Why Trump won’t stop the clean energy revolution

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Coal is still dead

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

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

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

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

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

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

Solar and wind are still going to beat out conventional fuels

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Renewable energy is popular with everyone

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

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

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

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

The Clean Power Plan was important, but not transformative

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is a deeply irresponsible and immoral calculus.

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

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

The “fuel” that’s helping America fight climate change isn’t natural gas

You’ve heard the good news on climate: after a century or more of continuous rise, U.S. CO2 emissions have finally begun to decline, due largely to changes in the energy sector. According to the Energy Information Agency (EIA), energy-related CO2 emissions in 2015 were 12% below their 2005 levels. The EIA says this is “because of the decreased use of coal and the increased use of natural gas for electricity generation.”

Is the EIA right in making natural gas the hero of the CO2 story? Hardly. Sure, coal-to-gas switching is real. But take a look at this graph showing the contributors to declining carbon emissions. Natural gas displacement of coal accounts for only about a third of the decrease in CO2 emissions.

Courtesy of the Sierra Club Beyond Coal Campaign, using data from the Energy Information Agency.

Courtesy of the Sierra Club Beyond Coal Campaign, using data from the Energy Information Agency.

By far the biggest driver of the declining emissions is energy efficiency. Americans are using less energy overall, even as our population grows and our economy expands

Energy efficiency is sometimes called the “first fuel” because cutting waste is a cheaper and faster way to meet energy demand than building new power plants. Improvements in energy performance cut across all sectors of the economy, from industrial machines to home electronics to innovations like LED bulbs replacing famously wasteful incandescent light bulbs.

Energy efficiency’s stunning success in lowering carbon emissions should get more attention, and not just because it is cheaper than building new natural gas-fired power plants. Efficiency has no downsides. Natural gas has plenty. Indeed, when methane leakage from drilling and infrastructure is factored in, natural gas doesn’t look much like a climate hero at all.

And that’s not the full story. A growing share of the credit for carbon reductions also goes to non-carbon-emitting sources, primarily wind, and solar. Both sources exhibit double-digit growth rates. Wind power in the U.S. has grown from a little over 9,000 megawatts (MW) in 2005 to more than 74,000 MW by the end of 2015. In 2005, the solar market scarcely existed. By early this year, we had 29,000 MW installed.

The solar trend is particularly exciting because we are just starting to see the big numbers that result from solar’s exponential growth. In the first quarter of 2016, more solar came online in the U.S. than all other power sources combined. Analysts like Bloomberg New Energy Finance see solar becoming the world’s dominant energy source over the next 25 years, driving out not just coal but also a lot of gas generation as solar becomes the cheapest way to make energy.

For an inspiring look at how this will happen, check out this presentation by author Tony Seba. As Seba argues, solar isn’t a commodity like fossil fuels; it is a technology like computers and cell phones. When technologies like these take off, they take over. Seba refers to solar technology, battery storage, electric vehicles and self-driving vehicles as “disruptive” technologies that are advancing together to upend our energy and transportation sectors.

Another graph shows us how critical these advancements will be. The U.S. is on track to achieve President Obama’s goal announced last year of lowering carbon emissions 17% below 2005 levels by 2020, but we will need more aggressive measures to meet our Paris Agreement target of 26-28% below 2005 levels by 2025. After 2025, of course, we will have to cut greenhouse emissions even further and faster.

Slide4Given the urgency of the climate crisis, we don’t have the option of waiting around for the solar revolution to bankrupt the oil and gas industry and fossil-bound electric utilities. These companies will not go quietly; already they are maneuvering to lock customers into fossil fuels. Power producers are engaged in a mad rush to build natural gas plants, and wherever possible, to stick utility customers with the costs.

For Virginians who have felt especially under attack from fracked gas projects recently, this final graph shows it’s not your imagination: Virginia is second only to Texas in new gas plant development underway. And this graph captures only a fraction of the new gas that Virginia’s major utility, Dominion Virginia Power, wants to build. In presentations to state officials, it revealed plans for more than 9,000 megawatts of additional gas generating capacity.

Based on Energy Information Agency data. Chart excludes natural gas generating units already under construction as well as those scheduled to come online after 2020.

