exaggeration or a complete hoax.” In other words, even though the paper’s articles on flooding studiously avoided mentioning climate change, readers predisposed to deny climate science apparently wanted the paper to be silent about not just climate change but also about the flooding itself.

The moral of this story, it seems to me, is that deniers are gonna deny. So there’s little point in remaining silent about climate change, or using euphemisms to dance around the topic, in order to avoid supposed “controversy” about the science. After all, that controversy derives from disinformation manufactured by the fossil-fuel industry and promoted by the front groups and politicians it controls. So better for a newspaper to just be truthful and candid, rather than try to avoid supposed controversy. And being truthful about sea-level rise—telling the whole truth—includes discussing the causes, not just the symptoms.

Michael Allen, an assistant professor of geography at Old Dominion University, made a similar point in the Virginian-Pilot last summer, gently chastising the Norfolk planning department for issuing a report on “resiliency” and “living with the water” while not mentioning “the elephant in the room,” climate change. Allen noted that the city’s Norfolk Vision 2100 plan “failed to acknowledge, even in passing, the causes of our ongoing problem or provide a scientific context to our challenges.”

Climate silence is hardly limited to one newspaper, one government entity, or one political party. Even environmental activists sometimes avoid mentioning climate change when discussing measures that are, in truth, all about climate change. Governor Terry McAuliffe, who has supported the EPA’s Clean Power Plan effort to address climate change, nevertheless is silent on climate when he’s out promoting unneeded gas pipelines that will increase greenhouse-gas emissions.

Researchers at George Mason and Yale Universities released a study in 2016 on what they called “a climate ‘spiral of silence’ in which even people who care about the issue shy away from discussing it because they so infrequently hear other people talking about it—reinforcing the spiral.” The GMU/Yale report noted that “fewer than half of Americans say they hear global warming discussed in the media (TV, movies, radio, newspapers/news websites, magazines, etc.) ‘at least once a week’ … or even ‘at least once a month.’” Some 30% of Americans say they hear about global warming only “once a year or less,” “never,” or they are “not sure.” A just-issued GMU/Yale report found that only about 15% of Americans understand that almost all climate scientists are convinced that human-caused global warming is happening. That figure is up from 11% in March 2016, but still is very concerning. This is not a time to be silent about climate change.

A major antidote to the spiral of climate silence, of course, is more and better news coverage of the climate crisis. The Daily Press series presents a curious case of talking eloquently about climate change symptoms while carefully avoiding talking about causes. The paper’s follow-up editorial makes up for that omission somewhat, but the causes of climate change need to be explained in news articles, not just in the opinion pages.

In his classic 2007 book on socially organized silence (The Elephant in the Room: Silence and Denial in Everyday Life) the sociologist Eviatar Zerubavel explains that silence is a form of communication that often speaks louder than words. Moreover silence, like denial, “usually involves refusing to acknowledge the presence of things that actually beg for attention.” He adds, “ignoring something is more than simply failing to notice it. It’s often the result of some pressure to actively disregard it. By enabling … collective denial, conspiracies of silence prevent us from confronting, and consequently solving, our problems.” (Emphasis added.) There is considerable pressure in our society to be silent about climate change’s causes, originating primarily from fossil-fuel interests and politicians they control who spread lies and distortions about climate science.

Those of us who understand and care about climate change in this post-truth, alternative-fact age must push back against this pressure, and refuse to be silent or use euphemisms to avoid supposed “controversy.” Otherwise we are letting the disinformers control the boundaries of conversation. That’s just what the climate disinformers and their fossil-fuel backers want, and just what our commonwealth and our country cannot afford to let them do.

And finally it’s worth noting another small form of climate silence related to the Daily Press series. The Virginia Public Access Project (VPAP) issues a daily news summary, compiled from newspapers and other media sources around the state. VPAP is a non-partisan project, widely supported, used, and admired by people from all over the political spectrum (including me).

A couple of years ago I noticed that VPAP’s daily summaries relegate articles on climate change and environmental issues to a section titled “Virginia Other,” placed near the bottom of the report. I brought my observation to VPAP’s attention, noting the growing importance of climate change in Virginia and suggesting the topic deserves better treatment than “Other.” VPAP executive director David Poole politely responded, but declined to put climate and environment articles in their own section. The result is that VPAP’s “Other” section sometimes has nothing but environmental and climate articles. And “Other” is where VPAP listed the Daily Press’s articles on climate adaptation.

