To Understand Pipeline Economics, Follow the Money

By Thomas Hadwin

I have worked for electric and gas utilities in other states, so I am interested in seeing a modern energy system developed in Virginia. I prefer to find solutions where everyone wins, but Virginia is currently split between those who want to protect our land and waters and those who want the lower cost energy and jobs they think pipelines will bring. We can find ways where all interests are served, but we will have to reshape the plans that have been proposed.

The promised economic benefits are what have motivated many political and business leaders to support the Atlantic Coast Pipeline (ACP). Let’s set aside the environmental issues and focus on the economics. In dealing with contentious issues, it’s often hard to find agreement on the “facts.” We can avoid disagreement by using information that the pipeline owners (Dominion Energy, Duke Energy, and Southern Company, the parent company of Virginia Natural Gas) have filed with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC).

To show FERC that a new pipeline would be needed, the pipeline owners had their utility subsidiaries in Virginia and North Carolina sign 20-year firm transportation agreements with the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. FERC’s own guidelines say that this is not enough to prove true market need for a new pipeline, especially if the companies signing those contracts are owned by the pipeline developers. U.S. Department of Energy studies and reports from independent consultants show that existing pipelines can provide all of the gas we need in Virginia and North Carolina. Unfortunately, FERC has not requested any substantive data to prove the need for a new pipeline. Signed contracts are all that have been used to approve pipelines for the past several decades and it appears that this substandard practice will continue.

Dominion claims that the cost savings provided by the ACP are enough to prove it is necessary. Will the ACP actually save ratepayers money in Virginia and North Carolina? Enough to spur new job creation, as has been advertised? The truth is revealed by examining who pays for the $5 billion ACP, and how much it costs compared to other options.

Data filed with FERC show the ACP will cost customers more than existing pipelines

Pipelines charge a fee to transport natural gas. The gas itself is purchased separately. Traditionally, large users of natural gas, such as utilities, have signed long-term contracts to reserve capacity on a particular pipeline. These contracts must be paid in full, whether or not all of the capacity is used. Having the capacity reserved assures that natural gas can be delivered when it is needed and reduces the price volatility compared to paying for pipeline transportation only as it is needed.

Capacity reservations can be a good idea, but not when the cost of the long-term contract is far higher than other alternatives. Based on the fee and the capacity reservation filed with FERC, Dominion’s utility customers could be obligated to pay over $4 billion during the next 20 years to the ACP for the long-term transportation agreement.

Existing pipelines, currently serving Virginia, can transport the same or greater amount of gas as the ACP for a much lower cost, because existing pipelines have been mostly paid for by previous customers. Using gas prices from May of this year, which show a price advantage at the Dominion South zone (the source of supply used by the ACP), the total price of gas delivered by the ACP to Dominion’s Brunswick plant would be 28% more expensive than gas delivered by the connection to the Transco pipeline built in 2015. The fee to use the ACP is over three times more expensive than using the Transco connection. Using existing pipelines in other parts of the state would save even more money compared to the ACP.

The ACP will be one of the most expensive pipelines on the East Coast. The fee to transport gas using the ACP is over 60% of the current price of natural gas. If this seems like a lot to pay just for transportation, it is. A fee this high raises the delivered price of gas compared to what can be delivered by other pipelines.

Dominion study shows savings from the ACP, but doesn’t tell the whole story

The study used by Dominion to publicize the presumed $377 million per year cost savings from the ACP examined a short-term phenomenon that was over in 2016, but was assumed to last until 2038. The calculation of savings during that anomalous period was extended over twenty years and subjected to a magic multiplier to increase the apparent savings even more. But the study left out one important factor, the cost of transportation. If the FERC rate for using the ACP to transport the gas was added to the savings in the price of gas during this especially favorable period, there would be no savings, just added costs.

The ACP is more expensive than using existing pipelines

As new takeaway pipelines are added in 2017-2018 to the production zone used by the ACP, it is expected that the gas price in this zone will equalize with other regions, so that the difference in the price of delivered gas will be due mainly to pipeline transportation costs. This will put the ACP at a considerable disadvantage to other alternatives. Using the ACP to deliver gas over the long-term is far more expensive than using existing pipelines.

Long-term agreements with existing pipelines cost money too, and differences do occur from time to time between production zones. An independent analysis identifies that using the ACP in Dominion’s territory compared to existing pipelines will create a net cost to ratepayers of $1.6 to $2.3 billion over the next 20 years. Perhaps about half that amount would be an extra cost to Virginia Natural Gas customers to use the ACP rather than connections to existing pipelines during that same period. In general terms, the ACP would add about $3 billion in costs to Virginia energy consumers over the next 20 years. The ACP will raise energy costs and therefore, diminish job creation, exactly the opposite of what has been claimed.

