Category Archives: Environment

McAuliffe: Time for Some Real Ethics Reform

mcauliffePeter Galuszka

One can hardly blame Gov. Terry McAuliffe for ditching the General Assembly’s absurdly weak ethics panel along with deep-sixing the line items in the budget that restrict him from expanding Medicaid.

Obviously, the nice-guy, bipartisan approach he had advocated simply isn’t possible with the likes of Tommy Norment and Bill Howell in the legislature. So, it’s hard ball time.

After a year-long trauma of the tawdry gift accepting of former Gov. and Mrs. Robert F. McDonnell and their upcoming corruption trial, it is high time the state got serious about ethics reform. But true to form and the traditional senses of entitlement and privilege, the General Assembly has created a ridiculously weak entity called the Virginia Conflicts of Interest and Ethics Advisory Council.

This wrist-slapper would collect and review financial filings of donations to legislators and help “educate” those poor dears about those mistakes they might surely make even though they obviously didn’t intend to.

As for real teeth, it has gums. It doesn’t cover “intangibles” like trips to the Masters, deep-sea fishing, African boar-hunting, feasts at high-end steak houses and so on. Dominion, Altria and anyone else can shower on such goodies. Jonnie R. Williams could still fly Bob and Maureen anywhere in his private jet. Subpoena power? Forget it!

Well, McAuliffe has defunded this effort and wants real ethics legislation by next assembly.

Meanwhile, Virginia’s cozy politicians are “shocked, shocked, mind you” that the feds are taking a harder look at them. Many can’t get over the fact that McDonnell was actually indicted. They can’t believe he really faces trial in six weeks. Five former Attorneys General harrumphed their way to federal court saying that this is certainly not corruption. A federal judge effectively showed them the door.

Now we have a new federal case. Veteran State Sen. Philip Puckett, a key Democrat, decided to take a powder just before the General Assembly vote on the $96 billion, two-year budget and the Medicaid expansion matter. His bizarre departure just before the vote tilted matters the way of conservative, anti-expansion Republicans.

It was said at the time that Puckett might be considered for a six-figure job at the Virginia Tobacco Indemnification and Community Revitalization Commission, which would be a step up from the $18,000 he makes as a senator. In the mix, his daughter could get appointed as a state judge.

The outcry was so strong that Puckett withdrew from the tobacco commission job possibility. But there’s a federal probe in Abingdon and Puckett has hired Thomas J. Bondurant Jr., a former federal prosecutor. Likewise lawyering up is tobacco commission head Terry G. Kilgore, who will be represented by Thomas Cullen, another former federal prosecutor. This sounds just like GiftGate.

Now the tobacco commission has always been a fun place since it doles out hundreds of millions from the state’s settlement with Big Tobacco back in the 1990s. Many of the 46 states who got the money used it to prevent smoking but Virginia also created a gigantic slush fund supposedly to advance products in the Southside and Southwest tobacco belts that grow bright leaf and burley.

Their first act was to hand out checks worth thousands to anyone who held a tobacco quota in a now-defunct tobacco program. You could use this to invest in your community, buy new golf clubs or vacation in the Maldives. Your choice. (We Virginians like free choice, it’s the Jefferson thing).

A few problems set in. Turns out that former director of the commission, John W. Forbes II, was dipping in the well to the tune of $4 million and also set up a suspect “literacy fund” worth $5 million. He is serving a 10-year prison sentence after his trial in 2010.

Since then, there’s been more suspect stuff going on. Last fall, for instance, the commission gave a $240,000 grant to Virginia Intermont College, a tiny and troubled liberal arts school in Bristol. The college has received lots of money form the commission over the years.

Well, the grant was supposed to help Intermont turn the corner financially as it tried to merge with another institution. The latest is that the merger failed and Intermont is kaput and the city wants it to pay its bills. And where did that $240,000 go?

Not to worry, folks. We’re dealing with Virginia gentlemen here and we are all honorable. Or maybe not. As State Sen. Creigh Deeds says: “We ought to be troubled. We ought to all tremble. I’ve read some pretty nasty speculation. We ought to fear people talking like that. … When you’re elected to office, your public actions ought to be beyond reproach.”