I noticed them there because “Other” is often the most important VPAP section—and therefore the one I always read first.

Seth Heald is chair of the Sierra Club’s Virginia Chapter. He expects to receive an M.S. degree in Energy Policy and Climate from Johns Hopkins University in May, 2017.

Dominion Resources embraces a post-truth world

A sign at a protest against the Atlantic Coast Pipeline

A sign at a protest against the Atlantic Coast Pipeline

This post was co-written with Seth Heald, an attorney currently serving as Chair of the Virginia Chapter of the Sierra Club.

Donald Trump’s campaign for president upended the conventional wisdom that politicians must treat voters with honesty and respect. For Trump, no amount of lying, bullying, pettiness, crudeness and erratic behavior proved too much for an electorate hungry for change.

Indeed, some of his followers feel Trump succeeded because of his vices, not in spite of them. These trolls, bigots and bullies make up what historian Patty Limerick calls the Jerk Pride Movement, and they think they’re having their moment in the sun.

And lest anyone forget that corporations are people, the fossil fuel industry and its apologists have set out to prove that corporations can be jerks, too. Fossil fuel interests seized on the election as a mandate to gut the EPA, strip away clean air and water protections, open up public lands for exploitation, and renege on international climate commitments.

Since fake news and conspiracy theories served the Trump campaign so well, the anti-regulation crowd is stepping up its own use of half-truths, diversionary tactics and outright lies. Sure, they risk undermining the very foundations of American democracy, but fossil-fuel interests smell profit; nothing else matters.

Decent Americans should be outraged no matter who they voted for—and even more so when they see it happening in their own back yards, involving the people and institutions they deal with. We may not be able to staunch the flood of falsehood flowing across the internet, but we can hold our own leaders and institutions accountable when they add to it.

The corporate parent of Virginia’s own largest electric utility was already one of these corporate jerks, working with the American Legislative Exchange Council on state legislation undermining federal clean air and water protections. But recently Dominion Resources has gone further, adopting disinformation tactics in claiming its proposed fracked-gas pipeline will actually lower carbon emissions, and implicitly endorsing spurious reports and lies on a blog it sponsors. Dominion has gone from spinning facts to its own advantage, to actively misleading the people of Virginia.

Dominion is one of the partners in the Atlantic Coast Pipeline (ACP), which if built will bring massive amounts of fracked gas from West Virginia through Virginia and down to North Carolina. An analysis of the ACP’s climate change impact and that of the Mountain Valley Pipeline, conducted for the Sierra Club by physicist Richard Ball, showed that building these two pipelines would result in the emissions of twice the climate pollution of Virginia’s entire current greenhouse gas footprint.

Yet in a recent Facebook posting, Dominion claimed the Atlantic Coast Pipeline would “play an instrumental role in reducing carbon emissions in Virginia and North Carolina, which will allow both states to meet the requirements of the federal Clean Power Plan. In fact, the ACP alone could contribute as much as 25 to 50 percent of the carbon reductions necessary to meet interim goals in 2022.”

In the words of the Virginia Sierra Club’s former director, Glen Besa, “This is just not true and does not pass the sniff test. My personal rating is: Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire. Both of Dominion’s new gas plants in Virginia are fueled by existing pipelines. The ACP will bring in more fossil fuel for burning. At the same time Dominion has made NO new commitments to retire existing coal plants. Dominion can meet the Clean Power Plan without the ACP, but more importantly, the ACP will markedly increase carbon emissions, not decrease them.”

This bogus claim that a fracked-gas pipeline will help lower carbon pollution is in keeping with Dominion’s history of playing to both climate-concerned liberals and moderates on the one hand, and climate-denying conservatives on the other. Promising lower carbon emissions and Clean Power Plan compliance is intended to mollify the left, while Dominion courts the right through its work with ALEC, its lavish contributions to lawmakers, and its sponsorship of the libertarian Jim Bacon’s blog, Bacon’s Rebellion.

Even before Dominion signed on as his sponsor, Bacon exhibited an exasperating credulity when examining claims by Dominion and other fossil fuel companies. No doubt that endeared him to Dominion CEO Thomas Farrell, II and Company. If I were selling poison under the guise of medicine, I too would value a man who advertised my wares while proclaiming his independence.

