Category Archives: Infrastructure

EPA Carbon Rules: Ask the SCC

The SCC: An Emerald Palace?

The Emerald Palace or the SCC?

By Peter Galuszka

Last week, State Corporation Commission drew attention when its staff wrote to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, at the EPA’s request, to respond to one of the biggest proposed steps the nation has seen in cutting carbon dioxide emissions.

The report sparked considerable interest and confusion over what the SCC staff actually meant when it predicted that proposed EPA rules to cut carbon emissions 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2030.

The staff report, written by William H. Chambliss, SCC general counsel, said that EPA’s proposed limits would cost Virginia ratepayers from $5.5 billion to $6 billion extra. It claims that the state would have to shut down fossil-fuel, predominately coal-fired, plants producing 2,851 megawatts and replace it with only 351 megawatts of land-based wind power. This would badly impact the reliability of the state’s power supply, the staff said.

My immediate question was why so much and where, exactly? Precisely what power stations would have to be shut down? Where did the ratepayer increase numbers come from? Is there is a list of all the coal-fired plants affected? Dominion Virginia Power, the state’s largest utility, has long-standing plans to shut down two aging power stations at Yorktown and Chesapeake with about 920 megawatts of power? How does that factor in?

So, I contacted Ken Schrad, the spokesman for the SCC, by phone and email and asked some questions. He kindly provided the following answers (in italics):

Where are the affected plants precisely?

The numbers come directly from the EPA’s own spread sheets and the EPA does not identify the specific units.” 

How many plants are coal-fired?

Of the 2,851 MW, EPA predicts 2,803 MW of coal units and 48 MW of combustion turbines which could be natural gas or oil-fired CTs. Assuming Yorktown and Chesapeake are included in the EPA estimate, SCC staff knows that those planned retirements total approximately 920 MW.  The output of those units varies depending on when operating (summer or winter).”

Where does the 351 megawatt of land-based wind power, the only available replacement source for the lost fossil-fuel power, come from?

“The 351 MW figure is also direct from the EPA’s analysis which does not identify where EPA believes these undeveloped projects would ultimately materialize.  As staff noted in its comments, the SCC has approved the only request the Commission has received for a certificate for a wind project (Highland New Wind).  Approved in December 2007, the project envisioned up to 20 turbines with each turbine capable of producing up to 2MWs.  That project has not been built.   DEQ now has regulatory responsibility for permitting most solar and wind projects in Virginia. “

How do you answer criticism from environmental groups that Virginia has already attained 80 percent of the EPA’s carbon reduction already?

“Staff has no information regarding this assertion, the costs incurred to reach such a figure, how that attainment level was achieved, or the starting point from which such has materialized.”

The SCC staff recommends that the EPA adopt “an alternative carbon emission rate of 1,216 pounds of carbon dioxide per Megawatt hour of power. The EPA is proposing tighter limits of 843 of CO2/MWh for plants to attain by 2020 and levels of 810 pounds of CO2/MWh for plants to comply by 2030 because it would be more affordable. How much more affordable would the SCC’s suggested rate be? Continue reading

Could Surry Be an 80-Year Nuke?

Surry1By Peter Galuszka

Here’s a new twist on the carbon emission debate: Dominion Virginia Power is considering seeking federal approval run its 40-plus year-old Surry nuclear power station for another 40 or so years.

The arguments in favor are that keeping the two-units at Surry (1,600 megawatts) going would be a lot cheaper than building a brand new plant. Nukes do not contribute much at all to greenhouse gases and climate change compared to coal or natural gas plants.

The huge issue, however, is safety. Can you really expect a nuke whose design dates back to the 1960s to run until 2054? Surry’s plants near Jamestown were once the most heavily fined in the nation because of their repeated safety problems. Constant use can affect any number of crucial components such as making reactor metal brittle, pulverizing concrete and becoming more susceptible to earthquakes and storms.

According to the New York Times, Dominion hasn’t decided whether to apply to extend Surry’s life span. Other possible extended life reactors are Duke’s three Oconee units near Seneca, S.C. and Exelon’s Peach Bottom not that far from Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania.

