UVA Prof. Vivian Thomson’s “Climate Of Capitulation” is Essential Reading In This Election Year

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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.

 

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.

 

While U.S. leaders were worrying about coal jobs, clean energy snatched the lead: even Virginia now has more people working in solar than coal.

 

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Jobs in electric generation do not include fuel jobs, so for example, the coal jobs in the two charts have to be added together to get total employment. Wind and solar, of course, have no fuel costs. Charts come from DOE.

Jobs in electric generation do not include fuel jobs, so for example, the coal jobs in the two charts have to be added together to get total employment. Wind and solar, of course, don’t need employees to produce their “fuel.” Charts come from DOE.

A new report from the U.S. Department of Energy takes stock of energy employment in the U.S. and comes up with fresh evidence of the rapid transformation of our nation’s electricity supply: more people today work in the solar and wind industries than in natural gas extraction and coal mining.

According to the January 2017 U.S. Energy and Employment Report, 373,807 Americans now work in solar electric power generation, while 101,738 people work in wind. By comparison, a total of 362,118 people work in the natural gas sector, including both fuel supply and generating plants.

Total coal employment stands at 160,119. And while renewable power employment grew by double digits last year—25% for solar, 32% for wind—total job numbers actually declined across the fossil fuel sectors, where machines now do most of the work.

If generating electricity employs a lot of people, not generating it employs even more. The number of Americans working in energy efficiency rose to almost 2.2 million, an increase of 133,000 jobs over the year before.

Those are nationwide figures, but the report helpfully breaks down the numbers by state. For Virginia, 2016 was a watershed year. In spite of the fact that our solar industry is still in its infancy and we have no operating wind farms yet, more Virginians now work in renewable energy than in the state’s storied coal industry. A mere 2,647 Virginians continue to work in coal mining, compared to 4,338 in solar energy and 1,260 in wind.

Dwarfing all of these numbers is the statistic for employment in energy efficiency in Virginia: 75,552.

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.

2016 Virginia bills show King Coal still calling the shots

Virginia rorschach test: some see a destroyed landscape, others see campaign contributions.

Virginia rorschach test: some see a destroyed landscape, others see campaign contributions.

Legislation introduced in the General Assembly would keep Virginia’s gravy train rolling for coal companies. SB 44 (Charles Carrico, R-Alpha Natural Resources) and HB 298 (Terry Kilgore, R-Alpha Natural Resources) are framed as “limits” because the taxpayer-financed subsidies for coal mining would top out at $7.5 million per year. But watch your wallets: the primary objective of the legislation is to extend the coal subsidies an extra three and a half years, through 2019. So these bills should more accurately be seen as $25 million giveaways. The bills have been referred to the committees on Finance.

It appears the coal companies need the money to pay bonuses to their executives. Alpha Natural Resources, which filed for bankruptcy in August to avoid paying creditors, plans to pay its top executives bonuses worth up to $11.9 million. Meanwhile, Alpha laid off more than 160 coal miners a week before Christmas.

According to the Virginia Public Access Project, Alpha Natural Resources gave almost $500,000 in campaign contributions to Virginia legislators during the 2014-2015 election cycle. Carrico was the top recipient, raking in $24,267 from Alpha; Kilgore snagged fifth place with $20,000.

Consol Energy gave over $236,000 to legislators over the same time period. Kilgore was their top recipient, at $12,500, while Carrico received $10,000. Note that both Carrico and Kilgore ran unopposed.

In a separate attempt to give back to the coal industry, Ben Chafin has introduced SB 365 (referred to Transportation), a bill that would remove the Coalfields Expressway from the transportation prioritization process. If it were to pass, this strip mine disguised as a highway wouldn’t have to meet the normal standards required of real roads to be eligible for state funding. The disastrous Route 460 would also be excused, in case any future administration is dumb enough to revive it. Chafin is another Coalfields Republican who ran unopposed while hauling in more than $100,000 from donors in the energy and mining industries, including $15,000 from Alpha Natural Resources and $9,500 from Consol.

The bankruptcy of Alpha, like that of dozens of other coal companies in recent years, threatens more than the campaign coffers of Virginia legislators. Coal mining has declined steadily in Virginia, leaving displaced workers who could make much better use that $7.5 million annually if it were redirected for job retraining and education. Right now, in contrast to the Republican rhetoric, only the Obama Administration seems to care about out-of-work coal miners.