But since joining the Dominion team and featuring its bright blue logo with every post, Bacon has adopted tactics familiar from the Trump campaign. These include promoting a sham “report” slamming a supposed new renewable electricity mandate that Virginia does not have and defending fake news about voter fraud. (Suppression of minority voting is a historic ALEC priority, along with opposition to wind and solar and promoting climate-science disinformation.)

Bacon’s post about supposed voter fraud is particularly instructive, as it adopts the “alt right’s” tactic of putting the onus on others to disprove absurd, baseless claims. Recall that Trump recently claimed, with no evidence, that he would have won the popular vote but for two million fraudulent votes supposedly cast against him. On the one hand Bacon (in perhaps the understatement of the year) acknowledged that Trump’s claim is a “huuuge stretch.” But then Bacon chastised “the news establishment” for not “distinguishing itself in debunking” Trump’s allegation. Indeed, Bacon posits, the national media’s reaction to Trump’s baseless allegation was “unhinged.” This, Bacon reasons, lends credence to Trump’s claim that the media is biased.

So now, according to a blog post with Dominion’s blue logo at the top, a president-elect’s lie about vote fraud is a stretch, but calling it a lie is unhinged. Welcome to the post-truth world.

Fossil fuel companies and their minions spreading disinformation is hardly a new tactic, of course. Read Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway’s Merchants of Doubt for a compelling account of how the tobacco, chemical, and fossil fuel industries have used industry-funded “studies” and science-for-sale to stave off regulation for decades or longer.

If Americans aren’t in a panic about climate change, the reason isn’t a paucity of information about what is happening and why. It is due to a calculated disinformation campaign by the fossil fuel industry and a cadre of front groups like ALEC to make people believe the science is unsettled, exploiting the natural human tendency to do nothing in the face of uncertainty. As one internal tobacco company memo explained, “doubt is our product.”

Dominion Resources is a special case. Its Dominion Virginia Power subsidiary is a regulated public utility that is supposed to act in the public interest. Sham reports, fake news and false claims undermine the ability of regulators, legislators, and the public to understand and address the true nature of the energy choices facing us. Virginians should demand better.

 

Why Trump won’t stop the clean energy revolution

A protest in Manhattan against the presidency of Donald Trump, held the day after the election. Photo credit Rhododendrites - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=53011447

A protest in Manhattan against the presidency of Donald Trump, held the day after the election. Photo credit Rhododendrites – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=53011447

It is not an overstatement to say that Donald Trump’s win over Hillary Clinton horrified everyone who is worried about climate change. Reading the news Wednesday morning was like waking up from a nightmare to discover that there really is a guy coming after you with a meat cleaver.

You might not be done for, though. You could just end up maimed and bloodied before you wrest the cleaver away. So with that comforting thought, let’s talk about what a Trump presidency means for energy policy over the next four years.

I’ve had a lot of time to think about this. As a career pessimist, I’ve been worried about the possibility of a Trump win since last spring. I can fairly say I was panicking before panic became mainstream. But even with the worst-case scenario starting to play out, I’m convinced we will continue making progress on clean energy.

There is no getting around how much harder a Trump presidency makes it for those of us who want the U.S. to meet its obligations under the Paris climate accord. It’s not clear that Trump can actually “cancel” the accord, as he has promised to do. On the other hand, a man who puts fossil fuel lobbyists and climate skeptics in charge of energy policy is hardly likely to ask Congress for a carbon tax.

Nothing good can come of it when the people in charge relish chaos and embrace ignorance. Destroying the EPA will not stop glaciers melting and sea levels rising.

But just as politicians can’t repeal the laws of physics driving global warming, so there are other forces largely beyond their control. Laws and regulations currently in place; state-level initiatives; market competition; technological innovation; and popular attitudes towards clean energy have all driven changes that will withstand a fair amount of monkeying with. It’s worth a quick review of these realities.

Coal is still dead

Donald Trump’s promise to bring back coal jobs is about as solid as his promise to force American companies to bring jobs back from China. Even if he’s sincere, he can’t actually do it.

