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.

 

Will Virginia run roughshod over local zoning power to help gas drilling companies?

Although Virginia’s 2017 General Assembly session is still more than three months off, fossil fuel interests will already be planning how to win more special favors from the legislature. In past years they’ve gotten subsidies or a relaxation of environmental safeguards. This year, it could be help dealing with pesky local governments that want to protect communities from fracking. Guest blogger Linda Burchfiel brings us the story.

Photo credit Virginia Sierra Club

Photo credit Virginia Sierra Club

Even in a Dillon Rule state like Virginia, where local governments have only the authority conferred on them by the state, localities have some authority over matters that affect the daily life of residents. Traditionally they have authority to enact zoning ordinances to maintain their sense of community. Recently, counties have started to use their authority to limit the ability of natural gas drilling companies to conduct fracking operations within their borders. Now the industry is pushing back—hard.

Indeed, any action that limits fracking sends the oil and gas industry into high gear. The industry is already working to undermine new state regulations governing disclosure of chemicals used in fracking operations. Based on the experience of other states, we expect to see the industry seek legislation in Virginia’s upcoming General Assembly Session to block local authority over fracking.

New forms of “unconventional drilling,” including hydraulic fracturing or “fracking,” make drilling for natural gas potentially profitable in parts of Virginia that have no history of oil and gas development. Fracking companies have been travelling to new areas, leasing acres of land and approaching local governments for permits. Before considering permits, some local governments have insisted on researching fracking and its consequences.

This happened in 2010 in Rockingham County, which sits in the Shenandoah Valley atop a sliver of the Marcellus Shale. When a Texas-based drilling company requested permits to conduct fracking operations there, county supervisors decided they had better educate themselves on the subject. A Republican board member took the lead, investigating the safety records of fracking companies in other states and sounding the alarm about his findings. Facing growing opposition and unwilling to wait, and with falling gas prices making fracking in the county less profitable, the drilling company eventually withdrew its request.

Fracking also threatens the Tidewater area, where the U.S. Geological Survey estimates the Taylorsville Basin may contain over a trillion cubic feet of shale gas in an area underlying parts of more than a dozen Virginia counties. (A map of the Taylorsville Basin can be found here.) But while the potential for industry profits may be good, the potential risks are much greater. This low-lying region is in the Chesapeake Bay watershed and contains the Potomac Aquifer, which supplies water for drinking, agriculture and industry for almost half of Virginia’s population. In recognition of these unique environmental challenges, the Virginia Oil and Gas Act includes special provisions to protect the Tidewater Region. Two such provisions are the requirement of an environmental impact assessment for a permit, and a prohibition of drilling for oil or natural gas within 500 feet of the Chesapeake Bay or any tributary.

To add further safeguards, the King George Board of Supervisors proposed an ordinance in August 2015 with specific restrictions intended to protect the community from the noise, traffic and environmental degradation of fracking. After the gas industry threatened to sue, the Board held a new public hearing this year, then passed the ordinance with only slight modifications. Restrictions include a prohibition on well drilling within 750 feet of a waterway or road or occupied building, limiting drill sites to four acres, prohibiting holes from being bored within 100 feet of a property line, and requiring each company interested in drilling to apply for a special exception permit and to submit extensive information.

Although the oil and gas industry had tried to influence the Board’s decision with the threat of long and expensive litigation, its legal theory is weak. A 2015 opinion by Attorney General Mark Herring affirms that municipalities have the authority to use zoning ordinances to restrict fracking, including authority to prohibit it entirely within a jurisdiction. His opinion overturned that of the previous Attorney General, Ken Cuccinelli, who had stated that localities could not “ban altogether” oil and gas exploration and drilling through zoning ordinances. Even Cuccinelli, however, had conceded that a county “may adopt a zoning ordinance that places restrictions on the location and siting of oil and gas wells that are reasonable in scope and consistent” with applicable state laws.

If the industry can’t win in court, though, it may attempt to use the legislature to pass legislation taking away local governments’ ability to limit fracking. Given the historic influence the fossil fuel industry has on Virginia’s General Assembly, this poses a serious threat to localities that want to control their own fate.

The industry has an ally in this effort: the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a lobbying organization heavily funded by the fossil fuel industry. ALEC counts many conservative Virginia legislators among its members, as well as utility giant Dominion Resources. ALEC members draft and share model state-level legislation that favors corporate interests. ALEC claims to support sending power back to the local level, but in fact it consistently favors unlimited fossil-fuel extraction and burning, regardless of ALEC’s ostensible principles. So if local governments want to restrict fracking, while state legislatures are less inclined to do so, ALEC will likely favor blocking local government restrictions.

A recent news account revealed that ALEC and its local government affiliate, the American City-County Exchange (ACCE) are working to block local government action in states where the state legislature is more corporate-friendly than local governments. Thus we should be prepared to see ALEC insert itself in Virginia’s legislative process to try to block local restrictions on fracking.

Indeed, ALEC has already been working in other states to stop local governments from restricting fracking. This includes Texas, which passed a preemptive ban on local government efforts to stop fracking in 2015. In Florida, a similar ALEC-supported ban was defeated after opponents pointed out that the measure threatened localities’ traditional control over other local issues, such as education.

Linda Burchfiel is the Fracking Issues Chair for the Virginia Chapter of the Sierra Club.

