Category Archives: Planning

Cruz, “Liberty” and Teletubbies

AP CRUZ A USA VA By Peter Galuszka

Where’s the “Liberty” in Liberty University?

The Christian school founded by the controversial televangelist Jerry Falwell required students under threat of a $10 “fine” and other punishments to attend a “convocation” Monday where hard-right U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz announced his candidacy for president.

Thus, Liberty produced a throng of people, some 10,000 strong, to cheer on Cruz who wants to throttle Obamacare, gay marriage, abolish the Internal Revenue Service and blunt immigration reform.

Some students stood up to the school for forcing them to become political props. Some wore T-Shirts proclaiming their support of libertarian Rand Paul while others protested the university’s coercion. “I just think it’s unfair. I wouldn’t say it’s dishonest, but it’s approaching dishonesty,” Titus Folks, a Liberty student, told reporters.

University officials, including Jerry Falwell, the son of the late founder, claim they have the right as a private institution to require students to attend “convocations” when they say so. But it doesn’t give them the power to take away the political rights of individual students not to be human displays  in a big and perhaps false show.

There’s another odd issue here. While Liberty obviously supports hard right Tea Party types, the traditional Republican Party in the state is struggling financially.

Russ Moulton, a GOP activist who helped Dave Brat unseat House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in a primary last summer, has emailed party members begging them to come up with $30,000 to help the cash-strapped state party.

GOP party officials downplay the money problem, but it is abundantly clear that the struggles among Virginia Republicans are as stressed out as ever. Brat won in part because he cast himself as a Tea Party favorite painting Cantor as toady for big money interests. The upset drew national attention.

Liberty University has grown from a collection of mobile homes to a successful school, but it always has had the deal with the shadow of its founder. The Rev. Falwell gained notoriety over the years for putting segregationists on his television show and opposing gay rights, going so far as to claim that “Teletubbies,” a cartoon production for young children, covertly backed homosexual role models.

Years ago, the Richmond Times-Dispatch published a story showing that the Rev. Falwell took liberties in promoting the school he founded in 1971. Brochures touting the school pictured a downtown Lynchburg bank building with the bank’s logo airbrushed off. This gave the impression that Liberty was thriving with stately miniature skyscrapers for its campus.

Some observers have noted that Liberty might be an appropriate place for the outspoken Cruz to launch his campaign. The setting tends to blunt the fact that he’s the product of an Ivy League education – something that might not go down too well with Tea Party types – and that he was actually born in Canada, although there is no question about his U.S. citizenship and eligibility to run for question.

Hard-line conservatives have questioned the eligibility of Barack Obama to run for U.S. president although he is likewise qualified.

With Cruz in the ring and Liberty cheering him, it will make for an interesting campaign.

Carbon Cuts: Why PJM Has a Better Idea

pjm-region-1024x657By Peter Galuszka

Amidst all the gnashing of teeth in Virginia about complying with proposed federal carbon dioxide rules, there seems to be one very large part of the debate that’s missing.

Several recent analytical reports explore using regional, carbon marketplaces to help comply with proposed federal Clean Power Plan rules that would cut carbon emissions by 2030. They conclude that the carbon goals can be attained more cheaply and efficiently by using a regional approach.

The lead study is by the PJM Interconnection, a grid that involves all or parts of 13 states including most of Virginia. Its March 2 report states that “state by state compliance options – compared to regional compliance options – likely would result in higher compliance costs for most PJM states because there are fewer low-cost options available within state boundaries than across the entire region.”

The same conclusion was made by another report by the Washington-based consulting firm Analysis Group on March 16. It states: “PJM’s analysis of compliance options demonstrates that regional, market-based approaches can meet Clean Power Plan goals across PJM states at lowest cost, with retirements likely spread out over a number of years.”

PJM set off in its analysis by setting a price per ton of carbon dioxide emissions with an eye towards the entities being exchanged among PJM-member utilities in a new market. The PJM report shows that electricity generation varies greatly among members. Some are farther along with renewables while others are greatly reliant upon coal.

By exchanging carbon units, some coal plants might actually be kept in service longer while overall goals are still achieved. EnergyWire, an industry news service, quotes Michael Kormos, PJM’s executive vice president for operations, as saying that the market-based carbon exchange, somewhat counterintuitively, might keep coal plants running longer.

