Category Archives: Money in politics

George Mason Profs: Prosecute Climate Deniers

Jadadish Shukla (right) receiving award in India.

Jagadish Shukla (right) receiving Padma Shri Award in India.

by James A. Bacon

Jagadish Shukla, a George Mason University climate scientist, thinks corporate climate deniers should be criminally prosecuted under the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) law.

Corporations and other organizations have “knowingly deceived” the American people about the risks of climate change, wrote Shukla and nineteen other scientists (five of whom also are GMU professors) in an open letter to President Obama and Attorney General Loretta Lynch. “If corporations in the fossil fuel industry and their supporters are guilty of the misdeeds that have been documented in books and journal articles, it is imperative that these misdeeds be stopped as soon as possible so that America and the world can get on with the critically important business of finding effective ways to restabilize the Earth’s climate, before even more lasting damage is done.”

Wow. Is this what science has come to in the United States today — seeking criminal prosecution of those who espouse different views? The implications of this mindset are absolutely terrifying. Thankfully, only 20 scientists signed the letter, so we can be hopeful that the thinking expressed therein is not representative of most climate scientists or even climate alarmists generally — although the missive does cite as its inspiration a proposal championed by Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, D-Rhode Island.

The premise is that fossil fuel companies, like the tobacco companies before them, are knowingly and fraudulently disseminating false science. Barry Klinger, also a GMU climate scientist, insists that the letter signatories aren’t trying to throw climate skeptics in jail or repress their right to free speech — just squelch the right of companies engaging in fraud to sell a product that does harm.

In a Q&A on his website, Klinger is sensitive to the charges of “ideologically based legal harassment.” That’s how he described former Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli’s aborted investigation of Michael Mann, a former University of Virginia climate scientist whose name was prominent among those sullied in the East Anglia email scandal. “Apparently,” writes Klinger, “there are some who believe it is the return of the Inquisition to investigate a giant corporation but a good deed to investigate an individual scientist.”

In other words, while Klinger disapproves of Cuccinelli’s subpoena of Michael Mann’s emails — Cuccinelli never got the emails, by the way — but thinks ideologically based criminal prosecutions are OK if the targets aregiant corporations.” Pardon me for failing to see any meaningful differences between the two cases. If one is wrong, so is the other. Of course, the ultimate goal of the letter signatories is not to pursue justice but to de-fund and de-legitimize those with opposing views while maintaining their own sources of funding from government and foundations as sacrosanct.

Which brings us back to Mr. Shukla, Klinger’s colleague at GMU and lead signatory to the letter. Shukla is a scientist of some renown, who specializes in building computerized climate models and has served as a lead author for the United Nations Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change. He has done work reconstructing the climate of the Mediterranean world in the Roman era that I, as a serious amateur student of 1st-century Palestine, find fascinating.

I am not remotely qualified to judge the scientific value of Shukla’s work, but I do feel competent to comment upon his foray into public policy. It appears that climate alarmism, to riff off an old Saturday Night Live routine, has been bery, bery good to Mr. Shukla. Roger Pielke Jr., a climate scientist himself, notes that Shukla runs his government grants through a tax-exempt, non-profit organization, the Institute of Global Environment and Society, Inc. The Institute raked in $3.8 million in 2014, from which Shukla paid himself $293,000 in reportable compensation and his wife Anne Shukla $146,000 as a business manager. It’s not bad money, considering that Shukla also received total compensation of $250,000 as a professor and chair of the GMU Climate Dynamics department. That would make Shukla slightly more highly compensated than GMU President Angel Cabrera — and I’m betting that Cabrera’s wife doesn’t knock down a $146,000-a-year salary for work related to his job as university president.

Shukla also has been granted numerous awards and medals, including the 2012 Padma Shri Award from the government of India. In sum, he is richly rewarded financially and with status conferred by his peers for his work building global climate-change models.

I wonder if Mr. Shukla’s climate models predicted the actual, real-world temperatures of the past 18 years. The mean temperature increase has been zero, as measured by satellite readings, and within the statistical margin of error, as measured by terrestrial readings. If after the expenditure of millions of dollars Mr. Shukla has failed to forecast those readings and yet persists in raising the cry of catastrophic climate change, could we conclude, using the logic he applies to others, that his work was not only in error but fraudulent, motivated by the desire to continue the flow of lucrative research contracts — and not only fraudulent but economically devastating because it justifies the expenditure of hundreds of billions of dollars to combat an exaggerated threat?

Shukla certainly knows the stakes. As he himself is quoted in 2011 as saying: “It is inconceivable that policymakers will be willing to make billion-and trillion-dollar decisions for adaptation to the projected regional climate change based on models that do not even describe and simulate the processes that are the building blocks of climate variability.”

Ordinarily, I would not be inclined to equate Mr. Shukla’s behavior with criminality, but it does seem reasonable to apply to him the same criteria he applies to others. Perhaps he should be more careful about what he asks for. Once the precedent of criminalizing science has been set, some future administration might decide Shukla falls on the wrong side of the ideological divide.

