Despite a glut of less-polluting natural gas as a source of generating electrical power, Virginia is still a significant air polluter, according to a new study by the Natural Resources Defense Council. One person who should take note is Gov. Robert F. McDonnell whose energy choices have always leaned heavily towards fossil fuels.
The NRDC reports that Virginia saw its emissions drop only 2 percent and has moved up two notches to No. 12 in the nation among the worst air polluters. Leading the so-called “Toxic 20” list were Kentucky, Ohio and Pennsylvania which rely upon coal-fired plants for much of their electricity.
Virginia’s tiny decrease in toxic air emissions is surprising given that a glut of natural gas, much of it from new “fracking” drilling methods, is forcing utilities to switch to gas from coal if they can. Many state regulators require utilities to go with the cheapest form of energy available.
Power plants are the biggest causes of air pollution and coal and oil-fired plants may cause up 44 percent of it. Coal-heavy states that lead the “Toxic 20” including Virginia 92 percent of the air pollution while generating only about half of the electricity, according to The Washington Post.
In the Old Dominion, three power stations – Chesterfield, Chesapeake and Clinch River – are the dirtiest. Richmond-based utility Dominion is putting new scrubbers at its Chesterfield plant and plans to close Chesapeake by 2016. Clinch River, owned by American Electric Power, has been pumping out pollution since 1957.
The NRDC report is a reminder that no matter how Virginia’s business elite, including big coal firms, utilities and anti-regulation executives, wants to blame the Obama Administration for supposedly putting people out of work by applying even modest restrictions on pollution at new plants, reliance on coal still equals big pollution. If plants are in the pipeline for shutdown by their utilities because they are obsolete, their employment lists somehow show up in the propaganda as jobs lost by Obama.
Republican candidates George Allen and Ken Cuccinelli have pushed exactly this reasoning.
The fact is that utilities are hard-pressed to do much with coal. Spending millions on new pollution abatement gear either as a retrofit or in new plants depends on whether or not they will be using coal in the long-term. Coal had recently supplied about half of all generation in the country, but that has dropped as natural gas has flooded the market, changing the dynamics of planning.
Coal firms are also taking a drubbing, ironically, by a global phenomenon they may very well have caused. Alpha Natural Resources, the biggest coal firm in Virginia and one of the country’s largest, lost $2.2 billion in this year’s second quarter because of cheaper gas and the fact that this past winter was unusually warm and electricity use dropped, cutting coal demand.
It isn’t certain that natural gas is truly sustainable as a replacement fuel source. The results of fracking caught the industry by surprise. Lacking are enough storage and pipeline facilities to handle the load. And, as more gas is pumping, its price goes down, making it less economic for the gas companies to investment in infrastructure.
In the meantime, as the NRDC report shows, Virginia doesn’t have much to be proud about when it comes to improving air quality. The current leadership remains stuck in the past.