Category Archives: Environment

Support Your Local Goat Herder

Goats at work. Photo credit: Goat Busters

Goats at work. Photo credit: Goat Busters

by James A. Bacon

A common reed plant, known by the scientific name of Phragmites australis, introduced into the United States in the 18th century from Europe, has invaded the eastern marshes of North America. Like many invasive species, Phragmites out-competes native marsh plants. When the reed establishes expansive mono-cultures, plant diversity declines precipitously. And when plant diversity declines, so does the diversity of insects and the rest of the food chain dependent upon the plants.

Over the past five years, land managers and private organizations have treated more than 80,000 hectares of marsh with herbicides at a cost of $4.6 million per year to control Phragmites. Mowing and burning the plant hasn’t proven economical, given high labor costs. And insect control often does greater damage to native strains than to the invasive plant.

In desperation, the marine science and conservation division of Duke University tested a new technique for controlling the plant: grazing goats. At a fresh water marsh in Beltsville, Md., the scientists penned goats in enclosures where they had little but Phragmites to eat. While the goats didn’t eradicate the plant pest, they substantially reduced its biomass — from 94% of ground cover to 21% on average — allowing native species a better chance of competing, investigators concluded.

Across the country, government authorities are discovering the virtues of goats for clearing unwanted brush, even tending lawns. The hardy ruminants have an appetite for plants that other animals shun.

There is a small but active goat industry in Virginia. The Virginia State Dairy Goat Association lists 33 members. Jack & Anita Mauldin’s Boer Goats page lists 34 goat farms. My impression is that most goat products fall into the organic or artisanal agriculture category — goat meat, goat cheese, goat milk, maybe some goat wool. But perhaps the most interesting enterprise is Goat Busters, based in Afton, which specializes in land clearing. As its website says, “Goat Busters is quite simply the most environmentally sensitive method to clear land or control invasive species vegetation ever, short of going out and hand-pulling each and every little weed.”

Bacon’s bottom line: Virginia government, businesses and property owners need to Get Goat. They should more aggressively explore the use of goats as a tool for clearing brush and controlling invasive species. Transporting the goats and setting up the pens is more labor intensive than attacking a patch of brush or Phragmites with a Bush Hog or a tankful of herbicides, but goats don’t compact the soil and they don’t leave behind chemical compounds laden with heavy metals. They do leave behind fertilizer, enriching the soil.

In economic development parlance, substituting locally raised goats for imported herbicides and rotary mowers is called “import substitution.” The practice keeps money in the region, supporting local enterprises and jobs. It’s hard to imagine the goat industry transforming the face of Virginia agriculture, but every little bit helps make our rural counties more economically viable.

Back to the Drawing Boards on U.S. 460

A new environmental impact study (EIS) concludes that it will cost $1.8 billion — $400 million more than estimated by the McDonnell administration — to rebuild U.S. 460 between Petersburg and Suffolk as a tolled, high-speed expressway. Upgrading the highway probably will have to be centered on the existing corridor, Transportation Secretary Aubrey Layne said yesterday.

The heart of the problem: A 2008 environmental study estimated that the route favored by the McDonnell administration would disturb 200 acres of wetlands. Subsequent investigations pushed that number to 583 acres last year. The latest study pushes the number to 613 acres, according to the Times-Dispatch.

The low-impact alternative along the existing route would  disrupt the least amount of wetlands, make the existing route safer and, at a cost of $974 million, be the least expensive to build. On the other hand, upgrading the existing route  would displace more businesses and provide the least amount of “induced growth.” Also, it would provide the least benefit in terms of travel time saved, potentially making it less valuable as a highway outlet for ports in Norfolk and Portsmouth.

Furthermore, backing out of the deal structure negotiated by the McDonnell administration creates major legal headaches for the McAuliffe administration. It is not known how much of the $300 million paid so far to U.S. Mobility Partners, the design-contractor for the project, can be recouped. Removal of the tolls also could breach the state’s warranty with owners of toll-backed bonds issued to help pay for the project.

Bacon’s bottom line: It amazes me that former Governor Bob McDonnell may go to jail for the misdeeds of Giftgate, which didn’t cost the taxpayers a single dime yet fundamental answers have yet to be answered about who was responsible for the U.S. 460 fiasco, the real scandal of his administration.

