Category Archives: Environment

Putting the Clean Power Plan in Perspective

climate_changeby James A. Bacon

Governor Terry McAuliffe has created a working group to recommend concrete steps on how to reduce carbon-dioxide emissions from Virginia’s power plants. As the task force undergoes its deliberations, I hope it will consider the tradeoffs between economic costs and environmental benefits.

Writing in the Wall Street Journal today, Bjorn Lomborg, president of the Copenhagen Consensus Center, noted that implementation of the Clean Power Plan would reduce global temperatures a grand total of 0.023 degrees Fahrenheit by 2100. From what I can glean from the Internet — readers, please point out if I have missed something — the Obama administration has not disputed that the magnitude of the change would amount to no more than a small fraction of a degree.

Rather than contest the numbers, the Obama environmental team has made two arguments: (1) that the Clean Power Plan regulating the electric power industry is only one element in a package of initiatives, such as promoting energy efficiency and improving better gas mileage for cars, that will have a much bigger impact, and (2) the United States needs to take the lead in order to persuade other CO2 emitters like India and China to accede to the United Nations framework for attacking man-made global warming.

Lomborg contends that the total U.S. package, of which the Clean Power Plan is only a part, will reduce global temperatures by only 0.057 degrees, and if the whole world follows through with commitments to the U.N. agreement, the forecast rise in global temperatures would moderate by only 0.3 degrees.

That’s the big picture. While one can reasonably argue that Virginia must “do its part” to achieve these benefits, it is also worth asking what difference Virginia’s contribution to that effort will make. In 2014, Virginia consumed 112 million kilowatt hours of electricity, about 3% of the national total. Assuming that Virginia’s implementation of the Clean Power Plan accounts for a comparable 3% of the national figure, the Old Dominion will contribute to a .0007-degree reduction. (Implementation of the administration’s other measures would increase Virginia’s total contribution to about .0017 degrees, but those are not an issue at the state level.)

For purposes of discussion, let’s assume that the Clean Power Plan wins the Supreme Court stamp of approval and moves forward as the law of the land. The plan provides states different paths to achieving its goals. The big decision facing Virginia at that point will be which of four broad approaches to adopt: one of four flavors of a “rate-based” plan or “mass-based” plan. (See here for details.)

All four options would reduce CO2 emissions, although one of the mass-based options would reduce it more than the others. Thus, the debate is over the difference between the two plans. When we ponder the trade-offs between the cost to Virginia rate payers, the reliability of Virginia’s electric grid, and benefits to the global environment, we should recognize that the most consequential decision Virginia can make will lead to a reduction (assuming the climate models are valid) of some fraction of .0007 degrees, with a margin of error of a couple ten thousandths of a degree, in global temperatures by 2100.

I fully concede that these are back-of-the-envelope calculations, and I’m sure they can be refined. I may have overlooked important considerations. I’m open to information that anyone can provide to help refine them, and I solicit your input. Consider this a starting point for discussion.

I’m not being a global warming “denier” here. I’m accepting the proposition that human-caused climate change is real, that the net impact to the world will be negative, and that the way to deal with the threat is to re-engineer the global energy economy. But I do think it is important to give Virginians an honest accounting of the costs and benefits. Citizens should press the McAuliffe administration either to acknowledge the rough validity of the numbers I have presented or to present their own numbers.

How Not to Turn Enemies into Friends

Governor Terry McAuliffe displays his CO2 emissions executive order. Photo credit: Richmond Times-Dispatch

Governor Terry McAuliffe displays his CO2 emissions executive order. Photo credit: Richmond Times-Dispatch

by James A. Bacon

Does Governor Terry McAuliffe deliberately misrepresent what skeptics of the prevailing Global Warmig Orthodoxy think, or does he simply repeat what others have said about what skeptics supposedly believe? Either way, we have a problem. Here’s what he said yesterday before signing an executive order to convene a work group to deliver recommendations for carbon reductions:

Now, some of our legislators have trouble keeping up with the times on this topic. They don’t believe the overwhelming science supporting climate change.

Now, I can’t speak for Virginia’s legislators, but I can speak as a skeptic of Global Warming Orthodoxy, and I don’t know of a single reasonably informed observer who doesn’t believe in “climate change.” Skeptics believe that climate is dynamic, and that it has changed throughout human history. Indeed, they emphasize the cyclical nature of climate, as seen in the alternation between the Roman Warm Period, the Medieval Warm Period, and the modern era with cooler periods. The question is not whether “climate change” exists but what role human activity plays in causing climate change. As even the most ardent advocates of anthropogenic (human-caused) climate change will acknowledge, it is difficult to tease out the human impact from natural climate variability.

