Sen. Mark Warner’s tolerance of climate disinformation

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CREDIT: VIRGINIA STUDENT ENVIRONMENTAL ASSOCIATION

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tiny Virginia subcommittee tasked with deciding future of bills related to EPA’s Clean Power Plan; meeting set for December 17

Photo credit: Sierra Club

Photo credit: Sierra Club

The EPA’s proposed Clean Power Plan could reshape Virginia’s energy future for the next fifteen years, and possibly permanently. If the state takes advantage of this opportunity, it will reduce carbon pollution, improve human health, save money for consumers, drive job creation in the fast-growing technology sector, and make our grid stronger and more secure.

If the state doesn’t act, EPA will design its own plan for Virginia, ensuring reduced carbon emissions but without the flexibility the state would have by doing it for itself.

This presents a conundrum for Virginia’s General Assembly, which is not known for embracing federal environmental regulations. The usual skepticism was on display on November 19, when the Senate and House Commerce and Labor Committees met in a joint session to take up the Clean Power Plan—or more precisely, to give utilities and the State Corporation Commission staff the chance to attack it.

At the conclusion of that meeting, the two Republican committee chairs, Senator John Watkins and Delegate Terry Kilgore, named three members of each committee—two Republicans and one Democrat from each chamber—to a special subcommittee tasked with deciding what kind of legislative action the General Assembly should take in response to the Clean Power Plan. Kilgore also put himself on the subcommittee, which will now take up any bills that Virginia legislators introduce related to the Plan.

This subcommittee has scheduled its first meeting for December 17 at 1:00 p.m. in Senate Room A of the General Assembly building in Richmond. By law, all committee meetings are open to the public.

According to General Assembly procedure, before anyone else in the entire legislature can consider a bill, it will have to pass muster with these seven men. So who are these hugely important people, and what is the likelihood that they will seize this historic opportunity to make Virginia a leader in clean energy?

The Senate members consist of Republicans Frank Wagner and Benton Chafin and Democrat Dick Saslaw. Wagner and Saslaw were obvious choices given their seniority on the committee and active role on energy issues. Chafin—well, we’ll get to him in a moment.

Frank Wagner is from Virginia Beach and is known for his interest in energy generally, and especially in promoting new projects. He sponsored the legislation that led to the Virginia Energy Plan in 2006 and has been an important supporter of offshore wind development, perhaps reflecting his undergraduate degree in Ocean Engineering and his Tidewater residence.

The General Assembly website says Wagner is the president of Davis Boatworks, a vessel repair facility whose principal customer is the Defense Department. Living in the Hampton Roads area, Wagner is aware of how real sea level rise is; presumably he understands the connection to climate change.

In spite of his interest in offshore wind, coal rules when it comes to funding Wagner’s political campaigns. The Virginia Public Access Project shows coal giant Alpha Natural Resources was Wagner’s second-best donor over the years, with a total of $43,643 in campaign money since 2003, ahead of Dominion Power’s $37,350. Energy and mining interests combined gave gifts totaling $188,152. Of this, $350 came from Highland New Wind Development LLC back in 2008 and $250 came from the offshore wind company Seawind in 2010.

Of course, who gives money to an elected official does not necessarily dictate how that official votes. But it probably should be mentioned that for the 2014 session, Wagner earned an F on the Sierra Club’s Climate and Energy Scorecard, disappointing clean energy advocates who have sometimes had reason to see him as an ally.

Also a low performer on the energy scorecard is Dick Saslaw, scraping by with a D. Saslaw is a career politician who was first elected to the GA in 1976, when he was 36. (He is now 74.) His biography lists his background as an owner and operator of gas stations.

Saslaw is the Senate Democratic Leader and used to be Chair of the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee, until his party lost the Senate. In theory, his leadership position in the Democratic Party should make him a defender of President Obama’s climate initiative. In practice, not so much.

Although he is a Fairfax County Democrat, Saslaw does not share his constituents’ enthusiasm for wind and solar, nor in general, their concern for the environment. Somebody once told him that renewable energy costs a lot; that’s been his story ever since, and he’s sticking with it, facts be damned.

