Category Archives: Disaster planning

The Perils of Gas Fracking

By Peter Galuszka

More media accounts are showing up now that 84,000 acres of lands south and east of Fredericksburg have been leased for possible hydraulic fracturing drilling for natural gas.

This Sunday’s Richmond Times-Dispatch published a map showing the leased area covering big swaths of land from the Fort A.P. Hill military area east across the Rappahanock River on  into the historic Northern Neck. These are some of the loveliest parts of the Old Dominion, featuring  sloping valleys, rich bottom lands and meandering creeks and rivers that are filled with wildlife, not to mention farms and homes.

The newspaper quoted Mike Ward, executive director of the Virginia Petroleum Council proclaiming fracking as being safe and that the construction activity to place wells only takes a few months. “It’s like a construction site,” Ward said. “As it’s being done, there is going to be truck traffic. There’s going to be noise. There’s going to be some dust in the air. There’s going to be mud around the area. But that’s short-lived.”

Really? To be a better idea, I started surfing YouTube to see what the local impact of constructing fracking wells is really like. I happened upon several films from rural Harrison County, W.Va., an area where I lived as a child from 1962 to 1969.

The videos show an area in western Harrison County near the college town of Salem in landscape surrounded by rolling hills and dairy farms. There has been coal mining in the area and natural gas has been around for decades, but fracking wells are something new.

The videos depict an ongoing nightmare for neighbors who have found their quiet, bucolic existence interrupted 24/7 by the roaring of diesel generators, huge floodlights, and many, many trucks. One woman says that the well site across her road starts up around 4 a.m. and she can’t get back to sleep so she’s constantly tired when she goes to work.

Water and construction trucks, many 18-wheelers, are a big problem. They sideswipe cars on rural, two-lane roads or block traffic for a half an hour after they get stuck trying to turn around. The heavy trucks crumble pavement on country roads. Some local ones have had to be repaved four times since drill site preparation began a couple of years ago when the fracking craze began.

It seems likely that areas near Fredericksburg and on the Northern Neck and Middle Peninsula will taste some of the same problems if fracking begins. The Taylorsville Basin in the area may hold 1 trillion cubic feet of gas.

Further questions abound about the company that’s putting together leases for the area. It is an obscure company called Shore Exploration & Production Co. with offices in Dallas and Bowling Green. The plan, company officials have said, is to put buy up gas leases and then flip them to a drilling company.

The company insists it won’t use a “watery” method of fracking but can’t seem to explain its supposed substitute which is to use some form of nitrogen. In West Virginia, wells can need up to five million gallons of water that must be trucked in. Does this mean that trucks carrying nitrogen will come in instead?

Answers seem to be as fleeting as the Shore company which has two full-time employees and has no annual report or website. It has never drilled a well itself, just exploratory ones. One official told a newspaper that having an annual report and website “would provide information to competitors.”

That statement alone should give tremendous pause. What happens if you live in the country of the Northern Neck and a gas well emerges next door? What happens if your life is disrupted by 24-hour diesel generators, lights and dozens of heavy trucks? What happens if the “flow-back” ponds that contain waste, including radioactive material and methane from the drilling area below, breach?

Eastern Virginia is not used to such challenges. As a former resident of West Virginia where such challenges are common, I know well what this kind of set-up can mean, especially in Virginia that has some gas wells in its southwestern tip but has little experience with fracking.

April Is The Cruelest Month

deepwaterBy Peter Galuszka

April is the cruelest month, especially for brutal energy disasters.

This Sunday is the fourth anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon offshore drilling blowout that killed 11 and caused one of the country’s worst environmental disasters. April 5 was the fourth anniversary of the Upper Big Branch coal mine explosion in West Virginia that killed 29.

What lessons have been learned from both? Not a hell of a lot. In both cases, badly needed, tougher regulations to prevent such messes from happening again go languishing while politicians – including Virginia’s Democratic Governor Terry McAuliffe – say move on fast for more exploitation of energy resources including in Virginia’s sensitive offshore waters.

Take Deepwater Horizon. The rig linked to British Petroleum in the Gulf of Mexico was tapping reserves 5,000 feet down. When the rig hit a rough patch, the blowback exploded upwards, racking the surface part with explosion and fires. Down below, a blowout protector was supposed to swing into action, chop into the pipe and shut down any flow. That didn’t happen and oil flowed freely at the bottom until July 15 generating one of the biggest oil spills ever.