Dominion is also pushing ahead with a third new unit at North Anna, but the price tag for that apparently would be many times what extending Surry would be. But there are no hard figures about the cost of the new nuke ($10 billion to $14 billion, maybe) or how much Surry would cost.

The news is curious coming just as the staff of the State Corporation Commission came out with a curious report slamming proposal EPA rules on cutting carbon emissions. Although the SCC’s opinions are murky and badly-documented, it raises fears that a bunch of coal-fired generation in Virginia will be shut down due to EPA regs. Hot flash: a bunch was going to be shut down anyway because it dates back to the 1940s and 1950s.

I don’t know enough about the current Surry operation to know what and how extending its life would proceed and whether it would be safe.

That said, I refer to my own reporting past – the 1979 when I was a reporter at The Virginian-Pilot. Another reporter and I spent weeks at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s archives in Bethesda, Md. poring over safety documents. This was back when newspapers had the money to do that kind of reporting.

Our result was a big investigative piece that made banner headlines on the front page one Sunday with two full pages inside. I’d include the cite since it is too old to have one. We found a multitude of issues at Surry ranging from faulty radiation monitoring for workers to faulty snubbers which are rod-like shock absorbers to mitigate earthquake-like movements.

Dominion, then Vepco, hated the story and tried to tear it down. But Vepco was undergoing a corporate sea-change away from its institutional arrogance related to some extent by the former Navy submarine officers were not used to being questioned by outsiders. Vepco was getting hit by Wall Street because its sloppy nuclear program resulted in extended outages. They ended up hiring a ringer engineer who cleaned up their act and later the company transformed into something more modern.

Even so, a decade after we did our story, there were still plenty of concerns about safety at Surry.

The big question is how can you keep a car designed in the 1960s going strong nearly 100 years later? Maybe they have the answers in Havana.

More Coal Industry Propaganda

coal woman By Peter Galuszka

If you read a blog posting just below this (the one with the coal miner with an intense look on his grit-covered face), you will see how hyperbole, confusion, misunderstanding, ignorance and one-sided arguments twist something very important to all Virginians – how to deal with carbon dioxide and climate change – into a swamp of disinformation..

The news is that the State Corporation Commission has responded to the federal government’s proposed rules that carbon emissions be cut 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2030 by complaining that it would cost ratepayers up to $6 billion.

This is because Virginia utilities may have to shut down 2,851 megawatts worth of electrical generation with only 351 megawatts (at present) of “unreliable” wind power to replace it.

The image one gets from the presentation of the blog post is that it is “The EPA’s War on Virginia” with the haggard-looking miner thrown in, we are given the impression that it is more of the “War on Coal” that the coal industry has been promoting in recent years to blunt much-needed mine safety laws and moves to police highly destructive mountaintop removal practices.

The author does not address any of this. But since he’s handing us the “War on Coal” propaganda line, let’s take his arguments apart. This won’t take too long.

  • The author fails to note part of the Richmond Times Dispatch story upon which he bases his opinions. There is a very important comment: “It appears the staff has misread the rule,” said Cale Jaffe, director of the Southern Environmental Law Center’s Virginia office. “Analyses that we have reviewed show that Virginia is already 80 percent of the way to meeting Virginia’s carbon pollution target under the Clean Power Plan. “Almost all of those reductions are coming from coal plant retirements and natural gas conversions that the utilities put in place long before the Clean Power Plan was even released,” Jaffe said.
  • That said, let’s take a look at coal-fired plants in the state which are the biggest carbon offenders. For starters let’s look at Dominion Virginia Power, the state’s largest utility. It has already converted three coal-fired plants – Altavista, Southampton and Bremo Bluff – to biomass. The 50-plus-year-old Yorktown plant (335 megawatts) is due to retire in 2015. Another aging plant – Chesapeake (609) megawatts — is also due to retire by 2015. The point here is that these plants are being closed because Dominion realizes that it is just too hard to keep 50 or 60 year plants operating efficiently and cheaply. It would be like keeping that 1960 Corvair because you don’t want to put oil workers out of work.
  • Dominion’s biggest problem and the biggest single air polluter in the state is the Chesterfield station with 1380 megawatts. Yes, it does need more controls. Then there’s Clover (882 megawatts) and Mecklenburg (138 megawatts). That brings us up to 2400 megawatts that might need upgrades. Let’s see. The two nuclear units at North Anna put out a little more than 1,700 megawatts just so we get some scale here. Dominon also has Virginia City (585 megawatts) which just opened, uses coal and biomass and has advanced fluidized bed burning methods.
  • Out west, Appalachian Power has 705 megawatts at Clinch River and 430 megawatts at Glen Lyn. Two of those three units there were built in (my God!) 1944 so I guess the blog author wants to keep those great granddaddies running to save miners’ jobs. Actually they are so unneeded that they have been on extended startups.Besides these Cogentrix has a couple small, modern plants in Portsmouth and Hopewell.
  • One reason there so little renewable generation (6 percent) is that the utilities do not have mandatory renewable portfolio standards to force them into wind and solar, etc. Virginia’s neighbors do.