Based on Energy Information Agency data. Chart excludes natural gas generating units already under construction as well as those scheduled to come online after 2020.

Dominion and other gas-happy utilities are betting that once plants are built and consumers are on the hook, regulators won’t want to see them idled ten years from now just because renewable energy has made them obsolete.

Indeed, Dominion and other utilities, including Duke Energy, Southern Company, and NextEra in the Southeast and DTE Energy in the Midwest, even plan to use electricity customers to make money for the gas pipelines they are building, locking Americans further into gas.

This is madness. The only sound energy plan today is one that looks forward to an era of minimal fossil fuel use. It puts efficiency and renewables front and center, shifting natural gas and other fuels to supporting roles that will shrink over time.

The shift is inevitable. Delaying it means allowing the climate crisis to worsen, while sticking customers with higher bills for decades to come. That may suit some utilities just fine, but the cost is too high for the rest of us.

 

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.

 

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.

Inside the minds of Dominion’s leaders, vacant space where climate thinking should be

Climate activists protest outside Dominion Resources' May shareholder meeting in Columbia, SC. Photo credit Ian Ware, Chesapeake Climate Action Network.

Climate activists protest outside Dominion Resources’ May shareholder meeting in Columbia, SC. Photo credit Ian Ware, Chesapeake Climate Action Network.

At Dominion Resources’ annual May meeting, shareholders presented five resolutions designed to improve the company’s assessment of its opportunities and vulnerabilities on climate, renewable energy and nuclear power. The company’s Board opposed the resolutions and fought vigorously to keep them off the shareholder ballot. (All five failed.) Guest blogger Seth Heald attended the meeting and sent this report back.

Two senior Dominion Resources executives—Bob Blue and Thomas F. Farrell, II—gave speeches on consecutive days earlier this month. I’ll report here on what they said, but even more telling is what they failed to say. Neither man mentioned a critical topic for their company and our world: climate change.

In Arthur Conan Doyle’s short story Silver Blaze, Sherlock Holmes solves the kidnapping of a racehorse by focusing on what didn’t happen. A dog didn’t bark in the night when the crime was committed, suggesting that the perpetrator was friendly with the dog. As The New Yorker’s Maria Konnikova, author of How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes, describes Holmes’s insight: “pay attention to what isn’t there, not just what is. Absence is just as important and just as telling as presence.”

Here’s the context of the two Dominion speeches. Bob Blue, president of Dominion Resources’ Dominion Virginia Power (DVP) subsidiary, was the luncheon speaker on May 10 before several hundred people in Richmond at the Virginia Chamber of Commerce conference on “Energy, Sustainability & Resiliency.” Tom Farrell, Dominion Resources’ board chairman, president, and CEO, spoke the following day in Columbia, SC, addressing a small audience—many of them Dominion employees and board members—at Dominion Resources’ 107th annual shareholders meeting. (Dominion always draws smaller audiences, and smaller climate protests, when it holds its shareholder meeting away from its Richmond headquarters.) As best I can tell, Bob Blue and I were the only two people present at both events. I took detailed notes.

DVP is Virginia’s largest electric utility. Thanks to its fossil-fuel-fired power plants it’s also the commonwealth’s number one emitter of climate-disrupting carbon dioxide. It’s hard for serious people to think about “energy, sustainability, and resiliency” these days without thinking about how climate change is and will be affecting us and our children. The past year has certainly been filled with near-constant reminders of climate change for anyone paying attention. These include Pope Francis’s encyclical, record warm global-average temperatures, the Paris international climate accord, severe droughts, and severe floods.

So it seems reasonable to expect Blue might have expressed some thoughts on how the climate crisis will be affecting his company and the electric-power industry in the coming decades. It was, after all, a conference on energy, sustainability, and resiliency.

Blue said at the outset that “natural gas is the new default fuel” for electric-power generation. He mentioned his company’s new gas-fired power plants and said, “We expect the big things we build to last 50 years or more.” He alluded to the hits Dominion has taken recently on its environmental record by saying the company had done a lot of things well, “but our weakness is our inability to communicate in simple terms about complex matters.” (Translation: We’re doing everything just right, but folks don’t realize it because they can’t understand complex matters.)