Climate skeptics do understand that, all other things being equal, an increased percentage of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere will warm the planet. The question is how much will it increase warming? The computer models predicting steep temperature increases over the 21st century assume the existence of feedback loops in which more CO2 increases temperatures, which increases the evaporation of water (another greenhouse gas), which increases temperatures even more. How that process works still remains an object of scientific inquiry. An unresolved question is the extent to which water in the atmosphere leads to more cloud formation, which reflects sunlight, which cools the planet and counteracts the presence of greenhouse gases to some degree. For the most part, computer models have significantly over-stated warming compared to the historical record. Yes, global temperatures have risen, and, yes, this is the hottest decade since humans have been measuring global temperatures (not “in human history,” as Secretary of State John Kerry recently mis-spoke) but it is not as hot as the computer models of twenty years ago said it would be.

Once we move from the domain of “how fast are temperatures rising and what role do humans play” to “what do we do about it?”, we depart the realm of science and enter that of philosophy and public policy. The Global Warming Orthodoxy reaches far beyond science. It proclaims that the only proper response to warming temperatures is to re-engineer the world’s energy economy in order to reduce CO2 emissions. Even among environmentalists, there is disagreement how to go about this. While championing efforts to combat global warming, the Obama administration concedes that there is a legitimate role for natural gas as a transition fuel to renewable fuel sources, and for nuclear power as a source of base-line electric generation. Many Virginia environmentalists are hostile to both natural gas and nuclear, preferring all new electricity production be renewable. Reasonable people can debate the pros and cons of an all-renewable energy grid, but this is not a debate about “science,” much less about “settled science.” It is a debate about technology, economics, and the trade-offs between electric rates, grid reliability and clean fuels.

There appears to be a widespread prejudice that global warming skeptics (and by that, I mean skeptics of the Global Warming Orthodoxy) are anti-scientific knuckle draggers. In era of polarized politics, I suppose there is no dispelling that notion. But the skeptics themselves know differently. And McAuliffe, by suggesting those who disagree with him “haven’t kept up” with scientific thinking belittles their intellect and, thereby, diminishes any chance of winning cooperation with his agenda.

Republicans and Leftists Are Outraged, Outraged, I Tell You

Nishizaki Sakurako and Bando Kotji in "Yoshino Mountain"by James A. Bacon

Here’s what I missed in yesterday’s quickie post about Governor Terry McAuliffe’s plan to convene a clean energy task force: Both Republicans and leftist environmental groups are attacking the move, though for opposite reasons.

Republican legislators see the initiative as an end run around the state budget, which specifically prohibits any spending on the federal Clean Power Plan for reducing CO2 emissions from electric power plants while it is being challenged in the U.S. Supreme Court. Normally, such accusations strike me as political blather, but Brian Coy, a spokesman for the governor’s office, confirmed that that was precisely the motive. Here’s how the Washington Post summed up his statement: “The governor did not create the work group to assuage environmental groups but rather as a way to dodge the Republican-controlled General Assembly.”

House Speaker William J. Howell, R-Stafford, was not pleased: As quoted by the Richmond Times-Dispatch, he said: “This order is another deliberate attempt to circumvent the legislature and the will of Virginia voters.  The governor is developing a troubling tendency to prefer Washington-style executive action instead of the dialogue and collaboration that Virginians expect and deserve.”

Meanwhile, McAuliffe’s initiative was belittled from the left, who cited his support for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and Mountain Valley Pipeline, which would supply natural gas to Virginia and other Southeastern markets, as evidence that he is not serious about combating climate change. A joint statement by the Virginia Student Environmental Coalition, the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, and Virginia Organizing called McAuliffe’s initiative “a minor environmental policy” dwarfed by the harm of natural gas transportation and combustion.

The kinds words came from mainstream environmental groups who have been working through the administration to implement the strictest of the Clean Power Plan alternatives available to the state.