All of this gets back to Jaffe’s point that the blog author so easily ignores. A lot of the carbon cuts are going to come from plants that are aging and are going to be closed anyway.

The SCC may complain about the $6 billion but guess what, you beleaguered electricity users? If Dominion puts a third nuke at North Anna, that’s easily $10 billion. Is that going to raise rates sky high? Where’s the outcry? It’s almost double what helping save the planet from carbon dioxide will cost.

The blog author’s hyperbole about the poor coal industry shows his ignorance of the topic. Virginia’s rather small coal industry (No. 12 in production) reached its peak in 1991. Natural gas has displaced a lot of expensive coal. Gas prices would have to triple to make Central Appalachian coal competitive again. There’s lots of metallurgical coal for steel, but the Asian economic slump has dropped prices maybe 60 percent.

I won’t comment on the author’s lame and misunderstood point about climate change not happening.

The blog author may want to blame that on Obama and the EPA but that would be almost as ridiculous as his blog post. I decline to name him because I don’t want to embarrass him.

Why We’re Being Railroaded On “STEM”

 csx engineBy Peter Galuszka

When it comes to education, a constant mantra chanted by the Virginia chattering class is “STEM.”

How many times have you heard that our students are far behind in “STEM” (Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics)? We have to drain funding from more traditional areas of study (that actually might make them better human beings like literature, art or history) and give it to STEM. The two types of popular STEM are, of course, computer science (we’re all “illiterate” claims one journalist-turned computer science advocate) and biotechnology.

But how important is STEM, really? And if Virginia joins the STEM parade and puts all of its eggs in that basket, will the jobs actually be there?

The fact of the matter is that we don’t know what jobs will be around in the future and like the famous generals planning for the last war, we may be stuck planning for the digital explosion of Bill Gates and Steve Jobs that is like, so, 25 years ago.

To get an idea where markets may be, look at today’s news. Canadian Pacific is making a play for CSX railroad (headquartered in Richmond not that long ago) because of the unexpected explosion in fracked oil.

CP handles a lot of freight in the western part of Canada and U.S. where some of the most impressive new fracked shale oil are, namely the Bakken fields of North Dakota and Alberta. CP wants access to eastern U.S. refineries and transshipping points, such as a transloading spot at the mouth of the York River. CSX is stuck with dirty old coal where production and exports are down, although it has an extensive rail network in the Old Dominion.

The combined market value of the two firms is $62 billion — a far bigger potential deal than the $26 billion Warren Buffett paid for Burlington Northern Sante Fe in 2010. There are problems, to be sure. CSX isn’t interested and the Surface Transportation Board, a federal entity, nixed a matchup of Canadian National and Burlington a little while back.

But this isn’t really the point. The point is that the Old Steel Rail pushed by new sources of oil and to some extent natural gas has surprisingly turned domestic economics upside down. Many of the new oil fields are in places where there are not pipelines, so rail is the only answer. In 2008, according to the Wall Street Journal, six or so American railroads generated $25.8 million in hauling crude oil. Last year that shot up to $2.15 billion.