Can existing pipelines deliver the gas? Dominion’s actions say yes.

Dominion argues it can’t get enough gas from other pipelines, but its actions indicate otherwise. The ACP’s FERC application identifies that the Columbia Gas Pipeline can deliver Dominion’s full allotment of gas from West Virginia to Virginia for use in power plants. Columbia Gas is adding about 87 percent of the capacity of the ACP to its system in the region. Transco is adding 400 percent of the capacity of the ACP to its corridor moving southbound through Virginia and North Carolina. Dominion says the capacity being added to the Columbia Gas and Transco systems isn’t available. Yet Dominion obtained capacity from Transco for use at the Cove Point LNG plant that it claims is “unavailable” for use in power plants.

Cabot Oil & Gas Corp., the gas supplier over the Transco Pipeline to Cove Point, plans to increase production by 1.7 Bcf/d (more than the capacity of the ACP) in the next two years. Dan Dinges, Cabot’s CEO, says Cabot is getting calls “from various people looking to secure . . . long-term supplies . . . and we are definitely answering those calls.”

It certainly appears that Dominion could receive its full allotment of 0.3 Bcf/d using existing pipelines, much cheaper than using the ACP, if only it was willing to ask.

Gas service to southeast Virginia and to North Carolina could be accomplished with connections to existing pipelines, mostly over existing rights-of-way, at a fraction of the cost and impacts associated with the ACP. Southeast Virginia could obtain as much, or more, natural gas using a connection to existing pipelines, entirely over existing rights-of-way. The region could have its own source of supply for 80 years for a fraction of the price it would pay for the 20-year contract with the ACP.

North Carolina would receive as much, or more, capacity to supply the same customers in the same locations as proposed by the ACP. A connection to Transco would be made over 105 miles of the Cardinal Pipeline corridor, then connect to the last 90 miles of the ACP right-of-way to serve the same delivery points. This shorter pipeline would meet the same needs but save North Carolina residents billions of dollars compared to the ACP and avoid disruption of West Virginia and Virginia mountains and pristine streams, as well as national forest lands.

Connections to the Transcontinental Pipeline corridor serve the same customers in North Carolina as the ACP, saving billions.

With demand for natural gas slowing, rushing to build the ACP risks making a costly mistake

Dominion and Duke have been scaling back the number of gas-fired units that require service from the ACP and pushing back the expected dates for initial operation. Just this year, the two companies cut in half the number of large gas-fired power plants needed in the next 15 years. The first unit is not needed until 2025, in Virginia. There is no need to rush through the regulatory process. We have time to do a thorough evaluation of the need, costs and impacts of new pipeline projects.

Growth in U.S. natural gas use has slowed markedly, further undermining the ACP’s need argument and the artificial sense of urgency to gain regulatory approvals. An industry analyst says, “With domestic demand gains slowing across power burn, residential, commercial, and industrial, the North American gas market must find new levers to pull. It is likely that the biggest demand lever for the U.S. gas market over the next five years and beyond will be LNG exports.” This statement indicates that the rapid growth in natural gas use is not shaping up as policymakers were led to believe. The industry is looking to greater LNG exports as a way to increase natural gas prices and rescue Wall Street’s failing investments in natural gas developers.

As the red line of the chart shows, pipeline capacity in the Appalachian Basin is growing much faster than the supply of natural gas.

The Appalachian Basin is not producing enough gas to fill all of the pipelines that are currently in front of FERC for approval. The production of natural gas would have to increase by 50 percent in the Marcellus/Utica shale plays to fill the pipelines currently proposed over the next several years. Rather than reducing the number of pipelines built, the industry is suggesting that we need to drill for more gas.

Australia tried to use its ample reserves of natural gas to increase domestic use and LNG exports. They converted many factories to natural gas in hopes of creating more jobs. Instead of greater prosperity, domestic gas prices rose 3-4 times in 10 years, factories closed or converted back to coal, and utility bills skyrocketed.

Learning from others’ mistakes: Florida’s example

The ACP is not the only pipeline project to overestimate demand. Further south, Sabal Trail, the most recent pipeline to go into operation, is running at 25% capacity, all of it taken from existing pipelines. This new pipeline, in rapidly growing Florida, was promoted as being absolutely necessary to meet growth in natural gas demand by its utility holding company owners, NextEra and Duke Energy. Yet, total natural gas usage in Florida is down 4% over last year, undercut by cheaper renewables.