Four years later, what has been done? According to experts S. Elizabeth Birnbaum, and Jacqueline Savitz, not enough. In December 2011, the National Academy of Engineering reported that Deepwater’s blowout preventer had never been designed or tested for the conditions that occurred and that other rigs may have the same problem.

Sixteen months later, nothing has been done in terms of new regulations – not even proposed one. It sounds as if that socialist-minded, regulation maniac Barack Obama is actually off the job. Meanwhile, McAuliffe changed his mind about the risks of offshore drilling and has jumped on board the Republican bandwagon led by former Gov. Robert F. McDonnell to expose Virginians to similar dangers.

McAuliffe’s turnaround came last year during the gubernatorial campaign. According to the Washington Post: “Terry has learned more about offshore drilling from experts in Virginia,” said McAuliffe spokesman Josh Schwerin. “He thinks that because of technological progress we can now do it in a responsible fashion.”

Say what? Maybe he should take a trip to Brazil and Norway that have more advanced blow-out preventers and policies. By the way, Democrat Mark Warner, running for re-election for U.S. Senate, is for offshore drilling as well.

If you really want to see evidence of the lack of regulation, check out Upper Big Branch owned by the former, Richmond-based Massey Energy.

The firm was notorious for its anti-regulation, anti-labor union policies led by its in-your-face chief executive Don Blankenship. Four reports say that Massey’s lax safety standards allowed the disaster to happen, including letting badly maintained equipment be used and not taking measures to keep highly explosive coal dust from building up. A flame caused by a ball of flaming methane touched off the dust leading to an underground blast that covered seven miles underground. In the process, 29 miners were either blown apart of asphyxiated in the worst coal mine disaster in 40 years.

Every mine event has led to some kind of regulatory reform such as the one at Farmington, W.Va. that killed 78 in 1968 and the Buffalo Creek W.Va. coal sludge pond breach and flood that killed 125 in 1972.

Post-Upper Big Branch reforms have been proposed, notably the Robert C. Byrd bill that would protect whistleblowers, hold boards of directors responsible for knowing and doing nothing about safety threats and giving the feds subpoena power which, incredibly, they do not now have in the case of mine safety. The Department of Agriculture can subpoena records in the case of possible milk or meat price-fixing, but the Mine Safety and Health Administration cannot in the case of human miners.

The Byrd bill is all but dead mostly because of the Republican controlled House of Representatives where the majority leader is none-other than business toady Eric Cantor of Henrico County.

And if you want to understand just how little miners’ lives are regarded, compare the media coverage of Deepwater Horizon versus Upper Big Branch. I guess you could say that in the media’s eyes, the life of an offshore rig worker is worth 2.6 times that of a coal miner.  Six months after Deepwater, there were at least six books about the disaster. Four years after Upper Big Branch there is one book about it and it happens to be mine.

So, this Sunday, I propose a toast to the dead oil rig workers and coal miners. Let’s not allow their souls to stay on our consciences. Let’s have anti-regulation reign in the name of free market economic policies and profits! It doesn’t matter if you are a Republican or a Democrat. Salute!

“Where Is the Closest Tiki Bar?”

tiki_barBy Peter Galuszka

Often times, blog commenters really hit the nail on the head. This is the case with “Virginiagal2” who responded to my blog post earlier this week that Richmond’s schools are decrepit and crumbling, as Style Weekly detailed in a recent cover story.

They note that Richmond’s elite has done little for its public schools while chasing higher-profile and extraneous projects such as a summer training camp for the Washington Redskins and a new baseball stadium for the Minor League AA Flying Squirrels.

Schools? What schools?

Blog posts also note that NFL football star Russell Wilson, a Richmonder, stayed at private Collegiate school after his father saw academics as more important than sports and blunted maneuvers by Richmond public schools to recruit Wilson during his school years.

Part of the problem, as Virginiagal2 notes, is that Richmond’s select and self-appointed “leadership” ignores the city’s serious problems while they embark another pointless road trip to another city, typically in the sunny South, to gather ideas on how they should proceed with their (how to describe?) “leadership.”