While ignoring workers, legislators are at least waking up to the threat posed to taxpayers when bankrupt coal companies walk away from their obligations to clean up and reclaim the land they’ve mined. HB 1169 (Todd Pillon, R-Abingdon, referred to Agriculture) would increase the amount of the reclamation bonds that mine operators must post, and give the Commonwealth a lien against the land.

Coal ash pollution prompts legislation on proper closure of storage ponds

Meanwhile, Virginia’s coal legacy continues to have repercussions for communities across the state, wherever waste from burning coal has piled up in toxic ponds next to rivers and streams. For years utilities have taken an out-of-sight, out-of-mind approach to coal ash, quietly ignoring the potential for devastating spills like the one that contaminated the Dan River.

In Prince William County, Dominion Virginia Power proposes to close one of these leaky coal ash ponds by draining the water out of it and slapping on a cover. A compliant Department of Environmental Quality just issued Dominion a permit to discharge the partially-treated wastewater into Quantico Creek, which flows directly into the Potomac River.

In response, Democratic Senator Scott Surovell, whose district includes this section of Prince William County, has filed SB 537 (referred to Agriculture, Conservation and Natural Resources) to require the removal of all waste from closed coal ash ponds for proper disposal in permitted landfills that meet federal standards.


UPDATE: A January 21 news report informs us that Alpha Natural Resources owes Wise County, Virginia, nearly $1.46 million in unpaid taxes for 2015, with another $1 million owed to Dickenson County. Please feel free to make the appropriate snarky comments; I’m still stuck in a “you gotta be kidding” loop.

UPDATE 2: Not content to let Senator Carrico get all the glory giving away Virginia taxpayer money to pay multi-million dollar bonuses to tax-evading coal bosses, Ben Chafin has filed his own bill to do the same thing.  SB 718 appears to be the same as SB 44 and has also been referred to Finance.

 

McAuliffe vetoes coal subsidy bills, but Republicans vow to keep the corporate welfare flowing

Your taxpayer dollars at work!

Your taxpayer dollars at work!

Governor Terry McAuliffe has vetoed the two bills that would have extended Virginia’s coal subsidies through 2019. It’s a laudable act of fiscal responsibility, and surely no more than Virginia taxpayers had a right to expect in a time of tight state budgets. And yet it was also an act of courage in a coal state where mining companies have had far too much political power for far too long.

You’d like to think legislators would now focus on working with the Administration to help southwest Virginia communities shift away from their unhealthy dependence on coal mining and instead develop new, cleaner industries. The tens of millions of dollars that have been spent annually on coal subsidies could be much better directed to job diversification efforts. Unfortunately, legislators representing coal companies—I mean, coal countieshave already vowed to reintroduce bills next year to keep the taxpayer largesse flowing. They have time; the subsidies won’t actually expire until January 1, 2017.

It’s been 20 years since Virginia began subsidizing coal mining via these two tax credits, bleeding the state treasury of more than $500 million in all. And it’s been three years since the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Committee (JLARC) issued a critique of the various Virginia tax credits that included an especially harsh assessment of the handouts to coal companies. Yet instead of canceling the credits in light of the report, the General Assembly promptly extended them. Even Governor McAuliffe didn’t actually try to end them completely this year. Legislators rejected his efforts simply to scale them back, leading to this veto.

So if we didn’t get jobs for our $500 million, what did we get? Most of the money has gone to enrich coal companies, but a portion went to fund the Virginia Coalfields Economic Development Authority (VACEDA). VACEDA’s board includes coal executives, a fact which has served to intensify rather than lessen coal’s hold on the area.

Perhaps VACEDA’s economic diversification mission would prove more successful if the state were to fund it directly, with money not tied to coal, and were to insist on reforms to VACEDA to ensure board members don’t have a conflict of interest.

In addition to propping up the coal industry, the tax credits also serve to lower the price of Virginia coal purchased by our utilities. This shifts energy costs from ratepayers to taxpayers, but it also makes it easier for coal to compete against other forms of energy, including renewable energy like wind and solar. And since making taxpayers subsidize electricity rates artificially cheapens electricity, it also lessens the incentive to conserve energy. In an age of climate change, this is simply bad energy policy.