If climate change is a subject Blue has given any thought to lately, he neglected to mention it. To be fair, he did briefly mention the EPA Clean Power Plan, saying he thinks it would cost Virginia between $5 billion and $13 billion. But then he claimed it was too complex and boring to go into in detail. And he also talked a bit about solar and wind power, but there was no reference at all to the underlying climate problem that is the primary reason we need to transition from fossil fuels.

What’s more, Blue brought up solar and wind mostly to justify DVP’s go-slow approach in deploying them. Speaking a few days after the Kentucky Derby, in what he called “Triple Crown season,” Blue said that with solar and wind power, “The earliest horse out of the gate doesn’t always win.” That’s true in horse racing (although sometimes the first horse out does win), but it’s a poor analogy to use when addressing climate change, where greater CO2 emissions today necessitate much sharper reductions later. Thinking about climate change means recognizing the need for early action.

Come to think of it, the horse-out-of-the-gate analogy is more apt for building gas-fired power plants than it is for deploying clean energy. There’s no need to rush to build multiple fossil-fuel plants when we know we have to kick our fossil-fuel habit. In fact, there’s a high likelihood that a rush to build huge new fossil-fuel infrastructure now will leave ratepayers on the hook later, paying for power plants that have to be shut down early for us to reach our future carbon-emission targets. Yet Dominion has certainly been moving with great speed lately to get gas-fired power plants built. There is a sense of urgency at Dominion, but it’s about building more fossil-fuel infrastructure, not addressing climate change.

By not mentioning or acknowledging climate change Blue accomplished at least two objectives that he must think serve his company’s short-term interests. First, he avoided offending the many Republicans in the room, including some state legislators, whose party still cannot bring itself to acknowledge the climate threat. Blue’s climate silence is understandable in that regard, although it hardly reflects moral courage or true business leadership. Problems ignored as unpleasant or “controversial” tend to get worse, not better.

Second, by not mentioning climate change Blue could avoid having to explain how Dominion’s business plan will affect the climate, or Virginia’s ability to transition from fossil fuels to carbon-free energy in time to help our country avoid catastrophic climate impacts. Stated another way, ignoring climate change allowed Blue to ignore the need to compare his company’s greenhouse-gas-emissions trajectory with what the science tells us must be done to retain a recognizable climate.

Climate silence is a topic of considerable interest to scholars these days. In fact, on the day after Blue’s speech The Washington Post ran an article describing a recent study of climate silence by two Penn State researchers. In his new book Moral Disengagement, renowned Stanford psychologist Albert Bandura explains, “If one ignores … the evidence of the harmful results of one’s conduct, one has few reasons to activate self-censure or any need to change behavioral practices.”

This may help to explain Blue’s silence. When your business model doesn’t square with your conscience, you may prefer not to activate your conscience.

Bandura’s insights also illuminate the lacuna where climate thinking should be in the mind of the Dominion Resources CEO. Farrell’s speech to shareholders in Columbia a day after Blue’s talk was preceded by a short video intended to show Dominion’s good works in South Carolina. I’ve attended the last four Dominion shareholder meetings (two in Richmond, one in Cleveland, and this one in Columbia). The videos about the company’s local charitable and civic involvement are a staple at each meeting, and they’re always well-produced, moving, and interesting.

This year’s video highlighted contributions (financial, in-kind, and services) that Dominion and its employees made to the Red Cross and others in South Carolina last fall, when the state suffered from catastrophic flooding. A news clip in the video from the time of the floods showed an emotional Governor Nikki Haley saying, “This is the heaviest flooding we’ve ever seen.” Another person could be heard saying, “Eastover [SC] lost everything.” Columbia’s mayor said the floods “changed our lives.” A number of scenes of devastation were shown.

Dominion’s employees clearly did great work in helping a stricken region recover, and the company’s donations to the Red Cross are certainly admirable. But there was a sad irony in employing that tragic event to highlight Dominion’s many good works. Did any of the assembled Dominion executives or board members think about climate change as the video rolled? Did they think about the wisdom of their company’s plans to build massive new fossil-fuel infrastructure? Certainly Farrell did not mention climate in his prepared remarks following the video.

When company executives rarely talk publicly about climate change it’s easier for them and their audiences and employees not to think about it. Executives’ public silence on the issue also makes it easier for the legislators with whom executives regularly interact not to think about climate. And if you don’t think about a problem much, you’re unlikely to gain a sense of urgency about having to address it. That’s Albert Bandura’s moral-disengagement theory in a nutshell.