If Virginia’s families and businesses lose, who wins?

It can be puzzling to understand why utility holding companies want to build a pipeline if it isn’t needed. It seems unlikely that an unregulated, private corporation would invest billions of dollars in a project the market doesn’t support. The answer has to do with the way the utility subsidiaries are compensated. Our utilities get paid more when they build more. Today, there is little reason to build new power plants, because demand for electricity is no longer growing nationwide, even though there is growth in our economy and population. Demand for electricity in Virginia is growing only because of new data centers and Dominion’s studies show that growth from that source will taper off by 2023.

FERC offers a 50% higher return for gas pipelines than for interstate transmission lines. The holding company executives are making what they see as a prudent decision to chase this extra money, while revenues from their utility subsidiaries are flat, and shift the risk and higher costs to the utility ratepayers.

A choice that is good for the shareholders but bad for the ratepayers is not one that we should encourage. A company cannot be successful in the long run setting the interests of its owners against the interests of its customers. If Dominion builds the pipeline and successfully convinces the SCC to pass on the full costs of the 20-year agreements to the ratepayers, customers will pay billions more for no benefit. This would give them a reason to do less business with Dominion in the long run (using energy efficiency and self-generation with solar to reduce their usage). The higher costs due to the pipeline would create a less healthy state economy and a less healthy utility.

We need to create different approaches where everyone can benefit. To do that, we must reset the role of our utilities and pay them differently so they can prosper when they serve us better, as other states are doing.

Given that the economic benefits we have been promised will not materialize, we should ask the state and federal regulators to fully analyze the need for this project and make a thorough assessment of its impacts. We have the time. The process could take two more years and still not affect the operation of any of the new power plants in Virginia or North Carolina that were used to justify the pipeline.

 

Thomas Hadwin

Waynesboro, VA

Thomas Hadwin worked for electric and gas utilities in Michigan and New York.  He led a department which was responsible for the site selection and approval of multi-billion dollar projects working with state and federal agencies, as well as assuring that all company facilities complied with existing environmental regulations.  He founded a computer and telecommunications business about which the Wall Street Journal wrote an article describing its innovative business model.  As a “healer of businesses” he helped ailing companies throughout the U.S. get back on their feet.  He is currently working to help establish a 21st century energy system for Virginia.

 

Sierra Club files petition with SCC seeking Affiliates Act review before Dominion commits to Atlantic Coast Pipeline deal

 

By Pax Ahimsa Gethen – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=55451003

Today the Sierra Club filed a petition with the Virginia State Corporation Commission seeking a Declaratory Judgment that Dominion Virginia Power’s arrangement to obtain gas capacity in the Atlantic Coast Pipeline is subject to Commission approval under the Virginia Affiliates Act. That law requires a public service corporation to get the approval of the Commission before it enters into a “contract or arrangement” with an affiliated company.

The Affiliates Act applies, according to the Sierra Club, because Dominion Virginia Power’s parent corporation, Dominion Resources, is a partner in the Atlantic Coast Pipeline joint venture, and Dominion Virginia Power’s (DVP) fuel procurement subsidiary, Virginia Power Services Energy Corporation (VPSE), contracted for capacity on the pipeline. Put more simply, a utility—Dominion Virginia Power– and two of its corporate affiliates have negotiated a business deal, and the Affiliates Act directs the Commission to carefully review that deal to ensure that consumers don’t get the short end of the stick.

If the Commission grants Sierra Club’s petition, DVP will have to submit its agreement with Atlantic Coast to the Commission for formal review and approval. Sierra Club and other interested parties will then have a chance to weigh in on whether the agreement will actually benefit consumers.

There is good reason to think it won’t benefit consumers. Bill Penniman, a retired energy attorney who serves as Conservation Co-Chair for the Virginia Chapter of the Sierra Club, has studied Atlantic Coast’s filings with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). He notes that as of now, the amount of money that DVP (via VPSE) will pay Atlantic Coast for pipeline capacity is secret. The public filings reveal, however, that the maximum amount Atlantic Coast can charge any customer is more than three times the amount that another company, Transcontinental, can charge for pipeline capacity that services the exact same power plants as Atlantic Coast. And as it happens, says Penniman, DVP already has twenty-year shipping agreements with Transcontinental. The fact that DVP is now trying to enter into a whole new contract to ship gas to the same power plants via a much costlier pipeline ought to raise a lot of eyebrows.