Most economists agree that energy policy should seek to make electricity rates reflect the true cost of producing energy. This should include costs imposed on the public in the form of higher health care costs for asthma and heart disease as a result of power plant pollution—costs known as “externalities.” The coal subsidies do the exact opposite; instead of making utilities and coal companies internalize pollution costs, they actually shift more costs onto the public.

All this was done in the name of supporting employment in the Coalfields areas. However, the coal subsidies aren’t linked to jobs; they are based on coal tonnage, so mining companies that increase mechanization while cutting jobs don’t lose anything. And cutting jobs is exactly what has happened in Virginia. As the Governor’s veto statement noted, coal mining jobs declined steadily from their highs in the early 1990s to about 3,600 today, notwithstanding the subsidies.

A reading of the JLARC report also shows that most of the drop occurred before President Obama took office and the EPA imposed tighter pollution standards. The fact is, coal is in decline, and Virginians will be better off not throwing good money after bad.

Indeed, the coal jobs number is barely twice the number of people working in Virginia’s tiny solar industry, which gets no state subsidies. Just this year a House subcommittee killed a bill that would have provided $10 million a year in support for renewable energy projects.

Solar is growing by leaps and bounds across the country, while coal fades. Governor McAuliffe has taken the right lesson from that. It’s too bad so many Virginia legislators have not.

And the coal gravy train rolls on

Your taxpayer dollars at work!

Your taxpayer dollars at work!

This should have been the year to end more than two decades of corporate welfare for companies whose business model involves the destruction of Virginia’s mountains. All the facts line up against the coal subsidies: the unremitting decline of coal employment since the 1990s, the waste of half a billion dollars that could have gone towards diversifying the southwest Virginia economy, the unfair advantage it gives coal over 21st century clean energy technologies that promise real job growth, and even all that anti-subsidy rhetoric from Republicans that ought to make them uncomfortable with crony capitalism and a blatant giveaway to a mature industry.

Delegate Toscano led a spirited charge against them that included a hard-hitting op-ed in the Richmond Times-Dispatch. But the coal companies whined in committee hearings, and Dominion’s Bill Murray explained that the utility supports making coal cheaper, saying ratepayers would benefit. (Since the money comes out of taxpayers’ pockets, and taxpayers are also presumably ratepayers, it’s a little hard to follow this logic. If you want to get your money’s worth, use more energy?)

No one but a few lonely environmentalists spoke up against the subsidies. Where are the clean energy businesses? Where is the Tea Party? Where are the people who actually care about the dire need for new industries and new jobs in southwest Virginia?

They certainly weren’t being heard in the General Assembly. By mid-week it was clear the giveaway will continue, though perhaps with one welcome change. Under HB 1879, reported from House Finance on Wednesday, the credit for the companies that mine the coal would have a limit on how much any given coal company can claim. However, the credit for those who burn coal is not limited and will actually be extended out to 2019, keeping coal’s unfair advantage over other fuels. (Like, say, renewable energy.)

SB 741, which passed the Senate 32-6 on Thursday, merely contains the extension of the subsidy for coal use out to 2019. So few Senators seem to have their heads on straight on this issue that it’s worth thanking them by name here: Adam Ebbin, Barbara Favola, Janet Howell, Mamie Locke, Donald McEachin, and Jennifer Wexton.

SB 1161 (Colgan), which also passed the Senate, contains the same limitation found in HB 1879. In this case, passing the bill was better than the status quo.


Update: On February 19, the Richmond Times-Dispatch reported, “The House of Delegates and state Senate have agreed to leave untouched a tax credit for electric utilities that burn Virginia coal, even though the policy reversal will create a $5.2 million hole in each chamber’s proposed budget. The House amended and passed Senate Bill 1161, introduced by Sen. Charles J. Colgan, D-Prince William, to include a substitute drafted by Dominion Virginia Power, the state’s largest power company.”

 

 

 

 

Your 2015 Virginia legislative session cheat sheet, part 2: Fossil Fuels

Photo credit: Corrina Beall

Photo credit: Corrina Beall

My last post covered clean energy bills introduced into the 2015 legislative session, which began last week and ends at the end of February. Time to hustle on to the oil, gas, and coal bills.