The governor is trying to reconcile his desire to combat climate change with his priority of creating jobs. Thus, he defends construction of two natural gas pipelines through the state on the grounds that they will create economic opportunity for the Tidewater region of the state, which is effectively precluded from competing for important categories of industrial expansion due to an insufficient supply of natural gas. At the same time, he has supported the federal Clean Power Plan (CPP), which seeks to curtail CO2 emissions from Virginia power plants. If the CPP passes legal muster, the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) will be charged from choosing from one of four broad approaches for the state to implement the plan. Environmentalists favor the option that would curtail CO2 emissions the most, although industry consumer groups worry the approach would drive up electric rates. McAuliffe has not yet endorsed an option.

Bacon’s bottom line: I’m still not sure what the fuss is all about. McAuliffe has already enacted a series of measures driving state government to pursue energy efficiency goals and to purchase solar energy. There is not much else that he can legally do. This new working group can recommend anything it wants, but it won’t have power to spend a dime. Meanwhile, the big action revolves around the Clean Power Plan. If the Supreme Court upholds its constitutionality, the focus turns to the already-instated DEQ working group to recommend how to implement it. If the Supremes nix the CPP, regulatory decision-making effectively reverts to the State Corporation Commission, which responds to legislative guidance enacted into law, not to gubernatorial directives.

I regard this whole hoo-ha as political theater — a kabuki production in which the actors rigidly play out their assigned roles.

McAuliffe Establishes Clean Energy Working Group

carbon_reduction

by James A. Bacon

Governor Terry McAuliffe has set up a work group to recommend concrete steps to reduce “carbon pollution” from Virginia’s electric power plants. Utilities cut carbon emissions 21% between 2005 and 2014, and the group will focus on how to continue the trajectory “in a way that makes clean energy a meaningful part of Virginia’s energy portfolio.”

“Many of the largest employers on the globe have made it clear that the availability of clean energy is a key part of their decision-making process when it comes to new jobs and investments,” said McAuliffe in a press release, in an apparent reference to Amazon Web Services and other companies who are working to develop clean energy sources for their Northern Virginia data centers. “To continue attracting competitive and innovative businesses, we need to invest in a 21st century energy policy to ensure our grid is reliable, affordable, and clean.”

The electric sector is responsible for 30% of man-made carbon dioxide emissions in the Commonwealth, stated the press release. “The electric sector is changing rapidly through increasing reliance on low and zero carbon resources. As such, it is vital that the Commonwealth could continue to facilitate and engage in a dialogue on carbon reduction methods while simultaneously creating a pathway for clean energy initiatives that will grow jobs and help diversify Virginia’s economy.”

While the work group is tasked with reducing carbon emissions, it shall “consider” the impact of such initiatives on electric reliability, electric rates, affordability for low-income communities, and economic development, among other factors. The group also shall reflect a diverse range of perspectives from scientists, energy experts, business leaders and environmental advocates.

McAuliffe has already convened a work group to update the Kaine administration’s report on climate change, and a group to advise the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) on how Virginia should implement the federal Clean Power Plan. Other actions have set up a Solar Energy Development Authority, directed state agencies to implement energy efficient practices, and set procurement standards to get 8% of their electricity from renewable sources within three years.

Bacon’s bottom line: It’s not clear to me what this group will accomplish that the others have not. But I guess it never hurts to take another bite of the apple.

Sierra Club’s Coal Ash Gambit

Coal ash pond at the Chesapeake Energy Center

Coal ash pond at the Chesapeake Energy Center

by James A. Bacon

The Sierra Club has filed a lawsuit charging that coal ash stored at Dominion Virginia Power’s shuttered coal plant in Chesapeake is leaking arsenic into the Elizabeth River. The environmental organization wants the U.S. courts to compel Dominion to scrap plans for burying the coal ash in place at four power stations around the state and to truck the material to lined landfills instead.

Earlier today, attorneys for the environmental group began presenting their case in the Richmond courtroom of U.S. District Court Judge John A. Gibney, advancing the argument that unsafe levels of arsenic found in sediment samples originated from underground water that migrated through the coal ash pits.

“These discharges of arsenic will continue indefinitely with no end in sight,” said Deborah Murray, the attorney representing the Sierra Club. “The only way to stop the pollution is to remove the ash to a lined landfill.”

Dominion countered that the Sierra Club’s arguments are totally unproven. The organization cherry picked “snippets” from the voluminous testing data filed with Virginia’s Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), wore “blinders” to the mountain of evidence showing that water quality complies with the law, and offered a “tortured interpretation” of how the arsenic got from the coal ash to the surrounding waters, argued Dabney Carr for Dominion.