“With the renewables and nuclear coming in as basically carbon free, we’re actually able run those coal resources more because they are getting credit from renewables and the nuclear as zero carbon.”

In December, PJM had 183,694 megawatts of generation. Some 67,749 megawatts are from coal-fired units.

Kormos says that a number of coal-fired units are going to be retired in the 2015 to 2030 timeframe regardless of what happens with the Clean Power Plan, whose final rules will be prepared by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency later this year. The retirements of older coal plants are expected to involve a minimum of 6,000 megawatts of power.

It is curious that very little of this report is being heard in the vigorous debate in Virginia about complying with the Clean Power Plan. What you hear is a bunch of humping and grumping from Dominion Virginia Power and its acolytes in the General Assembly, the State Corporation Commission and the media.

This is not a new concept. Carbon trading is active in Europe and has worked here to lessen acid rain.

It is amazing that one hears nothing about it these days. It is shouted down by alarmists who claim that Virginia ratepayers will be stuck with $6 billion in extra bills and that there’s an Obama-led  “War on Coal.” The New York Times has a front-pager this morning about how Kentucky’s Mitch McConnell is taking the rare step of actually leading the “War on Coal” propaganda campaign.

Also strange, if not bizarre, is that this approach is precisely market-based which so many commentators on the blog claim to worship. Where are they on the PJM idea? Has anyone asked Dominion, which is running the show in this debate?

Dominion’s Clever Legerdemain

Dominion's Chesterfield coal-fired plant is Virginia's largest air polluter

Dominion’s Chesterfield coal-fired plant is Virginia’s largest air polluter

By Peter Galuszka

You may have read thousands of words on this blog arguing about the proposed federal Clean Power Plan, its impact on Dominion Virginia Power and a new law passed by the 2015 General Assembly that freezes the utility’s base rates and exempts it from rate reviews for five years.

All of this makes some basic and dangerous assumptions about the future of Dominion’s coal-fired generating plants.

It has somehow gotten into the common mindset that the Environmental Protection Agency will automatically force Dominion to close most of its six coal-fired stations.

Is this really so? And, if it is not, doesn’t that make much of this, including Dominion’s arguments for its five-year holiday from rate reviews by the State Corporation Commission, moot?

In June 2014, the EPA unveiled the Clean Power Plan and asked for comments by this upcoming summer. The idea is to have Virginia cut its carbon emissions by 38 percent by 2025. Coal plants are the largest contributors to carbon emissions by 2025.

A few points:

Dominion announced in 2011 that it would phase out its 638-megawatt coal-fired Chesapeake Energy Center that was built between 1950 and 1958.

In 2011, it also announced plans to phase out coal at its three-unit, 1,141 megawatt Yorktown power plant by shutting one coal-fired unit and converting a second one to natural gas. The units at the station were built in 1957, 1958 and 1974.

Mind you, these announcements came about three years before the EPA asked for comments about its new carbon reduction plan. But somehow, a lack of precision in the debate makes it sound as if the new EPA carbon rules are directly responsible for their closure. But how can that be if Dominion announced the closings in 2011 and the EPA rules were made public in June, 2014? Where’s the link between the events?

When the Chesapeake and Yorktown changes were announced, Dominion Chairman and CEO Thomas F. Farrell II, said: “This is the most cost-effective course to meet expected environmental regulations and maintain reliability for our customers.” Now Dominion is raising the specter of huge bills and unreliable grid.

Dominion has other big coal-fired plants. The largest is the 1,600 megawatt Chesterfield Power Station that provides about 12 per cent of Dominion’s power. Four of its six units—built from 1952 to 1969 — burn coal. Two others built in 1990 and 1992 are combined cycle units that use natural gas and distillate oil.

Dominion has upgraded scrubbers at the units, but the Chesterfield station is the single largest air polluter in the state and one of the largest in the nation.

Another big coal-fired plant is Dominion’s 865-megawatt Clover Power Station. It is more recent, having gone online in 1995 and 1996. It is the second largest carbon emitter in the state.