The economic case for coal no longer exists, and that remains true even if Trump and anti-regulation forces in Congress gut EPA rules protecting air and water. Fracking technology did more than the Obama administration to drive coal use down by making shale gas cheap. A glut of natural gas pushed prices down to unsustainable levels and kept them there so long that utilities chose to close coal plants or convert them to gas rather than wait.

What gas started, renewables are finishing. Today, coal can’t compete on price with wind or solar, either. That leaves coal with no path back to profitability. Not many utilities want to pollute when not polluting is cheaper.

Nor will the export market recover. China doesn’t want our coal, and a president who pursues protectionist trade policies will find it hard to get other countries to take our products.

It’s also hard to find serious political support for coal outside of a handful of coal states. Politicians say they care about out-of-work coal miners, but they care more about attracting industry to their states with cheap energy. That is certainly the case in Virginia, where Governor McAuliffe didn’t even include coal mining or burning anywhere in his energy plan.

If there is a silver lining for coal miners, it’s that without an Obama bogeyman to blame for everything, coal-state Republicans will have to seek real solutions to unemployment in Appalachia.

Solar and wind are still going to beat out conventional fuels

Analysts predict renewable energy, especially solar, will become the dominant source of electricity worldwide in the coming decades. Already wind and solar out-compete coal and gas on price in many places across the U.S. As these technologies mature, prices will continue to fall, driving a virtuous cycle of escalating installations and further price reductions.

While federal policies helped make the clean energy revolution possible, changes in federal policy now won’t stop it. Today the main drivers of wind and solar are declining costs, improvements in technology, corporate sustainability goals, and state-level renewable energy targets.

As the revolution unfolds over the next decade, the folly of investing in new fossil fuel and nuclear infrastructure will become increasingly clear. Natural gas itself is cheap right now, but new gas infrastructure built today will become worthless before it can recover its costs and return a profit. Corporations like Dominion Resources and Duke Energy are investing in gas transmission pipelines and gas generating plants only because they think they can profit from them now, and force captive utility customers to bear the cost of paying off the worthless assets later.

Advocates fighting new gas infrastructure have mostly had to work at the state level, since they’ve received little help from the Feds. That much won’t change. The cavalry isn’t coming to save us? Well, we are no worse off than we were before. We just have to do the job ourselves.

Dominion’s gas build-out is still a bad idea

Dominion Power is enthusiastic about natural gas, but we’ve seen this movie before. Environmentalists and their allies tried, and failed, to stop Dominion’s newest coal plant in Wise County from being built. Regulators approved it in spite of Dominion’s cost projections showing a levelized cost of energy of 9.3 cents per kilowatt-hour. That’s about twice the wholesale price of energy today, and well above where wind and solar would be even without subsidies.

Approval to construct the plant came in the fall of 2008. A mere eight years later, that looks like a terrible decision. Dominion Virginia Power shows no further interest in building coal plants. Instead, it has since built two huge natural gas plants and received approval to build a third. Its sister company is building the Atlantic Coast Pipeline to lock ratepayers into even more gas.

Eight years from now, those will look like equally bad decisions.

Renewable energy is popular with everyone

One of the most remarkable pieces of legislation passed during the last few years was the extension of the Investment Tax Credit and the Production Tax Credit, subsidies that have underpinned the rapid spread of solar and wind power. It turns out that Republicans don’t actually hate subsidies; they only hate the ones that benefit other people.

Wind energy is one of the bright spots in the red states of the heartland. Farmers facing volatile markets for agricultural products appreciate the stable income they get from hosting wind turbines among the cornfields, and they aren’t going to give that up.

And everybody, it turns out, loves solar energy. There’s a simple, populist appeal to generating free, clean energy on your own roof. The failure on Tuesday of a utility-sponsored ballot measure in Florida is especially notable: the constitutional amendment would have ended net metering and led to steep declines in solar installations in the Sunshine State. Voters said no. The lesson will resonate across the South: people want solar.

Indeed, public polling for years has shown overwhelming support for wind and solar energy, across the political spectrum. Even people who don’t understand climate change think it’s a good idea to pollute less. And the energy security benefits of having wind and solar farms dotting the landscape are simple and intuitive. So while the fossil fuel industry may use a friendly Trump administration to launch attacks on renewable energy, no populist army will back them.