If this talk of parent companies and subsidiaries is confusing, it might help to picture Dominion Resources as a giant spider with DVP as one leg and other Dominion-owned companies as other legs. Some of those legs have hairs on them; they are subsidiaries of the subsidiaries, but still part of the spider. VPSE is a hair on the DVP leg; its job is to buy fuel and whatever else the utility needs to run its power plants and make electricity.

In this case, VPSE has contracted with Atlantic Coast to buy a big chunk of space on the pipeline. DVP will use this pipeline capacity to deliver the gas needed to fire its Greenville and Brunswick facilities. Yet another leg on the spider, Dominion Transmission, has been hired to build and operate both Atlantic Coast and a connecting line called the Supply Header (which ups the price of the whole system).

To top it all off, the spider itself, Dominion Resources, owns 48% of the Atlantic Coast venture, along with Duke Energy and Southern Company. You can picture the Dominion spider teaming up with its spider buddies on the project, but I don’t recommend that if you tend towards arachnophobia and are already not happy with this analogy.

Having VPSE contract for capacity on Atlantic Coast is absolutely critical to the success of the whole pipeline venture. Atlantic Coast can’t get permission from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to build the pipeline unless it can show the pipeline is needed, and the only way to show need is by having customers lined up to buy the capacity. If VPSE didn’t sign that contract, Atlantic Coast couldn’t get built.

But here’s the thing: while FERC has final authority for approving or rejecting the pipeline itself, Virginia’s State Corporation Commission has authority to decide whether any agreements between regulated utilities and their corporate affiliates are in the public interest. In fact, the law says that the Commission must review and approve inter-affiliate agreements before they take effect.

However, even though DVP has directed VPSE to buy pipeline capacity on Atlantic Coast for DVP to use at its power plants, DVP has never submitted VPSE’s arrangement with Atlantic Coast for Commission review. Atlantic Coast has assured FERC it has enough customers to justify building the pipeline, but the fact of the matter is, one of its key customers—VPSE (and, by extension, DVP)—may not have had authority to enter into the deal in the first place.

This is what the Affiliates Act is supposed to prevent. Virginia Code section 56-77 says that any “contract or arrangement” between a public service company and an affiliated interest for goods, property, or services requires prior approval from the Commission. The fact that VPSE is acting as a contractual middle man between DVP and Atlantic Coast makes no difference: this is an arrangement between DVP, VPSE, and Atlantic Coast that is made specifically for the benefit of DVP. They’re all the legs (and leg-hairs) of the same spider, and they are likely to put the spider’s welfare above anyone else’s. And that’s exactly the reason the General Assembly passed the Affiliates Act.

The Atlantic Coast Pipeline is a big deal for Dominion Resources. The company is all-in on natural gas, and building this $5 billion pipeline is expected to generate a lot of profit for shareholders. What’s missing from this equation is the public interest, and there are good reasons for the Commission to be skeptical. How does it benefit Virginians to construct an extraordinarily expensive pipeline when much cheaper pipeline capacity already exists? That’s the question the Sierra Club will pose to the Commission if grants the petition and requires DVP to submit its Atlantic Coast agreement for review.

Furthermore, why should DVP commit itself (and its customers) to a huge amount of natural gas capacity over twenty-year period when there are better, cleaner options available? While Dominion and all its spider legs may think that burning more gas is a great idea, the reality is, natural gas increasingly looks less like a long-term energy solution and more like a trap for companies that made the wrong bet. At the same time, renewable energy and efficiency resources are growing ever cheaper. The Commission might well question Dominion’s plan to lock its customers into a bad investment in fossil fuels over the next twenty years at the expense of smarter renewable alternatives.

There’s a reason the Affiliates Act exists, and this is it. Here’s hoping the Commission grants Sierra Club’s petition and gives the Dominion spider a good, hard look under the microscope.

 

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.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is a deeply irresponsible and immoral calculus.

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

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

Southeastern electric utilities find their way to higher profits through gas pipelines and captive consumers

Charlie Strickler of Harrisonburg, Virginia, was one of a dozen activists who fasted last September in protest of FERC's role in approving natural gas pipelines, citing their contribution to climate change and harm to communities in their path. Photo by Ivy Main.

Charlie Strickler of Harrisonburg, Virginia, was one of a dozen activists who fasted last September in protest of FERC’s role in approving natural gas pipelines, citing their contribution to climate change and harm to communities in their path. Photo by Ivy Main.