Menu Items on the Free Lunch Smorgasbord

Last week I published “Lean Urbanism and the Bureaucratic State,” a post that described a New Urbanist project to rectify the baleful effects of excess regulation upon urban re-development efforts. Questions arose in the comments regarding this initiative. What were these terrible regulations? Were the New Urbanists exaggerating the costs they imposed? Reader Richard N. Maier, a real estate manager for a major Central Texas homebuilder, contacted me to share his experience trying to redevelop a single property in Austin a few years ago. I republish this with his permission. Remember, this is Texas, where it is easier to build than almost anywhere in the country. — JAB

Bungalow for rent in Austin, Texas

Bungalow for rent in Austin, Texas

The Cost of Regulation: The Effect of Municipal Land Use Regulations on Housing Affordability

by Richard N. Maier

One of my professors at the University of Chicago told the class on the first day, “I don’t expect you to remember everything I talk about here, so my suggestion is for you to walk out of here with one takeaway from each class.” I can’t really say I did that every time, but sitting at convocation at Rockefeller Cathedral, I decided the one takeway that trumped all others was, “There is no free lunch.”

Throughout my career it has intrigued me how many of us travel through our careers and personal lives thinking otherwise.

A discussion of “affordable housing” is a perfect platform for testing this statement. While attending the University of Pittsburgh as an undergraduate, I worked for the Allegheny County Housing Authority in Pittsburgh. Our mission was affordable housing. The Authority constructed, rehabilitated and managed thousands of housing units aroud the count. This program was provided courtesy of the Federal government (a/k/a the American taxpayer). After getting my Bachelor’s degree, I entered the private sector and began my lessons in the practicalities of how such programs became re-titled as “exactions,” “incentives,” “impact fees,” “water quality preservation” and so forth. While I understand that various governments believe their regulations, laws and ordinances serve a variety of purposes that are in the public interest (neighborhood and historical preservation, safeguarding of public safety and the environment, “saving” resources, and so forth), the cost of that menu of delicacies can be expensive to the homebuyer and therefore a tax on the economy.

Inasmuch as my career the lat twenty-five years or so has centered around Austin and Central Texas, my examples will be drawn from that experience.

If life in the development/homebuilding business were simple, we could find a property, get it properly zoned, develop the lots or building sites, and construct the homes. But then it’s not, in fact, simple.

Let’s start with an actual example of building on a single lot in a central city residential neighborhood in Austin. A few years ago we contracted to purchase a lot in an area known as North Hyde Park. This example is utilized to illustrate the extreme costs incurred when developing in the central city, an area of high demand and low supply. The various regulations that overlaid this property were the zoning code, a residential design compatibility ordinance known as the “McMansion Ordinance” (all 26 pages of it), impervious cover limitations, “Neighborhood Conservation Combining District” regulations (a 28-page ordinance that supplements the zoning ordinance), handicapped accessibility requirements, sidewalk construction ordinances, a tree protection ordinance and an historic preservation overlay (which threatens even the simplest of structures with the prospect of being labeled “historic” or “significant”). While each of these eight regulation categories (which I consider to be menu items on the free lunch menu) have what the municipalities or jurisdictions consider to be public purposes, in many instances they are very costly to the ultimate homebuyer and contribute to the reduction in home affordability. As such, they are certainly not free. The following addreses a few of these categories and their impact on development.

Menu Item #1: Historic Preservation

The building lot in this real example in the City of Austin, Texas, was 80′ x 130′; approximately 10,400 square feet in total area. Situated thereon was a bungalow constructed in the early ’40s. It was about 90 square feet in size, had no particular architectural significance (there are probably a hundred similar structures within a mile and a half), was generally rented to students at the University of Texas and was acquired for the value of the land ($266,000) for new home construction. Despite the builder’s determination that the structure was beyond its useful life, the demolition permit was opposed by a neighbor (a renter, in fact; it should be noted that none of the neighbors who owned their homes opposed the demolition). This neighbor posited to the municipality that the structure to be demolished was historically significant and should be preserved. This declaration launched the seller of the house into an entirely new and unanticipated process of having to fight historic designation of the structure. The process from start to finish took approximately nine months during which time the property was left empty.

Continue reading.

Harnessing Citizen Science

thingful

This first section of this post by James A. Bacon is cross posted from the Datamorphosis blog…

Recent years have seen the rise of what European Union officials are calling “citizen science,” a phenomenon in which amateurs, enthusiasts and others acting in a non-official capacity collect data (usually environmental data), participate in the design of projects and subject the data to analysis for public benefit. This trend is gaining momentum as the cost of acquiring environmental sensors drops for everything from CO2 levels to water quality, as mechanisms arise for citizens to share their data online and as activists in one location inspire citizens in another.