Just a week or so ago, about 160 of Richmond’s “leaders” were bopping around Tampa, sampling its eateries and noting the watery views. The biggest cheerleader for these junkets is The Richmond Times-Dispatch, which is very much a propaganda organ of the area’s chamber of commerce. Its publisher Thomas A. Silvestri was chamber chair a few years back yet few commented on the potential conflict of interest. On the Tampa trip, the editor of the editorial pages wrote a supposedly cute series of reports in a “postcard” (ha-ha) style about the Tampa trip. Here’s one tidbit:

“About 160 Richmonders will spend three days sipping from Tampa’s version of youth’s fabled fountain. Where oh where is the closest tiki bar?”

I couldn’t have said that better myself. Next, I’d like to copy what Virginiagal2 had to say in response to my blog. She absolutely nails it:

“The cost of sending a kid to Collegiate is beyond a lot of young families. What do you think those Richmond families value the most – a sports team that has around 5,000 people attend games, or a good safe public school for their kids? The RTD has been shilling for the stadium for months – when’s the last time the RTD advocated for money for better city schools? Do you ever remember them encouraging businesses to partner with city schools? Advocate for vouchers, yes – advocate for baseball, yes – improve the overall public schools, no.

‘nuf said.

Ukraine Secret Ops: A Virginia Spy Story

The CIA's Rositzke

The CIA’s Rositzke

By Peter Galuszka

About 32 years ago, I was driving my dark green Audi Fox through Virginia’s lush horse country near Middleburg in search of a 350-acre farm owned by Harry Rositzke, author, educator and linguist. He also was one of the highest ranking spies in the Central Intelligence Agency which ran secret operations against Ukraine and other Soviet republics from 1949 to 1954.

Rositzke, who died in 2002, seemed an odd prospect for gentleman farmer. He had been born in Brooklyn and sounded like it. He had an extreme sense of street smarts, as I found when I was working on a newspaper story on spying in Virginia.

From what I remember of my interview — I lost my notes years ago — I had no real idea just how active the CIA had been in actually recruiting local language speakers, often displaced persons or recent emigres, giving them a smattering of training and then kicking them out the side door of a dark-colored C-47 at night onto the potato fields of Ukraine, the Baltic States and also Russia.

Mind you, these black drops were just a few years after the Soviet Union and the U.S. were suspicious allies who had helped defeat Germany, Japan and Italy. Things turned nasty very quickly and, as history moves forward, we seem back where we were 60 plus years ago.

Today, Vladimir Putin is massing Russian troops on the Ukraine border after annexing Crimea. He claims that America has a history of meddling in Ukraine, an independent nation since the 1991 split up of the U.S.S.R. The ironies are delicious. Putin, a former KGB spy in East Germany, is right.

The spy acronym for the early Cold War infiltration efforts was REDSOX, according to espionage historian Matthew Aim. The specific ones against Ukraine were labelled AERODYNAMIC with others being AEROOT (Estonia), AEQUOR (Byelorussia), AECOB (Latvia), AEGEAN (Lithuania) and AESAURUS (inside Russia itself).

The operations were run out of a CIA base in Munich and were headed in 1951 to 1954 by Rositzke.  “We were sending people into the Ukraine, people forget that there was an active resistance movement there… We’d fly them in and parachute them from C-47s. We never lost a plane. We were pleased to see how inefficient the anti-aircraft sources were,” he told The Washington Post.

Aim believes that up to 85 agents were air dropped in denied areas of Eastern and Central Europe from 1949 to 1954. The British MI6 intelligence group likewise sent agents there.

It isn’t clear what their missions were, but reconnaissance, establishing covert networks and sabotage are possibilities. The strange part is that anywhere from 75 to 100 percent of the air drop covert missions were failures, according to Aim and others.

One problem is that the American spymasters probably didn’t know what they were getting into. It wasn’t the same as setting up French underground groups during World War II; émigré groups fought each other and many if not all of the missions had been thoroughly compromised by Soviet counter-intelligence before they ever got off the ground.

According to Aim, one British agent named Myron Matviyenko had been in command of three teams of MI6 infiltrators who had jumped into Western Ukraine and Poland but turned them all in to the Soviets. Another theory is that Soviet super spy H.A. R. “Kim” Philby had learned of many of the missions while a British Embassy official in Washington and quickly passed the information along. Many of the agents simply vanished.