Duke Energy, Southern Company, NextEra Energy and Dominion Resources—four of the largest investor-owned utilities in the U.S., all headquartered in the Southeast—have simultaneously adopted a growth strategy reliant on large volumes of fracked gas. With the nation’s energy sector turning decisively away from coal and nuclear energy, these companies are betting natural gas will be the dominant fuel for at least the next several decades. All four are investing billions of dollars in gas pipelines and other gas infrastructure to profit from the fracking boom.

Pipelines are attractive investments because they are typically allowed rates of return of around 14%, compared with the average regulated utility return allowed by public utility commissions of about 10%.

For the southeastern utilities, however, that rate of return is only part of the attraction. In a strategy that ought to concern regulators and electricity consumers, Duke, Dominion and NextEra all plan to use their regulated electric power subsidiaries to guarantee demand for the pipelines they’re building. The subsidiaries will build natural gas generating plants, paid for by electricity consumers, to be supplied with gas carried through the pipelines owned by their sister companies.

Southern is also investing in pipelines, but it currently doesn’t need new generation beyond the coal and nuclear plants it is struggling to complete—themselves object lessons in why coal and nuclear are kaput.

Southern just announced completion of its $12 billion acquisition of AGL Resources, a natural gas pipeline and distribution company. The move makes Southern Company “the nation’s second-largest combined gas and electric utility by customer base,” according to Utility Dive.

Dominion Resources was already heavily invested in the natural gas sector before it announced a $4.4 billion purchase of Questar Corp. News reports say the acquisition will bring Dominion an additional 27,500 miles of gas distribution pipelines, 3,400 miles of gas transmission pipeline and 56 billion cubic feet of working gas storage.

Duke Energy is making a $4.9 billion purchase of Piedmont Natural Gas, a natural gas transmission and distribution company. And NextEra recently spent $2.1 billion to acquire Texas-based NET Midstream through the limited partnership it formed, NextEra Partners, LLC.

Moody’s Investor Services issued a report in March criticizing Dominion, Southern and Duke for their natural gas transmission buys, saying the added financial risks offset the benefits of diversifying their businesses.

Moody’s may not have known how the utilities plan to use electricity customers as a hedge for at least two planned pipelines, the Atlantic Coast Pipeline (ACP) and Sabal Trail.

Using electricity customers to pay for pipelines

Companies owned by Duke, Southern and Dominion are partners in the 550-mile ACP, which will carry fracked gas from West Virginia through Virginia to the North Carolina coast. Duke and NextEra are partners in Sabal Trail, a 515-mile pipeline proposed to run from an existing pipeline in Alabama through Georgia to Florida, where Duke says it will fuel gas plants owned by Duke Energy Florida and Florida Power and Light, a subsidiary of NextEra.

ACP and Sabal Trail are only two of 15 new pipelines proposed on the East Coast competing to carry fracked gas flowing out of the Marcellus shale in Pennsylvania and West Virginia. So many pipelines are in development that analysts say there simply isn’t enough gas to fill them all. At the 2016 Marcellus-Utica Midstream Conference in February, attendees were warned that pipeline capacity “will be largely overbuilt by the 2016-2017 timeframe.”

But the ACP and Sabal Trail have an advantage most of the competition lacks. The utility partners all own electric power subsidiaries that use fracked gas to generate electricity. If the subsidiaries build new gas plants, these pipelines will be guaranteed a customer base. That means they can be profitable for their investors even when other pipelines struggle to find customers.

Indeed, Duke and Dominion’s electricity subsidiaries are making the kinds of investments you’d expect to see if the success of the pipelines were their top priority. Dominion Virginia Power is in the middle of a three-plant, 4,300 MW gas generation build-out. In the ACP’s application to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), Dominion Resources justifies the ACP in part by saying it will supply the newer of these plants. And the utility is just getting started with new gas generation; Dominion Virginia Power told Virginia officials last fall it expects to build another 9,000 MW of gas plants by 2040.

Meanwhile, Duke’s regulated subsidiaries, Duke Energy Carolinas and Duke Energy Progress, filed integrated resource plans in North and South Carolina that call for up to nine new natural gas generating units, totaling 8,300 MW. In February of this year, Duke received approval to build two 280 MW gas units in Asheville, NC, and sought approval for a third.

Bigger investments, greater risks

Linking pipelines to captive customers should prove a profitable arrangement for the utilities. For the customers who bear the costs and risks, it’s much more problematic. But state law gives them no say in the matter. In these southern states, the electric power subsidiaries hold legal monopolies in their designated territories. Once federal regulators approve the pipelines and state regulators approve the gas plants, the captive customers bear the loss if the bet turns sour.

