Category Archives: Federal

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.

The McDonnell Saga Is Far From Over

maureen mcdonnell sentencedBy Peter Galuszka

Former Virginia First Lady Maureen McDonnell has been sentenced to 12 months and a day in federal prison, but the GiftGate saga is far from over.

She will appeal as has her husband, former Gov. Robert F. McDonnell, who was sentenced to two years in prison last month. The now estranged couple was convicted of public corruption felonies, making McDonnell the only Virginia governor, past or present, to be convicted of a crime.

The next step is for the former governor’s appeals to be heard at the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in May. The issue is whether so-called “honest services fraud” for which both were convicted, should be interpreted broadly or narrowly.

During their trial, U.S. District Judge James Spencer took the broad approach, instructing the jury that there did not have to be a very strict “quid pro quo” for them to return a guilty verdict. He reiterated his stand on Friday by overruling a slew of motions from the defense relating to the issue.

The appeals could have far-reaching consequences, as I reported with a colleague on Bloomberg News this week. Charles James, a former federal prosecutor who works at the Williams Mullen law firm in Richmond, says the case “could be the next case to further restrict the use” of the honest-services fraud statute.

If the Robert McDonnell’s appeal is successful, then it would have a big impact on his wife, as well as loosen the interpretation nationally of how far “honest services” should go.

If the government is successful, then expect a crackdown on public official hankie-pankie.

At Friday’s sentencing, eight character witnesses described Ms. McDonnell, 60, as an empathetic, self-sacrificing woman who would do anything for her children and husband.

That image stands in marked contrast to the image defense lawyers for her husband painted during the trial. Incredibly, her own lawyers piled on with the idea that Maureen McDonnell was a naïve but abusive woman who hated being First Lady. She was so frustrated with her husband ignoring her for his political career that she got entangled with Jonnie (the serpent) Williams, who ran Star Scientific, a Henrico company that made and marketed vitamin supplements.

Williams gave the financially strapped McDonnells about $177,000 in gifts, loans and trips while the McDonnells set up meetings with state officials to the products of his money-losing firm. Ironically, the main product was Anatabloc, a skin cream, which has since been ordered off the market the Food and Drug Administration.

At the top of this blog, you see a teaser story that the convictions were corrupted by Williams’ dubious integrity. That’s nonsense, of course. Prosecutors use inside testimony, especially in organized crime and drug cases, all the time.

The bigger issue is whether “honest services” means bribery or whether it is a normal part of setting up appointments by public officials to consider projects that might benefit their city, state or country. This will be the key issue in the appeals.

Meanwhile, the soap opera has been weirdly painful, fascinating and entertaining. It’s also been rather crass. The former governor tries to come off like a Boy Scout yet refused a chance to cop a plea in exchange for Maureen not being indicted at all. She was not a public official, but non-public officials have been convicted in the past of honest services fraud.

Both defense teams made Maureen the scapegoat. She was portrayed as a greedy and unstable hustler who brought her husband down.

Before delivering the sentence to Maureen, who gave a tearful, first-time statement asking for mercy, Spencer made bitingly critical remarks of the defense lawyers. “The ‘Let’s throw Momma under the bus’ defense morphed into the ‘Let’s throw Momma off the train defense,’” he said. Ms. McDonnell seemed to be two very different people and Spencer had trouble figuring it out.

Her lawyers had asked for no prison time and 4,000 hours of community service. Federal guidelines could have given her more than six years but prosecutors asked for only 18 months in prison.

Spencer split the difference, mostly because he gave Mr. McDonnell a light sentence. He was more culpable since he was a public official, not to mention a former state prosecutor and the state attorney general.

He cut Maureen some slack, too. By sentencing her that extra day, he gave her the opportunity to get out in only 10 months for good behavior since that’s the rule under federal prison guidelines.

Coal Giant Won’t Pay Blankenship Legal Bill

don-blankenshipBy Peter Galuszka

The the man described by Rolling Stone as the “The Dark Lord of the Coal Fields” is suing coal giant Alpha Natural Resources of Bristol for refusing to pay his legal bills as he approaches his criminal trial April 20 related to the worst coal-mine disaster in 40 years.

Donald L. Blankenship, the former head of Richmond-based Massey Energy, filed suit in Delaware against Alpha which said: “Going forward, we do not intend to pay any legal fees with regard to Don Blankenship’s defense.” Those fees are likely to run in the millions.

Blankenship was indicted in November on four felony counts related to safety violations at the Upper Big Branch mine where an explosion killed 29 miners on April 5, 2010. He is also accused of securities fraud.

Blankenship resigned from Massey in December 2010 with a parachute estimated at $86 million. Alpha bought Massey in 2011 for $7 billion.

Since then, Alpha has been retraining the hundreds of Massey workers it absorbed but has gone through severe layoffs as demand for coal has stumbled.

Alpha’s stock has slipped from about $5 a share a year ago to $1.19 a share now. The firm lost $875 million last year. Demand for thermal coal has been drying up as cheaper natural gas from fracking has flooded the market. Also, the rich steel-making coal reserves Alpha got with its buy of Massey have gone wanting as Asian nations, especially China, go through an economic slump.

Blankenship will go on trial in U.S. District Court in Beckley, W.Va.

Turning 62: Take the Social Security and Run?

retirement

Not me!

by James A. Bacon

I turn 62 years old today, and one of the few perks of advancing age is the prospect of collecting Social Security. I, like thousands of other Baby Boomers who turn 62 every day, face the decision whether to start pocketing Social Security now, wait until full retirement at 66 or delay taking benefits even longer in the expectation of bigger checks down the road.