Dominion’s public silence on climate is complemented by its support for the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which promotes climate-change disinformation to state legislators. That further promotes inaction on climate. A corporation’s use of front groups to do the corporation’s dirty work behind the scenes is another example of moral disengagement, according to Bandura.

Farrell started his talk by listing what he said are Dominion’s four core values: “safety, ethics, excellence, and one Dominion.” There’s a large and growing body of scholarly research on climate-change ethics, including a number of recent excellent books on the topic suitable for lay readers. But Farrell’s discussion of ethics had no references to the climate. A shareholder resolution on the Dominion proxy ballot this year called on the company to have at least one board member with environmental expertise. Such expertise might include familiarity with the field of climate ethics. But Dominion’s board recommended a “no” vote on the resolution, and it was defeated.

Farrell claimed that Dominion is a leader in environmental stewardship. “We’re a leader, but people don’t recognize it.” He discussed the company’s major expansion in the natural-gas transmission business in recent years, and said the Marcellus shale-gas formation in the East “will provide gas for the balance of this century at least.” He noted the company’s pending acquisition of Utah-based gas company Questar, which will allow the company to expand its gas business across the West.

Farrell took questions from shareholders after his talk. I asked him for his thoughts about climate change, after noting that we’d been through a year of record global temperatures, floods, and the Paris climate accord. He said he didn’t want to talk about the Paris agreement. “I’ll leave that to President Obama and Secretary Kerry. That’s above my pay grade.” Farrell’s pay package last year topped $20 million.

 

Seth Heald is a student in the Johns Hopkins University Master of Science in Energy Policy and Climate program. His article on climate communication and moral disengagement is published in the May-June 2016 issue of the journal Environment, Science and Policy for Sustainable Development. He serves as volunteer chair of the Sierra Club’s Virginia Chapter. 

Battles over climate and coal go unresolved, but Virginians still paying more

Students rally for climate action in Alexandria, Virginia. Photo courtesy of Sierra Club.

Students rally for climate action in Alexandria, Virginia. Photo courtesy of Sierra Club.

Virginia’s 2016 legislative session ended last week with a one-day veto session, an ideological battleground where both sides fought lustily but nobody won.

Republicans could not muster the votes to overcome McAuliffe’s veto of legislation extending taxpayer handouts for coal mining companies. Nor could they overcome vetoes of HB 2 and SB 21, bills requiring that any state plan implementing the EPA’s Clean Power Plan be submitted to the General Assembly for approval.

They did, however, succeed in defending a budget item prohibiting the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) from developing a state implementation plan while a federal stay of the Clean Power Plan remains in effect. (For that they needed only a majority; overriding a veto requires a two-thirds super-majority.)

These votes won’t end the skirmishing. The tax credit for companies that mine Virginia coal doesn’t expire until the end of 2016, and Terry Kilgore, Chairman of the House Commerce and Labor Committee and a reliable ally of the coal lobby, has already promised another effort next session to extend the handouts.

As for the Clean Power Plan, the budget maneuver will cause headaches, as intended, but it’s merely a stall tactic. Virginia may end up submitting a clumsier plan than it otherwise would, if it has to scramble to meet the deadline once the stay is lifted. Even that isn’t certain. DEQ has already completed much of the fact-gathering portion of its work, including issuance of a report from the stakeholder group it convened to consider options. And the new fiscal year, when the prohibition kicks in, doesn’t begin until July 1. A lot of work could get done in two months.

Moreover, Republicans seem to have a losing hand here, even if they block DEQ from completing its work. If the Clean Power Plan survives attack in the courts and Virginia doesn’t submit a plan, EPA will write one for us. On the other hand, if the Clean Power Plan fails judicial scrutiny, EPA will have to rewrite it in a way that might be even worse for coal.[1]

But the Republican attacks on the Clean Power Plan have never been about protecting our ability to plan our own energy future—or for that matter, about protecting ratepayers. Recall that a year ago the General Assembly passed Dominion Power’s SB 1349, with its so-called “rate freeze,” on the theory that the Clean Power Plan will cost so much money that electric rates needed to be frozen between now and the time the plan actually kicks in, and regulators forbidden from scrutinizing utilities’ books in the meantime.