A detailed McAuliffe administration review of documents blamed a recklessly aggressive implementation of the U.S. 460 project for ignoring the deal-killer wetlands issue but never addressed who in the McDonnell administration made key decisions along the way. McDonnell? Transportation Secretary Sean Connaughton? Senior executives with the Virginia Department of Transportation? VDOT staff? As much as Layne deserves credit for laying out many of the facts to the public, he seemed satisfied with a conclusion that “mistakes were made.” The Virginia press corps, which crucified McDonnell for accepting gifts from nutraceutical entrepreneur Jonnie Williams and doing nothing in exchange, seems supinely content with that explanation.

Tobacco Commission Needs Huge Makeover

tobacco leafBy Peter Galuszka

One more glaring example of mass corruption in Virginia is the grandly named Virginia Tobacco Indemnification and Community Revitalization Commission formed 14 years ago to dole out Virginia’s share of a $206 billion settlement among 45 other states with cigarette makers.

I’ve been writing for years about how millions of dollars are doled out with little oversight to economic development projects supposedly helpful to the former tobacco-growing parts of the state from the bright leaf belt around Dinwiddie out west to the burley leaf land of the mountains.

There have been no-strings giveaways to absentee tobacco quota holders, a board member sent to prison for siphoning off grant money and the shenanigans of the extended Kilgore family which is very politically powerful in those parts. The commission even figured in the McDonnell corruption trial starring the former and now convicted governor and back-slapping witnesses for the prosecution, entrepreneur and tobacco-believer Jonnie R. Williams Sr.

I revisit the issue in Sunday’s Washington Post and I ask the obvious question of why no one seems to watching the commission. I raise broader ones, too, such as why the commission  serves only people in the tobacco belt. That doesn’t seem fair since the Attorney General’s office represented all of the state in the 1998 Master Settlement Agreement against four major tobacco firms. People in Hampton Roads, Arlington, Onancock and Winchester should be benefit but get nothing from the settlement. They didn’t  because tobacco road legislators pulled a fast one back in 1999 when they set things up.

There needs to be a thorough disassembling of the commission’s current governance structure with many more people far from Tobacco Road included. There’s far too much family and friend back-scratching as it is. It is like watching a vintage episode of the Andy Griffith show but it really isn’t funny.

(Hat tip to James A. Bacon Jr. who spotted the commission as a great story back in the year 2000 when he was publisher of Virginia Business).

So, please read on.

The Huge Controversy Over Gas Pipelines

atlantic coast pipeline demonstratorsBy Peter Galuszka

Just a few years ago, Gov. Terry McAuliffe seemed to be a reasonable advocate of a healthy mix of energy sources. He boosted renewables and opposed offshore oil and gas drilling. He was suspicious of dangerous, dirty coal.

Then he started to change. During the campaign last year, he suddenly found offshore drilling OK, which got the green community worried. But there’s no doubt about his shifts with his wholehearted approval of the 550-mile Atlantic Coast Pipeline proposed by Duke Energy, Piedmont Natural Gas and AGL Resources, along with Richmond-based Dominion, one of McAuliffe’s biggest campaign donors.

The $5 billion Atlantic Coast Pipeline is part of a new phenomenon – bringing natural gas from the booming Marcellus Shale fields of Pennsylvania, Ohio and northern West Virginia towards busy utility markets in the Upper South states of Virginia, North Carolina and parts ones even farther south. Utilities like gas because it is cheap, easy to use, releases about half the carbon dioxide as coal, which is notorious for labor fatalities, disease, injuries and global warming.

The Atlantic Coast Pipeline would originate at Clarksburg, W.Va. (one of my home towns) and shoot southeast over the Appalachians, reaching heights of 4,000 feet among rare mountain plants in the George Washington National Forest, and then scoot through Nelson, Buckingham Nottoway Counties to North Carolina. At the border, one leg would move east to Portsmouth and the Tidewater port complex perhaps for export (although no one has mentioned that yet). The main line would then jog into Carolina roughly following the path of Interstate 95.

It’s not the only pipeline McAuliffe likes. An even newer proposal is the Mountain Valley Pipeline that would originate in southern West Virginia and move south of Roanoke to Chatham County. It also faces strong local opposition.

atlantic_coast_pipeline mapThe proposals have blindsided many in the environmental community who have shifted some of their efforts from opposing coal and mountaintop removal to going after hydraulic fracking which uses chemicals under high pressure and horizontal drilling to get previously inaccessible gas from shale formations. The Marcellus formation in Pennsylvania, New York, Ohio and West Virginia, the birthplace of the American oil and gas industry, has been a treasure trove of new gas.