Then there’s the 600 megawatt Virginia City Hybrid plant that burns both coal and biomass in Wise County. It went into service in 2012.

Dominion had a small coal-fired plant at Bremo Bluffs but has converted it to natural gas.

So, if you add it all up, which coal-fired plants are really in jeopardy of closure by the EPA’s new rules? Chesterfield, Clover or Virginia City?

It’s hard to get a straight answer. In a blog post by Jim Bacon today, he quotes Thomas Wohlfarth, a Dominion senior vice president, as saying “It’s not a foregone conclusion that [the four coal-fired power plants] will be shut down. It’s a very real risk, but not a foregone conclusion.” Another problem is that I count three possible coal-fired plants, and don’t know what the fourth one is.

In a story about the Chesterfield power plant, another spokesman from Dominion told the Chesterfield Observer that Dominion “has no timeline no to close power stations” but it might have to consider some closings if the Clean Power Plan goes ahead as currently drafted.

Environmental groups have said that because of Dominion’s already-announced coal-plant shutdowns and conversion, the state is already 80 percent on its way to meet the proposed Clean Power Plan’s carbon cuts. When I asked a State Corporation Commission spokesman about this last fall, I got no answer.

What seems to be happening is that Dominion is raising the specter of closings without providing specific details of what exactly might be closed and why.

Its previously announced coal-plant shutdowns have suddenly and mysteriously been put back on the table and everyone, including Jim Bacon, the General Assembly and the SCC, seems to be buying into it.

Although there have been significant improvements in cutting pollution, coal-fired plants still are said to be responsible for deaths and illnesses, not to mention climate change. This remains unaddressed. Why is it deemed so essential that coal-fired units built 40, 50 or 60 years ago be kept in operation? It’s like insisting on driving a Studebaker because getting rid of it might cost someone his job that actually vanished years ago.

Also unaddressed is why Virginia can’t get into some kind of carbon tax or market-based caps on carbon pollution that have seen success with cutting acid rain and fluorocarbons.

It’s as if the state’s collective brain is somehow blocking the very idea of exploring a carbon tax and automatically defaults to the idea that if the EPA and the Obama Administration get their way, Virginia ratepayers will be stuck with $6 billion in extra bills and an unreliable electricity grid.

Could it be that this is exactly the mental legerdemain that Dominion very cleverly is foisting on us? Could be. Meanwhile, they continue to get exactly the kind of legislation from the General Assembly they want.

Time For a Fossil Fuel Reality Check

Murray

Murray

By Peter Galuszka

Let’s pause for a moment, catch our breath and realize what is really going on in the world of fossil fuel and climate change.

We’ve heard tons of loosely-based opinion from climate change deniers and drum beaters for the “War on Coal” crowd.

Here are two recent news items:

Coal baron Robert Murray is closing a $1.4 billion deal for Illinois Basin coal. The outspoken, labor-busting  boss who figured prominently in the “War on Coal” campaign during the Mitt Romney presidential run has been picking up reserves in the robust Illinois Basin and in the distressed Appalachians.

His deal for 50 percent of Foresight Energy follows another he did in 2013 worth $3.5 billion to buy five Appalachian mines from Consol.

What does this mean? It shows that coal overall does have a future, especially in the high-sulfur Illinois Basin which has been rediscovered since utilities such as the Tennessee Valley Authority have been forced to use better scrubbing equipment. Illinois Basin can be twenty bucks a ton cheaper than Appalachian product. He also sees some future left in high coast Appalachian coal.

Stop a moment and consider: new environmental regs promote the use of cheaper coal. Now that coal may not be in the Central Appalachian area of southwest Virginia and West Virginia. But the magic of the market is favoring Illinois Basin product which is simply easier and cheaper to mine as is Powder River Basin coal in Wyoming and Montana.

A big problem with some of the commentators on this blog is that they fail to grasp that the U.S. coal industry is a lot bigger than little ole Virginny’s mines that started to play out decades ago. In their world view, their demise is the fault of the bad old federal government, not sharp barons like Murray who is a major contributor to (ahem) the Republican Party. Their brains seem trapped in a geographical warp zone where they cannot imagine things beyond the borders of the Old Dominion.

