Category Archives: Federal

Jonnie R. Williams’ Mansion on Market for $4.9m

Williams

Williams

 By Peter Galuszka

It might be right out of the “Lifestyles of Richmond’s Rich and Famous.”

A trust controlled by Jonnie R. Williams Sr., the glad-handing vitamin salesman who was the chief witness against former Gov. Robert F. McDonnell and his wife Maureen, has put his 14,700 square foot mansion along with 61 acres of land up for sale for $4.9 million.

I have the story here in Style Weekly.
“1 Starwood Lane” has six bedroom suits, a paneled “executive” study, a pool, a gazebo, a billiards and media room and (what the truly wealthy really need) a state-of-the-art security vault. There must be trouble in paradise however, because the realtor says it was originally listed as a $5.5 million purchase with just the mansion and 28 acres of property. Later, they threw in 35 acres more and dropped the price.

Williams, who got immunity from prosecution for his testimony for the McDonnell trial and another, unrelated one involving securities fraud, has apparently left the Richmond area where his former company Star Scientific moved from Henrico County after renaming itself Rock Creek Pharmaceuticals. He gave the McDonnells $177,000 in cash, loans, gifts and stock in exchange for influence in peddling his products, according to testimony at the six-week trial last year.

The McDonnells were convicted of conspiracy to commit fraud and other felonies. McDonnell got two years and his wife was sentenced to a year and a day. They are appealing.

The McDonnell’s who have separated sold their home in a Short Pump subdivision. It was listed at $944,000 and sold in a week. Williams’ mansion is in the middle of the high cotton Hermitage Golf Course in Goochland County.

For more details, click on Style.

The Fifth Anniversary of Upper Big Branch

A memorial to the Massey Energy miners at Upper Big Branch

A memorial to the Massey Energy miners at Upper Big Branch

By Peter Galuszka

Five years ago this morning, miners near Montcoal, W.Va. clambered into low, truck-like vehicles called “mantrips” for a nearly-hour-long ride to their positions at Upper Big Branch, a coal mine owned by a subsidiary of Richmond-based Massey Energy.

Some of the miners were queasy because the mine, known as UBB, was especially gassy, had substantial air ventilation problems and lots of coal dust. Even worse, the chief executive of Massey Energy, Donald L. Blankenship, was known as a hard-charging bean counter who liked to cut corners and maximize profits, investigators say.

As the shift neared its end, a “long wall” machine that rips into coal seams hit a clump of slate. Sparks flew from the badly-maintained long wall device. A jet of methane flame about the size of a basketball flared out. Safety measures, such as streams of waters designed to extinguish such flames, didn’t work. As miners scrambled for their lives, an enormous blast, fed by high levels of coal dust, roared through seven miles of shafts, blowing apart or suffocating 29 miners.

It was the worst disaster in this country in 40 years. Several investigations gave scathing reports of Massey’s lax attitude about mine safety. One report was titled “Industrial Homicide.”

So what’s been done to improve mine safety lives? Not very much.

Federal legislation such as the Robert C. Byrd bill that would give federal regulators subpoena power when probing safety violations has gotten nowhere in Congress.

Worried about slumps in coal production caused by as flood of natural gas from fracking drilling methods, the West Virginia legislature has come up with the “Creating Coal Jobs and Safety Act.” You read that right. The bill puts “jobs” first and “safety” second.

As W.Va. Del. Barbara Fleischauer of Monongalia County puts it: “There’s not anything in this bill that improves safety, nothing. And I can’t believe, after all the fires and explosions we’ve had in this state, recently, we would, and you know what they are; Upper Big Branch, Aracoma, Sego, that we would ever consider rolling back safety protections.”

The Associated Press reports that while mine deaths are down, thanks because of the competition against coal by natural gas. Mine inspections spiked after UBB and accidents, while they still occur, are down.

But, the AP says, the coal dust problem hasn’t been resolved. Massey had been fined continuously for not keeping levels of coal dust low. There was so much coal dust in the mine that autopsies of dead miners (at least the ones that had enough long tissue that could be recovered after the massive blast) all showed evidence of black lung disease, which was supposed to have been rooted out years before by regulatory upgrades.

