Category Archives: Land use & development

Fracking Our Pristine Mountain Forests

GW forestBy Peter Galuszka

Is nothing sacred? Of all groups, the U.S. Forest Service should protect the lands it controls, but today it introduced a plan that would allow limited hydraulic fracturing for natural gas in the 1.1 million-acre George Washington National Forest which straddles Virginia and West Virginia.

Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe had opposed lifting the ban, although he supports other proposed gas projects in the state, such as the 550-mile Atlantic Coast Pipeline that would stretch from the fracked gaslands of Northern West Virginia over the mountains and southeastward to Southside and Hampton Roads and North Carolina.

Forest lands help supply drinking water to 4 million people including those in Richmond and Washington. Some of the forest land has so-called “Karst” topography made up of rock formation that can be dissolved. In those conditions, any leakage of methane, or the toxic, powerful chemicals used in fracking would be more, rather than less, likely to poison drinking water.

The only good news out of the new USFS plan is that before some 995,000 acres could be available for drilling and that amount will now be limited to 177,000 acres.

But what can’t they let it all be? If you head west where the heart of the Marcellus Shale formation has become one of the mega-meccas of fracked gas, you hear of impacts of all types from drilling. These have included fire, explosions, diesel generators roaring 24/7, drinking water effects, bright floodlights and so on. In fact, I am embarking on a drip in about an hour that will end up in frack-land and will report when I get back.

To be sure, natural gas drilling has been going on for decades in the Appalachian Plateau of the western slopes of the Appalachians. Few pipelines crossed eastward over mountains and it was rare to find many drilling rigs in those areas.

But the fracking craze continues unabated and is now a $10 billion industry in the Marcellus Shale formation. One potential new target could be a different formation that starts from Fredericksburg and slips under the Potomac northeast into Maryland. A Texas firm with a letter drop address has been talking about leasing rights for fracking. One assumes that if the leases are in place, they’ll be quickly flipped to an actual drilling company, but you won’t know who. Virginia is only in the very early stages of setting up state rules for fracking.

Environmentalists say natural gas can be an even worse carbon polluter than coal should methane be released. Some others believe that the biggest damage comes not from the actual fracking process with millions of gallons of water and chemicals but from faulty wells.

One can make an argument that gas is good because it has completely reorganized the global pecking order in terms of energy. It means the U.S. need not be beholden to machinations of the Middle East, Central Asia and the likes of Vladimir Putin.

What bothers me is the rush to frack. I remember back in the 1960s in West Virginia when mile after mile of mountain side had been ripped apart by surface miners. It was a cheap way to get at coal. Mystery companies were supposed to reclaim the mine site but rarely did because they’d bankrupt one alphabet soup firm merely to create a new one.

The fracking craze, if not properly regulated, could yield even worse environmental disasters.

Kudos: U.S.-China Climate Pact

Shanghai: Soot City

Shanghai: Soot City

By Peter Galuszka

President Barack Obama’s trailblazing pact with Chinese leader Xi Jinping to limit greenhouse gas emissions through 2025 is welcome news and could do much to reduce carbon dioxide emissions since the two countries are responsible for about 40 percent of the globe’s total.

China is an economic powerhouse so energy hungry it builds a new coal-fired generating plant about every eight to 10 days. Its leaders have pledged to cap  carbon emissions by 2030 or earlier.

Obama announced a plan to cut U.S. emissions by 26 to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025. This is a bigger cut than the 17 percent reduction by 2020 that he had announced earlier.

The agreement, reached in Beijing, is most welcome for the obvious reason that it would make a huge contribution to reducing greenhouse gases. It also undercuts the arguments by the fossil fuel industry, some utilities and their drum beaters that any steps the U.S. takes in cutting carbon pollution are pointless since China (or other Asian countries) will keep polluting anyway.

The arguments are crucial since Virginia’s Big Energy industry and the staff of the State Corporation Commission are attacking plans by the EPA to greatly reduce carbon.

Consider this gem of wisdom from another correspondent on this blog: “Virginia could revert to stone-age levels of zero greenhouse gas emissions tomorrow, and the savings would offset the increase in CO2 from coal-fired power plants built in India and China in a year! (OK, maybe not a year, but over a very short period of time.)”