And while we are on the GOP, let’s consider George Schultz’s oped Sunday in The Washington Post. For those of you who may forget, he was Secretary of State under Ronald Reagan, the mystical president some of you love and miss dearly.

Schultz’s message is that human based climate change is here. So, stop denying it, get over it and get on with a carbon tax that worked to protect the ozone layer years ago. Yes, they actually worked that out back in Ronnie’s day and a tax and marker system to reduce fluorocarbons actually worked.

Not to add insult to injury, but consider what Schultz wrote: “For example, we can now produce electricity from the wind and sun at close to the same price we pay for electricity from other sources…”

Hmm. Sounds like a wild-eyed, irresponsible greenie. Someone tell Jim Bacon and Dominion Virginia Power.

Film Rips Climate Change Deniers

merchants-of-doubt-posterBy Peter Galuszka

A just-released documentary “Merchants of Doubt” seems tailor-made for the readers of Bacons Rebellion.

The film by Robert Kenner explores the profession of doubting climate change in which the energy industry quietly hires “scientists” to debunk the idea that carbon dioxide emissions are creating global warming that could have catastrophic consequences.

The strategy of confronting scientific evidence that is damaging to a particular industry has been around since at least the 1960s when the chemical industry tried to dismiss the idea that the insecticide DDT widely used to control mosquitoes could be deadly to wildlife for decades.

Big Tobacco took the concept to entirely new levels when scientific studies in the 1960s linked tobacco smoking to addictive nicotine, cancer and other bad things. Cigarette makers hauled out their own supposedly independent but payrolled “scientists” to raise doubt about the claims before congressional committees and to the general public.

The tobacco industry snowballed their phony science into yet another sphere. There had been complaints that people were being killed when they fell asleep on furniture while holding smoldering cigarettes.

The cigarette makers could have put in fire retardants in the smokes but they thought it would be too costly. So, they set up a scenario where furniture makers would load up sofas and chairs with fire retardants, which, unfortunately, proved carcinogenic or otherwise harmful. Then, of course, the chemical industry found its own “scientists” to claim the flame retardants they put in furniture were safe.

According to review so the film which I haven’t seen (it was just released March 6), Big Energy is using the very same tactics with help from the Koch Brothers and their network of paid think tanks (such as the “Heartland Institute”) to debunk the link between carbon and climate change. You may see some of those ideas popping up on this blog from time to time.

Kenner has won awards for such documentaries as “Food, Inc.” His latest film is based on a 2011 book with the same title by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway. According to a review in The Washington Post, “What’s disheartening about “Merchants of Death” is that the strategy still works so effectively in a hyper-partisan, intellectually lazy, spin-addicted 24-7 news cycle.”

Can anyone guess which news channel fits the bill?

Why Clean Energy Will Be Cheaper

Dominion's Cove Point

Dominion’s Cove Point

By Peter Galuszka

The Sturm und Drang to which utility executives, coal companies and politicians have subjected Virginians as they oppose President Barack Obama’s Clean Power Plan to reduce carbon emissions has always been a deliberate distraction from what’s really happening.

According to them and their confederates at the State Corporation Commission and the state Department of Environmental Quality, the clean air act which seeks to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by a certain date is a foolhardy, ill-intended bureaucratic effort to put coal out of business and slap ratepayers with bigger bills.

I had a moment of clarity when I read this morning’s Local Opinions page in The Washington Post  and a saw an article by Jon B. Wellinghoff. He is the immediate past chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission so he likely knows a little about energy.

His argument is that basic economics go against the electricity and coal industries’ arguments that reducing carbon will be too expensive. He cites a study by PJM, the large electricity grid of which Virginia is a part. “PJM announced this week that Virginia’s energy costs would be lower under the CPP than without it,?” he writes.

Why so? Wellinghoff says that utilities like Dominion are riding a nice low price natural gas bubble. Gas in the U.S. is going for $3 per million British Thermal Units. How long it will last is the crucial question.

Natural gas costs three times as much in Asia and Europe and (knock, knock) guess which companies are scrambling to get a new set of terminals so they can export it? Electric utilities like Dominion, that’s who.