Coal dust problems are still evident. In January, federal officials found excess methane and coal dust at Mill Branch Coal Corp’s Osaka mine in Wise County, Va. Another mine, Camp Creek in Wayne County, W.Va., had been cited 64 times in the last two years for failing to follow ventilation plans. And, a miner was recently killed at a showcase Virginia mine.

What do these mines have in common? They are owned by Bristol-based Alpha Natural Resources, which bought failing Massey Energy in 2011 for $7 billion. Alpha tried to absorb Massey miners and retrain them in its “Running Right” safety program, but it obviously has lingering problems.

Alpha has been lying off many miners because of the production downturns and lack of demand for both steam and metallurgical coal. After enduring millions of dollars in losses, its stock has trading at a dollar and a penny. Cash short Alpha has had to sell its new headquarters building just off of Interstate 81 in the Bristol area.

Blankenship, meanwhile, is slated to go on trial for criminal charges related to UBB in Beckley W.Va. on April 20. It is the first time a coal chief executive has been so indicted. Blankenship’s lawyers are trying to get a change of venue, claiming that he is so well-known and disliked in southern West Virginia that he can’t get a fair trial. For a time, he won a gag order preventing anyone, including families of the deceased UBB miners, from discussing the trial but it was overturned by the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond.

His trial may be delayed, but it won’t be much of a victory. Alpha Natural Resources, meanwhile, is refusing to pay his legal bills.

Note: Peter A. Galuszka is author of “Thunder on the Mountain: Death at Massey and the Dirty Secrets Behind Big Coal.” It was first published by St. Martin’s Press in September 2012 and is now available in paperback from West Virginia University Press.

 

NRDC Says Clean Power Plan Benefits Virginia

coal plant burnsBy Peter Galuszka

In a sweeping contradiction of the positions of Dominion Virginia Power and assorted politicians and regulators, the Natural  Resources Defense Council has issued a report saying that Virginia will benefit by following a proposed federal plan to cut carbon dioxide.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Administration has put forth a proposed plan for comment that would cut carbon dioxide pollution intensity — measured in pounds per megawatt hour of electricity– in the state by 38 percent by 2030.

The draft plan brought on protests from Dominion, the State Corporation Commission, Gov. Terry McAuliffe, The Virginia Department of Environmental Quality and many legislators who say compliance with the plan would cost ratepayers an extra $5 billion to $6 billion in rate hikes and force the closure of some coal-fired plants.

The situation was considered so dire that Dominion convinced the General Assembly to pass a bill letting it freeze its rate base and avoid audits by the SCC for five years.

Reading the NRDC document is like reading an instruction manual from another planet. The key point:

“The Commonwealth is already 80 percent on the way toward achieving the EPA Clean Power Plan’s carbon reduction for the state,” it says. The remaining 20 percent goal could be reached by pressing on with renewable energy and energy efficiency while developing a robust new work force that would total about 5,600 “and the state’s households and businesses would save $1 billion on their electric bills by 2020.”

One reason for the progress in achieving the goal is that Dominion has converted coal plants to natural gas or had announced plans to shut down some aging coal plants .

The NDRC notes that the Clean Power Plan does not specifically target coal-fired plants or other fossil fuel units and leaves it to the utilities to choose how they want to achieve the goals. Among ways to do this are to make coal plants more efficient, use natural gas plants more effectively by switching them on before coal plants and increasing renewables and efficiency.

Deutsche Bank reports that by 2016, solar power (which only just beginning to be tapped) will be cheaper than the average retail power, the report says.

The NRDC report brings up another topic that rarely is discussed in Virginia. Switching to cleaner power can “usher in climate and health benefits worth an estimated $55 billion to $93 billion by 2030. This could prevent from 2,700 to 6,600 premature deaths — a topic rarely broached in Richmond.