So, what does that mean for students? A lot actually, especially when we blather on about old-style STEM that might have them inventing yet another cell-phone app that has a half-life of maybe a few months. Doesn’t matter, every Virginia legislator, economic development official and education advocate seems to be hypnotized by the STEM genie.

A piece I just did for the up-and-coming Chesterfield Observer on vocation education in that county:

“The recent push to educate students in so-called STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) may be case in point. The goal is to churn out bright, highly trained young people able to compete in the global economy with their counterparts from foreign lands.

“A subset of this area of concentration is computer science, which goes beyond knowing the basics and gets into the nitty-gritty of learning code and writing computer languages. By some accounts, such skills will be necessary to fill more than 2 million jobs expected to become open in the state by 2020.

“Critics question, however, if overspecialization in technology at earlier ages prevents students from exploring studies such as art and literature that might make them better rounded adults. And, specialization often assumes that jobs will be waiting after high school and college when they might not be.

“Peter Cappelli, a professor of management at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, has written about such problems of academic overspecialization in national publications such as The Wall Street Journal. He recently responded to questions from the Chesterfield Observer via email.”

“Not many science grads are getting jobs in their field,” Cappelli says. “The evidence suggests that about two thirds of the IT (information technology) grads got jobs in their fields, about the same for engineering. There is no guarantee in those fields. It’s all about hitting the appropriate subspecialty that happens to be hot. There are still lots of unemployed engineers and IT people.”

So there you have it. In my opinion, the over-emphasis on STEM training has the unfortunate effect of producing young adults who have one goal in mind – getting a job and making money, not helping humankind. And, if you insist on STEM, why not branch into something where there are actually jobs namely petroleum engineering, geology and transportation engineering.

I’ll leave the dangers of added petroleum cargoes in trains to another post.

Petersburg’s Renaissance

PetersburgBy Peter Galuszka

Petersburg has been a special place for me.

Years ago, when I’d pass through, I always felt I were driving onto the set of a 1950s or 1960s movie set in the South such as “Cape Fear” starring Gregory Peck and Robert Mitchum. A somnambulant ease pervades the place as does the down-home friendliness you don’t get in pretentious Richmond 30 miles to the north up Interstate 95.

I got to know Petersburg a lot better when my two daughters went going to high school there at the Appomattox Regional Governors School for the Arts and Technology. Drawing from localities from Richmond to Isle of Wight and Franklin, the school body was bright, diverse and creative.

Driving my children if they missed the bus from Chesterfield was a pain but the effort was worth it since they had some fine teachers and avoided the White Toast trap of entitlement one gets into in more affluent suburban schools.

That’s when I was introduced to Petersburg’s nascent arts community. I went to plenty of “Fridays for the Arts” celebration and hung out at Sycamore Street with the kids.

Returning again recently, I found that the arts scene is really taking off. They  seem to be at a sustainable critical mass.

It is due primarily to the city’s policy of remaking itself by setting up an arts district that is nationally recognized as historic and offering tax credits and abatements for newcomers to renovate properties they buy from the city. The big expansion at the Fort Lee military base in 2005 really helped (although it’s due for a cut).

I wrote about it in a cover story in Style Weekly. The heroes and heroines are far-sighted city officials, arts willing to risk a lot remaking some truly historic buildings and the next wave, restaurants that aren’t owned by franchises, coming in.

Not everything is wonderful. Petersburg still has a weak public school system and a poverty rate of 28 percent, a point higher than Richmond’s. But it also doesn’t have the in-fighting among powerful interest groups that far bigger Richmond does. There’s no endless debate over building a baseball stadium in Shockoe Bottom (to line pockets of developers) or keeping it at the Boulevard.

There’s no high level brinksmanship about where to put a Children’s Hospital.

In Richmond, you see, ball fans and sick children are the last ones to be worried about. What matters is Mayor Dwight Jones, Bill Goodwin, Michael Rao, the Timmons Group and the editors of the Richmond Times Dispatch. They are important and you are not.

You don’t get that in Petersburg. The little city (population 32,000) that has a historical richness than rivals Richmond’s doesn’t think it is better than anyone else.