Dominion is pressing ahead to convert its Cove Point liquefied natural gas plant on the Chesapeake Bay kin Maryland so that it can export gas to Japan and India. Dominion is also pushing a controversial $5 billion pipeline from West Virginia gas fracklands to the southeast. A spur of it would run to port areas in Hampton Roads but if you suggest that maybe Dominion plans to export gas from it, the public relations people get a mite testy.

Wellinghoff doesn’t specifically identify Dominion’s plans but he says there are 14 gas expert terminals underway.

For Virginia ratepayers, that means that a cheap, local commodity will become an expensive, global commodity. The United States will export a commodity and import price volatility.

Who will make money by exporting gas and messing up domestic prices?Dominion, that’s who.

It’s import to remember that the low price gas bubble will pop someday. Therefore, the state needs to stop whining about going to renewables and start applying them. Utilities need to make it easier for homes and business to deploy solar panels and sell extra juice back tot he grid. The U.S. uses 40 percent of the power it generates because of inefficient grids. Virginia is No. 35 in terms of state energy efficiency. Where are efforts to improve this?

Virginia’s disappearing coal industry has been complaining for years that government regulation is driving it out of business. The truth is that coal seams are becoming too uneconomic to mine. Gas is eating its lunch. I went to a Platt’s coal conference a couple of years ago In Florida where I learned that gas would have to jump to something like $8 per million BTU to make Virginia coal profitable again.

That might happen is gas prices rise as Wellinghoff predicts. But he is right that the cadre of utilities are barking up the wrong tree.

Government Fragmentation and Economic Growth

fragmentation

by James A. Bacon

What are the secrets of successful metropolitan regions? According to conventional economic-development thinking here in Virginia, success hinges upon the ability to maintain a positive business climate, a concept that encompasses everything from tax rates to the tort system, the transportation network to the education level of the workforce. But a new publication by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), “The Metropolitan Century,” identifies a critical variable rarely discussed in Virginia: the fragmentation of municipal governance.

Metropolitan regions characterized by higher levels of municipal fragmentation tend to experience lower economic growth rates than metros with less fragmentation, contends the OECD report, as seen in the chart above. Metropolitan regions run the gamut in the degree of fragmentation, from the United Kingdom with an average of 0.4 municipalities per 100,000 residents to the Czech Republic with an average of 2.43 per 100,000. All other things being equal, the report says, “For each doubling in the number of municipalities per 100,000 inhabitants within a metropolitan area, labour productivity in the metropolitan area decreases by 5-6%.”

(I would surmise that the number of municipalities in Virginia falls in the “moderately low” category. For example, the 1.7 million inhabitants of the Hampton Roads metropolitan area are governed by 16 jurisdictions, including two in North Carolina, or slightly less than 1.0 per 100,000 population.)

Fragmented government inhibits economic growth through its impact on transportation and land use, suggests the OECD report. The inability to plan regionally can result in “sub-optimal provision of transportation infrastructure” that falls short of its potential to provide the connectivity required by a productive, growing regional economy.

In the context of large urban agglomerations, land use planning and transport planning are often the fields where the need for co-ordination is greatest. … Housing and commercial developments need to be well connected to other parts of the urban agglomeration, and public transport in turn relies on a minimum population density to operate efficiently.

Integrating transport and land-use planning makes it easier to utilize value-capture tools for financing transportation infrastructure. “Public spending for infrastructure increases the price of adjacent land,” states the report. “Often, this price increase provides a publicly funded windfall profit to land owners or developers. Land-value capture tools aim at recapturing these windfalls from developers in order to (partially) fund the infrastructure investment.”

Echoing arguments that EM Risse made on this blog years ago, the OECD report observes that administrative borders in metropolitan areas have not evolved in concert with economic and social patterns.

While good governance structures are no guarantee for good policies, it is very difficult to design and implement good policies without them. … Administrative borders in metropolitan areas rarely correspond to these functional relations. Often, they are based on historical settlement patterns that no longer reflect human activities.

A few decades ago, there was a move in Virginia to consolidate cities and counties in order to achieve administrative efficiencies and economies of scale. There were some notable successes — Virginia Beach merged with Princess Anne County, Suffolk merged with Nansemond County — but the movement petered out.  The OECD report spelled out reasons for resistance to consolidation that apparently apply across the economically developed world:

Common reasons for the persistence of administrative borders are strong local identities and high costs of reforms, but also vested interests of politicians and residents. Even if policy makers try to reorganize local governments according to functional relations within urban agglomerations, it is often difficult to identify unambiguous boundaries between functionally integrated areas.