Dominion executive speaks up on climate change. That turns out to be a bad thing.

Photo courtesy of Chesapeake Climate Action Network

Photo courtesy of Chesapeake Climate Action Network

In guest blogger Seth Heald’s last post here, he discussed the strange fact that top executives at Dominion Power don’t talk about climate disruption, even though it is a major driver of the tectonic shifts underway in the nation’s power sector. Many of us assumed the climate silence at Dominion means its executives want to avoid a subject that can be politically divisive.  Turns out some of them are talking–but not in a good way. Heald brings us the story.

As I’ve written elsewhere, senior Dominion executives and other electric utility officials tend to avoid mentioning climate change in their public discussions. Dominion Virginia Power president Bob Blue avoided that unpleasant topic in his keynote luncheon speech at a recent Virginia resiliency conference, a forum where one has to work to avoid mentioning climate change. That sort of climate silence at the corporate top leaves the public wondering what Dominion executives really think, or whether they think much at all, about climate change.

It may also leave other Dominion executives in doubt about where their company stands. Last month a curious letter to the editor appeared in the Richmond Times-Dispatch headlined “Actually scientists disagree about climate.” At first glance the letter seemed ordinary—reciting misguided climate-science denial arguments for not acting to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. It complained about “alarmists” who (the letter claimed) refuse to acknowledge benefits of climate change. And it suggested that Americans devote “our limited dollars” to adapting to climate change rather than slowing it by reducing greenhouse-gas emissions.

Letters of this ilk appear with depressing regularity in the Times-Dispatch and many newspapers. They misrepresent the state of climate science, reciting talking points that can be found on any of a number of denialist websites, or heard at conferences sponsored by fossil-fuel funded groups such as the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). That’s sad, but not unusual.

But this climate-science denial letter was different in one key respect—it was written by David Shuford, a vice president and deputy general counsel at Dominion Resources Inc., Virginia’s largest energy company and the commonwealth’s biggest emitter of climate-disrupting carbon dioxide. (Shuford’s letter did not note his Dominion connection).

Now that is noteworthy.

What’s more, the Times-Dispatch published a similar Shuford letter earlier this year in which he complained about climate change “warmists” who are “watermelons” (“green on the outside, red on the inside”).

As Dave Barry would say, I am not making this up—a senior Dominion executive really is making these arguments in the press.

A few years ago Shuford served as “Vice President – Policy and Business Evaluation, Alternative Energy Solutions” at Dominion. According to Dominion’s Citizenship & Sustainability Report, the company’s Alternative Energy group “drives innovation by researching and evaluating renewable and emerging energy technologies to assess their commercial viability and potential for building a more sustainable economy.” Virginia lags neighboring states in deploying clean energy such as solar and wind, in no small part because Dominion has opposed measures of the sort that have helped other states ramp up clean energy.

That makes Shuford’s letters all the more noteworthy.

I phoned Shuford at his Dominion office to be sure he had really written the recent letter. He confirmed he had, but was quick to emphasize that he wrote it on his own, that he did not purport to speak for Dominion, and that no one at Dominion had reviewed the letter before he sent it. The letter, he said, reflects his personal views.

In an odd sense, Shuford’s going public with his views is refreshing—we know where this Dominion executive stands on climate change. His views are ill-informed and dangerous for his industry, our commonwealth, our country, and our world, but at least we know what he thinks. Which Dominion executives disagree with Shuford? Are any of them willing to publicly refute his arguments and accurately inform the public about climate change?

Is Shuford an outlier at Dominion, or do his views perhaps align with what other company executives think? Dominion acknowledges on its website that climate change is a concern, but in the same paragraph notes its plans to use greenhouse-gas emitting coal and natural gas far into the future. The company’s website says it wants a national climate change policy to “be developed legislatively,” yet Dominion also financially supports ALEC, which has worked for years to misinform legislators about climate change and block efforts to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. Many large corporations have left ALEC for that reason, including Virginia’s other big electric utility, AEP. But Dominion has stuck with ALEC.

What’s most offensive and cruel about Shuford’s recent letter is his suggestion that we focus solely on climate adaptation rather than reducing greenhouse-gas emissions. He seems unaware of the analyses showing that reducing emissions now is highly cost effective compared to the astronomical costs of adaptation without emission reductions. And I doubt that the adapting he’s thinking of includes helping poor people in the third world adapt to sea-level rise, floods, drought, disappearing glaciers, or extreme weather caused in large part by the developed world’s greenhouse-gas emissions. Nor does he seem aware that relying on adaptation alone essentially writes off the entire Hampton Roads region, where many Dominion customers live.

Dominion claims that ethics is one of its four core values. Top executives at an ethical company would feel compelled to respond promptly, forcefully, and publicly to a published letter from a company vice president suggesting that we ought not to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions because people can simply adapt to climate change.

Dominion’s board should require the company to conduct training for executives and board members on climate-change ethics, and for that matter on climate science too.

Seth Heald is chair of the Sierra Club Virginia Chapter. He is a student in the Master of Science in Energy Policy and Climate program at Johns Hopkins University.


For curious readers, reprinted below is Mr. Shuford’s letter, as published in the Times-Dispatch. That is followed by an annotated version that provides Seth Heald’s responses to Mr. Shuford’s points (in italics), with citations to sources with accurate information.