Hope for the Burbs

Ellen Dunham-Jones

Ellen Dunham-Jones

by James A. Bacon

While urbanists trumpet the resurrection of America’s core cities, the nation’s inner suburbs are seeing a lot of action, too. In fact, the transformation of the burbs may be more radical. While cities are seeing more of the same — gentrification that restores decaying neighborhoods, in-fill development looking a lot like the existing development — real estate developers are reinventing suburban structures from the inside out. Shopping malls surrounded by seas of asphalt are being converted into town centers. Big box stores are becoming public recreation centers. Fifty-year-old shopping centers built over streams are being torn down and the waterways restored as greenways.

This is a time of tremendous opportunity for “suburban” counties that developed since World War II, said Ellen Dunham-Jones, an architecture professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology, co-author of “Retrofitting Suburbia,” and a leading light of the New Urbanism movement. What she did not say in her enthusiastic, up-beat speech at Virginia Commonwealth University last night is that it is also a time of peril for counties that don’t embrace a strategy of selective urbanization.

Change is not only desirable, it’s necessary, Dunham-Jones contended. The low-density suburbs consume two to three times more energy per capita than central cities, making them vulnerable to upward spikes in energy prices. Local governments are suffering fiscal stress from the burden of maintaining a sprawling infrastructure. Poverty is an increasing problem as poor people, either immigrants or poor people leaking from inner cities, move into older, run-down suburban neighborhoods. At the same time, housing affordability is becoming a middle-class issue as rising transportation costs kill the old “drive ’til you qualify” housing model. Last but not least, Dunham-Jones cited suburbia’s automobile dependency as a public health issue. Infectious diseases (despite the ebola virus hype) are not a major health hazard in the U.S. The real problem is chronic disease stemming from obesity and sedentary lifestyles, which leads to diabetes and heart disease.

Demographics also are driving the transformation of the burbs. People still think of the suburbs as Leave It to Beaver land of households with school-age children. But a majority of households in the burbs now are childless, said Dunham-Jones, and 85% of the growth in household formation in the U.S. will have no children. Millennials are driving the shift to urban lifestyles. They don’t want to live like their suburban parents. But those parents, Baby Boomers mostly, are approaching retirement differently from preceding generations. YEEPIES (Youthful, Energetic Elderly People Into Everything) aren’t looking for suburban privacy; they’re looking for urban engagement.

While many childless families would love to live in old-style, walkable urban neighborhoods, not everyone can afford to do so because restricted supply has driven up prices. And the reality is, a majority of jobs remain in the suburbs. By default, much of the “walkable” community development will take place in suburban counties where land is cheaper. And that creates opportunity for creative real estate developers who can figure out how to retrofit aging suburban properties and for the counties that will accommodate them.

There is more than enough land in suburban counties to make room for the surge of Americans looking for urban lifestyles in suburban counties without disrupting the lives of people who still want to live in their conventional cul-de-sac subdivisions. One third of all malls are dead or dying, said Dunham-Jones. Thousands of big box stores are empty. Retail as a real estate category is shrinking, probably permanently, as more people shop online. As a result, vacancy rates remain stubbornly high in shopping centers. Meanwhile, as Millennials show a strong preference for working in an urban environment, businesses are less interested in putting their workforce in suburban office parks.

“It’s an opportunity,” said Dunham-Jones. “We get to do a make-over!”

Developers have not yet settled upon a fixed formula for re-developing the burbs. Right now, an extraordinary amount of experimentation is going on. Dunham-Jones and co-author June Williamson have built a database of more than 900 case studies of radical suburban make-overs across the country, many of them in Virginia.

Dunham-Jones said suburban retrofits fall into three broad categories.

From single-use to mixed use. Suburbia is loaded with malls and big-box stores whose retail function is no longer economically viable. Some of these structures are finding a new life by adding new uses. Dunham-Jones cited the example of Hundred Oaks Mall, a dying mall in Nashville; the property still had retail on the ground level but had abandoned the upper level. Vanderbilt University took over the lease for the upper level and installed a medical center. Now the medical center draws patients who otherwise would not have frequented the mall, and patients visiting Hundred Oaks can hang out at the mall while waiting for test results. Patients prefer Hunred Oaks to Vanderbilt’s city facility.