Coal subsidies

Coal companies claim to be victims of a “war on coal,” but for nearly two decades they’ve been conducting a war on Virginia taxpayers. Virginia’s tax code offers so many preferences that a 2012 study concluded the coal industry costs Virginia more than it gives back. Among other preferences, two different subsidies in the Code have allowed coal companies to siphon off tens of millions of dollars annually from the General Fund since 1996.

The subsidies come with nominal sunset dates, currently January 1, 2017. Over nearly twenty years, no matter how fat or lean the state’s financial condition, the legislature has repeatedly passed extensions, and they are being asked to do so again this year. HB 1879 (Kilgore) and SB 741 (Carrico) would extend the giveaway out to 2022.

(According to VPAP.org, Delegate Kilgore, chairman of the Commerce and Labor Committee, gets a check for $10,000 every year from coal giant Alpha Natural Resources. Alpha also gives ten grand a year to Senator Carrico, who just happens to sit on Senate Finance, which will hear the bill. I mention these facts only in passing. It would be cynical to suggest a connection.)

Supporters of the subsidies seem to believe coal companies need the inducement to blow up our mountains and dump waste into stream valleys. And they maintain this is a good thing for the people of Southwest Virginia, who can enjoy gainful employment by participating in the destruction of their communities.

The coal companies certainly do benefit from this arrangement, but coal jobs have declined to less than 5,000 total in Virginia today, and it’s clear to everyone that Southwest Virginia needs to diversify its economy or face a future of poverty and high unemployment. The coal subsidies suck up money that could be spent on new jobs and a better-educated workforce.

The McAuliffe administration, facing a budget shortfall, has suggested cutting the subsidies way back, and has no plans to extend them. HB 2181 (Toscano) reduces the amount of the subsidies for 2015 and 2016 but does not eliminate them. It also limits the amount that can be claimed on any one tax return to $500,000 under each Code provision.

HB 1877 (Krupicka) would end the subsidies altogether a year early. His bill goes further: it would redirect the savings into a fund to provide grants to students enrolled in Virginia public colleges and universities. Half the money would be required to go to students from the Coalfields region.

Natural gas

SB 1338 (Hanger) repeals a provision of the Code known as the Wagner Act (after Senator Frank Wagner, who introduced the legislation ten years ago). That provision allows interstate natural gas companies to enter private property without the consent of the owner in order to make “examinations, tests, hand auger borings, appraisals, and surveys.”

The Wagner Act gained notoriety last year when Dominion Power sued landowners who resisted efforts to survey their land. We think of Dominion as an electric utility, but Dominion Resources also owns a gas transmission company, and it plans to build a huge new pipeline to bring fracked gas from Ohio and West Virginia and deliver it to industrial customers and export facilities on the coast. Turns out, a lot of people don’t like strangers coming on their land without permission, especially when the point is to let the strangers decide whether they might want to seize the land for a pipeline. Well, who could have expected that?

But in case the GA doesn’t have an appetite for repealing the Wagner Act, how about making it harder to use? SB 1169 (Hanger again) amends it to add a pre-condition. Before any natural gas company can enter someone’s property without permission, the governing board of the locality must have adopted a resolution in support of the pipeline or gas works. Moreover, the resolution “shall not be adopted unless the governing body has found that locating the line or works within the city or county is consistent with its comprehensive plan, master plan, or any general development plan and that there exists a demonstrated public need for the line or works.”

HB 1475 (Ware) and SB 1163 (Saslaw) allow natural gas utilities to expand their systems to reach more retail customers. This legislation is not related to the interstate gas pipelines sought by Dominion and others. It deals with pipelines within the state that would connect customers who currently don’t have access to natural gas for heating and cooking (a more efficient use of energy than burning gas for electricity to perform the same functions).

But the gas utilities have taken a page from the Dominion playbook and overreached with their legislative language, including by declaring its plans and business goals to be “in the public interest” (the magic words that limit SCC review). We hear the bill is likely to be amended to take out the offending language.

Really a bill about energy efficiency, SB 1331 (Petersen) changes how the SCC evaluates natural gas conservation programs proposed by utilities. It instructs the SCC to determine the cost-effectiveness of a program by looking at the utility’s whole portfolio of conservation programs and not each judged separately. This should make it easier to get conservation programs approved, and it’s to the credit of the retail gas companies that they want it passed. Senator Petersen’s office informed me the bill originated with the governor’s office, which supports it.