Any one of several scenarios would make the gas investments a bad bet. The age of plentiful shale gas could end almost as quickly as it started, as some analysts predict, or gas prices could resume their historic volatility for other reasons. The U.S. could adopt newer, tighter carbon rules to meet international climate obligations, or enact a carbon tax that increases the cost of fossil fuels. Alternatives like wind, solar and energy storage seem likely to continue their astonishing march towards domination of the electric sector. As they become increasingly competitive, much new gas infrastructure is destined to become stranded investments.

And finally, the demand for natural gas, and for the pipelines themselves, may simply not be there; Americans are using less electricity, and generating more of it themselves through rooftop solar systems. The vertically-integrated, monopoly utility model that prevails in the Southeast relies on ever-increasing sales, which means it doesn’t require much of a change in consumer behavior to turn black ink red.

So while environmentalists are enraged by the recklessness of the southeastern utilities’ natural gas strategy in an age of climate change, customers who only care about the bottom line on their utility bills have reason to be just as upset. Capitalism is supposed to ensure that corporate shareholders bear the costs as well as receive the benefits of risky bets. With the risks of their gas gamble shifted onto captive customers, the utilities won’t be punished for not choosing clean energy instead.

Bucking the trend towards renewables and efficiency

It’s worth noting that the plans of Dominion, Duke and their fellow monopoly utilities run counter to the expressed desires of their customers. Natural gas companies work to brand their product as “clean,” but polls show Americans overwhelmingly believe the U.S. should emphasize wind and solar over oil and gas production, and oppose the use of fracking to extract oil and gas. Major corporations now threaten to vote with their feet, refusing to locate where they can’t access electricity from renewable sources.

It is not a coincidence that Duke and Dominion fall near the bottom of a just-released survey conducted by Ceres that ranks major utilities by their performance on energy efficiency and renewable energy. NextEra and Southern do no better. NextEra’s electricity subsidiary, Florida Power and Light, came in dead last for renewable energy sales. Ceres says it was unable to include Southern this year because it did not respond to requests for data, but in 2014 Southern ranked 31 out of 32 on renewable energy sales.

The southeastern utilities stand in marked contrast to utilities like Berkshire Hathaway’s Mid-American, which has announced a goal of meeting 85% of its customers’ needs with wind power. Even Dominion’s Virginia rival, Appalachian Power Company, filed an integrated resource plan last year with more new wind and solar generation projected than new natural gas. Perhaps that’s because neither Appalachian Power nor its parent company, American Electric Power, own any gas pipelines.

Effects on competition and consumers trigger an antitrust complaint

Customers may be the biggest losers when utilities use their electricity subsidiaries to guarantee the success of their gas subsidiaries, but the arrangement also harms other business interests. These include pipeline operators who don’t have the same self-dealing opportunity; non-utility electricity generators who can’t sell their product to utilities because the utilities now prefer to build their own gas generation; and companies that build wind and solar projects, who find themselves boxed out.

Already one non-utility generator is crying foul: Columbia Energy LLC, an operator of a 523 MW independent combined cycle gas generating plant that wants to sell electricity to Duke Power but finds itself left out in the cold. Columbia is challenging both Duke’s application for approval of a new gas plant in Ashville and the merger of Duke with Piedmont Natural Gas, another partner in the Atlantic Coast Pipeline.

The potential of the ACP to harm consumers and competition led to the filing in May of a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). The complainant, retired Department of Justice antitrust lawyer Michael Hirrel, believes the utilities’ abuse of their legitimate monopoly power violates federal antitrust laws, and he is urging the FTC to investigate.

The Virginia Chapter of the Sierra Club, which opposes both the ACP and Dominion’s gas build-out, followed up with its own letter delving more deeply into the facts of Duke and Dominion’s self-dealing. (The letter and supporting documents, including Hirrel’s complaint, can be found at http://wp.vasierraclub.org/LetterInFull.pdf. Note that it’s a big file and may take time to load.) Hirrel has added both documents to the FERC file on the ACP application.

(Full disclosure: I led the team compiling the information for the Sierra Club submission. I’ve never met Mr. Hirrel and only learned about his complaint weeks after it was filed. However, I had been doing my own complaining—though evidently not to the proper authorities—about the utilities’ conflict of interest.)

But is anyone listening?

Aside from the FTC filing, opponents of the gas plants have pinned their hopes on state public utility commissions, while pipeline opponents are focused on the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). Neither venue offers grounds for optimism. Virginia’s State Corporation Commission (SCC) has approved three of Dominion’s new gas plants in a row over the objections of environmental advocates, and North Carolina’s Utility Commission recently approved Duke’s new gas units in Asheville (though for now it has turned down a request for a third).

