Category Archives: Environment

What It Takes to Power the Cloud

power_lineby James A. Bacon

If it’s not one thing, it’s another. The “rural crescent” in the western reaches of Prince William County has fended off development threats from Disney’s America to four-lane highways. The latest hazard to rural tranquility: a proposed Amazon Web Services (AWS) data center and an electric transmission line to deliver electric power to it.

Emulating the success of its neighbor Loudoun County in encouraging data-center development, Prince William economic development officials have sought to recruit lucrative data centers in the county. Data centers generate tremendous local taxes — roughly $1 million annually per data center in Loudoun — while making minimal demands on local government services.

However, data centers do require electricity — lots of it. Someone has to generate that electricity, which can be an issue because no one wants power plants nearby, and someone has to deliver the electricity, which also is an issue because no one likes looking at power lines. In the case of western Prince William, serving a new AWS facility with electricity would require Dominion to build a six-mile, 230,000-volt transmission line from Gainesville to Haymarket, according to the Washington Post. And many locals don’t want a power line any more than they wanted a Disney theme park or an outer beltway.

Prince William Supervisor Peter K. Candland  is skeptical that a new power line is needed to serve the community, where growth is largely discouraged. “In the last four years, we’ve only approved about 400 new homes and one senior living community,” he told the Post. “I don’t see any other developments on the horizon,” he added. “We’re in a holding pattern.”

Haymarket Mayor David Leake says the power line is “really for one customer, for one need” — Amazon.

Dominion, for its part, says, “The determination has been made that the need is there.”

AWS operates one data center on John Marshall Highway, and county economic developers have held discussions with a local property owner to accommodate another one, including a Dominion sub-station to serve it. Given local resistance, however, the property owner told the Post that it would not seek the zoning necessary to build one.

Bacon’s bottom line: This controversy is instructive in so many ways. First, it shows that localities seeking to bolster their tax base with data centers need to plan for them. Loudoun County is ahead of the game, having developed a special zoning category for data centers and planned for them in other ways. Judging from the Post article, Prince William seems to be winging it.

Second, the hoo-ha in Prince William highlights a potential obstacle to achieving the kind of energy conservation called for by environmentalists to meet the goals of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan. One of the biggest potential sources of energy efficiency is migrating business data and computing from energy-inefficient in-house servers to state-of-the-art data centers maintained by cloud providers like AWS, Google, IBM, Microsoft and others. Data centers can reduce the energy cost of storing and processing data by 80%. They reside in inoffensive buildings that generate little traffic and impose few costs on local government, but they require electric power. Supplying that power sometimes requires building new sub-stations and transmission lines. If the United States, as a society, is serious about achieving gains in energy efficiency, it needs to figure out how to build the sub-stations and power lines needed to power the cloud.

What’s the Deal with Dominion and Coal Ash?

The coal ash ponds at Possum Point

The coal ash ponds at Possum Point

By Peter Galuszka

So what’s the deal with dumping coal ash and Dominion Virginia Power?

A story in the Associated Press that is getting wide attention suggests that the utility may be consolidating five coal ash dumping ponds at its Possum Point generating plant into one that may or may not be properly lined.

If the lining is inadequate, then the coal ash which contains such dangerous chemicals as arsenic and selenium could leach into Quantico Creek and the Potomac River, according to the Southern Environmental Law Center.

Dominion claims it is in compliance with all current state and federal rules although stricter ones are due soon. So why not wait for final rules and bury the coal ash in a proper way? Dominion thinks that would be too expensive, critics say, and it is making its move now.

Dominion announced recently that it was closing nine coal ash ponds at Bremo Bluffs, Chesapeake, Chesterfield and Possum Point. Some of the ponds were opened in the 1940s. Bremo has converted from coal to gas, as has Possum Point. Chesapeake is closing completely.

Just to quash the potential argument, these closings were announced long before the fossil fuel industry started their “War on Coal” propaganda campaign and is doing so for cost reasons. Possum Point switched from coal in 2003.

Coal ash is messy and can be deadly. Its problems were underscored when 50,000 tons of coal ash stored by Duke in North Carolina broke free and splashed into the Dan River. That polluted rivershore into Virginia. Duke ended up with $102 million or so in fines. Virginia fined Duke a puny $2.5 million.