Actually, scientists disagree about climate

Editor, Times-Dispatch:

Can we please stop the nonsense about science-supported climate change believers and science-denying climate change skeptics?

We are constantly told that “the science” is settled, that 97 percent of scientists agree on “the science,” and that the benighted few who disagree must be shunned or even prosecuted. In truth, the debate is far more real — even in the scientific community — than these armchair experts apparently realize.

There has never been 97 percent scientific agreement on the questions that matter with climate change. Simply repeating it doesn’t make it true. No one disagrees with the fact that the climate is changing. And most everyone agrees with the so-called greenhouse theory — that carbon dioxide causes the atmosphere to warm and that man has contributed to its concentration in the atmosphere.

The real debate in and outside the scientific community is over questions that flow from that theory, including the following:

(1) How much of global warming is due to mankind and how much is natural?

(2) Are there forces that counteract the greenhouse effect that aren’t being considered in the climate alarmists’ computer models (which might explain how their computer models have proven so inaccurate)?

(3) Does the absence of warming over the past 15 years disprove the alarmists’ theories about catastrophic global warming and, if not, why not?

(4) Will warming in the next century really be catastrophic, or could it actually be beneficial in ways the alarmists won’t concede?

(5) Given that the celebrated Paris Climate Agreement will have negligible effect on global temperatures even if every country complied, would our limited dollars be better spent on adapting to a warmer climate than on trying to prevent it?

So enough with the trope about the 97 percent versus “deniers.” There simply is no scientific consensus on the questions that will drive public policy on this issue.

David Shuford.

Richmond.

Mr. Shuford’s letter, with annotated response 

Editor, Times-Dispatch: Can we please stop the nonsense about science-supported climate change believers and science-denying climate change skeptics?

We are constantly told that “the science” is settled, that 97 percent of scientists agree on “the science,” and that the benighted few who disagree must be shunned or even prosecuted. In truth, the debate is far more real — even in the scientific community — than these armchair experts apparently realize.

There has never been 97 percent scientific agreement on the questions that matter with climate change. Simply repeating it doesn’t make it true.

See this 2016 paper confirming that there is a high degree of consensus about human-caused climate change among climate-science experts. See also this 2004 paper by (now) Harvard Professor Naomi Oreskes, published in Science, the journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Also well worth reading is Merchants of Doubt, by Oreskes and Erik Conway, which details efforts by corporations to mislead and create confusion about the science concerning cigarette smoking and climate change.

No one disagrees with the fact that the climate is changing.

In fact a large number of people have attempted to argue that climate change is a hoax, and many still do, including a number of the candidates in the recent Republican presidential primary contest, such as Ted Cruz and Donald Trump, to name just a couple. But it is true that some of the fossil-fuel funded groups that formerly argued that there is no global warming have reacted to criticism by changing their argument to “the climate is always changing,” as if that somehow disproves the scientific consensus that human greenhouse-gas emissions are causing dangerous warming. A good example of the changing arguments of fossil-fuel-supported climate misinformers is ALEC—the American Legislative Exchange Council, which Dominion Resources belongs to and supports financially.

And most everyone agrees with the so-called greenhouse theory — that carbon dioxide causes the atmosphere to warm and that man has contributed to its concentration in the atmosphere.

Not true. Those, like Donald Trump, who say global warming is a hoax certainly don’t agree with this. Nor does Ted Cruz, who last year agreed that his climate position is “full out denial.” Some climate change deniers make statements like “carbon dioxide is harmless, you’re breathing it now,” as if that somehow disproved the disturbing warming effects that scientists have found. And of course Senator James Inhofe famously brought a snowball into the senate in winter in an effort to show that global warming is a hoax.

The real debate in and outside the scientific community is over questions that flow from that theory, including the following:

  • How much of global warming is due to mankind and how much is natural?

False. There is no real debate in the peer-reviewed scientific literature over the fact that the unusual, accelerating global warming seen since the 19th Century is attributable to the increase of greenhouse gases, primarily carbon dioxide, in the atmosphere due to burning fossil fuels. An excellent book to read on this is The History of Global Warming, by Spencer Weart (2d ed. Harvard Univ. Press 2008). It’s a scholarly book that is clear and approachable for lay readers. See also the links below to reports by several prestigious scientific bodies.

  • Are there forces that counteract the greenhouse effect that aren’t being considered in the climate alarmists’ computer models (which might explain how their computer models have proven so inaccurate)?

What are these unnamed “forces”? Shuford doesn’t say. What is Shuford’s evidence that climate models have “proven so inaccurate”? In fact climate models have proven to be generally accurate in predicting the warming that has occurred. The fact that they are not perfect is hardly surprising. Moreover, our knowledge of global warming is informed not only by models, but studies of the Earth’s warming and cooling over millions of years, which have shown a direct link between high atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide and higher global temperatures.

  • Does the absence of warming over the past 15 years disprove the alarmists’ theories about catastrophic global warming and, if not, why not?

There hasn’t been an absence of global warming in the past 15 years. In fact 2014 and 2015 set new records for average global temperatures. Shuford’s claim, which is promoted by a number of fossil-fuel supported interests is demonstrably false. Scientific American published a good summary of the issue earlier this year.

  • Will warming in the next century really be catastrophic, or could it actually be beneficial in ways the alarmists won’t concede?