Dominion Does the Right Thing, Eats Cost of Some Charitable Giving

moneyI’m a few days late getting to this, but it’s still worthy of note… Dominion Virginia Power has told the State Corporation Commission that it will not try to recover $2 million in charitable deductions made in 2013 and 2014. The Associated Press had reported that the power company had sought to include in its rate base the cost of tens of thousands of dollars donated to causes for what could be construed as political motivatations.

“Some have cynically suggested that certain charitable organizations to which we have contributed are motivated not by the civic good but instead by political considerations. We do not agree with those suggestions or that our charitable giving practices are anything other than well-intentioned,” said Paul D. Koonce, Dominion vice president, in filed testimony, reports the AP in an update.

The State Corporation Commission had declared in 2011 that it was legal to seek recompense for the contributions, but SCC staff had raised the issue anew in filed testimony. The AP story specifically mentioned $40,000 donated to a tort reform group and a $10,000 gift to a college solicited by a lawmaker who is the school’s paid fundraiser.

Bacon’s bottom line: The amount of money was miniscule — less than a penny per month per customer — but the optics were terrible. Dominion is arguably the most politically powerful corporation in Virginia, fielding a small army of lobbyists, communicators and community relations professionals while also donating major sums to political candidates. Fairly or unfairly, the company is widely said to “own” the SCC and/or legislators. For a minimal impact to shareholders, Dominion has eliminated a practice that feeds negative perceptions about the company.


Charging Rate Payers for What?


The Appalachian School of Pharmacy… located in Appalachian Power Co. service territory.

by James A. Bacon

In 2012 Dominion Virginia Power donated $10,000 to the Appalachian College of Pharmacy in Buchanan County, far outside the company’s service territory. It so happens that Del. Terry Kilgore, R-Gate City, head of the House Commerce and Labor Committee, has been a salaried fundraiser for the school, according to the Associated Press. It also so happens that Kilgore played an important role ushering legislation through the General Assembly this year that suspends until 2022 biennial reviews of Dominion’s base rates. Of the $10,000 Dominion donated, $4,000 was recouped from Dominion ratepayers, the AP says.

It’s one thing for Dominion shareholders to donate to charitable causes, even if the donation is politically motivated. Dominion should be entitled to the same right to participate in the political process as any business. But it’s quite another thing for the giant utility (and sponsor of Bacon’s Rebellion) to charge such donations to rate payers.

“Why should captive ratepayers, who have no option to get electricity from another company, be compelled to fund the charitable choices of a company?” AP quotes former Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli as asking. “Leave the ratepayers their money, and let them make their own charitable choices.”

We’re not talking about a tremendous amount of money here. According to the AP, Dominion included $1.37 million of donations in the cost of service it charged to customers in 2o11 and 2012. State Corporation Commission staff recently filed testimony saying that Dominion should not be able to pass along $3.3 million in donations from 2013 and 2014. Dominion spokesman David Botkins says the company will file a detailed rebuttal later this month.

Many of those donations may be entirely legitimate, tied at least tangentially to the business of generating, distributing and conserving electric power. I can’t get exercised about the $7,500 donation  to the Peninsular Council for Workforce Development, cited in the AP article, even if CEO Matthew James also serves as a Portsmouth delegate to the General Assembly. As a major employer, Dominion has as much a stake in workforce development as any company in Virginia. (Although I would be interested to know if Dominion donated to other workforce councils in its service territory.) And, frankly, from the rate payer perspective, we’re talking chump change here. There are much bigger issues to worry about, like how rapidly to phase in renewable energy sources, where to build electric transmission lines, whether or not to build a nuclear power plant, and so on.

But the controversy isn’t about the impact on ratepayers. It’s about the political clout of the most influential corporation in Virginia politics. Dominion shouldn’t charge ratepayers for actions designed to influence legislation effecting ratepayers.

Katherine Bond, director of public policy for Dominion, told the AP that the company feels it “is important to support the communities in which we do business.” But the Appalachian School of Pharmacy, located in Oakwood, Va., is not a community served by Dominion. The company’s motive in donating the money might have been pure as the driven snow — but no one is going to believe it.

Dominion would do itself a big favor by tightening its guidelines for billing ratepayers. Limiting donations to communities within the company’s service area would be one place to start. If the company doesn’t police itself, legislators might be tempted to draft a law limiting such donations — and those limits could well be stricter than any limits the company would want.

Update: Dominion has issued a response to the AP story. Here’s the  meat of it: “Some perspective about the source of funding for those investments is important. In 2014, our company donated $18.5 million to charitable causes; the vast majority of these funds were provided directly by shareholders. In fact, in our latest filing with the Virginia State Corporation Commission (SCC), we stated that only about $740,000 of these donations were supported by rates collected from our Dominion Virginia Power electric customers in the Commonwealth. That’s just 4 percent of the total.”

I have posted the full response in the comments and highlighted it in yellow.

Alpha Natural Resources: Running Wrong

Alpha miners in Southwest Virginia (Photo by Scott Elmquist)

Alpha miners in Southwest Virginia
(Photo by Scott Elmquist)

 By Peter Galuszka

Four years ago, coal titan Alpha Natural Resources, one of Virginia’s biggest political donors, was riding high.