DEQ has consistently found Dominion to be in compliance over four decades, said Carr. “The goal of this suit is to overturn DEQ’s decision,” he added, addressing the judge. “The Sierra Club is asking you to substitute your judgment for the DEQ’s judgment.”

Dominion has been accumulating coal ash, the mineral residue from coal combustion, at the Chesapeake Energy Center for decades. Like other utilities, the company mixed it with water to keep the dust down and stored the material in lagoons. After years of study, the Environmental Protection Agency issued new standards last year for cleaning up coal ash. The first step is to de-water the ash, treat the water, and discharge it into rivers and streams. For the most part, Dominion has reached agreement with DEQ and environmental groups on how to do that.

The second step is to store the coal ash in a place where it will not continue to contaminate water supplies. Dominion proposes to consolidate the residue and cap it with an impermeable lining to prevent the infiltration of rain water. DEQ is studying those permits now.

Contending that a cap does nothing to stop the infiltration of groundwater, environmental groups have pushed Dominion to truck the material to lined landfills — a project that Dominion estimates would cost $3 billion. While some environmental groups focus their efforts on DEQ, the Sierra Club is going the federal route. The organization believes the lawsuit against Dominion is the first challenge of its kind to the Clean Water Act. If the group wins the case, it will set a precedent not only for all four of Dominion’s coal ash sites but for power companies across the country.

While the implications are national, the facts of the case are highly localized. And, as was clear from Murray’s presentation, Sierra Club’s case is circumstantial.

The Chesapeake facility sits upon land comprised of loose and sandy soils that allow water to travel through easily. The coal ash ranges from 15 to 30 feet thick, and the bottom of the pile varies in elevation from 16 feet above sea level to six feet below. A liner was placed between the disposal site and the ground but it is leaking, Murray said.

However, when asked by Judge Gibney how she knew the liner was leaking, she had no persuasive response.

The key evidence presented for the accumulation of arsenic came from a 2010 report commissioned by Dominion that analyzed sediment “cores” — cylindrical-shaped samples of creek and river bottom — to determine if there was “natural attenuation” of arsenic. (Natural attenuation is when nature takes care of the problem, in this case by binding the arsenic with iron to form a harmless substance.) Five of the samples at a depth of zero to three inches contained arsenic in excess of the permitted level of 36 micrograms per liter.

The Sierra Club cherry picked these data points from mountains of data collected from samples taken twice a year over decades, countered Carr. All tests of surface water, as opposed to sediment, have indicated arsenic levels at concentrations well below drinking water standards. Every water sample — 73 taken over the past thirteen years — were well below Virginia and EPA water quality standards for arsenic. Said Carr: “There is no evidence of arsenic in the surface waters.”

Where did the arsenic in the sediment come from if not from the nearby coal ash pits? Dozens of other industries release discharges in the Elizabeth River, said Carr, and some are known to release arsenic. The Sierra Club has offered no proof that the arsenic levels in found in the sediment differs from those elsewhere in the river. The group has conducted none of its own research and offers no additional evidence. It relied entirely upon data that DEQ used to find Dominion in compliance with the Clean Water Act — “the very same data and information DEQ has relied upon to conclude that Dominion is in compliance with its permit at CEC (the Chesapeake Energy Center).”

Maryland Drops Coal Ash Appeal

The coal ash ponds at Possum Point

The coal ash ponds at Possum Point

The state of Maryland has dropped its appeal of permits granted to Dominion Virginia Power for discharging treated water from its Possum Point Power Station coal ash ponds into Quantico Creek and the Potomac River.

“Maryland is supportive of recent agreements in Virginia to increase wastewater treatment protections and monitoring protocols,” Ben Grumbles, Maryland’s secretary of the environment, said in a statement. “We are engaged in and encouraged by the ongoing discussions with Virginia and Dominion to do even more testing for fish tissue, water quality and sediment in the river beyond the current testing and monitoring in current or soon-to-be-proposed permits.”

Jay Apperson, a spokesman for the department, cited Dominion’s commitments to enhanced treatment of the water drawn from coal ash ponds and to specifications that meet or exceed Maryland’s water quality standards, reports the Richmond Times-Dispatch. He continued:

Moreover, Virginia DEQ has pledged to draft a stringent and comprehensive solid waste permit for the Dominion facility that incorporates all federal requirements. Virginia DEQ has further discussed its intent to engage Maryland during this permitting process as groundwater monitoring and surface water monitoring safeguards are included to protect Quantico Creek and the Potomac River.