There doesn’t seem to be any appetite for consolidating local governments in Virginia, but the OECD report does suggest an alternate strategy: Identifying specific functions that can be transferred to regional authorities.

Would it be worth the effort to invest political capital in such endeavors? Take a look at the chart at the top of this post. The big dividing line in economic growth is between medium-low and medium-high fragmentation. Assuming Virginia metropolitan regions fall into the medium-low category — and I do confess that I do not know exactly what the dividing line is — there doesn’t seem to be much of a growth premium from consolidating our way into “low fragmentation” status. Indeed, I would argue that some competition between jurisdictions in a metropolitan area is a good thing — the ability of inhabitants to “vote with their feet” helps keep the politicians honest.

But that’s a shoot-from-the-hip reaction based upon one OECD chart. If Virginia is serious about positioning itself for economic prosperity in the years ahead, our governance structures, rooted in 19th-century settlement patterns, surely need to keep up with economic reality.

“Hacking for Good” Comes to Virginia

Andrew Hyder with Code for America describes the "hack for good" movement spreading across the U.S.

Andrew Hyder with Code for America describes the “hack for good” movement spreading across the U.S.

by James A. Bacon

Michael Kolbe experienced first-hand the power of data-driven election campaigning while working on the 2012 Obama re-election team. He went on to take a job as a strategy analyst for Health Diagnostic Laboratory in Richmond but didn’t discard his idealism. Hoping to harness the power of data to solve social problems, he joined others to bring the burgeoning civic hacking movement to Richmond last year.

His first “hackathon” fizzled, Kolbe concedes. The goal was to create a “where’s my school bus” app for the City of Richmond schools, adapting open code developed elsewhere. Despite initial enthusiasm, school officials “went radio silent” and Kolbe and his compatriots didn’t have a strong enough team to push the project through. “It just fell apart.”

Learning from that inauspicious beginning, Kolbe tried again. The results of his efforts could be seen Saturday in Code for RVA’s code-a-thon held at INM United’s warehouse-chic office building in Richmond’s Scott’s Addition. This time, more than 60 participants worked on a half-dozen projects to make local government data more accessible and useful to citizens.

This time Kolbe had time to build an organization and line up sponsors and alliances. The Richmond hack-a-thon was held as part of a national CodeAcross event organized in dozens of cities across the United States by San Francisco-based Code for America. Code for America dispatched a team to help organize the Richmond event. Socrata, a Seattle-based open-data company, created a portal to which the Richmond hackers could add their data. Code for RVA also found a local champion for its open-government projects in Andreas Addison, a self-described “civic innovator” for the City of Richmond.

“This meeting wouldn’t have happened two years ago,” said Addison, who has led the effort to bring data analytics to City of Richmond decision making. “Things are changing.”

Even the governor’s office is getting on board. Zaki Barzinji, deputy director for intergovernmental affairs in Governor Terry McAuliffe’s policy shop, said the administration hopes to work with Code for America, Virginia universities, state agencies and local Code for America “brigades” like Code for RVA to organize a statewide conclave with the goal of driving open data and cultural change in state government.

Most of the projects undertaken Saturday were simple, aiming to make existing data more accessible to the public. One team worked on creating RVA Answers, a Web resource providing answers to most frequently asked questions. Another team tackled the goal of making data about city boards & commissions more readily available, including information on how to apply for a position. Yet another group worked on improving the display of city crime data.

The most ambitious project, long in the works, is an initiative to address the spread of STIs (socially transmitted infections), especially among the city’s poor and young. The city has pulled together a multi-disciplinary team to organize and analyze existing data, supplemented by insight gleaned by interviewing poor people and shadowing government health workers. The mission is to encourage people to get tested for STIs and to direct them to locations in their neighborhoods where they can do it.

This initiative will not likely wither on the vine — Danny Avula, deputy director of the city health department, is pushing the project forward. “A lot of people in government don’t get it,” Avula said, speaking of the use of data analytics. “But there are advocates now.”