Rositzke at one point is quoted as saying that the missions were so rushed that the CIA hadn’t had time to vet the agents. In any event, he bought his farm near Middleburg in 1955 as a place to retire and eventually did. Little did I know as I was driving away from Rositzke’s estate with the big oak trees that I would be working in the Soviet Union myself as a news correspondent four years later. I ended up doing two tours of three years there.

In 1996, as I was preparing to leave Moscow for the last time, I went to a new museum opened by the KGB at their famous Lybyanka Headquarters. The guide was an elderly, grey haired man with ice cold blue eyes, sort of Putin-like. He was a retired KGB officer and I was mesmerized that their exhibit had photos and relics from compromised American and British covert ops in Ukraine and the Baltics.

One dead giveaway was that the CIA was dumb enough to use stainless steel staples in the fake passports it made, the guide said. Everyone knows that true Soviet passport staples are old-style iron and they always smudge the paper with rust. This could be easily spotted by checking a passport. No smudge? Instant spy!

I asked if the CIA still made the same mistake after all these years. He stared at me coldly for more than a minute before responding: “No, they make others.”

The Terrible Link Between Income and Longevity

RAM in Wise County

RAM in Wise County

By Peter Galuszka

Call it a tale of two Virginias.

One is rich with military retirees, ample benefits and gated communities. The other is remote, poor and polluted, where the life expectancy for men is merely 64 years.

The former is Fairfax County at the heart of NOVA, Virginia’s economic engine, the land of federal largesse. The other is 350 miles away in McDowell County, in the coal belt of southern West Virginia just a stone’s throw from the Old Dominion border.

In one of the best and most glaring reporting of income disparity in this country, Annie Lowery of The New York Times lays out the stunning contrasts in two very different places maybe a six-hour car ride distant. The nut of her report is that higher income means longer lives thanks to better access to decent food, retirement benefits and medical care.

In Fairfax County, men live to be 82 and women 85. In McDowell County, men (as noted) live to 64 and women to 73. Even more astonishing is that this is happening in 21st century America, the supposed land of plenty. If ever there were a call to do something about health care, this is it.

Think what you will about the Affordable Care Act, the prior system of managed care with Big Insurance calling the shots just isn’t working. One also wonders, in the case of McDowell, where Medicaid and Medicare are. Where are the benefits from the coal companies that used to dominate employment in the area?

This hits home for me because I grew up partially in West Virginia when my father, a Navy doctor, decided to retire and go into practice there. I also traveled about researching a recent book on the coal industry. I spent a lot of time in Mingo County, the next one over from McDowell. I drove plenty of times through the small town of Williamson, a major rail marshaling yard, and was struck by how many elderly people I saw pacing slowly with oxygen tanks strapped to their aluminum walkers. Coal-related black lung? Too many cigarettes? Breathing air dirty from coal trains and trucks  and strip mines? Over in Fairfax, people of a similar age are more likely to be in a warm swimming pool at an aquatic aerobics class.

Back in the Appalachians, one morning my photographer Scott Elmquist and I were traveling from Kentucky back into Mingo County and I happened to see a Remote Area Medical free clinic at a high school in Pikesville. We turned in and found more than 1,000 people thronging the gymnasium floor waiting for doctors or for their turns at the more than seven dozen dental chairs for free care they couldn’t otherwise afford. Some I spoke with had been waiting there since 1:30 that morning. RAM runs a circuit that includes Wise County in Virginia, also in coal country.

So how did these people slip through the cracks? The Times notes that in McDowell, there aren’t any organic food stores or Whole Foods. The place in inundated with fast food and convenience stores that sell ready-to-go hot dogs, energy drinks and salty chips.

Another reason is the connection with the coal industry which has been so lucrative over the years that it should have provided plenty for the elderly. Instead, as coal seams play out and natural gas usurps coal’s role in electricity generation, coal firms are setting up to skedaddle. One is Patriot Coal, an offshoot of St. Louis giant Peabody, that took over its Appalachian interests so the mother firm could concentrate on richer areas in the U.S. West and Asia. Patriot was set up to fail and perhaps take retirement benefits with it. It’s an obvious scam. You spin something off to get some distance between you and having to pay pensions and health benefits.