The conventional wisdom is that it makes sense to wait to 66, or even older if you can, because each year you delay, your SS benefits increase by roughly 8% to compensate for the actuarial reality that you’ll have one year less to collect before you die. If you’re in good health and expect to live longer than average life expectancy for male 62-year-olds — 83.8 years — delaying retirement is an especially good idea.

But what if you don’t have faith in the system to deliver on its promises, as I do not? What if you share the widely held belief that, barring heroic action by Congress, that the Social Security Trust Fund will run out by 2030? If the trust fund runs dry, the system can pay out no more than it brings in through payroll taxes, or about 75% of current promised levels.? Should we adopt the attitude of take the money and run? Get what’s yours while you can?

It’s a big decision, so I punched some numbers into a spreadsheet to see how the Retire-at-62 scenario compares to the Retire-at-66 scenario. (The numbers below are rough estimates only, not official Social Security Administration estimates.)

SS_payout2
This chart compares the cumulative payout under a Retire-at-66 scenario receiving $2,000 per month or $24,000 per year compared to a Retire-at-62 scenario of $1,500 per month or $18,000 per year.

Waiting until 66 means no Social Security income for the first four years. During that period, you’d end up a cumulative $72,000 in the hole. But then, beginning at 66, your annual payout would be roughly $6,000 per  year higher. You’d whittle away at that $72,000 hole until, at age 77, you broke even. After that, you’d be ahead of the game by increasingly large margins each  year.

Then comes Boomergeddon. Around 2030 — the left vertical line — the trust fund runs out of money and Uncle Sam reduces the payout to what it brings in through payroll taxes, or about 25%. (The actual number would vary, depending upon economic and employment conditions.) In one sense, you’re screwed — you’re getting less than promised. But you’d be screwed if you retired early, too. You’d still be ahead of the game compared to retiring at 62 — just by a smaller margin, ahead by only $4,500 per year instead of $6,000 per year.

If you live until 83.8, your life expectancy at 62 years old today — the right vertical line — you’d still be ahead. If you’re healthier and more long-lived than average and live past 83.8 — and half of all males do — then the cumulative payout surpasses the early retirement scenario by an increasingly large margin.

This calculation does not take into account inflation, but that’s a non-factor because the Social Security program adjusts the payout each year to reflect the higher cost of living. Neither does it take into account the time value of money. A dollar earned in 2015 is much more valuable than one earned in 2030. That’s especially true if you actually save your money and earn a return on your investment. But most people (including me) don’t anticipate saving money during retirement; they anticipate spending down some or all of their savings. They view Social Security payments as income to be spent. Thus, the time value of money really has no application here.

What if, as I argued in my book “Boomergeddon,” Uncle Sam changes the payout in a Boomergeddon scenario to make Social Security even more of an income-redistribution engine than it already is? People living on the margin, say $1,000 a month, live a marginal existence as it is; they would truly suffer if their payments were cut when the trust fund is exhausted. There is a high degree of probability that politicians would give low-income households smaller cuts and take the balance out of the hides of higher-income households. But that still doesn’t change the bottom line that most middle-class Americans would be better off retiring at 66 — they would be better off by a smaller margin. Anyone with a lick of sense would anticipate the possibility of changes to the payout formulas and adjust their lifestyles accordingly, but the prospect of Boomergeddon shouldn’t change the decision when to retire.

The critical variable influencing your retirement-age decision is your health. If you have diabetes, untreated hypertension, a high risk of cancer or other health threats, you have worse odds of making it to 83.8 years old. Even then, you’re not necessarily well advised to take the money and run. The break-even year is 77. If you live older than 77, you’d still come out ahead delaying your retirement.

For many people, the discussion is purely academic. If you’re working a full-time salaried job, it probably makes sense to continue working, generating income and letting your Social Security retirement benefits gain value. But there are plenty of sixty-plus people who have lost their jobs, find themselves working part-time or have fluctuating free-lance incomes for whom that Social Security income might look pretty good. Those would be well advised to think carefully before making the leap.

Dominion Resources Is on a Tear

acl pipeline map By Peter Galuszka

Dominion Resources has been on a tear recently.

It’s been muscling through a dubious law in the General Assembly that would allow it to avoid State Corporation Commission rate audits for six years.

And, it has been throwing its weight around in less populated sections of the state. It is suing to force its way on the land of private property owners to survey its $5 billion Atlantic Coast Pipeline project that would take fracked natural gas from the Marcellus Shale formation in West Virginia and Pennsylvania on new routes to the southeast.

Property owners, particularly those in Nelson and Augusta Counties, are fighting in federal court in Harrisonburg.

What’s most interesting about this case is how the Commonwealth of Virginia, which swaddles itself in the ideals of the American Revolution of individual rights , somehow ignores the rights of small property owners when a big utility with deep pockets for political donations is involved. One wonders where all the conservatives are who were huffing and puffing over the Kelo case a few years back

And (bonus question) what do the two situations have in common? Republican State Sen. Frank Wagner of Virginia Beach, that’s who. He introduced the bill for Dominion to sidestep SCC oversight with the excuse that Dominion has deal with the impacts of a yet-to-be-finalized set of new federal carbon emission rules.

In 2004, Wagner also carried water for Dominion and other power companies by getting a law passed that would allow a “public service company” to survey private property without getting permission.

This is the basis of several hundred lawsuits Dominion has filed against small landowners. In the pipeline case, it will be interesting to see whether the natural gas is used for the common good of American customers or will end up being exported to foreign countries. Dominion insists it won’t,  but time will tell.

Another oddity is that Dominion is demanding access to survey a pipeline route when it hasn’t formally applied for  the project with the Federal Energy Energy Commission. Imagine if some private landowners showed up at the front door of Dominion’s downtown Richmond headquarters and demanded access to the building because they were thinking about building a natural gas pipeline? (Somebody call security!)

Here’s an opinion piece I wrote for this morning’s Washington Post.