The only group persisting in an appeal of the coal ash water-discharge permits is the Potomac Riverkeeper Network.

Bacon’s bottom line: The big remaining issue is how Dominion will dispose of the coal ash itself. Dominion has applied for permits to consolidate the material in capped pits on-site, asserting that the alternative preferred by environmentalists — trucking it to lined landfills — would cost $3 billion more. The statements from Maryland’s Department of the Environment suggests that Maryland has taken part in intensive, behind-the-scenes negotiations with Virginia DEQ, as Virginia regulators decide whether to grant the solid waste permits or not.

— JAB

Activists Pressure McAuliffe on Environmental Agenda

gas_pipelineby James A. Bacon

Governor Terry McAuliffe is getting heat from his far left flank for endorsing the construction of natural gas pipelines in Virginia, supporting offshore drilling and supporting Dominion Virginia Power’s plans for disposing of coal ash. While crediting McAuliffe for “small steps” in supporting solar power, energy efficiency and coastline resiliency in the face of rising sea levels, a coalition of mostly left-leaning environmentalists is calling for stronger measures.

“On the biggest, most polluting issues of our time, the Governor simply has not shown he has heard the voices of affected communities or joined the growing statewide call for justice,” states an open letter signed by more than sixty environmental, social justice and property rights groups.

Notably absent from the signatories were mainstream environmental organizations such as the Southern Environmental Law Center, the Sierra Club and the National Resources Defense Council. The mainstream groups support the same positions but have worked within the system by lobbying, filing lawsuits and participating in gubernatorial stakeholder groups. 

The McAuliffe administration responded forcefully with a defense of the governor’s record on clean energy, solar power, water quality and preparing for climate change. “The governor recognizes that clean energy is the lifeblood of the new Virginia economy, and a majority of Virginians support his work to create jobs while protecting the natural resources that are so important to the commonwealth’s quality of life,” spokesman Christina Nuckols told the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

Arrayed against the environmental and social justice activists are a coalition of manufacturers, chambers of commerce, labor unions and economic development groups that support the pipeline. These groups have been far less active and less visible.

Specifically, the open letter calls for McAuliffe to:

  • Discontinue his support of offshore drilling.
  • Reconsider his support for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and Mountain Valley Pipeline, and use his legal authority to review and challenge water permits under the Clean Water Act.
  • Immediately stop the plans of Dominion Virginia Power and other companies to “dump millions of additional tons of toxic coal ash liquid” into Virginia rivers or to otherwise improperly store the ash.
  • Support strong policy solutions to combat coastal flooding while capping carbon pollution.
  • Commit to a “mass-based” plan under the Clean Power Plan that would set stricter limits on CO2 emissions from electric power plants and “create thousands of new renewable energy jobs.”

Casting itself as a “multi-generational, multi-racial, multi-regional” movement for social change, the group is organizing a “march on the mansion” in Richmond on July 23.

Bacon’s bottom line: As a moderate Democrat, McAuliffe walks a fine line between his number one priority, creating jobs, and supporting environmentalists’ goals. While the mainstream environmental groups push their agenda from the inside — former SELC attorney Angela Navarro now works as Deputy Secretary of Natural Resources, for instance — the activist groups are pushing from the outside.

McAuliffe has supported the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan to curtail CO2 emissions, implicated in global warming, but he has not yet committed to any of the four broad options available to states for meeting the federal goals. The “mass-based” plan favored by environmentalists, critics argue, would cost ratepayers billions of dollars.

The governor also has supported the pipeline projects, arguing that greater use of natural gas would allow Virginia to transition away from coal, reduce CO2 emissions, and compete for industry that uses natural gas as a feedstock or energy source. The pipelines have stirred up a hornet’s nest of opposition among Virginia mountain communities along the route, where people fear, among other things, that construction and operation of the pipelines will cause erosion that releases sediment into streams, rivers and water supplies. They argue that the regulatory apparatus, divided between the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and DEQ, is broken. In particular, they fear that DEQ is being constrained by pressure from the governor’s office to not move more aggressively to regulate the impact of the pipelines upon water quality.

The coal ash issue has been contentious, too. While DEQ has issued Dominion permits for treating and disposing of the water in coal ash ponds, it has not yet issued permits for disposing of the mineral residue itself. Environmentalists want to put the material into lined landfills to prevent any possibility of groundwater contamination. Dominion says that option could cost $3 billion, which would be passed on to rate payers. The McAuliffe administration has not indicated which way it leans.