FERC poses its own challenge. Activists want FERC to review gas transmission proposals collectively instead of singly, to avoid overbuilding and the unnecessary damage to the environment and local communities that would result. This would be a departure for the agency, which traditionally reviews proposals individually, and has approved nearly every pipeline proposal that has come before it.

So far FERC has resisted arguments of this nature, as well as objections based on climate concerns. But in a possible sign that the agency recognizes times are changing, it has recently slowed the approval process for some proposed new pipelines, apparently to conduct more thorough environmental reviews.

There is no sign yet that the public utility commissions and FERC are communicating with each other or with the FTC. That leaves anti-pipeline groups and environmental activists in a difficult position. They can make a strong case the utilities are taking unfair advantage of captive ratepayers for a purpose that harms both the environment and the public. But is anyone listening?

Complaint: utilities’ role in Atlantic Coast Pipeline violates antitrust laws

pipelinemadnessDominion Resources’ plan to use the captive ratepayers of its electricity subsidiary to guarantee a customer base for its Atlantic Coast Pipeline venture has caused critics—including me—to complain that the scheme presents a clear conflict of interest. According to a complaint filed with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), it’s also a violation of federal antitrust laws.

Lawyer Michael Hirrel, who retired last year from the Antitrust Division of the U.S. Department of Justice, has asked the FTC to investigate “whether ACP’s project constitutes a prohibited monopolization by Dominion, Duke and Piedmont, under Section 2 of the Sherman Act, and an unfair method of competition, under Section 5 of the Federal Trade Commission Act.”

Dominion Virginia Power is currently engaged in an aggressive build-out of natural gas generating plants, with three new units representing 4,300 megawatts of generating capacity, coming online between 2014 and 2019. The company’s latest integrated resource plan and presentations to stakeholders reveal plans for over 9,000 megawatts more. By comparison, the company has promised a mere 400 megawatts of solar.

Where there are gas plants, there must be gas, and this massive build-out means a guaranteed stream of income for the lucky owners of gas transmission pipelines. The fact that one such pipeline is partly owned by Dominion Virginia Power’s parent corporation is clearly a conflict of interest. Because Dominion holds a monopoly on electricity sales, its customers will be stuck paying for gas—and guaranteeing a revenue stream for pipeline owners—for decades to come.

This is a bad deal for customers and the climate, but according to Hirrel, it is also anticompetitive and warps the normal decision-making of the companies involved.

(In addition to Dominion Resources, the other owners of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline are Duke Energy, Piedmont Natural Gas and AGL Resources. AGL is being acquired by Southern Company, meaning three of the four partners own electricity subsidiaries that are regulated monopolies that can stick ratepayers with the cost of paying for gas. As for the fourth partner, Piedmont is a regulated monopoly distributor of natural gas. Just to make things even more cozy, Piedmont is being acquired by Duke.)

Hirrel’s complaint notes: “If Dominion, Duke and Piedmont were to acquire their gas and its transportation, plus electricity generation, in competitive markets, they would, the Commission must suppose, engage in a very different decision making process. But that process will be rendered moot when they acquire and transport their own natural gas, and generate their own electricity. They will distribute the electricity and gas to their own monopoly retail customers, who have no alternative. Those customers must pay the costs of Dominion, Duke and Piedmont’s decisions, whether the costs were efficiently assumed or not.”

Hirrel also points out that in a truly competitive market, Dominion and Duke might not pursue a natural gas strategy at all, because of the economic risks involved. They might, for example, consider whether investments in wind and solar would be more economical and avoid the potential for stranded investments.

“But in the present universe,” he concludes, “the one in which Dominion, Duke and Piedmont propose to become the monopoly suppliers of the inputs for their own monopoly customers, they need not engage in any such economically efficient decision making process. If they make bad decisions, they will not suffer. The costs of those bad decisions will be borne by the monopoly customers of their retail electricity and natural gas distribution systems.”

I called Mr. Hirrel to ask what action he expects the FTC to take. He says the Commission typically takes anywhere from two weeks to two months to determine whether to open an investigation when it receives a complaint like this. If it chooses to investigate, it may also ask the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to delay its approval process for the ACP pending conclusion of the FTC investigation.

Hirrel copied FERC on his complaint, making it a public document within the ACP docket (CP15-554).

Update: on June 23, the Virginia Chapter of the Sierra Club submitted a letter to the FTC providing further information supporting the antitrust complaint. The letter and supporting documents can be found at http://wp.vasierraclub.org/LetterInFull.pdf.