Saslaw is proud of his close ties to Dominion Virginia Power, whose interests reliably predict his votes on any given bill. The Virginia Public Access Project reports that Dominion has given more money to Saslaw than to any other legislator. In 2014 alone, Dominion gave Saslaw $25,000. Over the years, Dominion’s contributions to Saslaw have totaled $240,508, making the utility Saslaw’s top donor.

Saslaw has also received more money from Appalachian Power than any other Democrat–$44,000–even though that utility does not provide service anywhere in his district. In addition, coal interests gave him $90,250, natural gas companies ponied up $50,250, and the nuclear industry chipped in $28,000.

A single contribution of $250 makes up the only entry under “alternative energy.”

This brings us to new Senator Ben Chafin, the Republican delegate from Southwest Virginia who replaced Democratic Senator Phil Puckett (he of the Tobacco Commission scandal). Chafin is a lawyer and farmer, and as his website informs us, “Ben Chafin has a proven record fighting for the coal industry. Ben sponsored successful legislation (House Bill 1261) to fight against Obama EPA’s effort to kill the industry through over-regulation. Ben will continue to work in Richmond to protect coal and grow other Southwest industries like natural gas.”

Not surprisingly, coal interests led all other industry donors to Chafin’s 2013 campaign for Delegate and his 2014 campaign for Senate ($59,000 altogether), though he did pretty well by natural gas, too ($14,150). As a delegate, Chafin earned a gentleman’s C on the Sierra Club scorecard, but it would probably be a mistake to pin our hopes on his becoming a clean energy champion. His role on the subcommittee is surely to give Coal a voice.

On the other hand, Chafin must recognize that the economics of fracked gas and ever-more competitive wind and solar means Virginia coal has no chance of ever regaining its former glory. Southwest Virginia now needs to craft a strategic retreat from mining and work on economic diversification. That’s not inconsistent with the Clean Power Plan.

On the House side—but here I have to digress for a moment to comment on the seemingly random composition of the House Commerce and Labor Committee. The Senate side is bad enough; any Democrat who has evinced environmental sympathies over the years has been dumped from the Senate Commerce and Labor, and when he was in power, Saslaw did a lot of the dumping.

But it’s worse over at the House. The leadership keeps reshuffling its energy committee, as if in a frantic effort to make sure nobody learns anything, while the delegates who actually came to the job with an interest and knowledge of energy never seem to get a turn. Energy law is a hard area to learn. It’s complicated, and if you don’t have time to master it, you are even more likely to accept guidance from either the party leader who tells you how he wants you to vote, or the glib industry lobbyists who assure you they have the public’s welfare at heart just as much as you do. (Plus they give you money!)

So Chairman Terry Kilgore had little enough to work with on his committee. The three delegates he named to this incredibly important subcommittee, though they are undoubtedly smart and hardworking people, bring no discernable expertise on either climate or energy to the General Assembly’s review of the Clean Power Plan.

Well, digression over.

Terry Kilgore himself is a lawyer and a 20-year member of the House from the coalfields region of southwest Virginia. Dominion is his top individual donor, at $122,000, but coal interests together make up the single biggest category of givers to his campaigns, at $243,188, with electric utilities at $218,680, natural gas at $97,830, the oil industry at $16,400, and nuclear energy at $8,500. Just since 2013, he’s taken in over $136,000 from energy and mining interests.

That’s awfully good money for a safe seat, and his votes have reflected it. His energy votes earned him a D on the Sierra Club scorecard. It’s unlikely that he will abandon his coal friends, but like Senator Chafin, he will serve his constituents best if he works to attract new business to his struggling region. Home weatherization and energy efficiency programs would be popular there, and solar energy is one of the fastest-growing industries in America.