The Energy Paradox of Virginia-based Data Centers

Loudoun County promotion for its data centers.

Loudoun County promotion for its data centers.

by James A. Bacon

There’s a fascinating paradox in the energy economics of data centers. Outsourcing data storage and computing to hyper-scale, hyper-efficient data centers allows businesses to conserve energy and consume less electricity than they would otherwise. But the outsourcing phenomenon increases demand for electricity where the data centers are clustered.

Because so many state-of-the-art data centers have located in Northern Virginia, Loudoun County in particular, and because those data centers are serving customers as far afield as Philadelphia and Charlotte, outsourcing reduces overall electricity demand compared to what it would be otherwise but also concentrates that demand in a localized geographical area.

That paradox might — and I emphasize might because there may be mitigating factors of which I am unaware — undermine the case that Virginia can meet its proposed goals for the Clean Power Plan through energy conservation. Data centers are a major force in driving electricity demand higher for Northern Virginia utilities, primarily Dominion Virginia Power and the Northern Virginia Electric Cooperative.

Here’s how outsourcing promotes energy conservation: Thanks to economies of scale and the pooling of customers with diverse peak demand, data centers can store and process the same amount of data with a single server that most businesses handle with four. Fewer servers translates into less electricity consumed. Moreover, because state-of-the-art servers invest in more efficient cooling systems, their servers sip less energy. Combine the two and the synergy is powerful. “This represents an 88% reduction in carbon emissions for customers when they use AWS vs. the typical on-premises data center,” writes Jeff Barr for the official Amazon blog.

For good reason, environmental groups have targeted data centers as one of the most promising strategies for improving energy efficiency and reducing carbon dioxide emissions in the United States. If all data centers could achieve just half the savings available by attaining industry-leading performance standards, writes Pierre Delforge with the National Resources Defense Council, the country could save  39 billion kilowatt-hours annually — “equivalent to the annual electricity consumption of nearly all the households in the state of Michigan.”

What applies to the nation, however, does not apply to locations where data centers are clustered. Playing on its location on the Northern Virginia fiber network, a tech-savvy workforce and an expedited permitting process, among other advantages, Loudoun County has targeted data centers for economic development. The 60 or so data centers in the county don’t support many jobs — although the jobs are high paying — but they give a massive boost to the tax base. Buddy Rizer, Loudoun’s economic development director, says data centers contribute $70 million a year in local taxes. Better yet, they create very little demand for local services. Every locality in Virginia would love to recruit data centers if it could.

This enters the debate over implementation of the Clean Power Plan because energy efficiency is one of the strategies which the Environmental Protection Agency says states can use to reach their goals for reducing carbon dioxide emissions from its electric utilities. The goals effectively force Virginia power companies to shut down their least efficient coal-fired plants, with lost capacity to be made up through increased use of natural gas, renewables and energy efficiency.

The operative question is how much can Virginia reasonably expect to reduce electricity demand through energy conservation? Environmentalists say that energy efficiency can help reach the Clean Power Plan goals but power companies say the savings will be offset by increased demand from other sources — such as more electric gadgets and appliances, greater use of computer power and data and, eventually, more electric vehicles. State Corporation Commission staff have expressed skepticism that energy conservation can compensate for shutting down coal-fired power plants, especially if Virginia does not build a new nuclear reactor at North Anna, as some environmental groups propose.

A new study shows that investments in household energy conservation may be far less cost-effective than thought. “The findings suggest that the upfront investment costs are about twice the actual energy savings,” states a University of Chicago Study, “Do Energy Efficient Investments Deliver? Evidence from the Weatherization Assistance Program.” “Even when accounting for the broader societal benefits of energy efficiency investments, the costs still substantially outweigh the benefits; the average rate of return is approximately -9.5% annually.”

Can conservation investments in a business setting like building automation or data outsourcing, where the ROI can be much higher, take up the slack? Perhaps it can on a national level, but it’s harder to make the case in Northern Virginia, where data centers are, in effect, sucking up electricity demand from other parts of the country, even the world.

Business-Labor Coalition Enters Pipeline Debate

Proposed route of Atlantic Coast Pipeline.