Indeed, there is so much activity that the European Commission Joint Research Centre convened a “Citizen Science and Smart Cities Summit” in Ispra, Italy, this past February. The Centre now has published a report, “Citizen Science and Smart Cities,” summarizing the main findings and recommendations.

There often is overlap between municipal smart-cities programs — an increasing number of European cities are setting up sensor networks to measure key environmental quality indicators — and grassroots citizens initiatives. Also, notes the report, there is “increasing recognition in the scientific community that to address the key challenges of the 21st century we need to move beyond the boundaries of discipline research and engage in research that is multi-disciplinary and participatory.”

Unfortunately, there has been little synergy between citizen and municipal initiatives. It is difficult to compare the results of citizen science and smart cities projects or translate findings from one context to another. Moreover, citizen data often disappears after the projects wind down, making it difficult to reproduce results.

The report makes a number of recommendations. One is to map citizen-science and smart-cities projects and generate a semantic network of concepts between the projects to facilitate searches of related activities. Another is to create a repository for data, software and apps so they can be maintained beyond the life of projects and be made shareable.

Bacon’s bottom line. The Euro-weenies are way ahead of most American metropolitan regions (especially Virginia metros) in applying sensors, wireless and Big Data — essentially, the Internet of Things – to the business of running their cities. Admittedly, much of Europe’s activity is top-down, fostered by national-government and European-Union subsidies, but a lot of it — especially the citizen science piece — is bubbling from the bottom-up. I see next to nothing here in Virginia, whether top-down or bottom-up.

The map at the top of this post comes from Thingful, a search engine for the Internet of Things (IoT). Each data represents a data set that someone has posted to Thingful. Follow this link to see the density of published data sets in Virginia compared to that of other cities around the world.

A region’s ability to compete in the global economy depends upon its collective capacity ability to boost productivity and innovation. The IoT is supplying a new set of tools by which to advance those aims. If we snooze, we lose.

While regions in Europe, Asia and even Latin America race to embrace IoT technology and reinvent themselves (the new Indian government has announced its intention to build 100 smart cities), I get the feeling that Virginia’s metropolitan regions are lollygagging along. The Internet of Things is not part of the public discourse. I see nothing written about it in our newspapers and magazines. Whenever I write about smart cities, I get next-to-zero feedback. If the readers of Bacon’s Rebellion aren’t interested — and you are indubitably the smartest and most perceptive citizens in the commonwealth — what hope is there?

Want to Combat Noise Pollution? Measure It

I’m a big fan of city life but I’m the first to acknowledge that there are drawbacks to crowding and congestion. The foremost of those is noise. Cities are noisier than the burbs and the countryside. The older I get (I’m 61 now), the larger the noise factor looms in my consideration of things. Even in suburbs, it doesn’t take much commotion to jangle my nerves. In the early morning birds can drive me crazy with all their chirping and cawing and twittering. As for children, don’t get me started. The noise-oblivious little monsters can be worse than freight trains. If it sounds like I’m turning into a cranky old man… yes, I believe that’s exactly what’s happening.

As a rule, cities are even noisier than the burbs. People are more densely packed in urban areas, so there are more people — more drunks, more wife beaters, more backyard dogs, more buses, more sirens, more jackhammers, more big, honking HVACs — generating sound waves within hearing distance. Cities also have more concrete and masonry that reflect sound and less in the way of trees, bushes and vegetative mass to dampen it. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), problems resulting from too much noise include poor work and school performance and even cardiovascular problems. Clearly, in the battle for livability, the noise factor favors suburbs, small towns and rural areas.

How does a city combat that disadvantage? Ordinances can limit excessive noise from construction, honking horns or barking dogs. Transportation officials can build sound walls along highways. Aside from such obvious measures, one useful place to start is to measure decibel levels to visualize where noise is the worst. Thanks to the increasing ubiquity of smart phones, the practice of noise mapping is spreading around the world.

In 2010 the Sony Computer Science Lab in Paris released an app, NoiseTube, that anyone can download and use to record decibel levels wherever they go. Users can tag particularly obnoxious noise sources and display them on Google Maps. The data can be aggregated to create noise maps accessible to researchers and city officials.

Sony appears to have neglected its website. NoiseTube.com claims to have data from 509 cities worldwide (including Norfolk, Virginia Beach, Richmond, Scottsville and Lynchburg) but the data doesn’t upload to my PC. Regardless, the code is open source, and anyone is free to improve upon it. Creating regional noise maps sounds like a cool community project to undertake. I’d volunteer to participate.  If there are any civic hackers in Virginia looking for a project, let me know.