This claim is not only absurd, but unethical and cruel in its disregard for the world’s poorest people who are threatened in this century and next by sea-level rise, storm surges, disappearing glaciers, flooding, drought, and mass species extinctions. There may well be a small number of people who will benefit during their lifetimes from warmer temperatures and a changed climate, but that is dwarfed by the number of people who will suffer by losing their property, their livelihoods, their health, and their lives due to climate change. Our species evolved to live in the stable climate we’ve had for thousands of years, and people settled in places suitable for the climate we have. The Hampton Roads area, which is served by Dominion Virginia Power, is particularly susceptible to future inundation, which will affect rich and poor Virginians, with the poor harmed disproportionately and least able to recover quickly from their losses.

  • Given that the celebrated Paris Climate Agreement will have negligible effect on global temperatures even if every country complied,

Shuford’s boss at Dominion, Thomas Farrell, II, has refused to talk publicly about the Paris Climate Agreement, which will dramatically affect his and Shuford’s company. Perhaps this sort of silence at the corporate top leads to Shuford feeling comfortable to mock (and attempt to minimize the effect of) the Paris Agreement in Dominion’s hometown daily newspaper. Virtually every nation in the world worked to negotiate the Paris Agreement. What does Shuford mean by “have neglible effect”? In fact the Paris accord will help a great deal. Yes, the world still needs to do more, but that means we should be calling for faster and sharper greenhouse-gas reductions.

would our limited dollars be better spent on adapting to a warmer climate than on trying to prevent it?

This again is cruel, particularly to the world’s poor, who have done so little to cause global warming, and who are and will be suffering disproportionately from it. It is unlikely that Shuford is calling for our “limited dollars” to go to helping people in Bangladesh adapt to sea level rise, or people in Nepal, Pakistan or Bolivia adapt to a word where glaciers that they depend on for subsistence agriculture have disappeared. The type of adaptation Shuford is perhaps unwittingly calling for would involve mass migrations by tens of millions of poor people around the globe. Shuford also appears to be unaware of or ignores the strong economic arguments for reducing carbon emissions now, rather than later. These are set forth in detail in two recent books The Climate Casino (2013 Yale Univ. Press), by Yale economist William Nordberg, and Why Are We Waiting? (2015 MIT Press) by Nicholas Stern, a professor of economics and government at the London School of Economics. Both are scholarly books rather than page-turners, but they’re sufficiently clear and approachable to be readable by non-specialists. Do any executives or board members at Dominion read books like these, which provide key insights on the future of Dominion’s business? Perhaps if they did they’d be more likely to talk about climate change at work and in their public speeches.

So enough with the trope about the 97 percent versus “deniers.” There simply is no scientific consensus on the questions that will drive public policy on this issue.

Wrong again. Good explanations can be found in this publication from the American Academy for the Advancement of Science, and this one published jointly by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and the British Royal Society. Also, Inside Climate News recently described a new study published in Science about how fossil-fuel funded climate-science deniers disingenuously shift their arguments and use normal scientific uncertainties to deflect attention from the overwhelming scientific consensus on climate change and argue for no action to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. That’s what we see in Shuford’s letter. That’s not to say necessarily that Shuford personally is disingenuous. Perhaps he really doesn’t know better (although a man in his position certainly ought to know better), and has just repeated what he saw on a fossil-fuel funded denial group’s website, or heard at an ALEC conference.

 

2016 Virginia legislative session opens with stark choices for dealing with climate change

Setting an example for Virginia leaders. But will they follow? Photo courtesy of Glen Besa.

Setting an example for Virginia leaders. But will they follow? Photo courtesy of Glen Besa.

One of the first bills filed in Virginia’s 2016 legislative session—and already passed through committee—would require the McAuliffe Administration to write a report about how awful the EPA’s Clean Power Plan is for Virginia, and then to develop a state implementation plan that won’t comply.

That’s not exactly how HB 2 (Israel O’Quinn, R-Bristol) puts it, but it’s hard to read the language any other way. The bill instructs the Department of Environmental Quality to write a report critiquing the Clean Power Plan’s terrible effects (stranded costs! price increases! coal plant retirements! shoeless children!). It neglects any mention of the Plan’s benefits—like less pollution, better public health, and bill savings from energy efficiency. DEQ is then directed to write a plan that details all the bad stuff (but not the good stuff) and submit that to the General Assembly for approval before it can go to EPA. Does anyone think the General Assembly will approve a plan that makes compliance sound as awful as Republicans want DEQ to describe it?

The irony here is that the bill assumes the Clean Power Plan is the huge game-changer for Virginia that environmentalists had hoped it would be. Sadly, the Clean Power Plan doesn’t demand much of Virginia; if we simply meet new electricity demand with energy efficiency and renewable energy, we would be at or near to full compliance.

But recognizing that Virginia got a pass would be inconvenient for the bill’s drafters over at the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). ALEC has an agenda to promote, and the agenda demands that Republicans be outraged, regardless of the reality on the ground.

We hear outrage was in full display Tuesday as Republicans pushed the bill through Commerce and Labor on a party-line vote. Democrats patiently explained that if Virginia doesn’t submit a plan that complies with the Clean Power Plan, EPA will write one for us. Republicans responded with shoeless children.

SB 482 (Mark Obenshain, R-Harrisonburg, referred to Agriculture, Conservation and Natural Resources) and SB 21 (Ben Chafin, R-Lebanon, also in Agriculture) are Senate companion bills.