I know: that makes no sense. But don’t ask me for a better explanation; the rationale never stood up to scrutiny. And Republicans weren’t the only ones supporting this peculiar legislation. Once the original anti-Clean Power Plan elements were stripped out, plenty of Democrats got on board to prove their fealty to Dominion.

We have since learned two things about SB 1349 and one thing about the Clean Power Plan:

  • According to one State Corporation Commission judge, SB 1349 will cost Virginia ratepayers a billion dollars in overpayments to Dominion.
  • Dominion Power customers are about to see their rates go up regardless of the “freeze,” as a result of Dominion getting approval to build a new gas-fired power plant;
  • The final Clean Power Plan requires almost nothing from Virginia, and compliance might even save us money.

Now that we know all this, wouldn’t you expect to hear legislators clamoring for the repeal of the faux rate freeze?

Cock an ear. What do you hear?

Crickets.

To be sure, many Republicans who pushed for SB 1349 were more interested in the threat the Clean Power Plan posed to the coal industry. Their support for the coal tax subsidies shows Republicans have no qualms about charging taxpayers tens of millions of dollars annually to help coal companies. Perhaps when you’re in the business of giving away other people’s money, another billion dollars doesn’t seem like a stretch.

Still, if concern for the people of coal country were really at work, we might have expected success for McAuliffe’s budget amendment that put one million dollars into funding for solar projects, with priority for those in Southwest Virginia. Compared to the coal subsidies, admittedly, this isn’t much. In NoVa, a million dollars is one high-end home, green features extra. Spread around the coalfields, though, it could have powered up to a hundred homes with solar. Maybe the symbolism was too hard to take. In any case, Republicans scuttled the funding.

Rhetoric triumphed over substance in other ways this session, too. The General Assembly voted to establish a Shoreline Resiliency Fund, but failed to fund it. Clean energy bills from both sides of the aisle fizzled; with few exceptions, those that weren’t killed outright were sent to a newly-announced subcommittee conceived as a dumping ground for solar bills. No meeting schedule has yet been announced for this subcommittee.

Given the urgency of the climate crisis and the pressing need to develop our clean energy sector, this year’s stalemate feels particularly frustrating. We should all ask for our money back.


[1] Sure, there’s a third possibility: the EPA plan could be withdrawn under a President Trump. But if that’s our future, then defending the Clean Power Plan could be the least of our worries. Hoo-boy. Best not to think about it.

 

Republicans find new way to stop McAuliffe moving forward on Clean Power Plan

Must not be a Virginia Republican. Photo courtesy of Glen Besa.

Must not be a Virginia Republican. Photo courtesy of Glen Besa.

Virginia Republicans have found a new way to obstruct development of a state plan implementing the federal Clean Power Plan: take away funding for it. A line inserted by House Republicans in the state budget will prevent the Department of Environmental Quality from using any funds “to prepare or submit” a state implementation plan unless the U.S. Supreme Court’s stay of the Clean Power Plan is released.

Governor McAuliffe is fighting back, but the approach he has taken is expected to fail in the face of Republican majorities in the House and Senate. He has responded by offering an amendment to the budget item, removing “prepare or” from the Republicans’ budget amendment. The result would retain the prohibition on submitting a state plan while the Supreme Court’s stay is in effect (a harmless prohibition since EPA won’t accept them for now anyway), but allows DEQ to continue developing the state plan.

McAuliffe’s amendment accords with his support for the Clean Power Plan and his pledge to continue development of an implementation plan even while the EPA rule is in limbo. He has already vetoed Republican-backed bills that would have required DEQ to submit any implementation plan to the General Assembly for approval before sending it to the EPA. These vetoes can only be overridden by a two-thirds majority, and Republicans don’t have the numbers.

But the budget amendment is doomed to fail. A governor’s budget amendment can be defeated by a simple majority vote. House Republicans are expected to vote in lock step to reject the amendment when the General Assembly reconvenes April 20.

Environmental groups had expected the governor to use a line-item veto to strip out the offending language. Doing so would have meant the Republicans couldn’t muster a two-thirds majority to overcome the veto. We’re told McAuliffe changed his approach on the advice of attorneys who felt a line-item veto invited a constitutional challenge. The result, though, is a loss for the Governor.