– JAB

Tea Party Populism vs. Eric Cantor

teddy roosevelt By Peter Galuszka

Political analysts and the media are still trying to tease out the meaning of soon-to-be-former House Majority leader Eric Cantor’s primary loss last week to an obscure college professor.

Two major themes seem to be emerging. One is what the Tea Party’s role was and what the Tea Party really is. The second is how the Big Media missed the story of winner David Brat’s surprising strength, although a number of local publications did get it, including the Chesterfield Observer, a suburban weekly that I write for (although not about politics) and won a special accolade in this morning’s New York Times.

The Times also had a piece Sunday on its front page noting just how closely tied Cantor is to Corporate America. Aerospace giant Boeing saw its stock plummet just after Cantor was clobbered. Over the years, Cantor has gladly done the bidding of big companies, notably in managed care and finance. His donors provide a ready chart.

He’s backed the continuation of the Export-Import Bank that helps guarantee loans for foreign sales (to Boeing no less) and helped kill a bill that would have increased the capital gains tax made by alpha-seeking and ultra-rich hedge fund managers. Cantor does know about big business because he is a lawyer and has a degree in real estate. His wife, Diana, has worked for such Wall Street behemoths as Goldman Sachs. And, of course, Cantor was hatched and grew up in Richmond’s cliquish business community.

The interesting trend here is how Brat, touching a surprisingly sensitive populist nerve, targeted Cantor’s cozy links to Big Business along with the usual complaint menu about illegal immigrants and government spending. Brat hit Cantor for various corporate bailouts, including TARP, backing Medicare Plan D and two unfunded wars.

Such criticism resonated with his supporters, who are conservatives. But unlike the country club Republicans of yesteryear, these voters might be throwbacks to the Gilded Age during the era of gigantic trusts. I am strolling through Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “The Bully Pulpit” which looks at Theodore Roosevelt and William Taft at the turn of the 19th century and it is fascinating reading.

Being a Republican then meant being an upstart and independent-minded troublemaker, not a defender of the status quo and big business interests. The public seemed remarkable well informed and the media was filled with brilliant journalists like Ida Tarbell, Lincoln Steffens and S.S. McClure who took apart trust-builders such as John D. Rockefeller.

There was a real sense that too much economic power was being concentrated in two few hands and if you look at what’s happening today with the mergers of airlines, cable companies and banks, you get an uneasy sense of déjà vu. The result back then was long-standing legislation like the Sherman Anti-Trust Act and bodies like the Federal Trade Commission. The concerns were inequality, lopsided economic clout and the tendency for big companies to abuse their power.

It is in this sphere where the Tea Party types, whomever they are really, might be on to something. I’m all for leniency and compassion on immigration issues but I have to say that some of the anti-Cantor comments might have harkened back to the days of McClure’s Magazine and Tarbell’s extraordinarily detailed dissection of Standard Oil.

Sadly, the journalist profession has been gutted by cost-cutting, which is one reason why the Beltway types missed the Cantor story and scrappy little papers like the Chesterfield Observer got it. If there is growth in the news media, the hot trend is setting up “data-driven” Websites but as the Times notes, these proved inadequate as well in last week’s election because they relied on imperfect data. In other words, garbage in, garbage out, no matter how lively the prose is. What really matters is shoe leather journalism and not numbers crunching.

On-the-ground reporting can capture important clues such as how Cantor misused his Majority Leader bodyguards and Black Suburban SUVs to keep his constituents at bay on the rare occasions he actually sought them out. Otherwise, he seemed to be sequestered at expensive steakhouses. Voters pummeled by the Great Recession got the message.

Add up all of these trends and you might start understanding why Cantor’s defeat was so important. It posits who exactly the Tea Party is and what they actually stand for. It could be the start of a movement as historically significant as the one 125 years ago.

Lean Urbanism and the Bureaucratic State

building_codesby James A. Bacon

The really big idea to emerge from the 2014 Congress for New Urbanism (CNU) was “lean urbanism.” The idea isn’t entirely new. Andres Duany, New Urbanism guru and the driving force behind “lean” urbanism, has been publicly discussing the idea for a year or more. But he used the annual confab to flesh out the idea in a series of forums and conversations with others. The idea received a positive response — far more people attended his sessions than Duany had expected — but he received at least one reminder, which I shall recount shortly, that bringing about the kind of reforms he envisions will be exceedingly difficult. The fundamental problem resides not in bureaucratic intransigence or political obstreperousness but in the extraordinary complexity of modern democratic society.