Another factor is what they are doing with the local environment. Mountaintop removal is a powerful instrument in places around McDowell. At the blog Blue Virginia, they ran an intriguing map showing just how this highly destructive form of mining that rips up thousands of acres overlays with high poverty areas. Out of sight out of mind. It’s a shame how many in the green movement are forgetting the horrors of mountaintop to beat up on fracking which may be closer to home for them. Continue reading

McDonnell’s U.S. 460 Debacle

va_route_460_improvementsBy Peter Galuszka

Towards the end of his term, former Gov. Robert F. McDonnell and his transportation chief, Sean Connaughton, bulldozed through a dubious project that would build a superhighway from Suffolk to Petersburg along the path of old U.S. 460 in southeastern Virginia.

Few understood the urgency of such a project, which involved a public private partnership that Virginia so loves. Mayors in Tidewater cities questioned it. Some scratched their heads as to why it was rolling forward without environmental permits.

Well, now it has come to a screeching halt. Some $300 million has been spent on the 55-mile-long road that will cost a total of $1.4 billion. Not on shovel of earth has been turned. The new administration of Gov. Terry McAuliffe has pulled the plug on it for now.

US 460 Mobility, the PPP3 type firm pushed by McDonnell to proceed with the fast-track plan, did not return phone calls to the Richmond Times-Dispatch after Transportation Secretary Aubrey L. Layne Jr. announced the temporary halt.

At issue are permits from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and other issues. Normally, such matters are dealt with before the state commits to a road. This apparently fell by the wayside because of the public-private partnership deal, Layne said.

How odd is that? Why did the McDonnell administration zoom forward with such a deal?

He certainly laid the public relations groundwork for it. I wrote a story about a year ago in Style Weekly noting that Chmura Economics & Analytics, a Richmond forecasting firm hired by the state, “predicted a massive boost in jobs and investment: $7.3 billion in economic impact through 2020. Besides 4,295 temporary construction jobs, the project would support 14,120 other new jobs. These include 4,730 jobs in Hampton Roads linked to greater port activity and 689 jobs at the 40 service business — at least four for each of the highway’s nine interchanges — that would accompany the new thoroughfare.

“The bulk of the remaining jobs — 8,415, more than half of the predicted number — could come from advanced manufacturing or automotive factories that might locate at industrial “megasites” in Isle of Wight and Sussex counties.”

But when I looked at where and how these jobs might be created, the numbers started to slide. It was all very murky and much in the future.

Connaughton tried to sell the project by saying the new superhighway was needed to handle extra truck traffic hauling ocean-going containers that would swamp the Port of Hampton Roads as the Panama Canal was expanded. He also said that Tidewater needed a second evacuation route if a monster hurricane loomed.

Del. S. Chris Jones, a Suffolk Republican, says he’s very concerned about how this all happened. He says he wants to “figure out how this could happen, who was responsible for the contract and what we do going forward.” The next forum comes April 23 when Layne and VDOT Chief Charles Kilpatrick brief the House Appropriations Committee which is headed by Jones.

The big takeaway here is how the state and its business elites rush forward with Public Private Partnership road projects as a way to fast track and sidestep financial and impact problems. There’s been a tremendous amount of cheerleading about PPP on this blog. It is time to settle down, take a deep breath and reconsider.

In other words, you can’t have your cake and eat it too.

Coal Giant Alpha Pays Biggest Water Fine Ever

MTRBy Peter Galuszka

Alpha Natural Resources of Bristol, the coal giant that took over troubled Massey Energy of Richmond in 2011, has the dubious honor paying the highest fines ever of $27.5 million for water pollution violations at its coal mining operations in five Appalachian states, including Virginia.

Massey Energy, the owner of the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia where an explosion killed 29 miners in the worst such disaster in the U.S. in 40 years, held the previous water pollution fine record of $20 million issued in 2008.

The Environmental Protection Agency says that from 2006 to 2013, Alpha and its subsidiaries violated water pollution permits 6,000 times and allowed toxic materials such as heavy metals into streams and the watersheds of Tennessee, West Virginia, Kentucky and Pennsylvania besides Virginia. The firm will also pay $200 million to reduce such toxic discharges.

The settlement comes after a pair of unrelated water pollution situations involving coal in West Virginia and North Carolina. Some 300,000 residents of the Charleston area went without drinking water for several days when a toxic chemical used to treat coal leaked into a river. Duke Energy faces fines in North Carolina for improperly maintaining its coal ash storage facilities, leading to a substantial spill into the Dan River which provides drinking water for Danville and eventually, Virginia Beach.