Sadly, this kind of mentality is regressive and, with the new Washington-Beijing pact, is becoming increasingly irrelevant.

One thing many American commentators don’t seem to realize is that China isn’t necessarily a primitive business juggernaut stomping on any rational plan to check pollution. Beijing and Shanghai have some of the highest rates of air pollution in the world and its leadership, especially engineers and policy makers capable of understanding how technology can help them, knows they just can’t continue as before.

Three years ago, I visited both cities to research a book on the coal industry (newly out in an updated paperback, by the way, see below). I also went to Ulanbatour, the capital of coal-driven Mongolia where the air was so bad, I felt delirious within hours after arrival and by the next morning I showed signs of pulmonary illness.

The promise for changing things seems to money and the system.

In the U.S., we have a regulatory oversight apparatus over energy generation. This is reasonable because it prevents electric utilities from using their monopoly power to stick customers with high rates. But the system is flawed because: (1) it too often favors big utilities over average consumers and; (2) it is rigged to prevent new, experimental and possibly transformative technologies that very well could allow the use of dirty and dangerous but still cheap coal.

In the latter case, the thinking seems to be to go for ephemeral cost benefits (like using natural gas) without having any long-term strategy that actually might save lots more money through better health and more efficient, less-polluting energy.

In several cases, regulators nixed pilot plants that burn coal but use special new ways of doing so that capture a lot of carbon either in a chemical process involving ammonia or by stripping off the carbon emission from the pollution stream and sequestering them safely away. The plants cost big money. They are much cheaper to do as greenfield sites but regulators are more inclined to prevent them in favor with the soup d’jour of power that happens to be cheapest at the moment, in our current case, natural gas. Continue reading

How Not to Spend Public College Money

vsu multi-use

Virginia State’s multi-use center

By Peter Galuszka

As Virginia’s students and their families struggle paying their tuition and related expenses, the state’s 15 public universities continue to charge excessively for mandatory fees for athletics and massive bricks and mortars projects.

These are the conclusions by the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission (JLARC) which has issued a series of studies on college spending to the General Assembly. Dubious fees and a $7 billion collegiate construction boom are some of the reasons why the average tuition for in-state students has risen 122 percent over a decade.

One doesn’t have to look far to see the shiny new buildings. At Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, former President Eugene Trani spent decades expanding his school’s two campuses. In the process, he transformed downtown for the better but one must ask why the huge expansion seemed to get more attention and resources than raising the school’s academic status. . Late this summer, VCU ordered a $21 million budget cut to help the state with its $881 million revenue shortfall.

In Charlottesville, students at the University of Virginia can enjoy the recently completed $100 million South Lawn project that was a decade in the making and added a patch of new buildings. It is now adding a children’s medicine building at his health care complex.

For one of the stranger examples of dysfunctional spending, consider Virginia State University near Petersburg. The small, historically Black school is well into building an $84 million multi-use center that would serve students as well as offer a venue for community events, much like VCU’s Siegel Center which hosts graduation ceremonies for many area high schools.

As the center is being built, school officials plan to use it to help transform the surrounding areas of the small town of Ettrick. They are using the model of VCU about 25 miles up Interstate 95 as a blueprint for linking school expansion with local community development.

Yet VSU faces such serious financial problems that its president Keith Miller, stepped down unexpectedly on Halloween. Thanks to shortfalls in financial aid and other problems, the school ended up with a sudden $19 million shortfall. Attendance at the school is down 1,000 from last year and 550 short from what the administration had expected.

Students complain that they found out about cuts in their state and federal aid only at the very last minute and many had to drop out. VSU has been through a series of financial problems that have forced it to switch to a fast food-only menu at one of its dining halls. Laboratory equipment is scarce, students say.

They wonder why the school is busy erecting a huge new multi-use center when they have many more obvious and pressing problems at hand. A school spokesman says that funding for the new center is handled by a foundation and is not directly linked to the school’s financial system. VSU is expected to name an interim president later this week after more than 900 students signed petitions asking for a wholesale revamp of the school’s top management.

JLARC found other areas of concern, such as forcing students to pay mandatory fees for sometimes oversized athletic programs that tend to operate in their own worlds that have little relevance for most students. Not every student cares about all of the sports or has time to support every team. Plus, JLARC says that the state should reconsider its methods of handing out financial aid to make sure that low and middle income students are the ones who actually get it.