The fracked gas boom has been a huge benefit to the U.S. economy. It is making the country energy independent and has jump started older industries in steel, pipe making and the like. By replacing coal, it is making coal’s contribution to the national energy mix drop from about 50 percent to less than 40 percent and is cutting carbon dioxide emissions that help make for climate change.

That at least, is what the industry proponents will tell you and much of it is accurate. But there are big problems with natural gas (I’ll get to the pipelines later). Here’s Bill McKibben, a Middlebury College professor and nationally known environmentalist writing in Mother Jones:

Methane—CH4—is a rarer gas, but it’s even more effective at trapping heat. And methane is another word for natural gas. So: When you frack, some of that gas leaks out into the atmosphere. If enough of it leaks out before you can get it to a power plant and burn it, then it’s no better, in climate terms, than burning coal. If enough of it leaks, America’s substitution of gas for coal is in fact not slowing global warming.

Howarth’s (He is a biogeochemist) question, then, was: How much methane does escape? ‘It’s a hard physical task to keep it from leaking—that was my starting point,’ he says. ‘Gas is inherently slippery stuff. I’ve done a lot of gas chromatography over the years, where we compress hydrogen and other gases to run the equipment, and it’s just plain impossible to suppress all the leaks. And my wife, who was the supervisor of our little town here, figured out that 20 percent of the town’s water was leaking away through various holes. It turns out that’s true of most towns. That’s because fluids are hard to keep under control, and gases are leakier than water by a large margin.

Continue reading

The Simple, Lovable Sidewalk

sidewalk By Peter Galuszka

Forever humble, the simple sidewalk is becoming an issue in land planning and transportation.

In densely-populated populated urban areas, sidewalks have been a staple of living since the time of the Ancient Greeks. They were classics in the familiar grid plans that marked most American towns in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

It all changed after World War II when thousands of veterans came home with access to cars and cheap mortgages and builders started constructing car-centric neighborhoods. The cookie-cutter plan included big subdivisions with only one or two access points, lots of cul de sacs and long streets and wound around until they emptied into the few access roads.

You couldn’t walk anywhere. The feeling was, with the complicity of such car-centric bodies as the Virginia Department of Transportation, that you didn’t need sidewalks because the kids could play in the cul de sacs and anyone could drive.

This started to change a decade or so ago as pe0ple wanted to walk more to the library, the store or to visit a neighbor. Suburban planners are taking this into consideration and are “encouraging” developers to put in sidewalks.

A couple problems here:

First, although the Tim Kaine administration changed VDOT policy to advocate more intersecting streets in new developments along with sidewalks, the policy has been watered down under pressure from the development industry.

The other problem is that while it is a simple matter to put sidewalks in new projects, retrofitting them in older ones is tough. It is expensive, there are rights of way issues and sometimes the terrain doesn’t lend itself to them. And, when sidewalks are put in, they merely connect with gigantic feeder roads where one might have to walk a half a mile to a stoplight just cross safely, as is the case in one instance in Chesterfield County.

For more, read my recent pieces in the Chesterfield Monthly and Henrico Monthly.

Smart Cities Tech Meets Sea Level Rise

In the most imaginative and useful application of crowd-sourcing technology I’ve seen in Virginia, Hampton Roads Cares has helped fund creation of the Wetlands Watch Sea-Level Rise app. Right now, you don’t know where it’s going to flood until you’re in the middle of it, says Skip Stiles, executive director of Wetlands Watch, in this video. “As long as you’re out there, wheel-well deep in water, you might as well be telling the person behind you that it’s wet here.” The ultimate goal: to provide enough data to help scientists and modelers predict where flooding will occur. – JAB

One Very Sad Day In Court

maureen_and_bob(1)By Peter Galuszka

One literally could have heard a pin drop in U.S. District Court in Richmond today.

William Burck, lawyer for  Maureen McDonnell, said in his opening argument in a trial that Virginia’s Former First Lady who has been indicted no 14 corruption charges along with her former governor husband was “collateral damage” in a deeply troubled marriage. She had developed a “crush” on the businessman who had given her and her husband more than $150,000 in loans, gifts and cash.