The other House subcommittee members Kilgore appointed are Republicans Jackson Miller and Ron Villanueva and Democrat Mathew James. Jackson Miller is a Manassas Realtor and former police officer who has been in the House since 2006. The bills he has introduced primarily reflect his interests in real estate and criminal law, although he also introduced legislation supporting uranium mining. He has received a total of $79,252 from energy and mining companies since 2010, primarily electric utilities, natural gas, coal, nuclear, and uranium. He earned a D on the Climate and Energy Scorecard. Why he is on this subcommittee is anyone’s guess, but certainly Northern Virginia stands to gain a lot of technology jobs if the state develops its clean energy industries as it should.

Virginia Beach Republican Ron Villanueva has not been as popular with the energy and mining companies, whose donations to his campaigns have totaled $20,550. Villanueva’s website says he was the first Filipino-American elected to state office in Virginia when he became a delegate in 2009. Villanueva has been friendly to the solar industry, and while he received a D on the scorecard, he also received an award from the Sierra Club for his work on a bill to provide a tax credit for renewable energy projects. (The bill was converted to a grant in the Senate but not funded.)

Like Delegate James and Senator Wagner, Villanueva lives in an area that is feeling the effects of climate change sooner than any other part of Virginia, so his constituents know how much the Clean Power Plan matters. For that matter, his day job as a partner with SEK Solutions, a military contractor, should mean he’s aware of the Pentagon’s focus on climate change as a national security issue, as well as a threat to its coastal assets.

Portsmouth Democrat Matthew James also hasn’t been especially popular in the energy industry. Since 2009, when he first ran for delegate, he has accepted a mere $5,000 from Dominion, $3,500 from coal interests, and $3,350 from the natural gas companies—token amounts by Virginia standards, but they may be due for a sudden increase.

James does not seem to have introduced any energy-related bills. However, his votes earned him an A on the Sierra Club scorecard. James is listed as the President and CEO of the Peninsula Council for Workforce Development. Maybe he will see an opportunity in the Clean Power Plan to develop jobs in the solar, wind, and energy efficiency industries, which have outperformed the economy generally.

So there you have the five Republicans and two Democrats who get first crack at any bill either facilitating Virginia’s compliance with the Clean Power Plan, or hostile to it. If they like a bill, it moves to the full Commerce and Labor committees. If they scuttle a bill, no one else in the entire legislature will get to vote on it.

That’s how it works, or doesn’t, in the Old Dominion.

Dominion’s ties to ALEC, McDonnell’s conviction, all part of one corrupt package

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Protesters gather outside the Crystal City headquarters of ALEC

A crowd of protesters gathered at the Arlington headquarters of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) on September 4 to demand that Dominion Resources, the parent of public utility monopoly Dominion Virginia Power, drop its membership in the right wing “bill mill.”

On the very same day, a jury convicted ex-Governor Bob McDonnell and his wife on federal corruption charges, setting off a new round of debate about Virginia’s lax ethics laws.

The two news items sound like different topics, but in fact they are both about the corruption undermining our democratic system. The McDonnell trial, with its focus on swank vacations, golf clubs, designer clothes and other neat stuff, actually missed the bigger breach of public trust that goes on every day. This takes the form of unlimited corporate campaign contributions and gifts to members of both parties, and the influence over legislation purchased by this largesse.

Dominion Power has spent decades and many millions of dollars building its influence in Richmond this way, to the point where most legislators don’t bother pursuing a bill if the utility signals its opposition. That’s why Virginia has not followed so many other states in requiring its utilities to invest in energy efficiency, wind and solar. Economic arguments, jobs, electricity rates—all these are talked about in committee, and all are irrelevant to the fate of a bill. The only relevant question for legislators is, “What does Dominion think?”

What Dominion thinks, though, is not about what’s good for its customers, but what’s good for its own bottom line. And this is where ALEC comes in. Dominion Virginia Power’s president, Bob Blue, sits on an ALEC committee with representatives from the climate-denial group Heartland Institute, the Koch-funded anti-environment group Americans for Prosperity, and that most oxymoronic of lobby shops, the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity. Their purpose is to craft model state bills that protect fossil fuel profits and attack all efforts to regulate carbon emissions.