Offshore oil drilling

Virginia doesn’t control the deep waters off our coast where oil may be lurking, and drilling is still years away, if it happens at all. But that has never stopped state lawmakers from making plans to spend the money we might earn from oil drilling, if Congress were to share some of the revenue with us. Most of us will recognize this game as, “Imagine if you won the lottery.”

Back in 2010, Governor McDonnell pushed through a bill to fund transportation projects with the imaginary money. In 2014, the law was amended to put $50 million into an emergency response fund to combat what would have to be a pretty small imaginary oil spill, with all the extra imaginary money going to the General Fund.

HB 1702 (Davis) proposes to amend the law again to take half of the imaginary General Fund money and put it into public schools. Well, who could object to that? Except for the imaginary part, of course.

Virginia’s amazing year in energy: gas rises, coal falls, and solar shines (but it’s still not okay to say “climate change”)

Virginians rally in front of U.S. EPA Headquarters in Washington, DC in support of the Clean Power Plan

Virginians rally in front of U.S. EPA Headquarters in Washington, DC in support of the Clean Power Plan

Nobody laughed a few years ago when former governor Bob McDonnell dubbed Virginia the “Energy Capital of the East Coast”; we were all too astounded by the hyperbole. And today, even “Energy Suburb” still seems like a stretch. Yet, if you measure achievement by the sheer level of activity, Virginia is making a play for importance. The year’s top energy stories show us fully engaged in the worldwide battle between fossil fuels and renewable energy. Of course, while the smart money says renewables will dominate by mid-century, Virginia seems determined to drown rather than give up its fossil fuel addiction.

Coal falls hard; observers disagree on whether it bounces or goes splat. Nationwide, 2014 was a bad year for the coal industry. Coal stocks fell precipitously; mining jobs continued to decline; and the one thing electric utilities and the public found to agree on is that no one likes coal. Even in Virginia, with its long history of mining, coal had to play defense for what may have been the first time ever. So when Governor McAuliffe released the state’s latest energy plan in October, what was otherwise a paean to “All of the Above” omitted the stanza on coal. And this month, the governor proposed a rollback of the subsidies coal companies pocket by mining Virginia coal.

Of course, coal is not going quietly; Senator Charles Carrico (himself heavily subsidized by Alpha Natural Resources) has already responded with a bill to extend the subsidies to 2022.

EPA opens a door to a cleaner future, and Republicans try to brick it up. Speaking of hard times for coal, in June the EPA unveiled its proposal to lower carbon emissions from existing power plants 30% nationwide by 2030. Instead of targeting plants one-by-one, EPA proposed a systemic approach, offering a suite of options for states to reach their individualized targets.

The proposal drew widespread support from the public, but Virginia’s 38% reduction target set off howls of protest from defenders of the status quo. The staff of the State Corporation Commission claimed the rule was illegal and would cost ratepayers $6 billion. Republicans convened a special meeting of the House and Senate Energy and Commerce Committees, where they tried out a number of arguments, not all of which proved ready for prime time. The rule, they said, threatens Virginia with a loss of business to more favored states like—and I am not making this up—West Virginia. Also, Virginia should have received more credit for lowering its carbon emissions by building nuclear plants back in the 1970s when no one was thinking about carbon emissions.

Meanwhile, the Southern Environmental Law Center analyzed the rule and concluded that actually, compliance will not be hard. Virginia is already 80% of the way there, and achieving the rest will produce a burst of clean-energy jobs coupled with savings for consumers through energy efficiency.

Undaunted, Republicans have already introduced a thumb-your-nose-at-EPA bill developed by the fossil fuel champions at the American Legislative Exchange Council.

The “solarize” movement takes Virginia by storm. For the last few years, solar energy has been exploding in popularity across the U.S., but Virginia always seemed to be missing the party. So it surprised even advocates this year when pent-up consumer demand manifested itself in the blossoming of local solar buying cooperatives and other bulk-purchase arrangements. “Solarize Blacksburg” made its debut in March, going on to sign up hundreds of homeowners for solar installations. It was followed in quick succession by the launch of similar programs in Richmond, Charlottesville, Harrisonburg, Northern Virginia, Halifax, Floyd, and Hampton Roads.

