Gooze Views

Peter Galuszka



The Kaine Mutiny

Is Dominion’s coal-fired plant destroying the Governor’s political future?


For months, Gov. Timothy M. Kaine enjoyed political popularity replicating that of his Democratic predecessor, Mark R. Warner. It seemed that he had fixed a budget crisis and launched the most far-reaching omnibus land-use and transportation plan in decades. As the 2008 presidential election approached, he was even being mentioned as a possible vice presidential candidate, just as Warner had once been put on the list of presidential possibilities.


But since the first of this year, Kaine has been getting slapped around. Ironically, the beatings are taking place in the largely Democratic blogosphere, which has questioned his support for a controversial energy project and the substantial political campaign donations from Dominion Virginia Power, the state’s largest and highly-influential utility.


Then, on April 14, the Wall Street Journal cut to the chase regarding the contradictions confronting Kaine – that he seems to be having it both ways by positioning himself as an enlightened environmentalist aiming for minimizing the state's carbon footprint while heartily backing the most polluting coal-fired plant in years.


The issue is the $1.8 billion Virginia City Hybrid Energy Center that Dominion Virginia Power wants to build in Wise County. Despite its supposedly modern pollution control equipment, the plant would still place between No. 8 and 9 on the list of top state air polluters when built. The plant has won approval from the State Corporation Commission (SCC) and now needs state air pollution permits.


The contradictions are obvious but highly curious. Last year, Kaine came out with a comprehensive plan to cut pollution, enhance transportation and secure energy supplies in the state. One goal is to cut the state’s greenhouse gas emissions 30 percent by 2025. Incongruously, the plan also backs “prudent investments in projects such as the Virginia City Hybrid Energy Center’s fluidized bed coal power plant,” along with another in West Virginia proposed by Appalachian Power that appears to have been shot down by the SCC.


The increasingly powerful green element of the Democratic Party has been kicking up the fuss. “Raising Kaine,” a website started, ironically, to promote Kaine and the Democrats, has been bashing Kaine for at least three months on the Wise County Plant.


The Kaine controversy got national legs when The Huffington Post blog ran a piece titled, “Va. Governor Burns National Ambitions in Coal Proposal.” Author Glenn Hurwitz wrote that “Kaine is increasingly looking like some kind of retro, dinosaur pol – practicing a kind of politics eerily similar to the Republican culture of corruption.” Once thought to have vice presidential timber, Kaine “seems to be flushing his ambitions for national office down the toilet by actively working to build yet another coal-fired power plant for one of his biggest campaign donors.”


The Huffington  Post reported that Kaine has received $135,000 from Dominion; the Journal reported $230,000.   In response, Delacey Skinner, Kaine’s director of communications, told me, “We can’t stop producing energy.” She adds, “We need to reduce the carbon footprint of state government,” but she adds that there’s nothing wrong with encouraging a cleaner burning coal plant.” 


Skinner does not see a contradiction in the big sums that Kaine has accepted from Dominion. “The Governor takes campaign contributions from Altria (Philip Morris), but he has pushed to ban smoking in restaurants.”


To be sure, the green element of the Democratic Party, buoyed by former Vice President Al Gore’s remarkable success with his film “An Inconvenient Truth,” has embraced global warming with a vengeance – maybe too much so. Their national campaign has specifically targeted coal-fired plants as being especially dirty and undesirable. In my reporting, I have found that some of the facts they tout, especially about the horrible practice of mountaintop removal to get at coal, are often exaggerated, at least in Virginia.


It’s also true that more energy sources do need to be found as the the population and economy of Virginia and the U.S. grows, and as older power plants wear out. Non-polluting technologies such as wind and solar sound great but can’t match the output of the old-fashioned base-loaded power plants. Sure, some may argue that such monstrously capital-intensive plants should be replaced by a series of smaller ones, but that’s a topic for another blog posting.


The greens’ point that does make sense to me is that the politics behind the Wise County plant seem especially fishy. The idea seems to have been hatched in the offices of local delegates and senators with lots of help from Dominion. The General Assembly “backed” the plant, but then the legislature is chock full of bought-and-paid for Dominion cronies such as Tommy Norment. The Governor’s ecology/energy blueprint strangely repeats the need for the Wise County plant again and again.


When the SCC approved the Wise facility, it stated that the General Assembly had declared in legislation that the plant was in the public interest, throttling the outpouring of public outcry at its own hearings. I had always thought that public hearings were a way to judge public concern, not just rubber stamping diktat from the state Politburo, err, General Assembly.


This isn’t the only bad news for Kaine. The omnibus land-use and transportation bill he supported last year has been ripped apart. The State Supreme Court has found that regional taxing authorities for transportation projects in Hampton Roads and Northern Virginia are unconstitutional. That destroys what Kaine had thought to be solutions for pressing problems.


Also bizarre: The Kaine-trashing seems to be an internal Democratic affair without too many Republicans piling on. It’s also something you read in the blogosphere. I haven’t seen much about it in the state’s newspapers, such as the hapless Richmond Times-Dispatch. Back in the old days, the controversy would have been splashed all over the place.


Ironically, the very fact that the Kaine Mutiny has been left mostly to Democratic blogs and not the larger media shows that the Web tends to compartmentalize information, rather than spread it.


-- April 21, 2008
















Peter Galuszka is a veteran journalist living in Chesterfield County. View his profile here.


(Photo credit: Maria Galuszka.)