The concept of lean urbanism arises from Duany’s observation that municipal zoning codes and building codes are so complex and onerous that they make it exceedingly difficult for young people, artists, gays and other small-scale players with a high tolerance for risk to gentrify and re-develop decaying urban neighborhoods. They simply lack the scale to hire the architects, planners and lawyers needed to push their projects through City Hall. Without the risk-oblivious pioneers to pave the way and demonstrate the viability of a neighborhood, big-money developers stay away unless government mitigates the risk through partnerships and subsidies, which, of course, are highly risky and expensive for government.

Duany experienced what he calls an “aha” moment, however, when touring Detroit not long ago. He was astounded by hot spots of revitalization where young people had moved into neighborhoods and begun rebuilding under the radar. Detroit’s bankruptcy, he contended, had forced the city to pare back its code enforcement apparatus, with the result that the Millennial pioneers no longer faced the bureaucratic obstacles that had halted re-development before. Was there some way to replicate that experience by, in effect, pre-negotiating a stripped down set of codes and regulations for districts targeted for development?

Lean urbanism, as best I could decipher it from the CNU sessions I attended, moves along two tracks — one on the private-sector side, the other on the public-sector side. In a series of sessions, a succession of lean-urbanism advocates presented papers on different strategies and tactics for bringing down the private-sector cost of re-development projects. Duany sat in attendance as commenter and interloculator.

Thus, David Brain, a board member of the National Charrette Institute, made a presentation on how to reduce the cost of charrettes, which are visioning and design sessions conducted with extensive public input. Charrettes are manpower-intensive and run up significant bills for the developers who hold them. Perhaps the idea could be re-tooled, Brain suggested, by bringing in smaller teams that focused on incremental changes rather than grand visions and by settling for rougher sketches without the complete documentation. There would be trade-offs, to be sure, but the result would be a tool that can “do more with less in the way of financial resources.”

Another concept was to build on the idea of tactical urbanism, in which planners, non-profits and/or volunteers mock up changes to the cityscape by repainting traffic lines, bringing in trees and bushes in planters, installing movable street furniture and holding events to show people what is possible. The idea is to undertake small, inexpensive experiments. If they fail, they can be scrapped at little cost. If they succeed, municipalities can follow up by making permanent changes.

One CNU session highlighted an example of “lean sprawl repair” for the Oak Hollow Mall in High Point, N.C. That project visualized transforming an abandoned mall into a business incubator with space for live-work studios, artisan workshops and a culinary institute. Parking lots would provide space for cheap, pop-up business quarters in the form of shipping containers. Cheap. Fast. Low risk. Other presentations explored the potential for making greater use of live-work units, using lean urbanism to revitalize small towns, and adopting the vernacular architecture of the Philippines to increase energy efficiency of American buildings at low cost.

But achieving public-sector reform is a tougher nut to crack. In yet another session, Richmond, Va., attorney Daniel K. Slone tackled the prospects for reforming the building code. Rules in the building code exist for a reason, he said. They are designed to protect against hazards common to the construction of buildings and they have constituencies that will fight to preserve them. Responsible builders prefer having codes because they protect against competitors underbidding them by doing shoddy work and because hewing to accepted best practices protects them against lawsuits if something does go wrong. When Millennials in Detroit ignore the permitting process, they take on risks — or pass them on to others — that they may or may not be prepared to deal with.

Unlike many government standards, which are imposed from above, building codes come from a grassroots, bottom-up process in which government plays a negligible role in setting the standards. The process is open to anyone who wants to participate, and the results reflect a give-and-take between stakeholders. The 1990s saw important updates to the code as environmentalists pressed for alternative building designs for such things as green roofs, adobe houses and putting outdoor lighting in trees rather than on creosote phone poles. Another wave of reform resulted in the creation of a Rehab subcode that recognized that the renovation of existing buildings justifies different rules than does construction of new buildings, achieving some of the goals that the Lean Urbanists are agitating for.