Worse, it means Virginia will lose time in crafting a plan to diversify and de-carbonize our electricity grid. As a coastal state on the front lines of sea level rise, Virginia has more to lose than almost any other state from our fossil fuel addiction. And for Virginia, compliance with the Clean Power Plan is so easy that it’s hard to listen to Republicans fuss without picturing tempests in teapots.

Obviously, Republican opposition to a plan to cut carbon is neither more nor less than an act of spite aimed at President Obama. But what have they gained with this maneuver? At most it’s a “win” for an old energy model built on obsolete coal plants owned by bankrupt corporations that have laid off thousands of workers and cut the benefits of retired miners while lavishing campaign cash on legislators and paying millions of dollars in executive bonuses. That’s not the kind of win you put on campaign posters.

The Sierra Club and other climate activists plan to call out the House Republican leadership for their budget maneuver with a rally at the Capitol at 10 a.m. on April 20, during the veto session. The event, fittingly, is called “Turn Up the Heat in the House.”

Why does Dominion Power support EPA’s Clean Power Plan?

DominionLogoWhen utility giant Dominion Resources Inc. filed a brief in support of the federal Clean Power Plan last week, a lot of people were caught off guard. Hadn’t Dominion CEO Tom Farrell said as recently as January that it would cost consumers billions of dollars? Why, then, is the utility perfectly okay with it now?

Well, first, because the mere threat of the plan has already cost Virginia consumers a cool billion, but it’s all going straight into Dominion’s pockets. What’s not to like? Otherwise, as applied to the Commonwealth, the Clean Power Plan itself is a creampuff that could even save money for ratepayers. Farrell’s claim that it will cost billions, made at a Virginia Chamber of Commerce-sponsored conference, seems to have been a case either of pandering to his conservative audience, or of wishful thinking. (Looking at you, North Anna 3!)

And second, Dominion’s amicus brief indicates its satisfaction with the way it thinks Virginia will implement the Clean Power Plan. Dominion has been lobbying the Department of Environmental Quality to adopt a state implementation plan allowing for unlimited construction of new natural gas plants (and perhaps that new nuclear plant), which happens to be Dominion’s business plan.

If you can get everything you want and still look like a green, progressive company, why wouldn’t you support the Clean Power Plan?

The only risk here is that it makes Virginia Republicans look like idiots. Their number one priority this legislative session was stopping the Clean Power Plan, largely on the grounds of cost. They ignored the hard numbers showing the plan essentially gives Virginia a pass, and instead relied on propaganda from fossil fuel-backed organizations like Americans for Prosperity and, crucially, the word of Dominion Power lobbyists.

Sure, it wasn’t just Republicans; a lot of Virginia Democrats swallowed Dominion’s argument during the 2015 legislative session that the Clean Power Plan would be so expensive for consumers that the General Assembly had to pass a bill—the notorious SB 1349—freezing electricity rates through the end of the decade so they would not skyrocket.

SB 1349 suspended the ability of regulators at the State Corporation Commission to review Dominion’s earnings. One outraged commissioner, Judge Dimitri, calculated that the effect of this “rate freeze” would be to allow Dominion to pocket as much as a billion dollars in excess earnings, money that ratepayers would otherwise have received in refunds or credits.

Nor has SB 1349 even prevented rates from going up, since the State Corporation Commission’s approval of Dominion’s latest mammoth gas plant[1] will tack on 75 cents to the average customer’s monthly bill.

Environmental groups had opposed the gas plant, arguing approval is premature since we don’t know what Virginia’s Clean Power Plan will look like, and that Dominion hadn’t properly considered other options.

It gets worse. Building more of its own gas plants allows Dominion to terminate contracts to buy power from other generators. In theory, this should represent an offsetting savings for consumers. But as Judge Dimitri explained in a concurrence, SB 1349 means Dominion doesn’t have to subtract this savings from the bill it hands those ratepayers.[2]

As Sierra Club Virginia Chapter Director Glen Besa noted, “The State Corporation Commission decision today proves that there really is no electricity rate freeze. The SCC just allowed Dominion to raise our electricity rates and increase carbon pollution for a power plant we don’t need.”