The Clean Power Plan was important, but not transformative

Congressional Republicans have talked smack about the EPA for years, and the Clean Power Plan raised the needle on the right wing’s outrage meter to new levels. Most EPA rules have a layer of insulation from Congressional meddling as long as Senate Democrats retain the ability to filibuster legislation that would repeal bedrock environmental laws like the Clean Air Act. And laws protecting the air and water have such broad public backing that it is hard to imagine even the Chaos Caucus going there.

The Clean Power Plan could be different. Trump’s choice of a new Supreme Court justice will produce a conservative majority that might well strike down Obama’s most important carbon rule. For a handful of states that rely heavily on electricity from aging coal plants and aren’t compelled to close them under other air pollution rules, this will buy them a few years. (But see “Coal is still dead,” above.)

For most states, though, the Clean Power Plan was never going to be a game-changer. Many states were given targets that are easy to meet, or that they have already met. As I’ve pointed out before, Virginia’s target is so modest that the state could meet it simply by adopting a few efficiency measures and supplying new demand with wind and solar. That’s if the state decided to include newly-built generating sources in its implementation plan, which it doesn’t have to do.

By its terms, the Clean Power Plan applies only to carbon pollution from power plants in existence as of 2012. Newer generating plants are regulated under a different section of the Clean Air Act, under standards that new combined-cycle gas plants can easily meet. That’s a gigantic loophole that Dominion Virginia Power, for one, intends to exploit to the fullest, and it’s the reason the company supported the Clean Power Plan in court.

Regardless of whether it is upheld in the courts, however, the Clean Power Plan has already had a significant effect nationwide by forcing utilities and state regulators to do better planning. It led to a raft of analyses by consulting firms showing how states could comply and actually save money for ratepayers by deploying cost-effective energy efficiency measures. If the Clean Power Plan doesn’t become law, states can ignore those reports, but their residents should be asking why.

For Virginia, nothing has changed at the state level. Or has it?

Virginia has off-year elections at the state level, so Trump’s election has no immediate effect on state law or policy. Most significantly, Terry McAuliffe is still governor of Virginia for another year, he still knows climate change is real, and his Executive Order 57, directing his senior staff to pursue a strategy for CO2 reductions, is still in effect. McAuliffe has disappointed activists who hoped he would become a climate champion, but Trump’s win could light a fire under his feet. He has an opportunity to put sound policies in place, if he chooses to do so.

Offshore drilling in Virginia probably isn’t back on the table

Trump has promised to re-open federal lands for private exploitation, reversing moves by the Obama administration. His website says that includes offshore federal waters. However, the decision by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management to take Virginia out of consideration for offshore drilling isn’t scheduled to be revisited for five years. Trump’s people could change the process, perhaps, but there’s not much demand for him to do so. With oil prices low, companies aren’t clamoring for more places to drill.

Environmental protection begins at home . . . and the grassroots will just get stronger

I would hate for anyone to mistake this stock-taking for optimism. The mere fact that the clean energy revolution is underway does not mean it will proceed apace. Opportunities abound for Trump to do mischief, and nothing we have heard or seen from him during the campaign suggests he will rule wisely and with restraint.

But advancing environmental protection has always been the job of the people. Left by itself, government succumbs to moneyed interests, and regulators are taken captive by the industries they are supposed to regulate. Americans who want clean air and water and a climate that supports civilization as we know it have to demand it. It will not be given to us.

Sound economics, common sense, and technological innovation are on our side. Most important, though, is the groundswell of public support for clean energy and action on climate. That never depended on the election, and it won’t stop now.

Virginia, meet Paris. Things will never be the same.

By Tristan Nitot - standblog.org, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=41689

By Tristan Nitot – standblog.org, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=41689

After Republicans in Virginia’s General Assembly shut down the McAuliffe administration’s work on implementing the EPA Clean Power Plan last winter, Governor McAuliffe decided on an end run. He issued Executive Order 57, directing administration officials to recommend ways to reduce carbon pollution from the state’s power plants. The workgroup led by Secretary of Natural Resources Molly Ward is holding meetings this fall to gather information and advice.

This puts Ward in something of a pickle. Meeting the climate challenge requires Virginia to commit to a future with less fossil fuel, while McAuliffe is championing Dominion Power’s plans to radically expand fossil fuel investments in the Commonwealth.