It might be useful, suggested Slone, to examine the concept of sovereign immunity that protects public officials for the negligent actions of government. Sovereign immunity has eroded over the years as citizens, legislators and courts have sought to hold public officials more accountable. Understandably, government officials are reluctant to expose themselves to the risk of lawsuits by modifying the building code. Clarification or expansion of sovereign immunity may be one of the most overlooked aspects of achieving lean regulatory reform, Slone wrote in a draft white paper. However, reformers should expect the possibility of resistance from the plaintiff’s bar and consumer advocates. Continue reading

Nash Nails Neanderthal GOP

crabbersBy Peter Galuszka

Imagine Norfolk spending $300 million for light rail only to have it covered in salt water. Or consider that Virginia’s statewide mean temperature has risen 0.46 degrees Fahrenheit per decade since 1975. Or that, due to carbon dioxide emissions, the sea level on the Virginia coast is expected to rise by two feet by 2050 and by 5.6 feet by 2100.

And consider that the state’s Republican politicians are mostly sticking their heads in the rising tide about climate change.

That’s the point of an intriguing essay in the Local Opinions section of this morning’s Washington Post by Stephen P. Nash, a research scholar and former journalism professor at the University of Richmond. His book on the rising water and climate change involving Virginia is due out this fall.

As Nash correctly explains, the state’s GOP leadership takes a “ho-hum” attitude about climate change and is loath to accept the fact of what is happening around them. You hear a lot of the echos on this very blog.

Nash is absolutely right. He should be listened to. As he points out,what is especially odd is that today’s deniers are running contrary to the traditions of their own Republican Party which gave us Theodore Roosevelt who set aside great expanses of land for preservation. Even Richard Nixon proved to be one of the most influential environment protectors in modern U.S. history.

I did a piece last year quoting scientists about how fishing patterns are already changing for Virginia’s watermen due to climate change.

Do the sea creatures know something that the GOP House of Delegates doesn’t know? Most likely they do.

Brat and Cantor: Two Unsavory Choices

BratCantorWebBy Peter Galuszka

The hottest political race coming up is the Republican primary this Tuesday involving the 7th Congressional District now represented by Eric Cantor, a powerful conservative who is House Majority Leader and could possibly one day be Speaker of the House.

His opponent, college professor David Brat, has gotten much national attention because Brat is trying to out-Tea Party Cantor who tried to shed his Main Street background and led the insurgent Tea Party parade during their days of glory back in 2010.

But if you want to see just how intellectually barren both men are, read what they wrote in opposing columns in the Richmond newspaper this morning. They show just how out of touch they are and how they are dominated by a tiny group of hard-right fanatics who have split the state GOP.

Brat is an economics professor at Randolph-Macon College in the quaint railroad town of Ashland that might be a set for a Jimmy Stewart movie.

He spends a lot of time debunking Cantor’s ridiculous claim that he is a “liberal” college professor but the very fact that he is doing this is a throwback to the Old Virginny days of yore. First, off, what is wrong with being a “liberal professor?” Are we supposed to have academics that pass a litmus test? Maybe Brat would have House UnAmerican Activities Committees on colleges to make sure that “liberal” professors don’t poison young minds.

Secondly, the use of the term is an exercise in euphemism that smacks of the Massive Resistance days when a candidate was accused of being a “social engineer” if he or she backed integration and civil rights.

And while Brat makes some fair points about Cantor masquerading as a budget hawk, his ideas on finally dealing with undocumented foreign-born residents are downright scary and are obviously intended as a populist ploy to the lower elements of voters.

Indeed, Brat’s column raises serious questions about just how well he understands economic reality, especially when it comes to immigration. Forces are aligning for some kind of long-overdue resolution of immigration. He claims Cantor backs amnesty for undocumented workers. (If so, what’s wrong with that?)

Brat paints a weird picture in which “illegals,” working in collusion with giant corporations, are stealing jobs from “real” Virginians. I won’t go into the borderline racist and nativist aspects of his statements. They smack of the older days of the No Nothings and the Ku Klux Klan that wanted to keep non-Protestants, such as Catholic Irish, Poles, Germans and Italians, or Chinese or Japanese, out of the country.

Strangely and even more troubling, Brat simply doesn’t understand the American labor market. One of the reason so many immigrants are in some sectors of the economy, such as construction and poultry processing, are because the jobs are dirty, messy and there aren’t enough native-American workers willing or able to do them. That is why turkey processing plants in the Shenandoah Valley have so many hard-working Hispanic immigrants. Ditto construction jobs.

At the other end of the spectrum, Professor Brat ignores the dilemma at the high-end of the economy. American universities are not producing enough software and other engineers so we have to import them through visa programs. Some companies are so hungry for foreign intellectual talent that immigrants end up working just across the border in Canada where it is easier to get visas although their efforts support American firms.

