Category Archives: Planning

No More Hippies in Old Sneakers

dominion-building By Peter Galuszka

Last week, I posted a blog item titled “Why Virginia Has No Renewable Energy,” which drew considerable comments from readers. The day after it ran, I got a call from Chester G. “ Chet” Wade, the vice president of corporate communications for Dominion Resources who had a complaint about my item.

I had written that one reason why Virginia has a tiny amount of renewable energy sourcing compared to its neighbors was it that they have a mandatory “renewable portfolio standard” while Virginia’s is only voluntary.

One major reason, I wrote, was that :

“Dominion, of course, is a huge political contributor. According to the Virginia Public Access Project, Dominion and Dominion Resources combined are the No. 1 corporate donors in this state. They gave about $1,042,580 this year. The No. 3 corporate donor is Alpha Natural Resources, a major coal company based in Bristol that gave $218,874.”

Chet didn’t dispute my facts but said I failed to note the wealth of contributions from green outfits that Terry McAuliffe, our Democratic governor, got in the 2013 gubernatorial campaign. I hadn’t brought up McAuliffe’s race in my post, but I do try to be fair, so I asked Chet to write a response and said that I’d post it. He hasn’t yet.

In last year’s race, McAuliffe raised $38 million compared to $21 million for Kenneth N. Cuccinelli, the hardline Republican conservative who spent part of his time and tax payers’ money going after Michael Mann, a former University of Virginia climatologist, when he was attorney general.

Although I am not certain what Chet’s point was as far as McAuliffe, I went back and confirmed what he said. In the 2013 race, McAuliffe got part of the $1.9 million from the League of Conservation Voters; almost $1 million from the national and Virginia chapters of the Sierra Club; and $1.6 million from NextGen, an environmental PAC started by Bay Area hedge fund manager Tom Steyer who has strong views on the dangers of climate change.

Chet said it was unfair for me not to note the money from Big Green. (By the way, Dominion gave McAuliffe $75,000 in the governor’s race and somewhat less to Cuccinelli.)

So, to be fair to both Big Green and Dominion, I called Glen Besa, head of the Virginia Chapter of the Sierra Club. Glen said that, yes, indeed, a coalition of environmentalists had gone out of their way to back McAullife because they badly wanted to keep Cuccinelli from becoming governor. “You had a clear climate change denier with Cuccinelli,” said Glen. “He would be an embarrassment to Virginia and would have caused damage in the national debate about global warming.”

So, the greenies pulled out the stops and let their money flow. Glen, however, said that the contributions “were exceptional” and not really sustainable. Usually, the Sierra Club donates in the tens of thousands of dollars in Virginia races.

Now that McAullife has won, I don’t think Dominion can say he’s against them. If anything McAuliffe has disappointed environmentalists by coming out for continued use of coal, the introduction of East Coast offshore oil drilling, nuclear and building a 550-mile pipeline for fracked natural gas that would run from Clarksburg, W.Va. through much of Virginia to the North Carolina border. A second gas pipeline is in the works through Southwestern Virginia. Local activists and Greens are on the streets protesting the projects. Dominion is a backed and major player in the first pipeline. McAuliffe is not exactly out to get them.

What’s the upshot? Dominion is one of the few enormous, Virginia-based companies like Alpha Natural Resources and Altria that have long been dominant players in the political arena. Like well-oiled machines, they hand out millions in cash to political candidates. They have also bankrolled useful groups to voters such as the Virginia Public Access Project, a non-profit that collects and makes available donation data. Dominion has one of the most experienced and professional team of lobbyists anywhere.

Dominion almost always gets things its way. Back about 15 years ago, for example, a deregulation wave for setting electricity rates was sweeping the country and Dominion asked to be part of it. But a few years later, Dominion realized that dereg wasn’t working quite to their advantage, so they got the General Assembly to change it all back again to regulation. “It is testimony to how much power they have,” says Glen. “(State Sen.) Tommy Norment just reached into his drawer and pulled out a re-reg bill,” he adds.

What seems to miff Dominion and the corporate elite is that the environmentalist lobby has grown up and become sophisticated and professional, just as they are. They can raise big money and throw it around when they want to. Somehow, this is viewed as an unsavory intrusion on Dominion’s sacred turf. No more hippies in old sneakers.

Sticking it to the Chinese

factory manBy Peter Galuszka

This  is a review of “Factory Man,” a book about the Virginia furniture business and dealing with the inequities of Chinese trade by Beth Macy (Little Brown, 451 pages). This was first published in the October 2014 Bulletin of the Overseas Press Club of America in New York of which I am a member.