As for concerns of base loaded reliability, the report says that PJM, the regional grid to which Virginia belongs, can kick in during a major and unexpected plant outage with 3,350 megawatts of backup electricity.

Another interesting fact: NDRC reports that coal’s share of Virginia’s generation is now only about 20 percent. Dominion had reported it as being up to 49 percent of its mix a few years back. It is hard to understand given that Dominion has been shutting down coal-plants that are 50 or 60 years old. Opponents of the EPA’s new rules claim the plants are being shut down because of EPA’s “War on Coal” but simple age is the more logical reason.

In any event, it is amazing that hardly any of the points raised by NRDC were part of the harried discussion against the proposed Clean Power Plan and Dominion’s almost hysterical need for rate freezes and freedom from audits so it could have time assessing just how damaging the proposed Clean Power Plan would be.

What’s needed is an honest and transparent discussion and review of what the plan really is, how much it will really cost and how its goals can be achieved. That debate cannot be held captive by bankrolled legislators and regulators bullied by utilities.

A New, Improved Ken Cuccinelli?

ken-cuccinelliBy Peter Galuszka

Is one-time conservative firebrand Ken Cuccinelli undergoing a makeover?

The hard line former Virginia attorney general who lost a bitter gubernatorial race to Terry McAuliffe in 2013 is now helping run an oyster farm and sounding warning alarms about a rising police state.

This is remarkable switch from the man who battled a climatologist in court over global warming; tried to prevent children of illegal immigrants born in this country from getting automatic citizenship; schemed to shut down legal abortion clinics; tried to keep legal protection away from state gay employees; and wanted to arm Medicaid investigators with handguns.

Yet on March 31, Cuccinelli was the co-author with Claire Guthrie Gastanaga, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia of an opinion column in the Richmond Times Dispatch. Their piece pushes bipartisan bills passed by the General Assembly that would limit the use of drones and electronic devices to read and record car license plate numbers called license plate readers or LPRs.

Cuccinelli and Gastanaga say that McAuliffe may amend the bills in ways that would expand police powers instead of protect privacy. “The governor’s proposed amendments to the LPR bills gut privacy protections secured by the legislation,” they write. The governor’s amendments would extend the time police could keep data collected from surveillance devices and let police collect and save crime-related data from drones used during flights that don’t involve law enforcement, they claim.

When not protecting Virginians from Big Brother, Cuccinelli’s been busy oyster farming. He has helped start a farm for the tasty mollusks on the historic Chesapeake Bay island of Tangier. According to an article in The Washington Post, Cuccinelli got involved when he was practicing law in Prince William County after he left office.

He would visit the business and get roped into working at odd jobs. He apparently enjoyed the physical labor and the idea that oysters are entirely self-sustaining and help cleanse bay water.

Environmentalists scoff at the idea, noting that as attorney general, Cuccinelli spent several years investigating Michael Mann, a former University of Virginia climatologist who noted that humans were responsible for the generation of more carbon dioxide emissions and that has brought on climate change.

Some have pointed out that if Cuccinelli had had his way, he would have helped quash climate science, generated even more global warming and sped up the inundation of Tangier Island by rising water levels.

It will be interesting to see if Cuccinelli intends to rebrand himself for future political campaigns and how he tries to reinvent himself.

Cruz, “Liberty” and Teletubbies

AP CRUZ A USA VA By Peter Galuszka

Where’s the “Liberty” in Liberty University?

The Christian school founded by the controversial televangelist Jerry Falwell required students under threat of a $10 “fine” and other punishments to attend a “convocation” Monday where hard-right U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz announced his candidacy for president.

Thus, Liberty produced a throng of people, some 10,000 strong, to cheer on Cruz who wants to throttle Obamacare, gay marriage, abolish the Internal Revenue Service and blunt immigration reform.

Some students stood up to the school for forcing them to become political props. Some wore T-Shirts proclaiming their support of libertarian Rand Paul while others protested the university’s coercion. “I just think it’s unfair. I wouldn’t say it’s dishonest, but it’s approaching dishonesty,” Titus Folks, a Liberty student, told reporters.