Proposed route of Atlantic Coast Pipeline.

by James A. Bacon

More than 100 business, labor and economic development organizations have announced the formation of an advocacy group, EnergySure, to promote the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. The founding members “represent millions of employees and associates across Virginia, West Virginia and North Carolina,” says the organization’s press release.

EnergySure is being funded by the four Atlantic Coast Pipeline partners: Dominion, Duke Energy, Piedmont Natural Gas and AGL Resources. “The ACP partners serve millions of homes and businesses that depend on the companies to meet their energy needs,” states the group’s website. “The EnergySure Coalition was created as a platform for these consumer voices to be heard.”

The proposed 550-mile pipeline would transport natural gas originating from fracked natural gas fields in West Virginia to markets in Virginia and North Carolina.

The advocacy group comes together in response to spirited opposition by landowners along the proposed route, especially in bucolic Augusta County and Nelson County in Virginia. Led by the All Pain No Gain group, foes say the pipeline would harm property values, contaminate water, pose a safety risk and negatively impact local craft agriculture while doing little to create jobs or lower energy prices.

EnergySure hits three main themes in support of the pipeline:

Reliable energy. Virginia and North Carolina need a reliable supply of natural gas to support economic growth. Utility demand for natural gas is expected to triple as power companies in Virginia and North Carolina retire coal-fired power plants and burn cleaner natural gas in its place. Pipeline advocates also assert that existing pipelines are approaching maximum capacity and the inability to bring more gas into the region will make it difficult to recruit manufacturers that require natural gas in their processes.

Economic development. Pipeline construction will support 17,240 jobs across Virginia, West Virginia and North Carolina, asserts EnergySure. Longer term, the pipeline also will save Virginia and North Carolina consumers $377 million yearly over the next 2o years, which in turn will stimulate local economies.

The money consumers save on energy each year could help support 2,200 jobs when reinvested back into Virginia and North Carolina’s economies. Over the next 20 years, the Atlantic Coast Pipeline is projected to generate $7.5 billion in energy savings, $2.6 billion in labor income and $4.4 billion in gross state product to Virginia and North Carolina.

Another bonus: Projected cumulative property taxes are estimated at $25 million annually.

(The website does not say where the economic impact numbers come from. The data comes from a report, “The Economic Impacts of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline,” written by ICF  International, a Northern Virginia professional services firm, for Dominion Transmission Inc. ICF utilized its Gas Market Model and Integrated Planning Model to model the North American gas and electric markets with and without the pipeline. )

Green energy. Two waves of federal regulation — one enforcing stricter standards for emissions of toxic chemicals and the other curtailing carbon dioxide — leave Virginia and North Carolina power companies with little choice but to substitute natural gas for coal in their fuel mix. In addition, gas-fired power plants serve as back-up for solar and wind power, whose power output varies with time of day and weather conditions.

As for local environmental impact, EnergySure concedes that there will be “temporary disruption” during the construction phase, but that “most of the land” the pipeline crosses will return to its original land use. Also, inspectors will be conducting tests through the construction process to ensure water quality remains the same as it was before.

Bacon’s bottom line. With the publication of the EnergySure and All Pain No Gain websites, the battle lines are drawn and the issues clear for all to see.  At the moment, the conflict is shaping up as a David and Goliath contest: rural landowners in Nelson and Augusta counties pitted against the business, labor and economic development establishments of three states.

It remains to be seen how two important constituencies align themselves. Outside property rights groups have not yet played a vocal role in the debate so far, although one would think that they would sympathize with local landowners. Another potential ally, the environmentalist movement, appears to be conflicted. Environmentalists typically side with landowners seeking to protect the local environment against disruptive construction projects, and some environmental groups oppose anything that would promote the production and consumption of fossil fuels (including natural gas) for any reason. On the other hand, pragmatists in the environmental community recognize that the energy economy cannot transition away from coal without more natural gas. To date, major environmental groups have kept a low profile in the pipeline debate.

Politically speaking, the entry of dozens of business, labor and economic development organizations on the side of the pipeline partners would seem tip the odds strongly in favor of the pipeline.

Shining Sunlight on the Accomack Solar Project

Approximate location of the Amazon Web Services solar generating facility.

Approximate location of the Amazon Web Services solar generating facility on the Eastern Shore.