It was spending $7.1 billion to buy Massey Energy, a renegade coal firm based in Richmond that had compiled an extraordinary record for safety and environmental violations and fines. Its management practices culminated in a huge mine blast on April 5, 2010 that killed 29 miners in West Virginia, according to three investigations.

Bristol-based Alpha, founded in 2002, had coveted Massey’s rich troves of metallurgical and steam coal as the industry was undergoing a boom phase. It would get about 1,400 Massey workers to add to its workforce of 6,600 but would have to retrain them in safety procedures through Alpha’s “Running Right” program.

Now, four years later, Alpha is in a fight for its life. Its stock – trading at a paltry 55 cents per share — has been delisted by the New York Stock Exchange. After months of layoffs, the firm is preparing for a bankruptcy filing. It is negotiating with its loan holders and senior bondholders to help restructure its debt.

Alpha is the victim of a severe downturn in the coal industry as cheap natural gas from hydraulic fracturing drilling has flooded the market and become a favorite of electric utilities. Alpha had banked on Masset’s huge reserves of met coal to sustain it, but global economic strife, especially in China, has dramatically cut demand for steel. Some claim there is a “War on Coal” in the form of tough new regulations, although others claim the real reason is that coal can’t face competition from other fuel sources.

Alpha’s big fall has big implications for Virginia in several arenas:

(1) Alpha is one of the largest political donors in the state, favoring Republicans. In recent years, it has spent $2,256,617 on GOP politicians and PACS, notably on such influential politicians and Jerry Kilgore and Tommy Norment, according to the Virginia Public Access Project. It also has spent $626,558 on Democrats.

In 2014-2015, it was the ninth largest donor in the state. Dominion was ahead among corporations, but Alpha beat out such top drawer bankrollers as Altria, Comcast and Verizon. The question now is whether a bankruptcy trustee will allow Alpha to continue its funding efforts.

(2) How will Alpha handle its pension and other benefits for its workers? If it goes bankrupt, it will be in the same company as Patriot Coal which is in bankruptcy for the second time in the past several years. Patriot was spun off by Peabody, the nation’s largest coal producer, which wanted to get out of the troubled Central Appalachian market to concentrate on more profitable coalfields in Wyoming’s Powder River Basin and the Midwest.

Critics say that Patriot was a shell firm set up by Peabody so it could skip out of paying health, pension and other benefits to the retired workers it used to employ. The United Mine Workers of America has criticized a Patriot plan to pay its top five executives $6.4 million as it reorganizes its finances.

(3) Coal firms that have large surface mines, as Alpha does, may not be able to meet the financial requirements to clean up the pits as required by law. Alpha has used mountaintop removal practices in the Appalachians in which hundreds of feet of mountains are ripped apart by explosives and huge drag lines to get at coal. They also have mines in Wyoming that also involve removing millions of tons of overburden.

Like many coal firms, Alpha has used “self-bonding” practices to guarantee mine reclamation. In this, the companies use their finances as insurance that they will clean up. If not, they must post cash. Wyoming has given Alpha until Aug. 24 to prove it has $411 million for reclamation.

(4) The health problems of coalfield residents continue unabated. According to a Newsweek report, Kentucky has more cancer rates than any other state. Tobacco smoking as a lot to do with it, but so does exposure to carcinogenic compounds that are released into the environment by mountaintop removal. This also affects people living in Virginia and West Virginia. In 2014, Alpha was fined $27.5 million by federal regulators for illegal discharges of toxic materials into hundreds of streams. It also must pay $200 million to clean up the streams.

The trials of coal companies mean bad news for Virginia and its sister states whose residents living near shut-down mines will still be at risk from them. As more go bust or bankrupt, the bill for their destructive practices will have to borne by someone else.

After digging out the Appalachians for about 150 years, the coal firms have never left coalfield residents well off. Despite its coal riches, Kentucky ranks 45th in the country for wealth. King Coal could have helped alleviate that earlier, but is in a much more difficult position to do much now. Everyday folks with be the ones paying for their legacy.

Renewable Energy: A Tale of Two Virginias

Apologies to Mr. Dickens

Apologies to Mr. Dickens

By Peter Galuszka

Call it a tale of two Virginias – at least when it comes to renewable energy.

One is the state’s traditional political and business elite, including Dominion Resources and large manufacturers, the State Corporation Commission and others.

They insist that the state must stick with big, base-loaded electricity generating plants like nuclear and natural gas – not so much solar and wind –to ensure that prices for business are kept low. Without this, recruiting firms may be difficult.

The other is a collection of huge, Web-based firms that state recruiters would give an eyetooth to snag. They include Amazon, Google, Facebook and others that tend to have roots on the West Coast where thinking about energy is a bit different.

Besides the Internet, what they have in common is that they all vow to use 100 per cent of their electricity from renewable sources. What’s more, to achieve this goal, all are investing millions in their own renewable power plants. They are bypassing traditional utilities like Dominion which have been sluggish in moving to wind and solar.

So, you have a strange dichotomy. Older business groups are saying that the proposed federal Clean Power Plan should be throttled because it would rely on expensive renewables that would drive away new business. Meanwhile, the most successful and younger Web-based firms obviously aren’t buying that argument.

I have a story about this in this week’s Style Weekly.