Now, let’s have a look at what is actually in Dominion’s Clean Power Plan brief. In part, it is a defense of EPA’s holistic approach to regulating generation and a rejection of the conservative claim that the agency should not be allowed to regulate “outside the fence line” of individual plants. Adopting the conservative view, argues Dominion, could lead to widespread, expensive coal plant closures.

But mostly, Dominion likes the Clean Power Plan because the company feels well positioned to take advantage of it. The brief makes this argument with classic corporate understatement:

Dominion believes that, if key compliance flexibilities are maintained in the Rule, states adopt reasonable implementation plans, and government permitting and regulatory authorities efficiently process permit applications and perform regulatory oversight required to facilitate the timely development of needed gas pipeline and electric transmission infrastructure, then compliance is feasible for power plants subject to the Rule.

What Dominion means by “reasonable implementation plans” requires no guesswork. Virginia clean energy advocates want a mass-based state implementation plan that includes new sources, so power plant CO2 emissions from Virginia don’t actually increase under the Clean Power Plan. You or I might think that reasonable, given the climate crisis and EPA’s carbon-cutting goals. But that’s not what Dominion means by “reasonable.”

Dominion’s business plan, calling for over 9,000 megawatts of new natural gas generation, would increase CO2 emissions by 60%. To Dominion, a 60% increase in CO2 must therefore be reasonable. Anything that hinders Dominion’s plans is not reasonable. QED.

“Needed gas pipeline . . . infrastructure” is no puzzle either. Dominion wants approval of its massive Atlantic Coast Pipeline. That pipeline, and more, will be needed to feed the gaping maws of all those gas plants. Conversely, Dominion, having gone big into the natural gas transmission business, needs to build gas generating plants to ensure demand for its pipelines.

Dominion is not the only electric utility betting big on natural gas. Southern Company and Duke Energy have also recently spent billions to acquire natural gas transmission and distribution companies. Moody’s is criticizing these moves because of the debt incurred. From a climate perspective, though, the bigger problem is that this commitment to natural gas comes right at the time when scientists and regulators are sounding the alarm about methane leakage.

There is surely some irony that Dominion, while defending the EPA’s plan to address climate change, is doing its level best to increase the greenhouse gas emissions that drive it.

Indeed, anyone reading Dominion’s brief and looking for an indication that Dominion supports the Clean Power Plan because it believes the utility sector needs to respond to the climate crisis would be sadly disappointed.

On the other hand, the brief positively sings the praises of “market-based measures” for producing the lowest possible costs. This is a little hard to take, coming from a monopoly that uses its political and economic clout to keep out competition and reap excessive profits through legislation like SB 1349, and which intends to use its captive ratepayers to hedge the risks of its big move into natural gas transmission.


[1] SCC case PUE-2015-00075 Final Order, March 29, 2016.

[2] Commissioner Dimitri, in a concurring opinion:

“I would find that SB 1349 cannot impact the Commission’s authority in this matter because it violates the plain language of Article IX, Section 2, of the Constitution of Virginia, for the reasons set forth in my separate opinion in Case No. PUE-2015-00027.

“Indeed, the instant case further illustrates how SB 1349 fixes base rates as discussed in that separate opinion. The evidence in this case shows that Dominion plans to allow certain NUG contracts, currently providing power to customers, to expire while base rates are frozen by SB 1349. The capacity costs associated with these contracts, however, are currently included in those base rates. Thus, as explained by Consumer Counsel, this means that “the Company’s base rates will remain inflated” because Dominion (i) will no longer be paying these NUG capacity costs, but (ii) will continue to recover such costs from its customers since base rates are frozen under SB 1349. Based on Dominion’s cost estimates, between now and the end of 2019, it will have recovered over $243 million from its customers for NUG capacity costs that the Company no longer incurs. While other costs and revenues are likely to change up and down during this period and would not be reflected in base rate changes precluded by SB 1349, these NUG costs are known, major cost reductions that will not be passed along to customers.” [Footnotes omitted.]

 

 

McAuliffe’s stark choice on the Clean Power Plan: serve Virginia, or Dominion Power

Photo by Josh Lopez, courtesy of the Sierra Club.

Photo by Josh Lopez, courtesy of the Sierra Club.