“Their marriage had broken down,” Burck said. “They were barely on speaking terms,” Burck said. Ms. McDonnell was angry and frustrated that her husband had been working 16-hour days in public service for 20 plus years and had little to show for it. They had five children. Big debt. Bob wasn’t paying attention to her.

As John L. Brownlee, McDonnell’s lawyer, said, McDonnell’s hard public service work “took a toll on his family and a terrible toll on his wife. He was not nearly as successful as a husband. He tried to keep from the public the most painful aspects of his marriage. He never humiliated her. He never scorned her.”

In pops Jonnie R. Williams Sr., a smooth-talking entrepreneur pushing a new anti-aging cream made in part from tobacco plants (although his firm, Star Scientific, had lost a couple hundred million over the previous decade.) Brownlee described the star witness for the prosecution as a “master manipulator.”

“This marriage broke apart and an outsider, another man, would invade and poison their marriage,” Brownlee said.

At one point, Maureen was said to have “hated” Bob who wrote a lengthy email to her trying to reconcile. In fact, Brownlee said, the Governor will read the email when he goes on the jury stand during the trial that is expected to last at least five weeks. When McDonnell sent the email, however, “that evening, Maureen was distracted by other interests.”

One could get snarky about this seemingly over-the-top soap opera. But no one in the courtroom seemed to be smirking. It is strange enough to be at a trial like this in a place like Virginia that considers itself above the petty corruption that plagues other states. It is even stranger to hear such excruciatingly personal and painful things about the state’s top former executive and his wife.

It could be that a “throw Maureen under the bus” strategy may work to get both of them off. After all, she wasn’t a public official and could do what she wanted as far as gifts. The prosecution’s opening statement drew a rather detailed and concise outline of just what and when the McDonnells solicited Williams’ largesse, right down to the “thank you” emails when money arrived in the bank to Maureen’s cell phone snap shot of Bob wearing slick, wraparound sunglasses while driving Williams’ Ferrari.

Giving the McDonnell’s the benefit of the doubt, I have to say I’ve heard this kind of story before among long-married couples suffering through middle age as their children are ready to fly away. Their stories may not be dramatic but I’ve got to admit that Bob McDonnell never seemed to exhibit such grabby behavior before.

This raises another tough question. What should “public service” be and how much should it take from one’s private life. More importantly, why can’t it support men and women who pursue it? Should it be only for the rich?

McDonnell slogged through relatively low-paying jobs like the General Assembly, Attorney General and Governor. He had five kids and a wife who seemed very freaked out by being First Lady – a role she apparently never wanted. She came from a Northern Virginia civil service family that didn’t exactly have a grand disposable income.

Consider two other Virginia governors –former and current. Mark Warner, now U.S. Senator, is rich from his telecommunications investments made years ago. At one point he was said to be worth a couple hundred million dollars. Gov. Terry McAuliffe, another former businessman, is likewise wealthy but probably not as rich as Warner.

Should these people be in office because they are rich? Should public service be available only to those with great portfolios? What would Thomas Jefferson say?

How Not to Shift From Coal

coal-plantBy Peter Galuszka

Coal is rightly the scourge of environmentalists. Economic pressure is on to shift to cleaner natural gas made plentiful by controversial hydraulic fracking. Political pressure is on to replace fossil fuels with renewables such as wind, solar and other methods.

In Virginia, Dominion, the state’s largest utility, relies for 46 percent of its generating capacity on coal and is moving in fits and starts to natural gas. It doesn’t get much from renewables. How much and how fast should it shift?

Yet out of Colorado comes a cautionary tale. According to The Washington Post, a family in the impoverished city of Pueblo is at odds running power. They only use a window air conditioner part of the time. They avoid using their oven in the summer. It uses electricity they not longer can afford because it overheats the house in summer.

For the family of Sharon Garcia, the problem is Black Hills Energy, which recently bought the local power company – Aquila, which got some of its power from a coal plant that was first built in 1897 with peaking extra power from Xcel, another utility.

Then, in 2008, Black Hills bought out Aquila and everything changed. Xcel decided it could make more money selling power at retail rates in Denver and not at wholesale rates to the utility serving Pueblo. In the midst of these events, a state law prompted Black Hills to shut down older coal plants for cleaner natural gas.

The state approved rate increases so Black Hills could build new infrastructure to handle natural gas and and rates when up significantly.

The problem is likely to be further complicated if the utilities move on the renewables, which, in the short term, are more expensive than either coal or gas.