One hears a lot about overpaid professors and administrators. But the JLARC studies suggest their salaries may be less of a problem than using colleges as cash cows for construction projects and to prop up ambitious sports programs that may have very little to do with the schools they represent.

Takeaways From the GOP’s Big Win

gillespie warnerBy Peter Galuszka

The night of Tuesday, Nov. 4 was an ugly one for the Democrats and a big win for Republicans. Here are my takeaways from it:

  • U.S. Sen.Mark Warner clings to a tiny lead that seems to grow slightly, still making it uncertain if opponent Ed Gillespie will ask for a recount. The surprisingly tight race is an embarrassment for Warner. It likely takes him out of consideration to be Hillary Clinton’s running mate in 2016 although Democrats Tim Kaine and Jim Webb are still possibilities.
  • Ed Gillespie ran a smart campaign and came off as a solid candidate. Of course, we are comparing him against Kenneth Cuccinelli and that’s a very low bar but Gillespie’s projection of being relaxed and confident helped him. Gillespie did very well despite being dissed by the national Republican money machine. Look for him in the gubernatorial race of 2017.
  • Barack Obama takes his lumps — again. The country’s on the mend and things are going fairly well (despite what you may watch on Fox), but Obama is incapable of cashing in on that. His cool, detached style is a big minus and makes him seem careless and incompetent, especially when crisis like ebola come up that are not of his making.
  • The Republican wins on Capitol Hill are more significant than the Tea Party inspired once during the 2010 midterms.But the earlier races brought in a kind of mindless negativity and gridlock by both parties that truly hurt the country. Will that happen again? Or will older, wise heads prevail?
  • Increase in coverage my Obamacare The New York Times

    Increase in coverage by Obamacare
    The New York Times

    You might get some bipartisan action on taxes and the budget, but deadlock remains for Affordable Care and immigration. The fact is that Obamacare is too far along to change much and people actually like it, despite what you hear in the right-wing echo chamber. This chart from the New York Times shows that the ACA has boosted health coverage in some of the poorest parts of the country, such as the Appalachian coal country, the African-American belts of the Deep South; and poor parts of the Southwest like New Mexico and parts of Arizona. This alone is a big success.

  • Immigration. Look for Obama to use executive authority to come up with an immigration plan. It is an emotional, hot button issue that reveals lots of ugly attitudes. But something needs to be done fast. The GOP has no plan, except for George W. Bush who actually pushed a workable solution that was compassionate. That got soaked by the Tea Party, but then Republican Mitt Romney came up with a health care plan for Massachusetts that looks remarkable like Obamacare and was a precursor. If the GOP can get back to those helpful ideals, there may be hope.
  • Warner lots big swaths of voters who had been with him, like Loudoun County and parts of rural Virginia. This is alarming for the Dems and shows they need to project their messages a lot better. Warner’s poor performance in debates didn’t help either.

It is a big win for the GOP, but somehow I don’t feel as bitter as I was in 2010.

Steve Nash’s Important Book

Nash bookBy Peter Galuszka

Stephen Nash, a former journalist who teaches at the University of Richmond, has written an important new book about how climate change could affect Virginia. His detailed reporting is impressive and I think he shatters the arguments of global warming deniers.

Here is a book review I did for Style Weekly:

“Imagine it’s a fall day in 2114. You get ready for a jog down by the James River.

It’s pleasant by the towering palm trees, but you must keep an eye out for alligators and the venomous cottonmouth moccasins as big around as your thigh. It’s best to exercise early because the rest of the day will be typically steamy and windless.

This is what Richmond very well could be like within 100 years if carbon-dioxide emissions stay at the same levels as today. Virginia’s climate could warm up to something like that in northern Florida, according to Stephen Nash, a part-time journalism professor at the University of Richmond in his new book, “Virginia Climate Fever: How Global Warming Will Transform Our Cities, Shorelines and Forests” (University of Virginia Press).”

To read more, click here.