Dominion provides a straight shot from ALEC’s back-room bill-brokering to Virginia’s statute books, trampling environmental protections along the way and giving the lie to Dominion’s façade of environmental responsibility. No wonder so many of last week’s protesters were Dominion customers who objected to the utility using the money it charges them for electricity to pay its ALEC dues.

We see the result every year in the General Assembly, as bills drafted by ALEC pop up all over the place without attribution. In addition to attacking clean energy, ALEC bills oppose worker protections and minimum wage initiatives, promote stand-your-ground bills like the one at issue in the Trayvon Martin case, and of course, undermine the kinds of clean-government efforts that would reduce the influence of corporations—like campaign finance reform.

And because the voters are the only people who could prove more powerful than corporations—and the only ones who might ultimately cut off the corporate cash flow—ALEC works to undermine voting rights as well.

In the wake of the McDonnells’ convictions, Virginia legislators are once again mumbling about tightening up the rules on gifts. The discussion is half-hearted; the pay for their work is paltry and the hours are long, so they aren’t anxious to give up the perks.

But it’s too late for half-measures. Elected officials are going to have to subject themselves to a ban on gifts, and the prohibition should extend to ballgame tickets, golf getaways and sit-down dinners. The loophole that currently allows campaign funds to be used for personal use must also be closed to avoid an end-run around the gift ban.

But until we turn off the corporate cash spigot, our democracy will still have special interests, not voters, calling too many shots.

Where ethics and utility profits intersect, a stain spreads across the “Virginia Way”

Dominion buildingThe Virginia General Assembly has punted on ethics reform, preparing to pass watered-down legislation that does very nearly nothing. At the same time, legislators are about to pass a law that will cost Dominion Power’s customers more than half a billion dollars as a down payment on a nuclear plant that hasn’t been approved and isn’t likely to be built.

These are not separate issues.

Virginia has had an ethics problem since long before Bob McDonnell met Jonnie Williams. As many people have noted, the real scandal is how hard it is to break our ethics laws. So long as you fill out a form disclosing the gift, it’s legal for politicians to accept anything of value from anyone, to use for any purpose. By this standard, McDonnell’s biggest failure was one of imagination.

The legislation that appears likely to come out of the General Assembly merely puts a $250 cap on the price tag of any one gift, with no limit on the number of lesser gifts and no limit on the value of so-called “intangible” gifts like all-expense-paid vacations. The mocking of this bill has already begun.

Conveniently, the bill deals with a tiny side stream of tainted cash compared to the river of money flowing from corporations and ladled out by lobbyists. Corporations don’t usually give out Rolexes and golf clubs. Instead, they give campaign contributions. Here again, Virginia law places no limits on the amount of money a politician can take from any donor. Five thousand or seventy-five thousand, as long as your campaign reports the gift, you can put it in your wallet.

And here’s the interesting part: you don’t have to spend the money on your campaign. If gerrymandering has delivered you a safe district, you can use your war chest to help out another member of your party—or you can buy groceries with it. The distinction between campaign money and personal money is merely rhetorical. A spokeswoman for the State Board of Elections was quoted in the Washington Post saying, “If they wanted to use the money to send their kids to college, they could probably do that.”

In an eye-popping editorial, the Post ripped into one Virginia delegate who charged his campaign more than $30,000 in travel and meals, and another $9600 in cellphone charges, in the course of just 18 months.

As with taking the money, the only rule in spending campaign funds is that you file timely paperwork showing what you spent it on; the reports are not even audited. The theory originally may have been that the threat of public disclosure would keep a gentleman from taking money from unsavory persons. If you took it anyway, the voters would learn of it and throw you out. How quaintly respectful of the energy and capabilities of voters! How pre-gerrymandering.

And how pre-corporation. The smartest companies today spread the wealth around: more to the legislators in charge of the important committees, less where they just need floor votes. The largesse is bipartisan, making everyone happy but the voters. Certainly, a legislator who accepts thousands of dollars from a lobbyist would be churlish to criticize the company writing the check.

So what do you call someone who pays for his meals out of the check he gets from a company?

How about, “an employee”?