The hills around Danville Va. are blessed with some of the finest hardwoods around such as oak, hickory and cherry trees. It is those trees, and the people who work with them, that have made for one of the more vicious global trade wars in recent history.

They also represent one of the few trade victories American industry has had, according to Beth Macy, a Roanoke Times reporter who has written a lively and deeply reported book about Vaughan Bassett, a local firm that is now the largest American furniture maker. Boss John D. Bassett (“JBIII”) refused to succumb to an onslaught of cheap Chinese labor and government subsidies that helped shutter 63,300 U.S. factories and five million jobs from 2001 to 2012. By standing up to Beijing, he saved his company and 700 jobs.

Macy’s first book is of value to anyone who covers global trade issues. She punctures the conceit, held by many journalists in the New York-Washington axis, that globalization is a great and inevitable thing. I heard this constantly at BusinessWeek where I worked as an editor and bureau chief in the 1980s and 1990s.

What’s lost in the laud of so-called “free” trade is what happens to the people who lose. Their secure employment turned overnight into a new world of Medicaid, food stamps and family strife.

Big Journalism doesn’t seem to care much. “Even globalization guru Tom Freidman, writing in “The World Is Flat,” briefly acknowledges the agony caused by offshoring.” But she notes that it’s easy for him to say since Friedman, “lives in an 11,400 square foot house with his heiress wife” in Bethesda, Md., a “cushy” Washington suburb five hours by car from the turmoil farther south.

For years, Bassett and its sister factories were part of a network of Southern-style company towns with their own issues, such as paying African-American workers half of what whites got. By the 1970s, U.S. furniture quality and productivity were slipping. A Taiwanese chemist discovered how to make rubber trees useful for furniture after they stopped producing latex, giving rise to an expanded Asian export furniture business.

Chinese industrialists took over. They visited U.S. factories, where, according to Macy, naïve executives handed over their production secrets. In short order, cheap Chinese knockoffs were stealing market share from the Americans. A Chinese executive named He Yun Feng bluntly suggested to JBIII that he shut his plants and hand his business over. Proud JBIII didn’t turn tail. Instead, he shored up his production and cut costs while preserving as many jobs as he could. He also bucked his reluctant industry and challenged the Chinese for dumping and manipulating their currency to give them unfair trade advantages.

“The last thing they wanted to hear was that China may have been breaking the law.” Macy quotes JBIII as saying. That’s the nut of Macy’s excellent book. A tighter edit, especially in the early history of the Basset family, might have helped, but her story is powerful and well told.

OPC member Galuszka lives in the Richmond, Va. area and is author of “Thunder on the Mountain; Death at Massey and the Dirty Secrets Behind Big Coal” St. Martin’s Press, 2012.

Why Virginia Has No Renewable Energy

offshore wind By Peter Galuszka

For all the hew and cry over renewable energy sources and the “War on Coal,” it is extremely interesting to see just how much progress Virginia has made with renewable energy. The answer: hardly any to none.

A moment of clarity came when I was perusing blog postings by IvyMain, a D.C. area lawyer and Virginia Sierra Club activist who is quite often ahead of the curve on energy issues.

She posted a table of how Virginia compares with neighboring states in development of solar and wind power.

Leading her list is West Virginia with 583 megawatts of wind power. Next is North Carolina with 335 megawatts of solar power. Maryland is almost equally split between solar and wind with 262 megawatts.

And Virginia? A whopping 18 megawatts of solar and zip-o wind.

The State Corporation Commission has written against proposal EPA regs limiting carbon emissions saying it would shut down too many coal-fired plants. Solar and wind could make up some of it, but the SCC claims that “there is still zero probability that wind and solar resources can be developed in the time and on a scale necessary to accommodate the zero-carbon generations levels needed” to help meet the EPA’s carbon emission goals by 2030. Even more curious, the SCC used EPA figures that Virginia has 351 megawatts of renewable power. Hmmm.

One can almost see a clever and duplicitous scheme here. One reason why Virginia’s neighbors have remarkably more renewable power than Virginia is that they have mandatory renewable portfolio standards. In Maryland, 20 percent of all electricity generated must come from renewable sources by 2020. In North Carolina, it is 12.5 percent by 2021 and in coal-rich West Virginia, it is 25% renewable by 2025.

Virginia’s “voluntary” goal is 12 percent by 2022. Why so little and voluntary? Easy. Dominion Virginia Power has a legal deal going where it has a “monopoly” on electricity distribution and according to IvyMain cracks down wherever possible on independent solar generation. She notes that Dominion squelched a solar project at Washington & Lee University a few years ago and has attacked similar plans. After preventing renewable power from developing, Dominion and its allies can then say we must keep big, traditional  facilities (nuclear, natural gas and coal-fired) going because there’s so little available on the renewable front.