No Wegmans for Tysons… Too Bad for Wegmans

wegmans_bakeryCan Tysons have its cake and eat it, too? Perhaps not, at least if the cake is baked in a Wegmans Food Market bakery. Discussions to bring the Rochester, N.Y.-based grocery chain to a transit-oriented development around the McLean Metro station have ended in frustration, reports the Washington Post.

CityLine Partners, developer of Scotts Run Station South, won rezoning approval last year to transform a typical suburban office park into 6.7 million square feet of mixed-use commercial and housing towers with ground-floor retail. The development plans includes contributing to a Tysons-wide grid street network, creating more walkable streets and reducing the parking footprint.

It would be a real coup to bring a Wegmans to the development. The upscale store appeals to exactly the kind of higher-income demographic that CityLine wants to attract to its project. But Wegmans’ business model meshes best with suburban development.  The company normally builds stores of more than 100,000 square feet surrounded by large surface parking lots. In Tysons, Wegmans was considering a new “urban” format of 80,000 square feet, similar to one it opened in Boston this spring, the Post reports. The idea was to place the store on the ground floor of a building with apartments upstairs.

Too bad Wegmans couldn’t make it happen. Some other grocery chain will. A tremendous share of future development in the United States will take place in walkable, denser, mixed-use communities like Scotts Run. Vast surface parking lots do not figure into the plan — the land is simply too valuable to squander on such a marginal use. In contrast to Wegmans, Wal-Mart, once the epitome of land-intensive suburban development and the object of scorn among urbanists across the country, has re-tooled its stores to fit in smaller urban footprints. In fact, a new complex developing around the Tysons West station will be anchored by a Wal-Mart.

For decades, retailers were a driving force behind sprawl. They built their business models around big stores, big parking lots and easy automobile access. They provided amenities in the suburbs that few center cities could match. But the market dynamics have shifted. People are moving to walkable urbanism whether Wal-Mart and Wegmans like it or not. Retailers need to invent new formats to serve the new markets. Inevitably, someone will. And when enough retailers make the switch, they will make walkable urbanism all the more alluring and its rise all the more inevitable.

– JAB

Why Private Space Firms Need Oversight

By Peter Galuszka

Virgin galacticDoes bad news come in twos or threes?

First, on Oct. 28, an Orbital Sciences Antares rocket bound to supply the International Space Station exploded seconds into its take off at Wallops Island on the Virginia Eastern Shore.

Three days later, the Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo designed for space tourism broke in two during a test flight over the Mojave Desert in California. One pilot was killed and the second was seriously injured when he parachuted to safety.

Both incidents involve private companies pushing ahead to commercialize space which used to be the province of the federal government, NASA and the military. The Orbital incident brought the usual cries that the government should continue its hands off policies about regulating the private space industry. The Virgin Galactic accident changes that equation.

For some background, here’s space.com:

“Thus far, the private space industry has resisted oversight from federal regulators, but that could change in the wake of the accident.

“I suspect there will be pressure for tighter regulations,” (John)  Logsdon (of George Washington University) said.

“In 2012, Congress passed a bill that extended the “learning period” for the commercial spaceflight industry. The measure was championed by Congressman Kevin McCarthy, a Republican from California, whose district covers the Mojave spaceport.

“The provision essentially prohibited the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation, dubbed AST, from issuing regulations designed only for the protection of passengers until October 2015. The idea behind this hands-off approach was to allow the spaceflight industry to gain real-world data from their first licensed commercial launches; the FAA would, in turn, use this information to eventually craft regulations.

“In the wake of the accident, Virgin Galactic and the National Transportation Safety Board — the federal agency leading the investigation — have warned against speculation until the ongoing investigation is complete. But critics have made strong claims about risks the company took.

“Tom Bower, a biographer of Branson, told BBC Radio 4 that the accident was “predictable and inevitable.” Joel Glenn Brenner, a former Washington Post reporter who has been following Virgin Galactic’s progress, made similar charges shortly after the accident in an appearance on CNN, adding: “I don’t see them at least being able to carry anybody into space in the next 10 years.

“Andrea Gini, of the Netherlands-based International Association for the Advancement of Space Safety, criticized Virgin Galactic for a lack of transparency about its safety procedures.

“We don’t know how Scaled Composites approached this particular test,” Gini told Space.com in an email. “Virgin Galactic has always refused to participate to the public discussion inside the space safety community, and has never sought the support of independent reviewers.”