In Virginia, the trend is evidenced by Amazon Web Services, which sells time on its cloud-computing network to other firms. It is joining a Spanish company, Iberdola Renewables LLC, in building a 208-megawatt wind farm on 22,000 acres in northeastern North Carolina, just as few miles from the Virginia border. Three weeks earlier, on June 18, Amazon announced it plans a 170-megawatt solar farm in Accomack County on the Eastern Shore.

Dominion, which has renewable projects in California, Utah and Indiana and the beginnings of some small ones in Virginia, says it is not part of the projects. It could possibly get electricity indirectly from them. Amazon’s power will be sold on regional power grids to business and utilities.

When they complete such sales, the Net-focused firms will get renewable energy certificates that can be used to show that they have put as much renewable energy into the electricity grid as they have used, says Glen Besa, director of the Virginia chapter of the Sierra Club.

This will be especially important in Northern Virginia where there are masses of computer server farms used by Amazon and others. These centers used 500 megawatts of power in 2012 and demand is expected to double by 2017. Also, for years, the region has hosted such a large Internet infrastructure that at least half, perhaps 70 percent, of the Net’s traffic goes through there.

Part of the back story of this remarkable and utility-free push for renewables is that environmental groups are shaming modern, forward-looking firms like Amazon to do it.

Amazon Web Services was the target of criticism last year when Greenpeace surveyed how firms were embracing renewable energy. The report stated that the firm “provides the infrastructure for much of the Internet” but “remains among the dirtiest and least transparent companies” that is “far behind its major competitors.”

Dominion also got bashed in the report. Greenpeace says, “Unfortunately, Dominion’s generation mix is composed of almost entirely dirty energy sources.” Coal, nuclear and natural gas make up the vast majority of its power sources.

Its efforts to move to renewable sources have been modest at best. In regulatory filings, Dominion officials have complained that renewable energy, especially wind, is costly and unreliable although they include it in their long-term planning.

Dominion has plans for 20-megawatt solar farm near Remington in Fauquier County and is working on a wind farm on 2,600 acres the utility owns in southwestern Virginia. It has renewable projects out-of-state in California, Utah and Indiana. The output is a fraction of what Amazon plans in the region.

In a pilot offshore wind project, Dominion had planned on building two wind turbines capable of producing 12 megawatts of power in the waters of Virginia Beach. It later shut down the project, saying new studies revealed it would cost too much. It says it might continue with a scaled down project if it got extra funding, such as federal subsidies.

The utility says it must build more natural gas plants and perhaps build a third nuclear unit at its North Anna power plant to make sure that affordable electricity is always available for its customers.

As Amazon announced its new renewal projects, Greenpeace has changed its attitude about the company. Now it praises Amazon for its initiatives in Virginia and North Carolina. “I would like to think we have pushed Amazon in the right direction,” says David Pomerantz, a Greenpeace spokesman and analyst. He adds that Amazon has some work to do in making its energy policies “more transparent.”

One unresolved issue is that two neighboring states, North Carolina and Maryland, have “renewable portfolio standards” that require that set percentages of power produced there come from renewables. West Virginia had such a standard but has dropped it. In Virginia, the standard is voluntary, meaning that Dominion is under no legal obligation to move to solar or wind. It also gives the SCC, the power rate regulator, authority to nix new power proposals because they might cost consumers too much, providing Dominion with a handy excuse to move slowly on renewables.

Another matter, says Pomerantz, is whether Virginia’s legislators will enact “renewable energy friendly policies” or watch hundreds of millions of dollars in renewable project investments go to other states, such as North Carolina.

So, you have a separate reality. Traditionalists are saying that expensive renewables are driving away new business, while the most attractive new businesses are so unimpressed with traditionalist thinking that they are making big investments to promote renewable energy independently.

It isn’t the first like this has happened.

The Ironies of Virginia’s Growing Diversity

Midlothian’s New Grand Mart taps state’s growing diversity

 By Peter Galuszka

Suddenly immigration is popping up as a major issue in Virginia and the nation.

Virginia Beach has been dubbed a “sanctuary city” for undocumented aliens by Fox News and conservative Websites. GOP presidential hopeful Donald Trump is scarfing up poll number hikes by calling Mexicans trying to enter the U.S. illegally “rapists” and proposing an expensive new wall project to block off the southern border. Pro-Confederate flag advocates are pushing back against anti-flag moves, but they can’t escape the reality they are conjuring up  old visions of white supremacy, not their version of respectable Southern “heritage.”

So, if you’d like to look at it, here’s a piece I wrote for The Washington Post in today’s newspaper. When I visited a new, international food store called New Grand Mart in Midlothian near Richmond, I was impressed by how large it was and how many people from diverse backgrounds were there.

Looking further, I found one study noting that Virginia is drawing new groups of higher-income residents of Asian and Hispanic descent. In the suburbs, African-Americans are doing well, too.

The Center for Opportunity Urbanism ranked 52 cities as offering the best opportunities for diverse groups. One might assume D.C. and Northern Virginia would rank well, and they do. More surprising was that Richmond and Virginia Beach rank in the top 10 in such areas as income and home ownership. True, mostly black inner city Richmond has a 26 percent poverty rate but it seems to be a different story elsewhere.