Alpha has touted its “Running Right” safety and management program as it absorbed Massey Energy and its rich coal reserves in a $7 billion deal. Alpha said it was retraining Massey workers who had suffered from Massey’s abusive corporate culture that cut corners on mine safety and environmental control, regulators say.

Alpha had agreed to pay $200 million in a deal with the U.S. Attorney’s Office of Southern West Virginia to cover violations from the Upper Big Branch which it bought and closed after acquiring Massey. Alpha later settled a number of shareholder lawsuits for $265 million. Some of the payout funding had factored into funds set up by Massey before the acquisition by Alpha.

Like most Appalachian coal producers, Alpha has been taking hits with soft markets for steam and metallurgical coal. Its 2013 revenues were $5 billion compared with $7 billion the year before.

Environmentalists say that Alpha’s fine does not address the massive ecological destruction of mountaintop removal strip mining which they say should be stopped at the permit stage. Alpha operates a number of such mines.

The latest fines involve 79 active coal mines and 25 coal processing plants.

Federal investigators are still probing Massey for violations of safety laws related to the operation of Upper Big Branch where the explosion occurred April 5, 2010 and other mines. So far, three former employees have been convicted and Massey’s former CEO Don Blankenship is said to be a target of the probe. There is also a suggestion that Alpha is cooperating with federal investigators in the investigation.

The Surreal Tensions With Russia

soldier in crimeaBy Peter Galuszka

Back in the 1950s, when I was a little kid living in North Carolina or the Washington area, our family would take a semi-annual trip to visit my father’s relatives in western Massachusetts. My grandparents lived in a nice two-story house with an old-style brick barbecue in the back but that wasn’t the thrill for me.

The reason I loved visiting was because of Westover Air Force Base, a Strategic Air Command facility on constant hair-trigger alert to blow the Soviet Union to kingdom come.

Gigantic B-52s would drill, roaring over the house on takeoff, sometimes in the middle of the night. Interspersed among them would be KC-135 tankers modeled on Boeing 707 jetliners. They would thunder over the house, shaking everything, at intervals of 30 seconds or maybe a couple of minutes. I was too young to understand but the reason they took off that way was to get the bombs in the air before the Russians could nuke the entire area, including my family and me. Use ‘em or lose ‘em.

So, more than 50 years later, it is bizarre to see Russia and the U.S. in their worst conflict since the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis over Ukraine and Crimea. There are actually serious and intensely hedged think pieces online outlining what a modern day war between Moscow and Washington would look like. It could be a proxy war,  an air war but an ocean war is unlikely since the Black Sea is a bathtub and an American ship would be easy meat. The most likely worst case would be a NATO member on the border somehow getting involved and then we go in because we have to by treaty. If things ramp up, military-heavy Old Virginny will be high on the hit parade of love.

Every morning, I go through the surreal headlines about what seems to be Vladimir Putin’s shameless land grab. I agree with analysts who say this is time for firmness but patience. Conservative yahoos should chill their stupid upbraiding of Obama. He didn’t do this. In fact, he’s been much tougher with Putin than George W. ever was. And, there isn’t much he can do. Any doubts, look at a convenient map.

A few takeaways:

  • Putin’s not doing this to win over the Russian people. A poll shows that 73 percent of them want no part of military operations against Ukraine or Crimea.
  • It’s not clear that Putin is doing this to reinstate Viktor Yanukovich who was ousted as Ukrainian president in a street putsch in Kieva couple of weeks ago. Writing in today’s New York Times, Ruslan Pukhov of the Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies says that Putin actually favored former Ukrainian leader Yulia Tymoshenko, a darling of the West, who was released from prison when Yanukovich was ousted. This is not to say that Putin’s squeaky clean. He’s put plenty of people in prison, including, recently, Boris Nemtsov, a Russian liberal reformer.
  • The global economy can work against Putin. One of my biggest disappointments with the failure of 1980s and 1990s Russian reforms is that they have done little if anything to transform themselves from a fossil fuel kleptocracy into something more economically viable. They have enormous brainpower available but have squandered it. They need to get with the program and/or find someone to buy their oil and gas. The buyer doesn’t necessarily have to be Europe.
  • It’s awfully quiet there. There have been few if any reports of violence since the Crimea incursion began. That’s a far cry from a couple of weeks ago in Kiev. If he withdraws the extra forces, Putin can keep his Crimean bases anyway.