The flip side

If the Clean Power Plan doesn’t actually demand much of Virginia, nothing prevents the state from using the federal requirements to its own advantage. HB 351 (Ron Villanueva, R-Virginia Beach, referred to Commerce and Labor) and SB 571 (Donald McEachin, D-Richmond, referred to Agriculture) take this lemon-to-lemonade approach with the Virginia Alternative Energy and Coastal Protection Act. The bill would direct the Governor to join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), the cap-and-trade plan that the northeastern states have used successfully to reduce carbon emissions and raise funds to further the RGGI goals.

The legislation is similar to last year’s Virginia Coastal Protection Act, which was unable to get out of committee due to Republican opposition. But as warming ocean water expands and lifts sea levels along our coast, even Republicans must wonder how they are going to deal with the costs. Right now, the only answer out there belongs to Villanueva and McEachin.

Other legislators, meanwhile, offer small steps in the right direction. HB 739 (Christopher Stolle, R-Virginia Beach, referred to General Laws) would establish the Virginia Flooding Adaptation Office. A Chief Resiliency Officer would oversee its operations, pursue funding opportunities, and recommend initiatives to help with adaptation efforts. (Maybe she will recommend joining RGGI!)

A similar but more limited bill, HB 1048 (Keith Hodges, R-Urbana, also referred to Agriculture) would create a position of Chief Resiliency Officer to coordinate “issues related to resilience and recurrent flooding,” recommend actions to increase resilience, and pursue funding.

HB 903 (also Stolle, referred to Agriculture, Chesapeake and Natural Resources) resolves to designate a Commonwealth Center for Recurrent Flooding Resiliency to study “recurrent flooding and resilience.” HJ 84 (Stolle again, referred to Rules) and SJ 58 (Mamie Locke, D-Hampton, referred to Rules) would continue the ongoing study of “recurrent flooding” and rename it as “coastal flooding.” (Yes, legislators are moving towards calling it “sea level rise” at about the same rate the sea is rising.)

SB 282 (Lynwood Lewis, D-Accomack, referred to Agriculture) would establish the Virginia Shoreline Resiliency Fund as a low-interest loan program to help residents and businesses that are subject to “recurrent flooding.” Funding, for the most part, would require appropriations from the General Assembly.

Dominion makes a play for utility-scale solar, but Amazon steals the show

As_solar_firmengebaude.Christoffer.ReimerThis winter Dominion Virginia Power promised Governor Terry McAuliffe it would build 400-500 megawatts (MW) of utility-scale solar power in Virginia by 2020, part of the deal it cut to gain the governor’s support for a bill shielding it from rate reviews through the end of the decade. The company also took a welcome first step by announcing a proposed 20-MW solar farm near Remington, Virginia.

The applause had hardly died down, though, when Amazon Web Services announced it would be building a solar project in Accomack County, Virginia, that will be four times the size of Dominion’s, at a per-megawatt cost that’s 25% less.

Why such a big difference in cost? The way Dominion chose to structure the Remington project, building and owning it directly, makes it cost more than it would if a third party developed the project, as will be he case for the Accomack project. That means Dominion is leaving money on the table—ratepayers’ money.

There is nothing wrong with the Remington project otherwise. The site seems to be good, local leaders are happy, and solar as a technology has now reached the point where it makes sense both economically and as a complement to Dominion’s other generation. But by insisting on building the project itself, and incurring unnecessary costs, Dominion risks having the State Corporation Commission (SCC) reject what would otherwise be a great first step into solar.

And that’s a crying shame, because solar really is a great deal for consumers these days. Utilities now regularly sign contracts to buy solar for between 4.5 and 7.5 cents per kilowatt-hour. Compare that to the 9.3 cents/kWh cost of electricity produced by Dominion’s newest coal plant in Virginia City, and it’s no wonder that solar is the fastest growing energy source in the country.

Utilities get those rates by buying solar energy from solar developers, not by playing developer themselves. From the ratepayer’s point of view, developers have three advantages over utilities: they are experts at what they’re doing, they work on slimmer profit margins, and they get better tax treatment. Dominion loses all three advantages if it builds the Remington solar farm itself.

Dominion has already demonstrated its lack of solar knowhow. In a May 7, 2015 filing with the SCC (case PUE-2011-0017), it admitted its “Solar Partnership Program,” which puts solar on commercial rooftops, is a year behind schedule and will total less than 20 MW of the 30 MW legislators wanted. Previously the company had told stakeholders it would likely hit its $80 million budget limit with only 13-14 MW installed.

As for profit margins, Dominion gets a guaranteed 10% return on its investments. This explains its desire to build solar itself, but it’s hard to justify charging ratepayers a 10% premium when there are cheaper alternatives courtesy of the free market. Unlike Dominion, solar developers have to compete against each other, so they accept much slimmer profit margins.

And then there are the tax implications. A third-party developer can claim the federal 30% tax credit immediately, and can take accelerated depreciation on the cost of the facility over five years. A utility has to take both the tax credit and the depreciation over the expected life of the facility, 20 years or more.

These three factors—knowhow, free-market cost competition, and tax implications—add up to huge savings for consumers when a project is put out to bid by third-party developers.