Stephen Farnsworth of the University of Mary Washington says that economic prosperity and jobs that had been concentrated in the D.C. area, much of it federal, has been spread elsewhere throughout the state. It may not be a coincidence that New Grand Mart was started in Northern Virginia by Korean-Americans who undertook research. It revealed that the Richmond area was a rich diversity market waiting to be tapped. They were impressed and expanded there.

Other areas that do well in the study are Atlanta, Raleigh, N.C. and ones in Texas, which show a trend of job creation in the South and Southwest outpacing economic centers in the Northeast, Midwest and in parts of the West. Another story in today’s Post shows that there are more mostly-black classrooms in Northern cities than in the South. The piece balances out the intense reevaluation of Southern history now underway. A lot of the bad stuff seems to have ended long ago, but somehow similar attitudes remain in cities like Detroit and New York.

This progress is indeed interesting since old-fashioned American xenophobia is rearing itself again.

In Virginia, the long-term political impact will be profound as newer groups prosper. They may not be as inclined as whites to embrace Virginia’s peculiar brand of exceptionalism, such as their emotional mythology of Robert E. Lee and Thomas Jefferson. Their interest in them might be more dispassionately historical.

And, as the numbers of wealthier people from diverse backgrounds grow, they may be less willing to keep their heads down when faced with immigrant bashing. That’s what people of Hispanic descent did in 2007 and 2008 when Prince Williams County went through an ugly phase of crackdowns on supposed illegals. They could strike back with their own political campaigns.

Whether they will be blue or red remains to be seen. It’s not a given that they’d be Democratic-leaning. Farnsworth notes, however, that as more diverse people move to metropolitan suburbs, whites in more rural, lower-income places may become more reactionary out of fear. Hard-working and better-educated newcomers might be out-classing them in job hunts, so they might vote for politicians warning of a yellow or brown peril.

In any case, New Grand Mart presages a very crucial and positive trend in Virginia. It shows the irony of the hard right echo chamber peddling stories designed to inflame hatred and racism, such as the one about Virginia Beach being a “sanctuary” for illegals. In fact, the city is attracting exactly the  well-educated and hard-working newcomers of diverse backgrounds upon whom it can rest its future.

But we’re in an age of bloated billionaires with helmet hairdos and no military experience claiming that former Republican presidential candidate John McCain, a shot-down Navy pilot who spent five years in a brutal North Vietnamese prison, is not a hero. If Virginia can ignore such time-wasters and embrace diversity, it will be a better place.

Why Can’t Dominion Do Big Wind Projects?

A wind farm in Texas

A wind farm in Texas

 By Peter Galuszka

Down in the swamplands and farmlands of northeastern North Carolina, construction has begun on a huge new wind farm that will be the largest so far in the southeastern U.S.

Iberdrola Renewables LLC, a Spanish firm, has begun construction on the long-awaited $600 million project with financial help from Amazon, which also plans a solar farm on Virginia’s Eastern Shore. The Tar Heel project will stretch on 22,000 acres and could generate about 204 megawatts of power.

The curious part of this is that the farm is only about 12 miles of the Virginia line northwest of Elizabeth City, N.C.

That’s not far at all from the Old Dominion. But Dominion Resources, Virginia’s leading utility, has been sluggish in pushing ahead with wind, citing concerns about cost. It pulled the plug on an offshore pilot project involving only two wind turbines that would have a relatively tiny power output off of Virginia Beach.

So why were renewable energy firm executives and public officials celebrating yesterday in North Carolina and not Virginia?

That’s an easy one. North Carolina has a renewable portfolio standard that requires utilities to produce at least 12.5 percent of their power from renewables. Virginia has a similar plan, but being a “pro-business” state, Virginia has made it voluntary. So, Dominion doesn’t really have to do anything at the moment to push to wind, solar or other renewable.

It might have more incentive to do so when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency finalizes rules on its Clean Power Plan later this year, but no one really knows what the final form will be.

Nonetheless, Dominion has marshaled its money and its lobbyists to change how regulators over see it in this regard. The General Assembly, some of whose members get huge contributions from Dominion, hurriedly passed a bill this session changing the rules in ways that Dominion wants.

To be sure, Dominion has some wind farms in other states. But here in Virginia, it is pitching the old saw that wind power is too expensive and unreliable and so on.

It may have been at one time. When Iberdrola pitched the plan to put 102 wind turbines on 22,000 acres in N .C., the common wisdom was that the southeast just doesn’t have the natural wind power. The winds are too light, usually.

But this changed when new technology allowed wind turbines to go from about 260 feet into the air to more than 460 feet or almost as much as the Washington Monument. Once that happened, the Carolina wind farm became a go. Of course, critics say that wind turbines have negatives such as their capacity to slice apart birds and be an eyesore.

What’s better for humanity, however? Coal or even natural gas plants or ones that have no pollution, especially carbon, footprint?

Another interesting aspect of this story is how Amazon is getting involved. The retailing giant is becoming an electric renewable utility in its own right. It wants to have renewable power run the massive servers that it relies upon to do business. But instead of screwing around with hidebound, traditional utilities like Dominion that are often reluctant to warmly embrace renewable energy, Amazon is doing it itself.