Regreening. An astonishing number of commercial properties were built in wetlands and flood plains. It was routine practice in the 1950s and 1960s to obliterate wetlands and route creeks through culverts underneath the buildings, said Dunham-Jones. The culverts could handle the run-off from undeveloped land upstream but as that land got built upon and paved over, run-off got worse and flooding became an issue. Today, an increasing number of suburban projects are “regreening” old development — ripping out buildings and culverts and restoring the stream beds. Benefits include not only better storm water management but attractive ribbons of greenery through the suburban landscape

Walkability. People are willing to pay a major premium for walkability, even islands of it in an otherwise autocentric environment, said Dunham-Jones. Perhaps the most spectacular transformations are occurring in plots of land large enough — typically old malls — to allow for a restoration of walkable streets and mixed-use development common to traditional cities. Continue reading

Tobacco Commission Needs Huge Makeover

tobacco leafBy Peter Galuszka

One more glaring example of mass corruption in Virginia is the grandly named Virginia Tobacco Indemnification and Community Revitalization Commission formed 14 years ago to dole out Virginia’s share of a $206 billion settlement among 45 other states with cigarette makers.

I’ve been writing for years about how millions of dollars are doled out with little oversight to economic development projects supposedly helpful to the former tobacco-growing parts of the state from the bright leaf belt around Dinwiddie out west to the burley leaf land of the mountains.

There have been no-strings giveaways to absentee tobacco quota holders, a board member sent to prison for siphoning off grant money and the shenanigans of the extended Kilgore family which is very politically powerful in those parts. The commission even figured in the McDonnell corruption trial starring the former and now convicted governor and back-slapping witnesses for the prosecution, entrepreneur and tobacco-believer Jonnie R. Williams Sr.

I revisit the issue in Sunday’s Washington Post and I ask the obvious question of why no one seems to watching the commission. I raise broader ones, too, such as why the commission  serves only people in the tobacco belt. That doesn’t seem fair since the Attorney General’s office represented all of the state in the 1998 Master Settlement Agreement against four major tobacco firms. People in Hampton Roads, Arlington, Onancock and Winchester should be benefit but get nothing from the settlement. They didn’t  because tobacco road legislators pulled a fast one back in 1999 when they set things up.

There needs to be a thorough disassembling of the commission’s current governance structure with many more people far from Tobacco Road included. There’s far too much family and friend back-scratching as it is. It is like watching a vintage episode of the Andy Griffith show but it really isn’t funny.

(Hat tip to James A. Bacon Jr. who spotted the commission as a great story back in the year 2000 when he was publisher of Virginia Business).

So, please read on.

The Huge Controversy Over Gas Pipelines

atlantic coast pipeline demonstratorsBy Peter Galuszka

Just a few years ago, Gov. Terry McAuliffe seemed to be a reasonable advocate of a healthy mix of energy sources. He boosted renewables and opposed offshore oil and gas drilling. He was suspicious of dangerous, dirty coal.

Then he started to change. During the campaign last year, he suddenly found offshore drilling OK, which got the green community worried. But there’s no doubt about his shifts with his wholehearted approval of the 550-mile Atlantic Coast Pipeline proposed by Duke Energy, Piedmont Natural Gas and AGL Resources, along with Richmond-based Dominion, one of McAuliffe’s biggest campaign donors.

The $5 billion Atlantic Coast Pipeline is part of a new phenomenon – bringing natural gas from the booming Marcellus Shale fields of Pennsylvania, Ohio and northern West Virginia towards busy utility markets in the Upper South states of Virginia, North Carolina and parts ones even farther south. Utilities like gas because it is cheap, easy to use, releases about half the carbon dioxide as coal, which is notorious for labor fatalities, disease, injuries and global warming.