Environmental groups and good-government advocates have long decried the influence of corporate money in Virginia politics. In their 2012 report, Dirty Money, Dirty Power, the Sierra Club, Appalachian Voices, and Chesapeake Climate Action Network documented the rising tide of utility and coal company contributions to Virginia politicians, coinciding with a series of votes enriching these special interests.

Dominion Power has consistently led the “dirty money” pack. As the single largest donor of campaign funds aside from the Republican and Democratic parties themselves, its influence in Richmond is widely acknowledged, even taken for granted.  Most legislators will not bother to introduce a bill that Dominion opposes, even if they like it themselves. Critics joke that the General Assembly is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Dominion Resources.

According to Dirty Money, Dirty Power, Dominion’s contributions to elected officials totaled $5.2 million from 2004 to 2011. The Virginia Public Access Project shows another $1.4 million in 2012 and 2013. The contributions overall somewhat favor Republicans, but often the contributions are so even-handed as to be comical, like the $20,000 each to Mark Herring and Mark Obenshain in the Attorney General’s race last fall. These contributions are not about supporting a preferred candidate; they are about buying influence.

Note that much of the donations don’t go directly to General Assembly members but to the parties’ PACs, which then dole out the money. This gives Dominion extra influence with party leaders—again, on both sides.

The result has been spectacularly successful for Dominion, which rarely fails to get its way. Bills it opposes die in subcommittee (witness this year’s bills to expand net metering). Bills it wants succeed.

That brings us to this year’s money bills. As you may have read here or in Virginia papers, Dominion has been “over-earning,” collecting more money from ratepayers than allowed by law. In the ordinary course of things, this would result in both a rebate to customers and a resetting of rates going forward to produce less revenue for the utility.

For Dominion, the solution is a bill that lets the company charge ratepayers for expenses it isn’t entitled to pass along under current law. (Indeed, in a nice touch, the bill actually requires Dominion to pass along these expenses.) Presto: it’s no longer earning too much, owes no rebate, and doesn’t have to cut rates.

In return, the ratepayers get the satisfaction of assuming the sunk costs of a new nuclear reactor that will probably never be built, plus whatever more money the utility spends on it going forward. I believe the technical parlance for this is “blank check.”

“But we must have nuclear,” our legislators murmur as they sign our names on the check. Um, why? Nuclear energy today can’t compete economically. Just last year Duke Energy gave up on two nuclear plants it had been building, after billing ratepayers close to a billion dollars in construction costs. (BloombergBusinessweek headlined its article on the subject, “Duke Kills Florida Nuclear Project, Keeps Customers’ Money.”)

Dominion itself understands the wretched economics of nuclear perfectly well; its parent company, Dominion Resources, just closed an existing nuclear plant in Kewaunee, Wisconsin, because it couldn’t produce power cheaply enough to attract customers. And that’s from a plant that’s paid for; energy from new plants is now more expensive than natural gas, wind, and even some solar.

Memo to Democrats: when the cheaper alternative is renewable energy, no self-respecting progressive signs on to nuclear.

The steadily falling price of wind energy, and more recently, solar energy, helps explain why nuclear is on its way out nationwide. The only nuclear plants under construction in the U.S. today are over budget and reliant on billions of dollars in federal loan guarantees.

Memo to Republicans: no self-respecting, Solyndra-bashing conservative signs on to nuclear.

The State Corporation Commission also understands the economic picture, and it has been skeptical of Dominion’s nuclear ambitions. On top of that, there are serious concerns whether a third reactor at North Anna could even get a license from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in the wake of the earthquake that shut the existing units for four months in 2011. (For a good short history of the North Anna reactors, including the fine Dominion paid in 1975 for hiding the existence of the fault line, see this article in the local Fluvanna Review.)

So there’s a pretty good chance that Virginia ratepayers will find themselves following in the path of Duke Energy’s customers, with many hundreds of millions of dollars thrown down a rathole and nothing to show for it.

The elected officials voting for this boondoggle, on the other hand, will have plenty to show for it, unfettered by rules of ethics.