This may come as news to Brat in his little college town, but the world is becoming more global and, like it or not, there will be more foreign-born people working here and elsewhere. His complaint that illegals are getting soldier jobs that Americans might want is strange. The military needs to wind down after 13 years of war. One wonders if Brat even has a passport and has traveled overseas.

Cantor’s column is the usual Eddie Haskell boilerplate. He spends a lot of time tearing down the Affordable Care Act. Republicans have launched at least six unsuccessful assaults on it and still refuse to accept the Supreme Court’s decision of a couple of years ago.

Generously funded by the managed care industry, Cantor raises no alternatives to the current health care system that is plagued with overbilling, a lack of transparency and has cruelly prevented millions from getting coverage because of “pre-existing conditions.” Granted the roll out of exchanges was a mess last year, but health care sign ups have exceeded expectations in Virginia. The expected number was 134,800 in enrollment plans under the ACA. At the beginning of May it was 216,300.

Neither candidate talks about crucial issues such as income inequality, climate change or America’s changing role in world diplomacy. Neither talks about about poverty or smart growth or student debt.

Cantor is likely to win Tuesday but neither man seems worthy of leadership. They are just more evidence about how the right-wing fringe has been allowed to highjack the agenda. As this continues to happen, Virginia will be stuck in its ugly past.

Thank God for Obama’s Carbon Rules

chesterfield-rBy Peter Galuszka

At long last, President Barack Obama has released proposed new pollution rules that would target shutting or cleaning up coal-fired electricity plants to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 30 percent over the next 16 years.

The plan gives states the initial responsibility for coming up with regimes to reduce carbon through state-run carbon trading exchanges, carbon taxes, tradeoffs using renewable energy or new emissions restrictions on power plants.

While King Coal and conservative politicians, including some Democrats, strongly oppose the rules, they have been otherwise hailed as an important step in reducing greenhouse gases that are leading to climate change. “This is arguably the most important environmental rule ever written,” says Michael Livermore, a climate expert at the University of Virginia. Coal-fired plants are the country’s leading source of carbon pollution.

Coal industry and utility officials had feared Obama might come up with strict plans to immediately dun existing coal-fired plants, but the President has come up with a solution that has plenty of flexibility. In fact, one might argue it doesn’t go far enough, although environmental groups seem happy with it.

One of the reasons why the impacts on Virginia may not be that onerous is that the state’s largest utility, Richmond based Dominion, relies on coal for only 20 percent of its generation. In fact, Dominion has been planning shutdowns of its older coal plants for several years now.

Leading the list are all or parts of Chesapeake Energy Center and Yorktown that were built decades ago and are too expensive to upgrade. Indeed, according to The Washington Post, of 983 plants in the country, 63 percent are at least 40 years old. So, Obama and the Environmental Protection Agency are pretty much targeting highly-polluting, carbon-spewing plants that either are or will soon be on the shut-down list. Thus, it is ludicrous to claim that we must keep in service coal plants built when the Beatles were hot because they are needed for jobs. Why not hang on to Edsels, too?

Dominion has been busy switching plants to biomass or natural gas or building new, non-coal ones. Ohio-based American Electric Power, which operates in the heart of the Appalachian coalfields, is not so lucky since 75 percent of its generating stations use coal. Many utilities have already been achieving the carbon reduction although ones in Kentucky and West Virginia will be hardest-hit. Speaking as a former West Virginian, I must note that the economic contribution of these states to the nation overall is not that significant.

Politicians in the Mountain State predictably dumped on the rules. One who did not is outgoing U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, who takes a long view.

“I understand the fears that these rules will eliminate jobs, hurt our communities, and drive up costs for working families,” Rockefeller said. “I am keenly focused on policy issues that affect West Virginians’ health and their livelihoods. However, rather than let fear alone drive our response, we should make this an opportunity to build a stronger future for ourselves. West Virginians have never walked away from a challenge, and I know together we can create a future that protects our health, creates jobs, and maintains coal as a core part of our energy supply.”

Contrast that rather statesmanlike approach with the views of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, a Henrico Republican, who claimed the rules were an “assault on hard working middle class families” and that it would destroy the jobs of “nearly 5,000 Virginians who work in the coal industry.”

Cantor’s musings are not quite accurate, if not downright silly. For one thing, it is doubtful that electricity rates for most Virginian – those served by Dominion – will shoot up if 80 percent of electricity generation is already non-coal.