Does McAuliffe deserve that bad grade on climate and energy?

Protesters at an anti-pipeline rally aim their message at Governor McAuliffe

Protesters at an anti-pipeline rally aim their message at Governor McAuliffe

Clean energy advocates who scrutinize Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe’s record see different things. Chesapeake Climate Action Network (CCAN), the Virginia Student Environmental Coalition (VSEC) and other groups recently released a mid-season “report card” that gave McAuliffe a D-plus on climate and energy. The bad grades primarily stem from his support of massive fracked-gas pipelines and offshore oil drilling, as well as Department of Environmental Quality’s (DEQ’s) approval of Dominion Virginia Power’s plans to “close” coal ash ponds by leaving toxic waste in unlined pits next to rivers.

Meanwhile, though, other environmental leaders are praising the governor for speaking out about the reality of climate change and promising to forge ahead with implementation of the EPA’s Clean Power Plan in spite of the current judicial stay. They also say McAuliffe should get more credit for his vetoes of bills attacking the Clean Power Plan and extending subsidies to coal companies.

It is possible to agree with both the criticism and the defense. McAuliffe’s enthusiastic support for Dominion’s Atlantic Coast Pipeline has been an enduring irritant to climate activists as well as to landowners along the planned routes of the ACP and other natural gas pipelines. A Sierra Club analysis concluded that the pipelines would increase the Commonwealth’s greenhouse gas footprint by more than twice the total emissions of all power plant generation in the state.

He is also rightly criticized for supporting off-shore drilling, which would increase climate pollution and sea level rise and threaten the Navy’s and tourism’s contributions to Hampton Roads’ economy—a potential double whammy for residents and businesses.

And the Virginia DEQ has begun to look a lot like its North Carolina counterpart, a captured agency incapable of defending our air and water from the corporate polluters it is supposed to regulate. Sure, the problem has festered through several administrations, but McAuliffe’s failure to intervene is impossible to reconcile with his pro-environment rhetoric.

The problem goes beyond DEQ. In response to a detailed petition to the Governor for an interagency review to modernize the state’s fracking regulations, McAuliffe’s Secretary of Commerce and Labor announced a plan to limit the issues and refer them to an industry-dominated organization funded by the American Petroleum Institute for decision. This is hardly a sign of a Governor committed to protecting the environment, safety and health.

Yet messaging matters, and McAuliffe is a vocal messenger on the topic of climate change. The governor points to the flooding that routinely shuts down streets in Norfolk as proof that human-caused sea level rise is already a problem right here in Virginia. And as a team player for the Democrats, he supports Obama’s Clean Power Plan even as he brags (superfluously and probably incorrectly) that he persuaded EPA to soften its Virginia targets to reduce our burden of compliance.

Besides which, if he’s no Jerry Brown or Jay Inslee leading his state towards a fossil-free future, McAuliffe is also not Ken Cuccinelli, hounding climate scientists out of state. Given a Republican majority in Virginia’s General Assembly that is dedicated to propping up the coal industry and blocking anything EPA does, it could have been so much worse.

So perhaps CCAN is letting the perfect be the enemy of the good—or in this case, letting the good be the enemy of the “meh.”

Regardless of how they feel about McAuliffe’s record, both the glass-half-full folks and the glass-half-empty folks agree there’s an “incomplete” on his report card that could make an enormous difference to his legacy. The ultimate test of the Governor’s climate credentials, they say, is whether he pushes DEQ to write a Clean Power Plan that puts a firm cap on total carbon emissions from the electric sector in Virginia. Though the General Assembly found a way to stop DEQ from completing work on the state implementation plan temporarily, nothing stops McAuliffe from taking a public stand on this most critical point.

That sounds like a no-brainer for a Democrat who is serious about reining in CO2. Unfortunately, it doesn’t meet with the approval of Tom Farrell, CEO of Dominion Resources, or Bob Blue, President of Dominion’s electric utility subsidiary, Dominion Virginia Power. They want DEQ to write a plan that leaves out new sources of emissions. That would let them continue building lots of big, new natural gas generating plants that, Blue assures us, will be capable of spewing carbon for at least another half century. All that burning of fracked gas would be lousy for the climate, but it would guarantee profits for Dominion’s utility and pipeline affiliate.

So on the one hand, the Governor can choose to be a climate hero, fighting sea level rise and deadly heat waves, creating tens of thousands of clean energy jobs and attracting forward-looking companies to the state, building his national reputation, doing what’s right for all our children and grandchildren, —

Or he can make Dominion happy.

It will be very interesting to see what becomes of that “incomplete” on his report card.