“Gini said there are elements of Virgin Galactic’s flight design that experts consider hazardous. The decision to fly passengers and even crew without pressurized space suits, for example, could expose them to risk of decompression, he said.

“Space is, and will always be, a risky industry,” Gini said. “But it is not a new one. I believe that commercial operators should approach it with transparency and humility, or their business, and not just their vehicles, will be doomed to failure.””

That’s sobering. In the Wallops Island case, investigators are loo9king at where decades-old, modified, Russian-made rocket engines that the Russians deemed too dangerous to use were a cause.

There are questions that need answering.

The Market Speaks, and It Likes Reston Town Center

reston_town_center
Reston Town Center got a half-century head start in creating the kind of community where enterprises want to do business in the 21st-century knowledge economy. The original developers were planning for and building walkable, mixed-use development before walkable, mixed-use development was cool. And today property owners are reaping the benefits.

According to Cushman/Wakefield, offices in Reston Town Center are near full occupancy and command among the highest rents in Northern Virginia. The business district’s big competitive advantage? A strong amenity base. Summarizes Virginia Business:

The report notes that in addition to 2.8 million square feet of office space, Reston Town Center is home to 50 retail shops, 30 restaurants and three residential high-rise projects. Even with a suburban location 20 miles outside of Washington, D.C., and a lack of Metro accessibility until at least 2018, the center’s density, mixed-uses and walkability give the center an urban feel that attracts tenants and residents.

Reston achieves high occupancy despite the fact that tenants pay a 30% rent premium to be there. The situation in Reston stands in marked contrast to the other major business centers, Tysons and the Ballston-Rosslyn corridor. Spurred by the arrival of the Metro Silver Line, Tysons is desperately trying to reinvent itself from a case study in suburban sprawl into a paragon of Transit Oriented Development. But the transition to a coherent, walkable place will take place over years, if not decades. Property owners in Arlington’s Ballston-Rosslyn corridor have Reston-style amenities and have been demanding Reston-style rents but have been afflicted by the departure of large government tenants.

Bacon’s bottom line: Could the marketplace be speaking any more clearly? People are demanding walkable urbanism. It doesn’t have to be located in the core of the metropolitan area. It doesn’t even have to have Metro service. People like compact, walkable, mixed-use development. Developers who deliver that product will make money. Localities that foster its development will see their tax base grow.

– JAB

Dominion Responds to My Renewable Energy Post

Dominion logoBy Peter Galuszka

In recent days, there’s been a plenty of discussion about renewable energy.  After I wrote two posts,  Chester “Chet” Wade, a senior spokesman for Dominion Resources, called me to take issue with some of my ideas. I  offered him space to explain Dominion’s views. Here is his response:

Your follow-up column has the same shortcoming as the first one. They both ignore the facts that don’t support your conclusion.

We discussed a lot of issues on the phone. As I said, my point on contributions was that you were being selective in your reporting and unchallenging of the other side. We don’t mind being asked tough questions, but we think others should face the same level of scrutiny. That disparity seems to be present again.

Here are some of the other points you left out from our conversation, along with additional details:

Approximately half the electricity Dominion produced last year came from carbon-free nuclear and renewable sources. Our carbon intensity is among the best in the nation, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council. At the same time our electric rates in Virginia are 14.7 percent below the national average, and our reliability is at an all-time high. All are important points to those who depend on us for their energy.

Dominion values renewable energy as part of a diverse, clean mix of power generation to provide reliable, affordable energy.   For example, in Virginia, Dominion operates more renewable biomass than any other utility in the nation.  We’ve invested in biomass, because it is cost effective and can run around the clock.

We’ve also invested in solar energy with our innovative Solar Partnership Program, and we are a leader in developing offshore wind. The U.S. Department of Energy awarded a Dominion-led team $47 million to develop a Virginia pilot project aimed at making offshore wind more affordable.

Dominion did not “squelch” the solar project at Washington & Lee, as you reported. We reached an agreement that allowed the project to go forward.

The Sierra Club’s “analysis” of renewable energy standards you cited is specious, at best.  For example, it fails to mention that states with mandatory renewable portfolio standards also typically have significantly higher electricity prices.