After the Supreme Court issued a stay of the EPA’s Clean Power Plan pending its review by the D.C. Circuit, many Republican governors halted compliance efforts in their states, while most Democratic governors opted to continue. Among these was Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe, who plans to unveil a draft state implementation plan this fall.

Deciding to move forward on President Obama’s signature climate effort was an easy call. Polls show strong support for reducing carbon pollution, and the Governor wants to prove himself a team player who supports his president and his party. McAuliffe often reiterates his conviction that climate change is already producing extreme weather and increasingly severe coastal flooding in Virginia, making government action urgent.

Governor McAuliffe has another choice before him now: he can craft a compliance plan that moves Virginia firmly in the direction of clean energy and lower carbon emissions, or he can adopt one that allows unbridled growth in new power generation from natural gas. The latter could still meet the letter of the law, but it would hugely increase greenhouse gas emissions from Virginia power plants.

McAuliffe has this choice because EPA’s rules come in two parts: the Clean Power Plan addresses existing power plants under one section of the Clean Air Act, while new power plants are addressed under another section of that law. As a result of the statutory structure and EPA’s rules, states can choose to cover both under one set of rules with a total cap on utilities’ CO2 emissions, or they can address new and existing sources separately.

If a state chooses to cover both under a single cap, new generation can be added up to the cap or go beyond if the utility buys emission allowances from another utility. But if a state treats new and existing sources separately, then new sources can grow without limit as long as each new unit meets a unit-specific standard. Of course, building more fossil-fueled power plants of any type will increase carbon emissions, at a time when the U.S. desperately needs to cut back.

The carbon reduction target EPA set for Virginia under the Clean Power Plan is extremely modest. EPA’s numbers show Virginia can meet the target for existing sources simply by not increasing emissions. If the state also includes new power plants under the cap, however, it creates a real incentive to invest in clean energy.

But there’s a problem. Dominion Resources, the Richmond-based parent company of Dominion Virginia Power, is heavily invested in the natural gas sector, primarily transmission and storage. That has led Dominion to lobby for an implementation plan that covers only existing power plants.

Excluding new sources would leave the company free to build as many new natural gas-burning power plants in the state as it wants, locking in years of increased carbon pollution, and further boosting demand for fracked gas and pipeline capacity. Dominion’s plans call for more than 9,500 megawatts of new gas generation in Virginia, equivalent in carbon impact to building eight average-sized coal plants in the state.

McAuliffe can do what Dominion wants, or he can do the right thing for the climate. He can’t do both.

The stakes are high on both sides. McAuliffe has made job creation his number one priority, and he lures new industry to the state with the promise of lower-than-average electricity rates. Dominion says supporting its natural gas plans is the way to deliver on that promise. Whether that is true or not doesn’t count in this calculus; with state law limiting governors to a single term, McAuliffe is focused on the present.

But adopting a plan that allows unlimited increases in greenhouse gas emissions would run contrary to Virginia’s long-term interests. Not only is the state on the front lines of sea level rise, it needs predictable, affordable electricity prices for decades to come. And nothing can provide that better than renewable power and increased energy efficiency.

Neither Dominion nor anyone else can guarantee the price of natural gas over the life of a new power plant. Questions of price and supply bedevil even the best analysts and make forecasting risky. Moreover, the growing awareness of the climate impacts of methane from leaking wells and pipelines is already producing calls for tighter regulation of natural gas. A carbon tax or cap-and-trade legislation would also make all fossil fuels more expensive relative to carbon-free renewables.

While the cost of using natural gas can only go up, the costs of wind, solar and battery storage are expected to continue their astonishing declines. Advances in energy efficiency promise huge savings for states that pursue programs to help customers cut their energy use.

From a bill-payer’s perspective, then, investments in clean energy make more sense than building gas plants, even without taking federal regulations into consideration. Recent analyses show Virginia can cap carbon pollution from new power plants and still save money for electricity customers.

Environmental groups say their number one energy priority this year is to ensure Virginia adopts a Clean Power Plan that includes both existing and new sources, and they are counting on Governor McAuliffe to deliver. Their message is simple: if McAuliffe wants to be on the climate team, Virginia’s compliance plan must reduce CO2 emissions, not let them grow.