Just how big the savings could be is clear from a comparison of Dominion’s solar farm with Amazon’s project, to be built by a third-party developer. Dominion says Remington will cost $47 million for 20 MW, or $2.35 million/MW. Amazon’s project is reported to cost $150 million for 80 MW, or $1.875 million/MW. That is a difference of about 25%.

Obviously, then, the better way to finance Remington is for Dominion to put the project out for competitive bid among solar developers. Dominion won’t make as much money for its shareholders, but it will save money for ratepayers. And really, as a member of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), Dominion ought to jump at the chance to live up to ALEC’s “free markets” mantra.

More to the point, keeping costs down this way will make it possible for the project to get SCC approval, opening the way to many more like it. With hundreds of megawatts still to go, Dominion needs to show it can do solar right.

In fact, Dominion should put out a request for proposals for the full 400 MW it says it plans to build. This could include revisiting its refusal to buy power from another proposed solar farm that went nowhere. That solar facility in Clarke County, proposed by OCI Solar Power six months ago, would have added another 20 MW to the grid. With only a year and a half to go before the 30% federal tax credit drops to 10%, Virginia ratepayers have a right to expect many more solar farms, and soon.

Frustration over Dominion’s slow pace is widespread among solar advocates. Cale Jaffe, Director of the Southern Environmental Law Center’s Virginia office, noted, “Last General Assembly session, Dominion committed to building 400 megawatts of utility-scale solar projects in Virginia by 2020.  The General Assembly then passed, at Dominion’s urging, legislation declaring up to 500 megawatts of new solar projects to be in the public interest. But, unfortunately, Dominion appears to be getting out of the blocks very slowly when it comes to solar power.  I’m concerned that the company is not currently on pace to live up to its pledge.” SELC has intervened in the Remington case on behalf of environmental groups Appalachian Voices and Chesapeake Climate Action Network.

Of course, we also need solar from all sources, not just our utilities. Homeowners, small businesses, nonprofits, and big industrial customers—all should be encouraged to build solar as a matter of the public interest. Solar diversifies our energy base, creates local jobs, strengthens the electricity grid, and will help Virginia meet the EPA’s Clean Power Plan.

Even 500 MW of solar pales compared to the 4,300 MW of new natural gas plants Dominion expects to have built by 2020. When you adjust for capacity factors, in 2020 solar will make up less than five percent of Dominion’s power generation from new projects, and barely a blip on the radar screen of total generation.

While sad, this is hardly news. Virginia famously lags behind neighboring states in developing solar resources. Maryland had 242 MW of solar installed at the end of 2014 and expects to meet its goal of 1,250 MW by the end of 2015. North Carolina has over 1,000 MW and counting. The same source puts Virginia at a grand total of 14 MW.

(In fairness I think our total has to be a little better than that, but when your state’s total looks like some other state’s rounding error, who really stops to crunch the numbers?)

Getting serious about solar means opening our market to competition. Attracting more projects like Amazon’s will require the General Assembly to pass legislation removing all barriers to third-party power purchase agreements. Amazon’s solar farm has the advantage of being located on the Maryland border. It will feed into power lines owned by Delmarva Power, and then into the PJM transmission grid serving the multistate region that includes Virginia. It will not serve Amazon’s data centers in Virginia directly, but will simply offset their power demand. If Amazon or anyone else wanted to put in a similar solar farm elsewhere in Virginia, they would run into restrictions on third-party power purchase agreements and the absurd terms and conditions imposed by our utilities even on large corporate customers.

Tearing down the barriers that prevent the private market from building solar is critical to closing this gap. Dominion made a half-hearted effort to serve big customers, in the form of its cumbersome “RG tariff.” The fact that no one has used it, and Amazon has done an end-run around it, proves how worthless it is. Virginia should put an end to utility red tape, open the market to competition, and let the sunshine in.

The State Corporation Commission will hear arguments on the Remington proposal starting at 10 a.m. on July 16, 2015 at its offices in Richmond. The case is PUE-2015-00006.

Dominion shareholder votes reflect growing concerns on methane, climate

Protesters lined the road leading to the Dominion shareholder meeting in Richmond. Photo credit Corrina Beall.

Protesters lined the road leading to the Dominion shareholder meeting in Richmond. Photo credit Corrina Beall.


Shareholders attending Dominion’s shareholder meeting last week once again raised questions about the utility giant’s dependence on fossil fuels in a carbon-constrained world. Guest blogger Seth Heald brings us this view from inside the meeting.

News coverage of Dominion Resources Inc.’s May 6 annual shareholders meeting focused on the demonstration held outside the company’s suburban Richmond training facility. More than 150 people had traveled from all over Virginia and beyond to wave signs and banners protesting Dominion’s planned Atlantic Coast Pipeline for fracked natural gas and its unhealthy dominance over Virginia politicians (on full display during this year’s General Assembly session). Other signs condemned Dominion’s role as a major carbon polluter and its membership in the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).

But developments inside the meeting, which I attended, were newsworthy too.

Like all publicly traded corporations, Dominion holds an annual meeting where shareholders vote on significant issues and have a chance to hear from and question corporate management. Most shares are voted online or by mail, but some shareholders choose to come to the meeting in person. Over the years Dominion has encouraged its electricity customers to buy stock, so many company shareholders live in Virginia.