University officials, including Jerry Falwell, the son of the late founder, claim they have the right as a private institution to require students to attend “convocations” when they say so. But it doesn’t give them the power to take away the political rights of individual students not to be human displays  in a big and perhaps false show.

There’s another odd issue here. While Liberty obviously supports hard right Tea Party types, the traditional Republican Party in the state is struggling financially.

Russ Moulton, a GOP activist who helped Dave Brat unseat House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in a primary last summer, has emailed party members begging them to come up with $30,000 to help the cash-strapped state party.

GOP party officials downplay the money problem, but it is abundantly clear that the struggles among Virginia Republicans are as stressed out as ever. Brat won in part because he cast himself as a Tea Party favorite painting Cantor as toady for big money interests. The upset drew national attention.

Liberty University has grown from a collection of mobile homes to a successful school, but it always has had the deal with the shadow of its founder. The Rev. Falwell gained notoriety over the years for putting segregationists on his television show and opposing gay rights, going so far as to claim that “Teletubbies,” a cartoon production for young children, covertly backed homosexual role models.

Years ago, the Richmond Times-Dispatch published a story showing that the Rev. Falwell took liberties in promoting the school he founded in 1971. Brochures touting the school pictured a downtown Lynchburg bank building with the bank’s logo airbrushed off. This gave the impression that Liberty was thriving with stately miniature skyscrapers for its campus.

Some observers have noted that Liberty might be an appropriate place for the outspoken Cruz to launch his campaign. The setting tends to blunt the fact that he’s the product of an Ivy League education – something that might not go down too well with Tea Party types – and that he was actually born in Canada, although there is no question about his U.S. citizenship and eligibility to run for question.

Hard-line conservatives have questioned the eligibility of Barack Obama to run for U.S. president although he is likewise qualified.

With Cruz in the ring and Liberty cheering him, it will make for an interesting campaign.

Carbon Cuts: Why PJM Has a Better Idea

pjm-region-1024x657By Peter Galuszka

Amidst all the gnashing of teeth in Virginia about complying with proposed federal carbon dioxide rules, there seems to be one very large part of the debate that’s missing.

Several recent analytical reports explore using regional, carbon marketplaces to help comply with proposed federal Clean Power Plan rules that would cut carbon emissions by 2030. They conclude that the carbon goals can be attained more cheaply and efficiently by using a regional approach.

The lead study is by the PJM Interconnection, a grid that involves all or parts of 13 states including most of Virginia. Its March 2 report states that “state by state compliance options – compared to regional compliance options – likely would result in higher compliance costs for most PJM states because there are fewer low-cost options available within state boundaries than across the entire region.”

The same conclusion was made by another report by the Washington-based consulting firm Analysis Group on March 16. It states: “PJM’s analysis of compliance options demonstrates that regional, market-based approaches can meet Clean Power Plan goals across PJM states at lowest cost, with retirements likely spread out over a number of years.”

PJM set off in its analysis by setting a price per ton of carbon dioxide emissions with an eye towards the entities being exchanged among PJM-member utilities in a new market. The PJM report shows that electricity generation varies greatly among members. Some are farther along with renewables while others are greatly reliant upon coal.

By exchanging carbon units, some coal plants might actually be kept in service longer while overall goals are still achieved. EnergyWire, an industry news service, quotes Michael Kormos, PJM’s executive vice president for operations, as saying that the market-based carbon exchange, somewhat counterintuitively, might keep coal plants running longer.

“With the renewables and nuclear coming in as basically carbon free, we’re actually able run those coal resources more because they are getting credit from renewables and the nuclear as zero carbon.”

In December, PJM had 183,694 megawatts of generation. Some 67,749 megawatts are from coal-fired units.

Kormos says that a number of coal-fired units are going to be retired in the 2015 to 2030 timeframe regardless of what happens with the Clean Power Plan, whose final rules will be prepared by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency later this year. The retirements of older coal plants are expected to involve a minimum of 6,000 megawatts of power.