Amazon’s giant solar power plant will lighten the environmental footprint of the company’s growing cluster of Northern Virginia data centers. It won’t do much to lighten the tax burden of Accomack County.

by James A. Bacon

Amazon Web Services (AWS), the cloud-services business unit of retailing giant Amazon, made big energy news earlier this month when it announced plans to build an 80-megawatt solar generating plant in Accomack County. The nearly 1,000-acre facility will be one of the biggest solar power plants east of the Mississippi, generating enough electricity to power 15,000 homes or, to use a more appropriate unit of comparison, about 200,000 servers.

AWS was tight-lipped about the project, declining to answer questions posed by Bacon’s Rebellion and binding business partners such as Dominion Virginia Power and A&N Electric Coop on the Eastern Shore to non-disclosure agreements. All the company was willing to say in its press announcement, above the sparest details, was that the electricity will be delivered into the electric grid through a Power Purchase Agreement (PPA) to serve “both existing and planned AWS datacenters in the central and eastern US.”

“We continue to make significant progress towards our long-term commitment to power the global AWS infrastructure with 100 percent renewable energy,” said Jerry Hunter, Vice President of Infrastructure at Amazon Web Services. “Amazon Solar Farm US East … has the added benefit of working to increase the availability of renewable energy in the Commonwealth of Virginia.”

Neither the Governor’s Office nor the Virginia Economic Development Partnership issued its own press release — highly unusual in a deal reported by the Richmond Times-Dispatch to be valued at $200 million, surely one of the biggest investments by an out-of-state company in the Old Dominion this year. The deal was shrouded in secrecy. Even the state’s solar energy expert, Ken Jurman with the Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy, was kept out of the deal-making loop. “You probably know as much about it as I do,” he told Bacon’s Rebellion.

Too bad nobody’s talking because there is a fascinating back story here: the rapid rise of Northern Virginia as the leading locus of AWS data centers in the United States. According to a Greenpeace investigation of the Amazon cloud, AWS has publicly admitted to more than 10 data centers in its US East “Availability Zone,” but based on diesel permits for backup generators filed with the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), the total number of AWS data centers operating or under construction in Virginia stood at 23 in May.

Regarding 2014 energy consumption, said Greenpeace, “AWS expanded the capacity of US East by over 200 MW (megawatts), as much as the total amount of capacity in the rest of its U.S Availability Zones combined, bringing the total energy demand capacity of AWS facilities in Northern Virginia to 500 MW.”

AWS is under heavy pressure from environmental organizations to conserve energy or find zero-carbon emission sources for its energy-chugging server farms. If Greenpeace’s estimates are anywhere near accurate, the Accomack facility will supply only a modest fraction of the company’s total power consumption in Northern Virginia. AWS’s commitment to go 100% renewable suggests that the company could be on the prowl for significant additional solar capacity in the Mid-Atlantic region.

Meanwhile, the company is using the caché of the East Coast’s largest solar facility to drive a hard bargain with local government.

Accomack officials are excited about AWS’s decision to locate in the county, whose economic base is primarily farming, agribusiness and tourism. “This puts an Amazon-branded facility in our county,” beams Steven B. Miner, county administrator of Accomack County. But, he adds, “They’ve made it very clear that these [solar] projects are very sensitive to taxation.” Tax concessions are expected from the county.

Big data needs a home

Northern Virginia has the largest cluster of data centers in the world, and Loudoun County the largest percentage — about 80% — of any jurisdiction in Northern Virginia. Buddy Rizer, director of economic development for Loudoun County, says there are “sixty or so” data centers in Loudoun County at the moment. The number is always changing because “there hasn’t been one day in without data center construction in six years.” All the major players have a presence in Loudoun, he says. “Facebook has their largest footprint anywhere in the world here. … Visa has its main credit card processing plant here. You swipe your credit card anywhere in the world, and it’s using our infrastructure here in the county.” So dominant is Loudoun, he says, that 70% of the world’s Internet traffic moves through the county. Continue reading

Tobacco Commission: Six of Eight Projects Fail

The old logo

The old logo

 By Peter Galuszka

Down Danville way, of eight companies that have received money from the Tobacco Region Opportunity Fund (the old, embattled tobacco commission) only two have managed to fulfill contractual obligations to create jobs and help the local economy.