This is not to say that companies should stick with coal forever, or natural gas. Renewables should still be the goal. But during the transition, green activists, many of them affluent, need to realize who pays the price. What’s a few dozen extra dollars for some is a tragedy for others.

How to Convince Your Mom that Congestion Pricing Is Good

by Michael Brown

Odds are if you show up at a family reunion and try to convince your parents and siblings that congestion pricing is good, you’ll be lonely pretty quickly. People want the freeways to work but they hate paying tolls! If you are reading this, then you’re probably part of the choir. My goal isn’t to convert the converted as much as to provide new arguments and sound bites when talking to others.

So, how do we reach others? Millions must be convinced to put down their pitchforks long enough to test the theory and decide for themselves if congestion pricing is worthwhile. Elected officials are afraid to take a position contrary to polls, and polls are overwhelmingly dominated by uninformed opinions.

Too many citizens “learn” the issues of the day in 30-second television spots. Even those who make an effort to stay well informed are not the best ones to ask.  There are many fine teachers, dentists, and doctors with intelligent opinions but if you ask them about Congestion Pricing, most would focus on a single point – “double taxation.” Because no one listens long enough for a good explanation, politicians conform to polls of the uninformed rather than risk trying to change public opinion.

congestion_pricing1

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This is the fourth part of a four-part series.

Part 1        ◊       Part 2
Part 3   
     ◊       Part 4
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Geeks and used car salesmen

Congestion Pricing’s true believers are insiders who spend years exploring how market mechanisms can solve our transportation headaches. Typically, they are “nerdy engineer” types and Ph.D.’s at universities. They come up with great ideas but their main focus is convincing other geeks. Peer-reviewed articles loaded with incomprehensible equations and data may be good stuff and true, but the world will never move out of the congestion morass until the world “gets it” at the lowest-common- denominator level of things that matter to them.

Many geeks know Congestion Pricing is worth billions but they’re poor at delivering the message personally. So they set aside “public awareness budgets” that are embarrassingly tiny relative to the potential payoff. That’s like hiring a used car salesman to deliver the message. That approach may persuade a few but it won’t convince your mom – it won’t even reach your mom. Great ideas need great enlightenment efforts.

congestion_pricing2Evangelists and professional marketers

When the Wright Brothers invented the airplane, they actually had a hard time selling it. Everyone was intrigued, of course, but few understood how it could help them in a way that was worth the price. The airplane seemed like an exciting new toy that could kill you! So the Wrights became evangelists. They met with government officials and anyone else with the means and potential motive to buy, and sold them hard on dozens of potential uses. Now we could scarcely imagine the world without planes.

Think of the Bible. Many find it very difficult to read and hard to get excited about. But some people are very passionate about the bible, and very gifted at translating its meaning to large crowds. Congestion Pricing and Freeway Optimization have been peddled mainly by geeks and insufficient public awareness efforts. Are we really surprised that people are skeptical?

Gifted evangelists are essential but so is “Hollywood.” By that, I mean it takes people who have figured out how to sell stuff to people. We need marketing artists who can place an object in the hands of a big star, then watch that object fly off the shelf in the following month. For ideas worth billions, we should spend millions to attract the top-notch marketers, and give them a budget to craft emotionally persuasive visuals and sound bites. Continue reading

Boomer….Wha?

a-bomb peace signBy Peter Galuszka

Remember the federal deficit that lurked behind the corner? Where did it go?

Al Kamen of The Washington Post asks that question in a column today. He writes:

“Not long ago, the federal deficit was projected to destroy the country, our country’s future and just about everything else. The politicians and the news media regularly fretted about what to do. Budget battles shut down the entire government for a couple of weeks.”

He continues: “So, what happened? The simple answer, of course, is that the deficit is way down and, for now, is no longer a big problem.”

The Congressional Budget Office estimated last week that the deficit for f/y 2014 is $492 billion or 2.8 percent of GDP. That puts us back in the early years of the George W. Bush administration.

Hmm. Kinda of makes you wonder where all this out-of-control spending is coming from that the Tea Party types talk about so much.

It is off the media radar screen. The Post has a graphic showing that the words or mention of the “national debt,” federal debt” or “federal deficit,” reached a high around the first half of 2010. The conservative Washington Times the most at 18; The Post with 13; and the New York Times with 10. Now it’s around three.

This isn’t to say that federal spending doesn’t merit watching. But where is Jim Bacon when you need him?