Amazon is also putting in a 170 megawatt solar farm in Virginia’s Accomack County which has terrain similar that of Perquimans and Pasquotank Counties in North Carolina that will host the wind farm.

To be fair to Dominion, the utility has a legal responsibility to supply its customers with electricity on a 24/7 basis. It needs a diverse energy mix to be able to do that.

But one wonders why Dominion keeps pushing this bugaboo about wind. Its sister utilities have raised the same cry. That could be why wind represents only 5 per cent of the electrical mix in the U.S., even though there are wind farms in 36 states.

It’s different in other countries. Denmark gets 28 percent of its power from wind. Spain, Portugal and Ireland each get 16 percent from wind.

Isn’t it time for Dominion to get off the dime and do more with wind, rather than using its deep pockets to get paid-for Virginia politicians to do its bidding and change regulatory rules at its whim?

Capitalism Triumphs Again!

RAM clinic, Pikesville Ky., June 2011. Photo by Scott Elmquist

RAM clinic, Pikesville Ky., June 2011.
Photo by Scott Elmquist

By Peter Galuszka

If there were any questions about just how capitalism has failed, one need look no farther than Wise County, where, this week, hundreds, if not thousands, of people will line up for free medical care.

The event is ably noted in The Washington Post this Sunday by a young opinion writer named Matt Skeens who lives in Coeburn in the coalfields of southwestern Virginia.

This week, the Remote Area Medical clinic will come to the Wise County fairgrounds to offer free medical and dental care to anyone who needs it.

You might ask yourself a question: why do so many people in one of the parts of the United States that is fantastically wealthy with natural resources need free medical care? Where is the magic of capitalism so often lauded on this blog?

A few insights from Mr. Skeens:

“Local representatives of Southwest Virginia will travel to the fairgrounds to stand on a coal bucket and assure us they’re fighting against President Obama and the ‘war on coal.’ These politicians won’t mention that with their votes to block Medicaid expansion, they ensured that the lines at RAM won’t be getting any shorter. But hating Obama in these parts is good politickin.”

Skeens runs through a list of mountain folk who can’t afford health care. One is a breast cancer survivor who hasn’t had a screenings in years. His grandfather, a retired electrician and coal miner, had also camped out at RAM clinics to get help.

Odd that this is the way I found neighboring West Virginia when I moved there with my family from suburban Washington, D.C. in 1962. Just as it was then, the riches that should have helped pay for local medical care went out of state. Much of the coal left by railcar or barge. Now, natural gas released by hydraulic fracking will find its way to fast-growing Southeastern cities or perhaps overseas thanks to new proposed pipelines such as a $5 billion project pitched in part by Dominion Resources.

While I have never been to the Wise County RAM clinic, I did happen to drop by one in Pikesville, Ky., a coalfield area that is one is Kentucky’s poorest county. It is not far from Wise. I was busy researching a book on Richmond-based Massey Energy, a renegade coal firm, in June 2011.

Photographer Scott Elmquist and I were on our way from Kentucky to an anti-strip mining rally in West Virginia when we noticed the RAM signs. More than 1,000 people had started lining up at the doors around 1:30 a.m. at the local high school.

It was packed inside. A Louisville dental school had sent more than 50 dental chairs that lined the basketball court. Some of the patients said they were caught in a bind: they had jobs but didn’t have enough health coverage and couldn’t pay for what they needed.

Since then, there’s been some good news. Unlike Virginia, whose legislature has stubbornly refused to expand Medicaid to 400,000 residents who need it (supposedly in a move to tighten federal spending), Kentucky expanded Medicaid last year. Now, 375,000 more people have health insurance.

Not so in Virginia. People continue to suffer while those with comfortable lives laud the miraculous benefits of capitalism.

Memories of a Klan Rally

KlanersBy Peter Galuszka

I was looking through a some old clips today and spotted this Golden Oldie that ran in the Jan. 30, 2000 edition of BusinessWeek magazine where I worked for about 15 years. Bloomberg now owns rights to it and I hope they don’t mind me re-running it.

Mindful of the lofty rhetoric one reads on this blog about being Southern and symbols, I thought this might be an interesting read about how nothing is sacred. Not the Confederate Flag. Not even Stonewall Jackson.

It also shows how little things change. The flag and statues of Confederate generals are still flashpoint issues and people like GOP presidential candidate hopeful Donald Trump are running around making offensive statements about Mexican immigrants. (For the record, the late U.S. Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia had been a Klan member early in his life and he later renounced his membership).

The Ku Klux Klan rally I covered was on Nov. 6, 1999.

Here goes:

Letter From West Virginia

The High Price of a Klan Rally

Studying me solemnly from across his desk, Thomas A. Keeley sighs and says in his West Virginia twang: “I have to take care of my people.” I kid Tom that he sounds like the sheriff who was battling coal-company thugs in the 1988 movie Matewan. Tom grins. He puts up with me, since we go back 35 years–to grade school here in Clarksburg, a town of 18,000 nestled in the hills of central West Virginia. Today, Tom, as president of the Harrison County Commission, is the county’s top elected official, and I’ve come to find out how he intends to take care of “his people” in what could be one of the biggest crises Clarksburg has ever faced.