It is curious that very little of this report is being heard in the vigorous debate in Virginia about complying with the Clean Power Plan. What you hear is a bunch of humping and grumping from Dominion Virginia Power and its acolytes in the General Assembly, the State Corporation Commission and the media.

This is not a new concept. Carbon trading is active in Europe and has worked here to lessen acid rain.

It is amazing that one hears nothing about it these days. It is shouted down by alarmists who claim that Virginia ratepayers will be stuck with $6 billion in extra bills and that there’s an Obama-led  “War on Coal.” The New York Times has a front-pager this morning about how Kentucky’s Mitch McConnell is taking the rare step of actually leading the “War on Coal” propaganda campaign.

Also strange, if not bizarre, is that this approach is precisely market-based which so many commentators on the blog claim to worship. Where are they on the PJM idea? Has anyone asked Dominion, which is running the show in this debate?

Dominion’s Clever Legerdemain

Dominion's Chesterfield coal-fired plant is Virginia's largest air polluter

Dominion’s Chesterfield coal-fired plant is Virginia’s largest air polluter

By Peter Galuszka

You may have read thousands of words on this blog arguing about the proposed federal Clean Power Plan, its impact on Dominion Virginia Power and a new law passed by the 2015 General Assembly that freezes the utility’s base rates and exempts it from rate reviews for five years.

All of this makes some basic and dangerous assumptions about the future of Dominion’s coal-fired generating plants.

It has somehow gotten into the common mindset that the Environmental Protection Agency will automatically force Dominion to close most of its six coal-fired stations.

Is this really so? And, if it is not, doesn’t that make much of this, including Dominion’s arguments for its five-year holiday from rate reviews by the State Corporation Commission, moot?

In June 2014, the EPA unveiled the Clean Power Plan and asked for comments by this upcoming summer. The idea is to have Virginia cut its carbon emissions by 38 percent by 2025. Coal plants are the largest contributors to carbon emissions by 2025.

A few points:

Dominion announced in 2011 that it would phase out its 638-megawatt coal-fired Chesapeake Energy Center that was built between 1950 and 1958.

In 2011, it also announced plans to phase out coal at its three-unit, 1,141 megawatt Yorktown power plant by shutting one coal-fired unit and converting a second one to natural gas. The units at the station were built in 1957, 1958 and 1974.

Mind you, these announcements came about three years before the EPA asked for comments about its new carbon reduction plan. But somehow, a lack of precision in the debate makes it sound as if the new EPA carbon rules are directly responsible for their closure. But how can that be if Dominion announced the closings in 2011 and the EPA rules were made public in June, 2014? Where’s the link between the events?

When the Chesapeake and Yorktown changes were announced, Dominion Chairman and CEO Thomas F. Farrell II, said: “This is the most cost-effective course to meet expected environmental regulations and maintain reliability for our customers.” Now Dominion is raising the specter of huge bills and unreliable grid.

Dominion has other big coal-fired plants. The largest is the 1,600 megawatt Chesterfield Power Station that provides about 12 per cent of Dominion’s power. Four of its six units—built from 1952 to 1969 — burn coal. Two others built in 1990 and 1992 are combined cycle units that use natural gas and distillate oil.

Dominion has upgraded scrubbers at the units, but the Chesterfield station is the single largest air polluter in the state and one of the largest in the nation.

Another big coal-fired plant is Dominion’s 865-megawatt Clover Power Station. It is more recent, having gone online in 1995 and 1996. It is the second largest carbon emitter in the state.

Then there’s the 600 megawatt Virginia City Hybrid plant that burns both coal and biomass in Wise County. It went into service in 2012.

Dominion had a small coal-fired plant at Bremo Bluffs but has converted it to natural gas.

So, if you add it all up, which coal-fired plants are really in jeopardy of closure by the EPA’s new rules? Chesterfield, Clover or Virginia City?