Open data sounds great in the abstract, but civic hackers often face indifference or resistance. When the McAuliffe administration launched its open data portal last year, said Barzinji, it encountered a tendency among state agencies to keep their data to themselves.  The administration started small, asking each agency to share at least one data set. Once the value of public data can be demonstrated, he said, he expects the agencies to loosen up.

Never under-estimate the role of simple bureaucratic inertia. Mike Walls, IT strategy manager for the City of Richmond, noted that government IT departments are focused on the core mission of “just keeping the lights on.” Top priorities are making sure payroll is met, bills are paid and basic functions work. “You can’t have the network go down. You can’t have the emergency dispatching software crash. It creates a very cautious mindset.”

In his experience, Walls said, IT bureaucrats aren’t opposed to releasing data to the public as much as they are overwhelmed by their existing responsibilities. They see the task of opening up data as more work. “When your day job grinds you down, it’s hard to find the enthusiasm.”

Another issue, said Walls, is that data can’t just be dumped willy nilly into public databases. When data reveals information about individuals, public access may raise privacy issues. Often there are technical issues as well. Data is typically compiled to the standard of “good enough for the intended purpose,” not for a purpose someone might dream up later. As a consequence, mashing up, say, land use data calibrated to difference levels of accuracy might lead to absurd results like fire hydrants appearing in the middle of a street.

But civic tech advocates expressed optimism that the obstacles can be overcome. Small victories lead to larger victories. Said Barzinji: “First what we need is the proof of concept.” Then the push for legislation and executive action can follow.

Closely Watched Trains?

wva oil trainBy Peter Galuszka

The small town of Pembroke in southwest Virginia is used to seeing endlessly long unit trains of coal cars rumbling past. But last week, it got an unexpected surprise – trains of similar length hauling crude oil from North Dakota’s Bakken fields started going by.

According to Reuters, Pembroke is one of many Virginia towns that are being affected by CSX’s derailment and explosion of oil tank cars filled with Bakken oil a few miles east of Montgomery, W.Va.  on Feb. 16. The massive blast sent fireballs hundreds of feet in the air and forced the evacuation of nearby residents including a college. It also stopped all rail traffic on a major, east-west CSX line for days.

A similar derailment involving a CSX oil train happened last April in Lynchburg on the same rail mainline. Several tank cars caught fire down causing a fire and a spill into the James River.

So, after the West Virginia incident, CSX got in touch with rival Norfolk Southern to see if it could reroute oil trains on some of its lines.

This brings up another issue – who should be informed when new railroad trains hauling potentially explosive or otherwise hazardous cargoes suddenly show up in your backyard? Do they have to tell you so you can get the flashlight, thermos and sleeping bag ready for your immediate evacuation if necessary?

CSX says it has informed appropriate public safety officials of such route changes, but is loath to let the general public in where it is sending unusual trains. Security and proprietary information, you understand.

CSX needs to keep its tank cars rolling to big oil terminal in Yorktown near the Chesapeake Bay. That site had been an Amoco refinery for years but the refinery shut down and was switched to an oil water terminal now owned by Houston-based Plains All-American.

The facility receives Bakken shale oil cars and loads the crude on barges that are then pushed or towed to East Coast refineries, notably in the Philadelphia area. Presumably, if petroleum exports from the U.S. start again, the Yorktown site would be excellent embarkation point.

So, instead of having tank cars with Bakken crude trundling from Charleston, W.Va. through the New River Gorge and on to Lynchburg, they will go on more southerly NS lines through places like Pembroke and Roanoke. Then they will be switched at Petersburg to CSX lines and go north to Richmond and east to Yorktown.

It looks like Richmond could potentially get it either way. On the usual route, oil trains pass by downtown on an elevated bridge which would be quite a mess if a derailment happened there. According to the Forest Ethics Website, all of downtown Richmond to about one half of a mile on either side would have to be evacuated if a major derailment with fires and explosions came.

With the temporary rerouting, Richmond would still be in serious jeopardy in case of a derailment. If I’m reading the map correctly, trains would still pass through the city.