In two days, the Knights of the White Kamellia, one of 55 units of the Ku Klux Klan, will hold a rally on the front steps of the Harrison County Courthouse in downtown Clarksburg. The Klan picked the spot because of its dramatic statue of Confederate General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson, born in Clarksburg in 1824. The Klan figures that Stonewall, riding north against the Yankees, will make a dandy prop for its November rally. So will the 70 state troopers, city police, and county deputies who will be providing the security. The Klan believes that the police presence not only will make it appear to be an oppressed group but will also increase the media coverage.

The city-county expense for the Clarksburg rally will be about $50,000–pin money compared with what 40 cities spent in 1999 hosting the Klan. Security at Cleveland’s August rally ran $600,000, although only 21 Klansmen showed up. But Harrison County is in the heart of the Appalachian poverty belt, and it desperately needs the money for other things. The hamlet of Marshville, for example, badly needs help, since its groundwater has been polluted by coal mines. “It’s costing us a lot of money to accommodate a bunch of white-trash bigots, and you can quote me on that,” says Tom, leaning back in his rumpled suit.

But he doesn’t have much choice. Not only is the Klan making noise, but a far more dangerous ultra-right-wing group is also active locally: the Mountaineer Militia, a cabal of heavily armed survivalists ready to fight what they consider excessive federal power. Militia members from the Clarksburg area hatched an Oklahoma City-style plot in 1996 to bomb the new $200 million FBI fingerprinting center in Clarksburg. The installation employs 3,000. After the FBI infiltrated the group, five men were convicted or pleaded guilty to explosives charges; one was convicted of selling blueprints of the center.

IDENTITY CRISIS. Taking a cue from New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who has also had to deal with a Klan demonstration, Tom is forbidding the wearing of masks at the rally, figuring that fewer Klansmen will show up if they are not able to keep their identity secret. At this point, nobody is sure who they are. The only known Klansman is Cletus Norris, who wrote Tom the letter announcing the rally, using a post office box in Grafton, 20 miles to the east. Norris is a former road worker, once employed by the city. The next day, as I drive to Grafton in search of Norris, I try to recall if the Klan had been active when I lived here back in the 1960s.

In the Deep South at that time, the Klan was bombing black churches and killing civil-rights workers. But from what I remember, not much happened here. Besides, Klansmen in these parts traditionally weren’t so much antiblack (there were few blacks here) as anti-Catholic. That was in reaction to the Italian immigrants who streamed into the area in the 1800s to build the Baltimore & Ohio’s main line to St. Louis, taking jobs away from Protestant backwoods types. The animosity was resolved naturally over the years as boy met girl and both defied ethnic hostility. Today, largely due to intermarriage, 40% of local folk are of Italian descent.

As luck would have it, driving down a Grafton street, I spot a parked gray Dodge pickup with bumper stickers bearing Confederate flags and the slogan, “Racial Purity Equals American Security.” Bingo! I walk up the crumbling concrete stairs to a yellow clapboard house and knock on the door. A slim man with a reddish-blond beard answers. “I am the Grand Dragon,” confirms Cletus Norris. He invites me to sit in the warm autumn sun on the front porch of his parents’ house. The experience is unnerving because for an hour, this 33-year-old is talking softly, pleasantly, almost seductively, but is expounding truly hateful ideas. At one point, Norris asks gently, “You aren’t Jewish, are you?” I reply: “No, but I am Catholic.” Norris says: “That’s O.K.”

A Klansman for five years, Norris claims his group is peaceful and interested only in protecting white rights. “Our rally,” Norris reassures me, “will set a lot of minds at ease. They’ll listen to us and see that we’re just normal Christian men.” Their agenda? “By the year 2040, we will be outnumbered by the combined nonwhite races of this country, and whites won’t get a fair shake.” The message is spreading through cyberspace. “We have some people in Europe and Australia, thanks to the Internet,” he says, as he hushes a dog barking inside the house. Norris insists he doesn’t hate blacks, only “race-mixing.” As for Mexicans, the border to the south should be closed. And Jews? “Christ didn’t have one good thing to say about the Jews.”

Later, I contact Mark Potok, editor of The Intelligence Report of the Southern Poverty Law Center, a Montgomery (Ala.) nonprofit that tracks hate groups. He says Klan membership is static at about 5,000, but that 200,000 belong to other hate groups: Membership in those groups is increasing 25% a year.

PEPPER GAS. The following day–rally day–the police are nervous. Clarksburg looks as if it’s occupied by an invading army. Police vehicles include a bomb disposal truck. There are SWAT teams wearing black Wehrmacht-style helmets and face masks. “If things really get out of hand,” says policeman J.P. Walker says at a press briefing, “you’ll hear a siren, and then you’ve got 10 seconds until the pepper gas goes off.” The rally site has three fenced-in pens–one for Klan supporters, one for the press, and one for protesters. Participants must go through detectors, and attendees can’t bring in anything more than a car key.