According to a report by Vicky M. Cruz in the Danville Register & Bee, the six firms that have failed to meet their obligations mean a loss of 1,340 potential jobs and $63 million in local investment. It also means that Danville owes the tobacco commission $5.47 million.

Here’s a list of the companies.

The tobacco commission has been around since 1999 to supposedly help residents in the tobacco growing areas of the state move into non-leaf related jobs. The money came from the huge multi-billion dollar Master Settlement Agreement between four cigarette companies and 46 states that had sued them over health concerns.

The tobacco commission has been a bit of a sham. Money has been doled out without checks on how it was spent or how successful projects have been. A former director ended up in prison for siphoning off funds. A state audit has been ultra-critical of the fund, which figured in the political corruption conviction of former Gov. Robert F. McDonnell and his wife.

Last month, Gov. Terry McAuliffe renamed the fund, appointed a new director and changed its board. The cases reported by the Register & Bee obviously date before the reforms. Let’s hope they work.

(Hat tip to Larry Gross).

How Not to Save the Planet

solar_panelThere are two kinds of people in the world: those who want to make the world a better place by contributing their own time, energy and money to worthy causes and those who want to make the world a better place by using other peoples’ money — usually through the coercive power of government.

Solar energy is one of those things that people love to love in the abstract. A few people live up to their ideals and put their money where their mouth is. Blogger and open government advocate Waldo Jaquith (to name the only person I can think of off-hand who has done so) invested his own money to equip his house with solar energy panels. My friend Steve Nash, author of Virginia Climate Fever, uses solar power for his back-yard pool. Then there are the anonymous benefactors of the Voluntary Solar Resource Development Fund who have contributed to a revolving loan fund administered by the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy (DMME) to help fund low-cost solar installations.

The General Assembly created the fund in 2011. There is a dedicated DMME website, Dominion and Appalachian Power have websites, the program is listed in the Database of State Incentives for Renewables and Efficiency, and there were numerous newspaper articles about the program when it was enacted. Four years have passed.

As of May 31, 2015, contributions have totaled $344.27, according to an annual report submitted by DMME.

The average cost of a residential solar installation runs about $37,000.

The program is set to expire in 2016. Absent a dramatic surge in contributions — a minimum of $500,000 to $2 million is needed to sustain the program — it will fail to make a single loan.

Why aren’t the fans of solar power publicizing this fund? Why aren’t they ginning up support? Why aren’t they creating waves of publicity through social media? Don’t they want to save the planet? Or do they want someone else to pay for saving the planet?

(Hat tip: Tim Wise)

— JAB

At Last: Objective Criteria for Scoring Transportation Projects

weighting_frameworks

by James A. Bacon

After lengthy study, the Commonwealth Transportation Board yesterday approved new metrics for prioritizing transportation funding in Virginia. The new metrics are designed to create objective criteria for evaluating the selection of road and rail projects. It remains to be seen how the metrics will be applied in practice, but in theory they represent a big step forward.

As seen in the chart above, the metrics will be assigned different weights for different parts of the state. For instance, Category A, which assigns the greatest weight to congestion mitigation, consists primarily of the highly congested Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads transportation planning organization districts. Category D consists mainly of lightly traveled rural districts. (View the classifications here.)

The different weights reflect the different priorities of different parts of the state. The classifications and methodology can be amended as needed to reflect changes in priorities and advances in technology, data collection and reporting tools.

Here is a breakdown of the measures that go into the weighting framework:

measure_breakdowns

These metrics will provide CTB board members unparallelled insight into the relative benefits of different transportation options. It should be much more difficult now for any administration to gain approval for “highway to nowhere” road and rail projects.

Bacon’s bottom line: I have long called for tools that make it possible to measure projects based on their “Return on Investment,” reflecting congestion mitigation, safety improvements and environmental benefits. This methodology goes beyond that by incorporating additional measures, such as economic development and accessibility, but falls short by providing no mechanism for calculating ROI. Given the complexity of the evaluations, it may be impractical to boil down all these metrics to a single ROI figure, so CTB board members will retain considerable discretion.

Some of the criteria look really fuzzy. How does one evaluate “land use consistency?” How does one measure “project support for economic development”?