So, you have to ask yourself – why does CSX get away with keeping all this secret? They claim they let “appropriate” public safety officials know, but the Richmond Times Dispatch last year quoted a Richmond fire officer in charge of hazardous situations as saying he had a hard time learning from CSX what a “worse case” scenario would be in the event of a Richmond derailment.

Part of the problem is PR. Bakken shale oil comes from controversial hydraulic fracturing. The uptick in production has turned America’s energy picture on its head. It has also made for big jumps in oil rail traffic. Another problem is that Bakken oil tends to be more explosive than other types.

According to the Association of American Railroads, oil shipments by rail jumped by 9,500 carloads in 2008 to 500,000 shipments last year. Accidents are way up. In 2013, tank cars carrying Bakken crude somehow got loose in Lac-Megantic, Quebec. They rolled through the small town, derailed and exploded. The blast killed 47 and wiped out half of downtown.

According to a recent probe by the Associated Press, a federal study predicts that oil shipments will rise to 900,000 shipments this year. The study predicts that trains hauling petroleum will derail 10 times a year over the next two decades. They could possibly cause $4 billion in damages and kill hundreds of people, the AP reports.

What to do? Build pipelines, I guess, but that’s been highly controversial as well as the experience with Dominion Transportation’s efforts with a $5 billion gas pipeline through the state and the controversy over the Keystone XL show.

Better, newer, safer tank cars? Maybe, but the West Virginia and Lynchburg derailments both involved new “1232” models. The same type also caught fire recently in Timmins, Ontario.

Federal rules require railroads to tell local officials where they are carrying Bakken crude, which is more explosive than other types. Railroads like CSX claim the information is proprietary, according to Reuters. That’s rather pointless. If the goal is to keep “proprietary” information from competitors, Norfolk Southern, CSX’s biggest competitor, already knows about it because it has agreed to let CSX use its rail lines.

And don’t ask some public officials. West Virginia officials have gone along with keeping much of the information secret. Mountain State officials responded to an Freedom of Information Act request by redacting much of the data they finally gave out.

Not only do the railroads need to clean up their act, they should be forced to be more forthcoming about where the next evacuation might be.

Land, Density and Resilience

Flood-prone areas of south Hampton Roads. Source: Virginiaplaces.org.

Flood-prone areas of south Hampton Roads. Source: Virginiaplaces.org. (Click for detail.)

One more takeaway from the Resilient Virginia launch conference yesterday: All other things being equal, more compact communities are more resilient communities.

Like Bacon’s Rebellion, Cooper Martin, program director of the Sustainable Cities Institute, is a big fan of Joe Minicozzi and his maps and graphics showing how dramatically land value-per-acre varies between core urban areas, suburbs and the countryside. Densely settled urban cores have land values that are literally a hundred times higher per acre than low-density shopping centers and large-lot subdivisions.

In my commentary, I have focused mainly upon the fiscal folly of building disconnected, low-density development. The infrastructure — the roads, utilities, sidewalks and other amenities — are more expensive per household to maintain. But Martin added a new dimension when addressing the Resilient Virginia conference yesterday. Low-density development makes it more expensive to harden homes and businesses against disruption and catastrophe. When the taxable value of land is high, it’s easier to support expensive investments to protect that land than when the value of the land is low.

So, to take Hampton Roads, which I have written much about recently, resilience planners need to take into account not only which areas are flood-prone, but which urbanized areas have land values high enough to make them economically justifiable to protect.

It’s going to be gut-wrenching and agonizing, but local officials must come to grips with the reality that much of the development that has taken place is fiscally indefensible. The region cannot possibly afford to protect every low-density subdivision in every flood-prone region — much less the roads and bridges providing connectivity for them — no matter how loudly unhappy homeowners howl at the prospect of being abandoned. The sooner local officials begin making these determinations, the sooner developers will stop building in indefensible areas and the fewer the naive homeowners who will be harmed.

As a practical matter, Hampton Roads municipalities will have to evolve to a pattern of denser development on higher land. Where development exists in flood-prone areas, there will have to be sufficient density to justify spending millions of dollars on protective measures. Fortunately, this is a slow-motion problem. The region has decades to adapt. But it needs to begin now — when complex and painful decisions must be made, decades can slip away in no time at all.

– JAB