The Atlantic Coast Pipeline would originate at Clarksburg, W.Va. (one of my home towns) and shoot southeast over the Appalachians, reaching heights of 4,000 feet among rare mountain plants in the George Washington National Forest, and then scoot through Nelson, Buckingham Nottoway Counties to North Carolina. At the border, one leg would move east to Portsmouth and the Tidewater port complex perhaps for export (although no one has mentioned that yet). The main line would then jog into Carolina roughly following the path of Interstate 95.

It’s not the only pipeline McAuliffe likes. An even newer proposal is the Mountain Valley Pipeline that would originate in southern West Virginia and move south of Roanoke to Chatham County. It also faces strong local opposition.

atlantic_coast_pipeline mapThe proposals have blindsided many in the environmental community who have shifted some of their efforts from opposing coal and mountaintop removal to going after hydraulic fracking which uses chemicals under high pressure and horizontal drilling to get previously inaccessible gas from shale formations. The Marcellus formation in Pennsylvania, New York, Ohio and West Virginia, the birthplace of the American oil and gas industry, has been a treasure trove of new gas.

The fracked gas boom has been a huge benefit to the U.S. economy. It is making the country energy independent and has jump started older industries in steel, pipe making and the like. By replacing coal, it is making coal’s contribution to the national energy mix drop from about 50 percent to less than 40 percent and is cutting carbon dioxide emissions that help make for climate change.

That at least, is what the industry proponents will tell you and much of it is accurate. But there are big problems with natural gas (I’ll get to the pipelines later). Here’s Bill McKibben, a Middlebury College professor and nationally known environmentalist writing in Mother Jones:

Methane—CH4—is a rarer gas, but it’s even more effective at trapping heat. And methane is another word for natural gas. So: When you frack, some of that gas leaks out into the atmosphere. If enough of it leaks out before you can get it to a power plant and burn it, then it’s no better, in climate terms, than burning coal. If enough of it leaks, America’s substitution of gas for coal is in fact not slowing global warming.

Howarth’s (He is a biogeochemist) question, then, was: How much methane does escape? ‘It’s a hard physical task to keep it from leaking—that was my starting point,’ he says. ‘Gas is inherently slippery stuff. I’ve done a lot of gas chromatography over the years, where we compress hydrogen and other gases to run the equipment, and it’s just plain impossible to suppress all the leaks. And my wife, who was the supervisor of our little town here, figured out that 20 percent of the town’s water was leaking away through various holes. It turns out that’s true of most towns. That’s because fluids are hard to keep under control, and gases are leakier than water by a large margin.

Continue reading

The Simple, Lovable Sidewalk

sidewalk By Peter Galuszka

Forever humble, the simple sidewalk is becoming an issue in land planning and transportation.

In densely-populated populated urban areas, sidewalks have been a staple of living since the time of the Ancient Greeks. They were classics in the familiar grid plans that marked most American towns in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

It all changed after World War II when thousands of veterans came home with access to cars and cheap mortgages and builders started constructing car-centric neighborhoods. The cookie-cutter plan included big subdivisions with only one or two access points, lots of cul de sacs and long streets and wound around until they emptied into the few access roads.

You couldn’t walk anywhere. The feeling was, with the complicity of such car-centric bodies as the Virginia Department of Transportation, that you didn’t need sidewalks because the kids could play in the cul de sacs and anyone could drive.

This started to change a decade or so ago as pe0ple wanted to walk more to the library, the store or to visit a neighbor. Suburban planners are taking this into consideration and are “encouraging” developers to put in sidewalks.

A couple problems here:

First, although the Tim Kaine administration changed VDOT policy to advocate more intersecting streets in new developments along with sidewalks, the policy has been watered down under pressure from the development industry.

The other problem is that while it is a simple matter to put sidewalks in new projects, retrofitting them in older ones is tough. It is expensive, there are rights of way issues and sometimes the terrain doesn’t lend itself to them. And, when sidewalks are put in, they merely connect with gigantic feeder roads where one might have to walk a half a mile to a stoplight just cross safely, as is the case in one instance in Chesterfield County.

For more, read my recent pieces in the Chesterfield Monthly and Henrico Monthly.