Last week the European Union joined the United States, China, India, Canada, Mexico and dozens of other countries in ratifying the Paris climate accord, putting it over the threshold needed for it to take effect. The goal of the accord is to limit the increase in world temperatures to “well below” 2 degrees Celsius, 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, a level beyond which climate effects are projected to be catastrophic. Given mounting concerns that 2 degrees isn’t sufficiently protective, the 197 signatory nations also agreed to a stretch goal of 1.5 degrees Celsius.

The U.S. is the world’s second highest emitter of CO2 after China, and our average emissions per person are two-and-a-half times that of the Chinese. No other country has contributed more to the problem. American leadership was key to bringing other countries on board, and it will be key to implementing solutions.

A few niggling details remain, like how we are actually going to do this. The EPA’s Clean Power Plan is a first step, but its scope is narrow. It addresses only carbon emissions from electric generating plants in use as of 2012, not new sources (though states can choose to do that). It doesn’t address emissions outside the electric sector. It also doesn’t address methane emissions from natural gas infrastructure, a climate threat that seriously undercuts the climate benefit of utilities switching from coal to gas. Its goal of reducing electric-sector carbon pollution by 30% by 2030 is nowhere near what’s needed.

To meet its Paris commitment, the U.S. will have to dramatically reduce fossil fuel use in everything from electricity and heating to manufacturing and transportation. The good news is that the technologies to do this exist, and they are getting better and cheaper by the day. The bad news is that even an all-hands-on-deck approach would need time to work, and there are still way too many hands sitting idle in their bunks below deck.

Future federal regulation that goes well beyond the Clean Power Plan is inevitable. Through whatever means—a carbon tax, removal of fossil fuel subsidies, new incentives, or simple mandates—renewable energy has to take over the power sector, with fossil fuels limited to a supporting role before being phased out altogether. Building codes must be dramatically strengthened to minimize energy consumption, and transportation must be electrified so vehicles run on wind and solar, not gasoline or diesel. And all this has to happen starting now.

With the U.S. committed to this path, it makes no sense for any state to pursue a fossil fuel-heavy strategy simply because federal mandates aren’t in place yet. The ratification of the Paris accord means all new fossil fuel investments—drilling machinery, fracking wells, pipelines, generating plants—must be evaluated against the likelihood that they will have to be abandoned well before the end of their useful life.

In Virginia this includes proposed new fracked-gas transmission pipelines; a new natural gas generating station that Dominion Power just received approval to build; as much as 9,000 megawatts more of natural gas generating plants that Dominion wants to build; and at least two new natural gas generating plants proposed by other developers, who would use the new gas pipelines to supply them. Altogether, these projects represent tens of billions of dollars in investments in infrastructure that would have to be shut down and left to decay within a decade or two.

All this could happen without violating the Clean Power Plan, if Virginia takes advantage of a loophole allowing it to exclude new gas plants from its implementation plan. Dominion’s gas plants alone would increase carbon emissions from Virginia by as much as 83%. That won’t get us to Paris.

It seems obvious that these investments would be better channeled into carbon-free renewable energy and reducing energy use through efficiency and building improvements. These are the “no regrets” investments that make sense for human health and economic development reasons anyway. With the Paris accord, the decision has gone from no-regrets to no-brainer.

But Dominion clearly thinks a pipelines-and-gas-plants approach will make more money for its shareholders. Dominion is betting that regulators will allow it to bill customers for the costs of new fossil fuel infrastructure even if it turns out that using it means paying a high carbon tax, or not using it at all. Dominion counts on the prevalence of climate doubt and magical thinking within the Virginia legislature and the staff of the SCC to muffle the wake-up call from Paris.

This is a deeply irresponsible and immoral calculus.

To date, Governor McAuliffe has backed Dominion at every turn. With only a year and a half left in his term, the “jobs governor” wants to lure businesses to Virginia quickly with the promise of cheap natural gas. It’s a strategy that might backfire in the short run, as savvy businesses go to states better preparing for life after Paris. Surely, it will backfire in the long run, when Virginia is left paying off unwanted fossil fuel infrastructure. The Paris accord marks a good point for McAuliffe to change his allegiance.

Indeed, after Paris, nothing will ever be the same. The days of natural gas as a bridge fuel are rapidly ending, and the U.S. has committed itself to breaking from its fossil fuel past. Executive Order 57 offers Virginia an opportunity to map out a carbon-free strategy. Time is short. Allons-y!