It’s hard to get a straight answer. In a blog post by Jim Bacon today, he quotes Thomas Wohlfarth, a Dominion senior vice president, as saying “It’s not a foregone conclusion that [the four coal-fired power plants] will be shut down. It’s a very real risk, but not a foregone conclusion.” Another problem is that I count three possible coal-fired plants, and don’t know what the fourth one is.

In a story about the Chesterfield power plant, another spokesman from Dominion told the Chesterfield Observer that Dominion “has no timeline no to close power stations” but it might have to consider some closings if the Clean Power Plan goes ahead as currently drafted.

Environmental groups have said that because of Dominion’s already-announced coal-plant shutdowns and conversion, the state is already 80 percent on its way to meet the proposed Clean Power Plan’s carbon cuts. When I asked a State Corporation Commission spokesman about this last fall, I got no answer.

What seems to be happening is that Dominion is raising the specter of closings without providing specific details of what exactly might be closed and why.

Its previously announced coal-plant shutdowns have suddenly and mysteriously been put back on the table and everyone, including Jim Bacon, the General Assembly and the SCC, seems to be buying into it.

Although there have been significant improvements in cutting pollution, coal-fired plants still are said to be responsible for deaths and illnesses, not to mention climate change. This remains unaddressed. Why is it deemed so essential that coal-fired units built 40, 50 or 60 years ago be kept in operation? It’s like insisting on driving a Studebaker because getting rid of it might cost someone his job that actually vanished years ago.

Also unaddressed is why Virginia can’t get into some kind of carbon tax or market-based caps on carbon pollution that have seen success with cutting acid rain and fluorocarbons.

It’s as if the state’s collective brain is somehow blocking the very idea of exploring a carbon tax and automatically defaults to the idea that if the EPA and the Obama Administration get their way, Virginia ratepayers will be stuck with $6 billion in extra bills and an unreliable electricity grid.

Could it be that this is exactly the mental legerdemain that Dominion very cleverly is foisting on us? Could be. Meanwhile, they continue to get exactly the kind of legislation from the General Assembly they want.

Time For a Fossil Fuel Reality Check

Murray

Murray

By Peter Galuszka

Let’s pause for a moment, catch our breath and realize what is really going on in the world of fossil fuel and climate change.

We’ve heard tons of loosely-based opinion from climate change deniers and drum beaters for the “War on Coal” crowd.

Here are two recent news items:

Coal baron Robert Murray is closing a $1.4 billion deal for Illinois Basin coal. The outspoken, labor-busting  boss who figured prominently in the “War on Coal” campaign during the Mitt Romney presidential run has been picking up reserves in the robust Illinois Basin and in the distressed Appalachians.

His deal for 50 percent of Foresight Energy follows another he did in 2013 worth $3.5 billion to buy five Appalachian mines from Consol.

What does this mean? It shows that coal overall does have a future, especially in the high-sulfur Illinois Basin which has been rediscovered since utilities such as the Tennessee Valley Authority have been forced to use better scrubbing equipment. Illinois Basin can be twenty bucks a ton cheaper than Appalachian product. He also sees some future left in high coast Appalachian coal.

Stop a moment and consider: new environmental regs promote the use of cheaper coal. Now that coal may not be in the Central Appalachian area of southwest Virginia and West Virginia. But the magic of the market is favoring Illinois Basin product which is simply easier and cheaper to mine as is Powder River Basin coal in Wyoming and Montana.

A big problem with some of the commentators on this blog is that they fail to grasp that the U.S. coal industry is a lot bigger than little ole Virginny’s mines that started to play out decades ago. In their world view, their demise is the fault of the bad old federal government, not sharp barons like Murray who is a major contributor to (ahem) the Republican Party. Their brains seem trapped in a geographical warp zone where they cannot imagine things beyond the borders of the Old Dominion.

And while we are on the GOP, let’s consider George Schultz’s oped Sunday in The Washington Post. For those of you who may forget, he was Secretary of State under Ronald Reagan, the mystical president some of you love and miss dearly.