Only shareholders or their proxies may attend the meeting, and this year security was exceptionally tight. Attendees had to show their admission ticket and driver’s license at three separate places and then go through a metal detector before getting to the meeting. No cameras, cell phones, or recording devices were permitted.

This was my third straight Dominion shareholder meeting. Perhaps most notable this time was the large number of people who lined up to address Dominion CEO and board chairman Thomas F. Farrell II, who told shareholders the company had allotted 30 minutes for their comments and questions. In previous years half an hour was more than enough time for all shareholder comments. But this time it was immediately clear that Farrell would have to allow more time or else those at the back of the line wouldn’t be able to speak. To his credit he allowed all waiting in line a chance to speak. The whole comment process took about an hour, causing the meeting to run significantly longer than in previous years.

Under Dominion’s standard meeting procedure, Farrell stands on the stage facing the audience, and people with comments or questions must deliver them from a microphone at the back of the large room, perhaps 50 feet away from Farrell. Members of the company’s board of directors all sit together in the front row, with their backs to the audience. Several of the shareholders this year spoke against the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline, describing how it would harm their land or their region or the planet. One woman movingly described how the pipeline would ruin land that had been in her family for hundreds of years. Many shareholders in the audience turned in their seats to look at the speakers, but not the board members. They sat in the front row and looked straight ahead.

Shareholders voted on a number of resolutions that asked the board or the company to take various actions. The ballot indicated that the board opposed all resolutions that had been submitted by shareholders. Nevertheless, three climate-related shareholder resolutions improved their vote count this year over last. For the first time ever one of them—seeking a report on emissions of the potent greenhouse gas methane—got 25 percent of voting (i.e., non-abstaining) shares, up from 21 percent a year ago.

Doing almost as well were shareholder votes seeking reports on climate-change business risk (23.5% this year versus 21 percent last year) and burning wood to generate electricity (22 percent this year versus 21 percent last year).

These are far from a majority of voting shares, it’s true, but these percentages represent close to $6 billion worth of shareholder value, and the totals are impressive when one considers that many large mutual funds routinely vote against resolutions that are opposed by a company’s board.

In opening comments to the board and shareholders Farrell spoke about efforts to reduce “carbon intensity” in electric power generation. That’s a measure comparing quantity of carbon-dioxide emissions to quantity of electricity produced. Dominion representatives always like to talk about how they’re reducing carbon intensity. They rarely if ever talk about reducing the company’s total carbon emissions.

Reducing carbon intensity is a fine thing, but the trouble is that you can reduce carbon intensity modestly just about forever while still increasing total carbon-dioxide emissions. That’s particularly true if, like Dominion, you resist meaningful efforts to make energy efficiency a significant part of your generation mix. As the Washington Post’s Chris Mooney has noted, doing something about climate, even doing a lot, isn’t the same as doing enough. Dominion and its ALEC partners who reflexively attack the EPA’s climate efforts are still resisting doing much of anything significant on climate, much less doing a lot, or enough.

What affects the climate is the total amount of carbon dioxide (and other greenhouse gases, like methane) in the atmosphere. At some point—and climate science tells us we’re well past that point—you can’t claim to be serious about climate change unless you’re willing to talk about (and commit to) reducing total carbon emissions, not just carbon intensity.

That was the subject of a shareholder question from Lindsay Mendoza of Mercy Investment Services, Inc., which manages assets of The Sisters of Mercy, the 180-year-old Catholic order renowned for its work in social justice, health care, and education. Mendoza asked Farrell when Dominion would begin to reduce total carbon-dioxide emissions, as opposed to carbon intensity. Farrell quickly responded: “That’s a good question.” (An overused cliché, no doubt, but Farrell seemed sincere in saying it, and he did not give that response to any other shareholder.) He went on at some length to discuss the company’s activities, but he didn’t specify a year, or decade, or even a century in which Dominion’s total carbon-dioxide emissions might actually begin to decline. That’s particularly disappointing in light of Dominion’s ranking, based on emissions reported to the EPA, as Virginia’s top carbon polluter.

Shareholders can try to press Farrell for a more specific answer at next May’s annual meeting. But in the meantime, asking Dominion and its board when the company will begin to reduce the company’s total carbon-dioxide emissions is a “good question” that Virginia’s governor, legislators, and the State Corporation Commission (Dominion Power’s state regulator) ought to be asking.

Besides being a Dominion shareholder, Seth Heald is Vice Chair of the Virginia Chapter of the Sierra Club and a student in the MS in Energy Policy and Climate program at Johns Hopkins University.

Your 2015 legislative session cheat sheet, part 3: climate bills

Photo credit: Corrina Beall

Photo credit: Corrina Beall

Anti-Clean Power Plan bills

When the EPA released its Clean Power Plan last June, clean energy advocates celebrated America’s first serious response to rising carbon emissions. At hearings held across Virginia, supporters of the plan outnumbered opponents by as much as five to one, making it clear the public welcomes EPA’s plan as a way to break the rise in carbon emissions while opening the door to new economic opportunities in solar, wind, and energy efficiency.

Alas, the response of most Republican legislators was to man the barricades and protect the fossil fuel status quo. That impulse to panic translated into a spate of bills aimed at rejecting or undermining EPA authority and hobbling the ability of the state to implement the Clean Power Plan.