Somehow, I have faith that the fortitude and common sense of ordinary Russians and Ukrainians will prevail. They did when I witnessed, up front and personal, my very own coup in 1993 in Moscow that killed a few hundred (including almost me a couple of times) and wounded thousands. The skinhead guys in the camo fatigues running around with AKs looked very much like some of the characters I saw on TV in Kiev. If they can be kept at bay, the U.S. doesn’t overplay its hand and ignorant American conservatives shut their yap, maybe this madness will end.

Dominion Benefits As Renewables Struggle

North Anna PixBy Peter Galuszka

Dominion Virginia Power, as is its style, has achieved a quiet but far-reaching regulatory victory. The General Assembly has passed a complicated bill that would help Dominion write off costs for a new nuclear reactor while avoiding giving potential refunds or rate cuts to customers.

The bill, which easily sailed through the legislature, has drawn attention to whether the utility really will build a third nuclear unit at North Anna and why bills to help smaller players trying to create renewable sources of energy seem to get nowhere in Virginia.

Dominion will be allowed to deduct $400 million from its profits in a scheme that allows it to count as costs the nuclear research it does. This will likely help it avoid paying rebates to consumers the next time the State Corporation Commission considers its rates.

There are several curiosities with the scheme. For one, although Dominion filed early plans for a third reactor about a decade ago, the project hasn’t seemed to move very far. The disaster at the Fukushima plant in Japan in 2011 forced a rethink of how the U.S. plans its new reactors. Another problem is that North Anna suffered a major setback later in 2011 when an earthquake forced a shutdown at that station and pushed reactors past their design limits.

The danger is hardly news but may be largely forgotten. In the 1970s, Virginia Electric & Power Co., Dominion’s predecessor, was fined by federal regulators for knowing and lying about some aspects of a geological fault line that runs under the North Anna area when it planned the nuclear power station in the 1960s.

I have visited North Anna in recent years and have asked Dominion about how they plan to pay for a third reactor. Some estimate it may cost about $10 billion. Many reactors on the drawing boards can’t be built without federal loan guarantees. Dominion has said it won’t need such guarantees.

Last month, the Department of Energy announced that the federal government will provide $6.5 billion in federal loan guarantees for two new reactors planned by the Southern Company in Vogtle, Ga. They are the first in such government backing.

A big question is how far along is the third unit at North Anna and why the General Assembly felt comfortable about making such beneficial moves if there’s any question about it.

Meanwhile, Bill Sizemore at The Virginian-Pilot has an intriguing story about how Dominion, which gave $1 million to Virginia politicians last year, has little trouble with its laws while smaller fry in the renewable energy sector struggle.

They have failed at getting the General Assembly to push tax credits to help install solar, wind and other, non-fossil and non-nuclear forms of power. Originally, the proposal called for $100 million in tax credits a year but that was pared down to $10 million and then was put off for consideration next year.

Virginia has voluntary Renewable Portfolio Standards calling for a percentage of new power generation to come from renewable sources. The approach favors large utilities such as Dominion and Appalachian Power. Neighboring states North Carolina and Maryland have mandatory standards and that may be one reason why Virginia has only 5 percent of North Carolina’s solar power capacity.

Dominion points out that it has renewable projects such as solar powered panels at a university and has plans for offshore wind, but these efforts are relatively modest.

One irony with the current situation involving renewables is that conservatives argue that their promoters must meet strict free market tests. If solar and wind and other sources can expand, they need to make it without government help based on their ability to innovate and market salable products. But the traditional, large utilities have no trouble getting billions in government help in federal loan guarantees or in rate write offs that Dominion will enjoy.

So, it seems the fix is in for traditional power in Virginia. That was certainly the case with former Gov. Robert F. McDonnell who wanted to make Virginia “the energy capital of the East Coast.” He strongly backed offshore drilling. Incoming Gov. Terry McAuliffe had been suspicious of offshore drilling in 2009 when he first ran for governor but has since changed his position to the consternation of environmentalists.

“We’re really disappointed but not surprised,” says Glen Besa, head of the Sierra Club’s Virginia chapter.

Map of the Day: Lightning Fatalities

lightning

If you’re afraid of lightning, you’re way better off in Virginia than in North Carolina or Maryland!

Source: The Atlantic Cities blog.

– JAB