The main reason for the solarize programs’ success was the steep decline in the cost of solar energy. 2014 saw the cost of residential installations in Virginia fall to record low prices, making the investment worthwhile to a broad swath of homeowners for the first time.

Utilities say maybe to solar, but only for themselves. Virginia still boasts no utility-scale solar, but utilities elsewhere signed long-term power purchase contracts for solar energy at prices that were sometimes below that of natural gas: under 6.5 cents/kilowatt-hour in Georgia, and under 5 cents in Texas. Compare that to the estimated 9.3 cents/kWh cost of power from Dominion Virginia Power’s newest and most up-to-date coal plant, the Virginia City Hybrid Energy Plant, and you’ll understand why Dominion has suddenly taken an interest in solar projects. Sadly, it’s own foray into rooftop solar so far stands as an example of what not to do, and a testament to why the private market should be allowed to compete.

Yet Virginia utilities continued their hostility to customer-owned solar. Dominion put the kibosh on a bill that would have expanded access to solar energy through community net-metering, while Appalachian Power matched Dominion’s earlier success in imposing punitive standby charges on owners of larger residential systems.

Fracking, pipelines, and gas plants, oh my! Renewable energy may be the future, but the present belongs to cheap natural gas. Yes, the fracking process is dirty, noisy and polluting, and yes, methane leakage around gas wells is exacerbating climate change. But did we mention gas is cheap?

2014 saw proposals to drill gas wells east of I-95, while the Virginia government began updating its regulations to govern fracking. Dominion Power started construction on a second new gas power plant, and talked up its plans for a third. The utility giant, a major player in the gas transmission business, also got approval to turn its liquefied natural gas import terminal in Cove Point, Maryland, into an export terminal. With visions of customers dancing in its head, it also announced plans for a major new pipeline to bring fracked gas from West Virginia through Virginia and into North Carolina—one of three proposed pipelines that would cut through the Virginia countryside and across natural treasures like the Appalachian Trail. The pipeline created an instant protest movement but gained the wholehearted approval of Governor McAuliffe.

Flooding in Hampton Roads becomes the new normal; it’s still not okay to ask what’s causing it. A cooler-than-normal year for the eastern United States gulled many landlubbers into believing that global warming was taking a breather, but meanwhile the ocean continued its inexorable rise along Virginia’s vulnerable coastline. It’s one thing to shrug off the occasional storm, said residents; it’s harder to ignore seawater that cuts off your parking lot at every high tide. 2014 will go down as the year everyone finally agreed we have a problem—even in the General Assembly, which passed legislation to develop a response to the “recurrent flooding.” But while the bill recognized that the problem will just get worse, it avoided noting why.

The public gets it, though. The Richmond Times-Dispatch reports that climate change was the number one topic of interest to writers of letters to the editor in 2014. And loud cheers greeted Governor McAuliffe’s announcement that he would reestablish the state’s commission on climate change, which Bob McDonnell had disbanded. As one environmental leader quipped, “People in Tidewater are tired of driving through tidal water.”

Public corruption: in Virginia, it’s not just for politicians. Everyone can agree that it was a really bad year for the Virginia Way, that gentlemanly notion that persons of good character don’t need no stinkin’ ethics laws. But we also saw plenty to prove the adage that the real scandal is what’s legal. As we learned, Virginia law allows unlimited corporate contributions to campaigns, and puts no limits on what campaigns can spend money on. So if some legislators act more like corporate employees than servants of the public, well, that’s how the system was set up to work.

But the system only works when corporations get their money’s worth from the politicians, and that quid pro quo usually comes at the public’s expense. For example, take Dominion Power’s North Anna 3 shenanigans (please). In an exceptionally bold exploitation of the Virginia Way, Dominion Power secured passage of legislation allowing it to bill customers for hundreds of millions of dollars it had spent towards a new nuclear plant that it is unlikely to build. (And the irony is that ratepayers will still be better off throwing the money down that rathole than they will be if Dominion does manage to build it.)

So as we look ahead to 2015’s energy battles, anyone wondering who the winners and losers will be needs only one piece of guidance: in Virginia, just follow the money.

Fiscal and environmental sanity get a boost as McAuliffe proposes to roll back coal subsidies

Your taxpayer dollars at work!

Your taxpayer dollars at work!