And it does not mention that West Virginia has an alternative and renewable energy standard that counts natural gas, coal bed methane, waste coal, and pumped storage hydro. By that same standard, Dominion has more than 9,000 megawatts of alternative and renewable energy. And that total does not include wind or solar energy we have outside of Virginia.

Your column also touted West Virginia as a regional leader in wind production. What it missed is that we own 50 percent of West Virginia’s largest wind farm, paid for not by our utility customers but by our shareholders.  On the other hand, an onshore wind project we proposed for Virginia withered with virtually no support from the Sierra Club.

Producing affordable, reliable and clean energy requires a balance. That balance was sadly missing from your column.

 

Which Calls for More Regulation, Sprawl or Smart Growth?

How do you get more development like this -- with more regulation or less?

How do you get more development like this — with more regulation or less?

by James A. Bacon

One of the more potent criticisms of the Smart Growth movement is that smart growthers implement policies that restrict development, create housing shortages and make housing unaffordable for the poor and working class. The critics present ample evidence that metro regions with the tightest restrictions on development and re-development have higher housing prices overall than regions with fewer restrictions.

But there is more than one way to achieve Smart Growth, at least in theory. One way is is libertarian in inspiration: rolling back the suburban-inspired zoning codes that segregate land uses, cap density restrictions and impose minimum parking requirements on property owners. Undoing the massive government intrusion in local land use would go a long way to reversing the so-called “suburban sprawl” that is the antithesis of Smart Growth without imposing restrictions on new development. A different approach to Smart Growth is more activist: encouraging mixed use development and re-development, seeking more density and curtailing parking in order to push people out of cars.

Suburban zoning codes and regulations are almost universal across America in places developed since World War II, and even in some traditional urban cities. To what extent have activist city governments offset suburban mandates with Smart Growth and environmental mandates? Michael Lewyn and Kristoffer Jackson set to find out. You can read their conclusions in “How Often Do Cities Mandate Smart Growth or Green Building?” in a paper published by the Mercatus Center.

Lewyn and Jackson examined the zoning regulations of 24 medium-sized cities across the United States with a focus on parking, density and “green building.”

Parking. They found that Smart Growth regulations are not nearly as ubiquitous as sprawl-inducing regulations. Fifteen of the 24 cities had restricted parking supply, but only three had restricted the supply citywide for all land uses. The others limited their restrictions to certain parts of the city or to particular land uses.

Density. While restrictions on maximum density are almost universal across the United States, mandates for minimum density are rare, and when they exist, they are largely irrelevant. For example, San Jose, Calif., imposes a minimum density of one house per acre. But the demand for housing is strong and prices are so high that no one is asking to build at lower densities. Indeed, most cities continue to limit density and mixed-use development — the antithesis of the Smart Growth vision.

Green building. Cities have been willing to experiment with “green building” regulations designed to increase energy efficiency. Only four of the 24 cities surveyed compel developers to meet green building standards. Six others give builders incentives to adopt green building standards, while another eight impose the requirements only upon city-owned buildings.

“Government regulation designed to force smarter, more environmentally friendly growth may face a difficult tradeoff,” the authors write. “If regulations are only slightly more restrictive than what an unregulated market might produce, they may not do very much good. But if regulations are significantly more restrictive, they may encourage development to shift to less environmentally sensitive municipalities.”

Writing in the Market Urbanism blog, Emily Washington provides a useful gloss on the Lewyn-Jackson paper.

Lewyn and Jackson’s study shows that rather than embracing the deregulatory tenets of Smart Growth, regulators in some cities have layered Smart Growth rules on top of their traditional zoning rules, creating a complicated web of regulations. … This paper demonstrates that today Smart Growth policies are unusual relative to traditional zoning rules that restrict density. However, Smart Growth is in some cases complicating the policy landscape rather than providing more freedom for developers to respond to consumer demand.

Bacon’s bottom line: The only thing I would add to Lewyn, Jackson and Washington is that it would be useful to study transportation policy. The Smart Growth movement is also enamored with walkability, bicycles, mass transit and complete streets. The pursuit of these policies is not seen as much in city zoning codes as in their capital investment programs. This is the area, it seems to me, where the Smart Growth movement has made its greatest mark.