Despite modest reservations, the new approach appears to represent a big step forward by limiting the potential for ideology, politicking and log rolling in transportation funding decision-making. I look forward to seeing how the new methodology works in practice. While one can rarely go wrong by taking a cynical view of human nature and the political process, I am hopeful that the transparent use of objective metrics will curb the worst instincts of the political class.

Issues Crystallize in Gas Pipeline Debate

pipelineby James A. Bacon

The battle over the Atlantic Coast Pipeline is intensifying. Foes of the project, residing mainly in picturesque Augusta and Nelson counties, have raised about $500,000, halfway to a $1 million goal, to rouse opposition to the planned 550-mile natural gas pipeline, reports the McClatchy News Service.

The “All Pain No Gain” group has set up a website with splashy graphics, videos, a blog — even an original country & western-style song. The website provides sympathetic profiles of affected landowners and advances economic and environmental arguments against the pipeline. It’s an impressive showing for “rural” Virginia, but perhaps not so surprising given the popularity of the area as a resort or retirement destination, especially around the Wintergreen resort, among high-powered professionals.

Backers include Phil Anderson, president of the Washington, D.C., lobbying firm Navigators Global, whose family has long owned a farm in the area, and Tom Harvey, a former national security official whose nonprofit group works with corporations on global environmental initiatives. Co-chair Charlotte Rea is a retired Air Force Colonel with considerable management experience, while co-chair Nancy Sorrells served two terms on the Augusta County board of supervisors.

The website raises a number of substantive issues:

  • Loss of property values. Construction of the pipeline would require cutting a 125-foot swath (the width of an Interstate highway) along the length of the pipeline. Trees cannot be planted within the easement, which means even a grassed-over pipeline route would be highly visible. Although landowners are compensated for land taken, they receive no loss for the damage to their viewshed. Dominion, the managing partner of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, encountered similar objections when it proposed building a high-voltage transmission line through Virginia’s northern Piedmont several years ago. There are legitimate questions as to whether Virginia’s eminent domain law provides landowners adequate compensation for lost value. It’s a legal and philosophical question worth exploring.
  • Safety. By comparison to other transportation modes, pipelines are a safe way to transport natural gas, but they are not risk free. The website cites four gas pipeline accidents across the country since 2005, including a 2008 incident in which a Williams Transco pipeline exploded in Appomattox, Va., destroying two homes and injuring five people. That pipeline was fined $1 million for failing to address the dangerous corrosion that caused the accident. Could such an incident occur with the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, or have regulations, technology and/or business practices rendered it unlikely?
  • Water contamination.  Blasting from pipeline construction could contaminate water quality, while excavation around streams, wetlands and riparian groundwater could disturb groundwater flow and damage springs. Moreover, asserts All Pain No Gain, Dominion pipeline construction in West Virginia in 2012 caused sediment pollution to several adjacent waterways. What’s not clear from the website is how lasting and significant any damage would be, or the likelihood of it occurring at all.
  • Impact on local craft agriculture. Craft agriculture is becoming a pillar of the Shenandoah Valley economy, with companies like Blue Mountain Brewery and Miller’s Bake Shop supporting local jobs. “Any contamination to the local water supply as a result of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline could cripple a business that is quickly becoming an institution in the Shenandoah Valley,” asserts the website. How realistic is that fear? Have other pipeline construction projects contaminated water supplies severely enough to impact jobs?
  • Future of energy prices. All Pain No Gain disputes Dominion’s argument that the pipeline will mean lower electric utility costs. The price of natural gas is likely to rise as the U.S. begins exporting gas overseas. Virginia could do better, the group contends, by shifting instead to renewable energy sources and emphasizing energy efficiency. This is the same argument made by Virginia environmental groups, but it is disputed by Dominion and the State Corporation Commission. Definitive answers are not easy to come by.
  • Job creation. More than 800 construction jobs will be created, but they will be temporary and many of the jobs will be filled by out-of-state workers, and there will be only 39 full-time permanent jobs when the pipeline is in operation.  Those job gains could be negated by the adverse impact on agriculture, tourism and other industries, the website says. On the other hand, All Pain No Gain does not consider the economic-development benefits to other regions of the state, particularly the southern Piedmont and Hampton Roads, which would be better positioned to compete for industry that uses natural gas as a fuel or feedstock.