Thanks to the state’s budget deficit, Virginia may finally scale way back a notorious fossil fuel subsidy that currently transfers tens of millions of dollars annually from taxpayers to the pockets of corporations that mine Virginia coal. The Richmond Times Dispatch reports that if Governor McAuliffe has his way, the Virginia Coal Employment and Production Incentive Tax Credit and the Coalfield Employment Enhancement Tax Credit will be limited to $500,000 per year, saving the government $20 million per year.

The refundable tax credits were intended to make Virginia coal cheaper for utilities to buy, and thus more competitive with coal mined in other states. In theory, that was supposed to mean more coal mining jobs in southwest Virginia. In practice, the subsidies meant some coal companies paid no state taxes, and actually received significant cash handouts, even as coal jobs declined. And because the subsidies are based on tons of coal mined and not on the number of people employed, mining companies suffered no penalty from capital investments that maximized production while cutting jobs.

Critics of the subsidies thought they had won their point three years ago when the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Committee (JLARC) issued a critique of the various Virginia tax credits that was especially critical of the handouts to coal companies. As it describes beginning on page 67, the subsidies did not stop coal employment from falling 54% since 1990, or slow the steady decline in production:

“The precursor to one of the current coal credits was in place before the decline began, while the other was enacted shortly thereafter. It is important to note that with or without the credits, the decline in Virginia coal production was predicted by numerous analysts because over two-thirds of recoverable coal reserves in Virginia have already been mined.”

Indeed, the report continued, coal employment and production was actually worse with the credits in place:

“In the process of developing and refining the credit, analysts projected that coal employment and production would decline by 28 percent between 1996 and 2005 without the credit. However, actual mining employment was substantially lower than expected during this period, declining 36 percent.”

In spite of this damning analysis, in 2012 the General Assembly actually extended the expiration date of the coal subsidies until 2017. Insiders say Senate Democrats were persuaded to vote for the extension as a favor to coalfields senator Phil Puckett, who needed the backing of coal companies to hold his seat in 2013 and keep Democrats in control of the Senate. (Some might say he failed to return the favor.)

The coal subsidies have long infuriated environmentalists and community activists in the Coalfields region. In their view, Virginia taxpayers should not be forced to reward mining companies for blowing off the tops of our mountains, filling ancient stream valleys with rubble, poisoning wells and rivers, and destroying homes to get at the last, thin seams of Virginia coal.

So Coalfields activists welcomed the Governor’s proposal as a “good first step” in planning a future where coal is no longer the economic engine it once was. “We need to take our heads out of the sand and invest heavily in diversifying our economy in Southwest Virginia,” said Wise County resident Jane Branham, Vice President of Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards. “Supporting outdoor recreation, tourism, sustainable agriculture, reforestation and a new generation of entrepreneurs is the path forward in the mountains, not subsidizing bad actor coal companies that continue to poison the natural resources our future depends on.”

Renewable energy advocates have also complained that by making coal cheaper, the subsidies make it harder for other forms of energy to compete. One would expect this argument to resonate with free market advocates, a category that supposedly includes all Virginia Republicans and a lot of the Democrats. Yet in spite of criticism from some Democrats, the subsidies have not faced serious opposition before now.

Acquiescence in such an expensive and counter-productive corporate welfare program mostly reflects the influence of the Virginia coal industry. (See last week’s post for a sampling of how coal companies work to buy votes with campaign cash.) But the drafters sweetened the deal with a provision that siphons off a portion of the excess cash to fund the Virginia Coalfield Economic Development Authority (VACEDA), which is supposed to help the region diversify beyond coal. (It might work better if coal executives didn’t sit on the board.)

Under McAuliffe’s proposal, VACEDA would get a direct appropriation of $1.2 million to replace the money it would lose by the scaling back of the tax credits. That should satisfy those legislators whose primary concern is helping residents of southwest Virginia.

Those whose primary concern is helping coal companies, however, aren’t likely to be happy. Congressman Morgan Griffith has already been quoted as suggesting Governor McAuliffe’s proposal to scale back the coal subsidies amounts to a “war on coal.”

He expressed no concern about coal’s war on the people of southwest Virginia. For those who care about that, Governor McAuliffe’s move feels like a breath of clean air.

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Addendum: Senator Bill Carrico (R-Alpha Natural Resources) has now filed a bill, S741, to extend the coal subsidies until 2022.