Schultz’s message is that human based climate change is here. So, stop denying it, get over it and get on with a carbon tax that worked to protect the ozone layer years ago. Yes, they actually worked that out back in Ronnie’s day and a tax and marker system to reduce fluorocarbons actually worked.

Not to add insult to injury, but consider what Schultz wrote: “For example, we can now produce electricity from the wind and sun at close to the same price we pay for electricity from other sources…”

Hmm. Sounds like a wild-eyed, irresponsible greenie. Someone tell Jim Bacon and Dominion Virginia Power.

Why Clean Energy Will Be Cheaper

Dominion's Cove Point

Dominion’s Cove Point

By Peter Galuszka

The Sturm und Drang to which utility executives, coal companies and politicians have subjected Virginians as they oppose President Barack Obama’s Clean Power Plan to reduce carbon emissions has always been a deliberate distraction from what’s really happening.

According to them and their confederates at the State Corporation Commission and the state Department of Environmental Quality, the clean air act which seeks to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by a certain date is a foolhardy, ill-intended bureaucratic effort to put coal out of business and slap ratepayers with bigger bills.

I had a moment of clarity when I read this morning’s Local Opinions page in The Washington Post  and a saw an article by Jon B. Wellinghoff. He is the immediate past chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission so he likely knows a little about energy.

His argument is that basic economics go against the electricity and coal industries’ arguments that reducing carbon will be too expensive. He cites a study by PJM, the large electricity grid of which Virginia is a part. “PJM announced this week that Virginia’s energy costs would be lower under the CPP than without it,?” he writes.

Why so? Wellinghoff says that utilities like Dominion are riding a nice low price natural gas bubble. Gas in the U.S. is going for $3 per million British Thermal Units. How long it will last is the crucial question.

Natural gas costs three times as much in Asia and Europe and (knock, knock) guess which companies are scrambling to get a new set of terminals so they can export it? Electric utilities like Dominion, that’s who.

Dominion is pressing ahead to convert its Cove Point liquefied natural gas plant on the Chesapeake Bay kin Maryland so that it can export gas to Japan and India. Dominion is also pushing a controversial $5 billion pipeline from West Virginia gas fracklands to the southeast. A spur of it would run to port areas in Hampton Roads but if you suggest that maybe Dominion plans to export gas from it, the public relations people get a mite testy.

Wellinghoff doesn’t specifically identify Dominion’s plans but he says there are 14 gas expert terminals underway.

For Virginia ratepayers, that means that a cheap, local commodity will become an expensive, global commodity. The United States will export a commodity and import price volatility.

Who will make money by exporting gas and messing up domestic prices?Dominion, that’s who.

It’s import to remember that the low price gas bubble will pop someday. Therefore, the state needs to stop whining about going to renewables and start applying them. Utilities need to make it easier for homes and business to deploy solar panels and sell extra juice back tot he grid. The U.S. uses 40 percent of the power it generates because of inefficient grids. Virginia is No. 35 in terms of state energy efficiency. Where are efforts to improve this?

Virginia’s disappearing coal industry has been complaining for years that government regulation is driving it out of business. The truth is that coal seams are becoming too uneconomic to mine. Gas is eating its lunch. I went to a Platt’s coal conference a couple of years ago In Florida where I learned that gas would have to jump to something like $8 per million BTU to make Virginia coal profitable again.

That might happen is gas prices rise as Wellinghoff predicts. But he is right that the cadre of utilities are barking up the wrong tree.

Closely Watched Trains?

wva oil trainBy Peter Galuszka

The small town of Pembroke in southwest Virginia is used to seeing endlessly long unit trains of coal cars rumbling past. But last week, it got an unexpected surprise – trains of similar length hauling crude oil from North Dakota’s Bakken fields started going by.

According to Reuters, Pembroke is one of many Virginia towns that are being affected by CSX’s derailment and explosion of oil tank cars filled with Bakken oil a few miles east of Montgomery, W.Va.  on Feb. 16. The massive blast sent fireballs hundreds of feet in the air and forced the evacuation of nearby residents including a college. It also stopped all rail traffic on a major, east-west CSX line for days.