Right on time, Norris, head up and confident-looking, dressed in white robe, leads the Klan parade out of the courthouse onto the front plaza, right past Stonewall. He is followed by eight Klansmen and two Klanswomen in brightly colored robes and hoods–no masks. About 150 protesters and 20 supporters shout insults at each other. “This country will go down the tubes,” shouts Norris, but he is barely heard above the noise because Tom won’t allow loudspeakers. When a rumor sweeps the crowd that one Klanswoman is a local English teacher (which turns out to be false), she yells good-naturedly: “There’ll be a test Monday morning.”

After two hours without incident and only one arrest–for disorderly conduct–the Klanspeople are escorted to a city parking lot, where they get into three cars, with Missouri, Ohio, and Virginia plates. Norris announces that a rally the next day in Fairmont, 20 miles north, has been canceled. Is that because the mayor refuses to provide security, I ask? “No, we just don’t want to make a nuisance of ourselves,” Norris says. The irony of that is not lost on one police officer. As he waves to the departing caravan, he mutters: “Goodbye, you sons of bitches–and to think I had seats on the 50-yard line at the West Virginia-Virginia Tech game today.”

By Peter Galuszka; Edited by Sandra Dallas

Business-Labor Coalition Enters Pipeline Debate

Proposed route of Atlantic Coast Pipeline.

Proposed route of Atlantic Coast Pipeline.

by James A. Bacon

More than 100 business, labor and economic development organizations have announced the formation of an advocacy group, EnergySure, to promote the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. The founding members “represent millions of employees and associates across Virginia, West Virginia and North Carolina,” says the organization’s press release.

EnergySure is being funded by the four Atlantic Coast Pipeline partners: Dominion, Duke Energy, Piedmont Natural Gas and AGL Resources. “The ACP partners serve millions of homes and businesses that depend on the companies to meet their energy needs,” states the group’s website. “The EnergySure Coalition was created as a platform for these consumer voices to be heard.”

The proposed 550-mile pipeline would transport natural gas originating from fracked natural gas fields in West Virginia to markets in Virginia and North Carolina.

The advocacy group comes together in response to spirited opposition by landowners along the proposed route, especially in bucolic Augusta County and Nelson County in Virginia. Led by the All Pain No Gain group, foes say the pipeline would harm property values, contaminate water, pose a safety risk and negatively impact local craft agriculture while doing little to create jobs or lower energy prices.

EnergySure hits three main themes in support of the pipeline:

Reliable energy. Virginia and North Carolina need a reliable supply of natural gas to support economic growth. Utility demand for natural gas is expected to triple as power companies in Virginia and North Carolina retire coal-fired power plants and burn cleaner natural gas in its place. Pipeline advocates also assert that existing pipelines are approaching maximum capacity and the inability to bring more gas into the region will make it difficult to recruit manufacturers that require natural gas in their processes.

Economic development. Pipeline construction will support 17,240 jobs across Virginia, West Virginia and North Carolina, asserts EnergySure. Longer term, the pipeline also will save Virginia and North Carolina consumers $377 million yearly over the next 2o years, which in turn will stimulate local economies.

The money consumers save on energy each year could help support 2,200 jobs when reinvested back into Virginia and North Carolina’s economies. Over the next 20 years, the Atlantic Coast Pipeline is projected to generate $7.5 billion in energy savings, $2.6 billion in labor income and $4.4 billion in gross state product to Virginia and North Carolina.

Another bonus: Projected cumulative property taxes are estimated at $25 million annually.

(The website does not say where the economic impact numbers come from. The data comes from a report, “The Economic Impacts of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline,” written by ICF  International, a Northern Virginia professional services firm, for Dominion Transmission Inc. ICF utilized its Gas Market Model and Integrated Planning Model to model the North American gas and electric markets with and without the pipeline. )

Green energy. Two waves of federal regulation — one enforcing stricter standards for emissions of toxic chemicals and the other curtailing carbon dioxide — leave Virginia and North Carolina power companies with little choice but to substitute natural gas for coal in their fuel mix. In addition, gas-fired power plants serve as back-up for solar and wind power, whose power output varies with time of day and weather conditions.

As for local environmental impact, EnergySure concedes that there will be “temporary disruption” during the construction phase, but that “most of the land” the pipeline crosses will return to its original land use. Also, inspectors will be conducting tests through the construction process to ensure water quality remains the same as it was before.

Bacon’s bottom line. With the publication of the EnergySure and All Pain No Gain websites, the battle lines are drawn and the issues clear for all to see.  At the moment, the conflict is shaping up as a David and Goliath contest: rural landowners in Nelson and Augusta counties pitted against the business, labor and economic development establishments of three states.

It remains to be seen how two important constituencies align themselves. Outside property rights groups have not yet played a vocal role in the debate so far, although one would think that they would sympathize with local landowners. Another potential ally, the environmentalist movement, appears to be conflicted. Environmentalists typically side with landowners seeking to protect the local environment against disruptive construction projects, and some environmental groups oppose anything that would promote the production and consumption of fossil fuels (including natural gas) for any reason. On the other hand, pragmatists in the environmental community recognize that the energy economy cannot transition away from coal without more natural gas. To date, major environmental groups have kept a low profile in the pipeline debate.

Politically speaking, the entry of dozens of business, labor and economic development organizations on the side of the pipeline partners would seem tip the odds strongly in favor of the pipeline.