Dominion, of course, is a huge political contributor. According to the Virginia Public Access Project, Dominion and Dominion Resources combined are the No. 1 corporate donors in this state. They gave about $1,042,580 this year. The No. 3 corporate donor is Alpha Natural Resources, a major coal company based in Bristol that gave $218,874.

Conservative commentators regularly pin the EPA’s flexible but stricter rules on a so-called “War on Coal” led by President Barack Obama. Yet, Virginia is a small coal producer compared to West Virginia, which is presumably ground zero in the fight against the Black Diamonds. So, how come West Virginia, the No. 2 coal state, has mandatory renewable standards and leads the pack in renewable energy?

The answer is that West Virginia’ leadership knows that its coal days are numbered and this started long before Obama came to power. The Mountain state has plenty of, well, mountains that can be great foundations for wind. So, too, does Virginia – the exact same mountain ranges in fact. But that doesn’t seem to matter. One noted right-winger blogged about the supposed “War on Coal” and then tried to preempt responses that broadened the reasons for coal’s demise:

“No lectures about the coal industry, please. I understand that the current woes of the coal industry stem in large measure from coal’s loss of competitiveness to natural gas as a fuel and to cyclical movements in the market for metallurgical coal (used by the steel industry). However, the Appalachian coal industry still produces a lot of steam coal for power plants, and the EPA rules would destroy much of that market. Clearly, the EPA rules, which are not yet in effect, have not yet destroyed a single coal-mining job. Come back to me in 2020 and it will be a very different story.”

Today’s New York Times has a story about political races in West Virginia where coal and Obama are naturally issues. The story contains this revealing passage:

“The coal industry’s long decline is economically complex. When Alpha Natural Resources, one of West Virginia’s largest coal operators, warned 1,100 employees of potential layoffs in July, it blamed a worldwide glut of coal, competition from cheaper natural gas, and lower-cost coal from western basis – as well as Environmental Protection Agency regulations.

“But in the charged political arena, complexities fade and both sides identify a sole culprit for the industry’s struggles: the administration’s anti-coal regulations.”

So there you have it. In Virginia, rules are set up to prevent renewables from being established while political types and their conservative blogger handmaidens beat the drum against the EPA and Obama.

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.

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.

McAuliffe Dodges Mandatory Renewable Energy

coal plant burnsBy Peter Galuszka

It seems like two steps forward and one step back. That’s about the best I can come up with for Governor Terry McAuliffe’s new energy plan for Virginia.

On the two steps forward side, McAuliffe is pushing for more wind power and relaxing regulations to make it easier to back solar, such as allowing towns to create their own solar panel farms near their city limits.

The one step back is the usual commitment to energy sources of days before, such as a nuclear, offshore drilling for oil, coal and natural gas. That’s what former Governo Bob McDonnell wanted with his pipe dream of making Virginia “The Energy Capital of the East Coast.”

The biggest problem with the McAuliffe plan is that it dodges the issue of making Virginia’s Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPS) mandatory. I asked Brian Coy, his press spokesman about this, and he said that the governor sees that as something for the future.

Maybe better late than never, but the fact that Virginia has always bowed to the power of Big Energy and declined to make mandatory the conversion of a certain amount of electricity generation to renewable sources such as wind, solar, geothermal and hydroelectric.

Plain and simple, that is why Virginia gets an embarrassingly low six percent of its power from renewables and is far behind states like Maryland and North Carolina that have mandatory standards. One wonders why Virginia seems so exceptional. The only answer that I can come up with is that Old Energy firms such as utility Dominion and coal baron Alpha Natural Resources are huge contributors to political candidates of both stripes.

Dominion praised the governor’s efforts and the Sierra Club had lukewarm approval.

The problem with shifting to renewables is that not making it mandatory by law gives Big Fossil and Nuclear an immediate price advantage. Coal is deadly, messy and is a major contributor to climate change. A few years ago, there might have been a greater push towards wind and solar to replace it. But hydraulic fracking came along, bringing a big boost to natural gas from hard-to-reach geologic formations.

Thus, gas pushed out coal (although conservative Big Fossil types claim it is Barack Obama’s over-regulation but that just ain’t so) on economic terms. It has probably delayed advanced nuclear technology and most certainly has delayed solar and wind. They are expensive now but won’t be in the future, so fracked gas’s great advantages won’t last forever.

Don’t believe me? Check out historical data on gas prices.

McAuliffe, meanwhile, is pushing such dubious projects as a 550-mile-long gas pipeline running over the tops of pristine and sensitive mountaintops and through lots of small towns that don’t have big corporate clout to change pipeline routes.

One more step back.

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 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.”