The Emerging Exurban Dead Zone

Hope Plantation, Bertie County, N.C., circa 1800. The McMansion of its day.

Hope Plantation, Bertie County, N.C., circa 1800. The McMansion of its day.

by James A. Bacon

The Northern Virginia exurbs, like exurbs across the country, are cruising for a bruising. EM Risse would never express himself so inelegantly or imprecisely but that’s the thrust, in colloquial terms, of a new essay, “The Great Submergence,” he has posted on his website.

The United States economy, argues Risse, a former Bacon’s Rebellion contributor, is in the midst of a profound shift — what he calls the U Turn — away from the scattered, low-density pattern of growth widely referred to as “suburban sprawl” (a label he avoids as a “core confusing word”) toward infill and re-development of the nation’s urban cores. This trend, which is taking place for reasons amply documented on this blog, has profound implications for homeowners and political jurisdictions on the metropolitan edge where landowners, developers and speculators valued land with the expectation that it would be developed some day into shopping centers, office parks and residential subdivisions.

Given the cost of providing transportation, utilities and municipal services, the logical limit for development in the Washington metropolitan region is about 20 to 35 miles from the metropolitan center in Washington, D.C., Risse writes. Land beyond that limit, he contends, is experiencing collapsing demand as people seek to live closer to the metropolitan core, closer to jobs and amenities in walkable communities with more transportation options. That collapse he calls “the Great Submergence.”

Some clusters of development may adapt and survive but others will be economically unsustainable and wilt away. Another phrase for “wilt away” would be “dry up and blow away,” just like western mining towns when the claims ran dry, just like Great Plains farming towns during the Dust Bowl and Depression. Risse’s home town of Warrenton, he warns, is the “bulls eye of the danger zone.”

As demand evaporates for single-family dwellings on large lots in remote locations, land and housing prices will fall. Every new single-family dwelling built in Greater Warrenton-Fauquier (and other communities situated more 25 to 30 miles from the metropolitan center) will serve to drive down the value of existing properties. Writes Risse:

The downward trend will be exacerbated by the fact that there are dwellings selling BELOW their replacement cost. Further, there will be many scattered Units that have not been maintained, which will further deflate the market via assessment / appraisal “comparables.”

Declining land and improvement values, he says, will have a devastating impact on municipal tax bases in this exurban dead zone as well as household net worth, much of which is composed of housing equity.

Bacon’s bottom line: I’m in 95% agreement with Risse. The reason I hesitate to say 100% is that there are powerful forces at work to sustain “sprawl,” the most important of which is the slow pace, due to zoning restrictions, at which urbanized jurisdictions close to the Washington metropolitan core can free more land for more compact, higher-density development. If demand for housing exceeds supply in Washington’s urban core, growth will default to exurban communities (beyond the 25-mile radius) planned and approved in the 2000s simply because there is nowhere else to build.

With that caveat aside, I share Risse’s larger concern. A dozen or more exurban counties on the metropolitan fringe of Washington, Richmond and Hampton Roads are likely to experience deflating land values, shrinking real estate property revenues and chronic fiscal stress. Their scattered, low-density settlement patterns have high embedded costs and local governments will be hard-pressed to maintain the supporting services and infrastructure. Once the newness wears off and depreciation sets in, these places will become worn, shabby and dilapidated.

Driving back from vacation on the North Carolina coast a couple of weeks ago, I passed through a dozen hamlets and crossroads in farming communities. I was shocked to see so many boarded up and tumble-down buildings that property owners had simply abandoned. The knowledge economy has passed these inland communities by. Sure, the real estate is cheap but no one wants to live there anymore. The houses don’t even have for-sale signs on them. The price of better houses is so low that it’s not even worth patching up the decaying ones. Virginia’s exurbs have not reached that stage yet. But give them time. Let the shiny newness wear off. In 20 years, we could see the same thing.

Those who miss Risse’s writing on Bacon’s Rebellion should check out the “Current Perspectives” on his website.

Update: Ed Risse has responded to Larry Gross’ comments on this post in the form of an essay, “Blogging, Geographical Illiteracy and the Great Submergence.”