A similar derailment involving a CSX oil train happened last April in Lynchburg on the same rail mainline. Several tank cars caught fire down causing a fire and a spill into the James River.

So, after the West Virginia incident, CSX got in touch with rival Norfolk Southern to see if it could reroute oil trains on some of its lines.

This brings up another issue – who should be informed when new railroad trains hauling potentially explosive or otherwise hazardous cargoes suddenly show up in your backyard? Do they have to tell you so you can get the flashlight, thermos and sleeping bag ready for your immediate evacuation if necessary?

CSX says it has informed appropriate public safety officials of such route changes, but is loath to let the general public in where it is sending unusual trains. Security and proprietary information, you understand.

CSX needs to keep its tank cars rolling to big oil terminal in Yorktown near the Chesapeake Bay. That site had been an Amoco refinery for years but the refinery shut down and was switched to an oil water terminal now owned by Houston-based Plains All-American.

The facility receives Bakken shale oil cars and loads the crude on barges that are then pushed or towed to East Coast refineries, notably in the Philadelphia area. Presumably, if petroleum exports from the U.S. start again, the Yorktown site would be excellent embarkation point.

So, instead of having tank cars with Bakken crude trundling from Charleston, W.Va. through the New River Gorge and on to Lynchburg, they will go on more southerly NS lines through places like Pembroke and Roanoke. Then they will be switched at Petersburg to CSX lines and go north to Richmond and east to Yorktown.

It looks like Richmond could potentially get it either way. On the usual route, oil trains pass by downtown on an elevated bridge which would be quite a mess if a derailment happened there. According to the Forest Ethics Website, all of downtown Richmond to about one half of a mile on either side would have to be evacuated if a major derailment with fires and explosions came.

With the temporary rerouting, Richmond would still be in serious jeopardy in case of a derailment. If I’m reading the map correctly, trains would still pass through the city.

So, you have to ask yourself – why does CSX get away with keeping all this secret? They claim they let “appropriate” public safety officials know, but the Richmond Times Dispatch last year quoted a Richmond fire officer in charge of hazardous situations as saying he had a hard time learning from CSX what a “worse case” scenario would be in the event of a Richmond derailment.

Part of the problem is PR. Bakken shale oil comes from controversial hydraulic fracturing. The uptick in production has turned America’s energy picture on its head. It has also made for big jumps in oil rail traffic. Another problem is that Bakken oil tends to be more explosive than other types.

According to the Association of American Railroads, oil shipments by rail jumped by 9,500 carloads in 2008 to 500,000 shipments last year. Accidents are way up. In 2013, tank cars carrying Bakken crude somehow got loose in Lac-Megantic, Quebec. They rolled through the small town, derailed and exploded. The blast killed 47 and wiped out half of downtown.

According to a recent probe by the Associated Press, a federal study predicts that oil shipments will rise to 900,000 shipments this year. The study predicts that trains hauling petroleum will derail 10 times a year over the next two decades. They could possibly cause $4 billion in damages and kill hundreds of people, the AP reports.

What to do? Build pipelines, I guess, but that’s been highly controversial as well as the experience with Dominion Transportation’s efforts with a $5 billion gas pipeline through the state and the controversy over the Keystone XL show.

Better, newer, safer tank cars? Maybe, but the West Virginia and Lynchburg derailments both involved new “1232” models. The same type also caught fire recently in Timmins, Ontario.

Federal rules require railroads to tell local officials where they are carrying Bakken crude, which is more explosive than other types. Railroads like CSX claim the information is proprietary, according to Reuters. That’s rather pointless. If the goal is to keep “proprietary” information from competitors, Norfolk Southern, CSX’s biggest competitor, already knows about it because it has agreed to let CSX use its rail lines.

And don’t ask some public officials. West Virginia officials have gone along with keeping much of the information secret. Mountain State officials responded to an Freedom of Information Act request by redacting much of the data they finally gave out.

Not only do the railroads need to clean up their act, they should be forced to be more forthcoming about where the next evacuation might be.