So far, media attention has focused mainly on the complex of issues surrounding property rights and eminent domain. They’re important but, as can be seen by All Pain No Gain’s website, there are many others. Time permitting, I will look into all of them.

Dubious Oil Lobby Bankrolls Dubious Poll

CEABy Peter Galuszka

In a recent post, Bacons Rebellion extolled the findings of Hickman Analytics Inc., a suburban Washington consulting firm hired by the Consumer Energy Alliance, which found that according to a survey of 500 registered voters, the vast majority of Virginians support Dominion’s Atlantic Coast Pipeline.

The $5 billion project would take natural gas released by hydraulic fracturing from West Virginia southeastward through Virginia into North Carolina. Dominion has taken some strong-arm tactics to force the project through, such as suing property owners who declined to let surveyors onto their property.

Having reported on the controversy in such places as Nelson County, I was surprised to note the Hickman results showing such a strong support for the pipeline.

Maybe, I shouldn’t have been so surprised.

Let’s start with the so-called “Consumer Energy Alliance.” For starters, it is a Texas based lobbying group funded by such fossil fuel giants as ExxonMobil and Devon Energy, perhaps the largest independent oil rim in the country plus as host of utilities.

It has been traversing the United States drumming up support, often through dubious polls, against initiatives to cut back on carbon emissions. It supports the Keystone XL and other petroleum pipelines.

Says SourceWatch, quoting Salon.com, “The CEA is part of a sophisticated public affairs strategy designed to manipulate the U.S. political system by deluging the media with messaging favorable to the tar-sands industry; to persuade key state and federal legislators to act in the extractive industries’ favor; and to defeat any attempt to regulate the carbon emissions emanating from gasoline and diesel used by U.S. vehicles.”

The group was created in the late 2000s by Michael Whatley a Republican energy lobbyist with links to the Canadian and American oil sector.

The alliance’s modus operandi is to use “polls” presumably of average voters on key energy issues.

In Wisconsin, the CEA got involved in a battle over an attempt by electric utilities to hike rates if individual homeowners used solar panels to generate power. The state is dominated by coal-fired power and hasn’t done much with renewables. The utilities claim that they paid for the electricity grid and therefore home-power generators must pay extra for its use and the cost should be shared by all through rate hikes.

Many ratepayers opposed this blatant attempt to push back at solar power. Then, all the way from Texas and Washington, the Consumer Energy Alliance jumped in with the names of 2,500 local ratepayers who backed the rate hikes. It wanted to give their names to Wisconsin regulators.

The Grist asked: “What dog does CEA, a trade group from Texas, have in Wisconsin’s fight, anyway? Well, CEA represents the interests of mostly fossil fuel companies, so it is engaged in a nationwide campaign to slow the spread of home-produced renewable energy. It has a regional Midwest chapter, which pushes for fracking and for President Obama to approve the Keystone XL tar-sands pipeline.”

I was likewise puzzled by the Virginia pipeline survey that CEA paid for by Hickman Analytics, a Chevy Chase, Md. firm that does a lot of political polling. The firm is powerful and its principals were heavily involved with disgraced Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards.

There was a poll by Hickman for CEA showing that New Hampshire vote just love Arctic offshore drilling. That’s off because the Granite State isn’t anywhere close to the Arctic despite its cold winters.

There was another Hickman/CEA poll showing how much Coloradans love the Keystone XL pipeline – another curiosity because the last time I checked that pipeline doesn’t run through Colorado.

And, fresh with a “five figure” sponsorship from Dominion, Bacon’s Rebellion publisher James A. Bacon Jr. starts writing about this dubious poll from a dubious source showing that Virginians are tickled pink with the ACL pipeline. When questioned, he says it’s nothing different from a poll funded by the Sierra Club.

Maybe, on another matter, it is curious that Bacon’s Rebellion’s sponsorship deal with Dominion which Jim posted online is signed by Daniel A. Weekley, vice president for Dominion corporate affairs.

The very same Mr. Weekley signed an informational packet sent out to Virginia homeowners impacted by the proposed pipeline route telling them what a great thing the pipeline is.

Am I connecting the dots correctly?