As for the coalfields, this may come as news to a flatlander like Cantor, but employment in the Virginia coalfields has been dropping since 1991 and hasn’t been much more than 10,000 in modern times. That’s about the size of Newport News Shipbuilding or CapOne in the good years.

The true reasons why coal employment has fallen off are that coal seams have become thinner and more expensive to mine and hydraulic fracking for natural gas has made it an obvious replacement for coal. It’s not so much “Obama’s War on Coal” but “Fracking’s War on Coal.”

A few other points:

  • As Virginia prepares its carbon reduction plan it is going to have to give a serious rethink to renewable portfolio standards. These are guidelines intending to reduce so much carbon by building wind, solar and other renewable energy programs to reduce dependence on fossil fuel. Unlike Maryland and North Carolina, Virginia’s standards are voluntary. This is a typical sop to business interests but the equation has just changed.
  • What’s left of the Virginia and the rest of the Central Appalachian coalfields are going to stay on the decline but there are saving graces. What the Cantors of the world don’t tell you is that there is still a robust export market from those regions for both thermal and metallurgical coal. Bristol-based Alpha Natural Resources has been concentrating on building up coal exports to Europe, whose energy picture has been darkened by recent Russian aggressiveness. Russia supplies Europe with about a third of its natural gas and that, in fact, can be switched in part to coal.
  • What the Cantors of the world also don’t tell you is that while there will be some coal jobs lost, there will be new ones created in making wind turbines or solar panels. Doing so is expensive and progress lagged because it was cheaper for utilities to just use cheap coal and foul the air. They don’t get to do that anymore and that should clear the way for more manufacturing of renewables.
  • Getting rid of some coal will improve the health of sufferers of lung disease in places such as the Ohio River Valley. Dominion out to take a harder look at its Chesterfield Power Station, its No. 1 carbon polluter, which spews out nearly 7 million tons of CO2 a year.
  • Another possibility is putting together carbon exchanges or taxes in Virginia. Plenty of foreign countries have done so. In the U.S., the states leading the way are the most progressive, such as those in New England, Maryland and California. Such exchanges helped reduce ozone-harming nitrous oxides back in the 1990s using, in part, market exchanges.

Guess who led on that? A Republican named George H.W. Bush. Who knew?

Coal: The High Cost of Carbon Capture

mississippi coal plantBy Peter Galuszka

It sounds almost too good to be true and it apparently is.

A few years ago, trying to keep burning coal while dealing with carbon dioxide pollution, the Southern Co. announced plans for a $1.8 billion coal-fired generating plant in eastern Mississippi that would do the near impossible.

Some 65 percent of the plant’s carbon dioxide would be captured, put through a 62-mile-long pipeline and used underground to boost oil production from reserves near the Gulf Coast that were thought to be worn out.

But the price tag has risen to $5.2 billion and the plant won’t be ready for another year. Its cost means that “clean” coal will be $6,800 per kilowatt hour compared to $5,500 from nuclear stations and about $1,000 per kilowatt hour from natural gas plants.

The Kemper County plant only underlines the predicament of burning coal. It is still the single biggest contributor to carbon dioxide emissions which contribute to climate change. Efforts to strip it from air pollution emissions are proving too expensive to be practical.

It’s too bad because the Obama Administration had been promoting the Kemper plant as one way that coal might have a healthy future. The administration is striking out for good media coverage since it is due to announce new proposed rules to stem carbon dioxide pollution at existing coal-fired plants on June 2. They are being strongly resisted by coal operators, some utilities and conservative groups.

Yet it’s not the first similar plant to be swallowed up in cost. Ohio-based American Electric Power built a pilot plant in West Virginia – half funded by the U.S. Department of Energy – that would capture and bury carbon dioxide. But, it, too, went down the tubes because it was too expensive.

A few years ago, there was some enthusiasm that China, one of the world’s largest, if not the largest, air polluters, would use its tremendous cache of cash from exports to build state-of-the-art coal plants. A Duke Energy official did the math and found that the Chinese might be able to capture CO2 at $16 a ton. But then Duke found that if they took the plant out of China, the expense increased four times. Why? The Chinese figures involved ultra-cheap Chinese labor and capital.

Perhaps someday cheaper technologies will make abundant coal useable without so much pollution. At the moment, it does not might sense, pricewise, regardless of whether there is a “War on Coal.”