SB 740 (Carrico), SB 1365 (Watkins and Chaffin), and HB 2291 (O’Quinn) instruct the state Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) to hold hearings and examine witnesses in the development of its compliance plan and take a “least-cost” approach to compliance. DEQ is also required to get approval from the General Assembly for the plan before it can submit it to the EPA for approval—and if either chamber doesn’t like it, DEQ has to do it over again, until the time allowed for state compliance runs out.

SB 1202 (Wagner) goes further. Before DEQ can even write its plan, the State Corporation Commission has to find that the EPA has made changes to the Clean Power Plan that fix all the things the SCC staff claim are wrong with it. The SCC staff have already accused the EPA of acting illegally, arbitrarily, and capriciously, so it’s safe to say that under Wagner’s bill, we’ll see pigs fly before DEQ writes a carbon plan.

HJ 608 (Kilgore) is a resolution asserting that electricity regulation is a sovereign state function and complaining that EPA is infringing on state turf. The resolution is silly on its face; Virginia’s grid is part of an interstate transmission system (PJM), our utilities operate in multiple states, much of our electricity is generated outside our borders, and all of our generating plants, transmission lines, and everything else associated with providing power in Virginia are covered by federal regulations of one sort or another. HJ 608 has nothing to do with reality. But reality is not the point. The point is that Terry Kilgore and the fossil fuel companies he represents are loaded for bear and want to prove it.

SJ 273 (Wagner) directs DEQ to study whether the health benefits of the Clean Power Plan are really any different from those already expected from compliance with other air quality regulations. The reason, according to the bill, is that “if the EPA is claiming the same health benefits under two different sets of regulations, its effort to attribute future pollution reductions to the proposed Plan amounts to ‘double counting.’” If you’re wondering how that is relevant to Virginia’s obligation to comply with the Clean Power Plan, then once again you’re missing the point. This is about posturing, not compliance.

SJ 308 (Wagner yet again!) would let the GA’s Joint Rules Committee hire its own counsel to sue the EPA to block the Clean Power Plan if the Attorney General won’t do it. HJ 529 (Bob Marshall) would have a similar effect, though his bill is more of an all-caps version aimed at anything the federal government does that he opposes.

Virginia Republicans didn’t invent the attack-challenge-delay approach that is the common theme of these bills. The strategy comes from the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the conservative “bill mill” heavily funded by fossil fuel interests, and of which Dominion Power is a member. ALEC developed a game plan for state-by-state resistance to the EPA plan.

ALEC’s model bill, called the RASP Act, forbids a governor from complying with the EPA regulations without getting approval from the legislature. Sound familiar? And yet it’s a cut-off-your-nose-to-spite-your-face reaction. The longer a state delays, the harder compliance becomes. Delay too long, and EPA writes your plan for you. That’s not a good outcome for either Virginia or the climate.

Coastal Protection Plan

The EPA Clean Power Plan allows multiple pathways to compliance. On of them is the regional compliance plan: states can band together on a market approach to reduce cost and disruption. Several northeastern states already have this cap-and-trade approach in place, known as the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI). Similar regional efforts exist for some Midwestern and Western states as well. These all predate the Clean Power Plan, but a recent analysis by PJM, the regional transmission operator that runs Virginia’s grid, found that a regional cap-and-trade approach would cost 30% less than a state-by-state approach to meeting carbon regulations.

Even many Virginia Republicans have said they favor a regional approach to compliance with the Clean Power Plan, once they have done challenging everything they can about it.

One of the attractive elements of RGGI is the market mechanism. Polluters must buy carbon allowances, generating money for the state. HB 2205 (Villanueva) and SB 1428 (McEachin), the Coastal Protection Plan, would have Virginia join RGGI, and use half of the money generated to address the problems created by sea level rise. SB 1323 (Lewis) would merely have DEQ study the idea.

For a fuller explanation of the bill, see Dawone Robinson’s guest post here. The Coastal Protection Act is already picking up endorsements, from the Washington Post to the Virginia Housing Coalition and local governments including Norfolk.

The Dominion Power Ratepayer Rip-Off Act of 2015

When Dominion Virginia Power offers to do something to protect ratepayers, watch your wallet. Last year’s act of generosity cost us hundreds of millions of dollars to cover Dominion’s initial expenses for a nuclear plant it may never build.

This year it’s a bill, SB 1349 (Wagner), that would freeze rates (but notably not utility bills) until at least 2023. Like last year’s money bill, this one prevents the State Corporation Commission from requiring the utility to refund money to ratepayers and/or lower rates if the utility earns more than the law entitles it to. In other words, it lets Dominion keep the windfall.

Senator Wagner presents his bill as a protection for ratepayers in the face of the EPA’s Clean Power Plan, which he claims will be costly for ratepayers. But here’s the thing: Dominion’s obligation to its shareholders is to maximize profit. The company wouldn’t support a rate freeze if it meant losing money. Dominion’s support for Wagner’s bill can only mean the utility expects to make a lot of money at current rates, even under the EPA plan.

This makes sense to the clean energy advocates, who point to analyses showing the Clean Power Plan will benefit consumers rather than costing them more. That’s because energy efficiency—a major component of the plan—saves money. If Virginia consumers do save money under the plan, though, the Wagner bill makes sure they won’t see the benefit.

Indeed, it doesn’t even protect them from higher bills, because Dominion can still increase other charges that make up customers’ bills. The “rate freeze,” in other words, will set a floor on electric utility bills, but not a ceiling.