Category Archives: Politics

Dominion’s Strange Ploy to Avoid Audits

dominion By Peter Galuszka

Dominion Virginia Power appears to be getting its way with strange legislation to freeze its rates and avoid regulatory audits for the next six years.

The state senate will hold hearings today on a bill that would cancel biennial rate reviews by the State Corporation Commission to 2020. Dominion’s rates will be frozen and couldn’t go up or down.

The utility’s reasoning is that it may have to spend a lot to comply with unfinished regulations by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that would cut carbon emissions from coal plants by 30 percent by 2030 compared with 2005 levels. Always looking out for its customers, Dominion doesn’t want to stick them with astronomical rate hikes resulting from the EPA rules.

The bill was drafted by Dominion, the state’s largest donor to political campaigns, by Sen. Frank Wagner (R-Virginia Beach) who is the go-to guy for laws favoring energy firms.

In 2004, Wagner sponsored legislation that allowed companies the right to survey land for proposed natural gas pipelines without having to obtain the owner’s permission first. The nettlesome law figures heavily in the current battle by property owners over proposed gas pipelines in the state, notably the $5 billion Atlantic Coast Pipeline in which Dominion is a partner. The pipeline would take gas 550-miles from West Virginia, through Virginia and on into North Carolina. Dominion has sued more than 240 landowners who have refused to grant access. They are challenging the constitutionality of the pipeline law in federal court.

There’s a lot odd about Wagner’s current bill. The first problem is that it would supposedly protect Dominion customers from federal rules that aren’t even final. It is weird that Dominion would use the excuse that it might be socked with huge costs by having to shutter coal-fired plants. Surprise, surprise! Dominion announced several years ago that it would shut down aging coal units in Yorktown and Chesapeake. So, what’s the connection between the new EPA rules and coal-plant closures?

Atty. Gen Mark Herring says that the Wagner bill is a ploy to keep Dominion from having its profits overseen by the SCC because the utility might have a $280 million surplus that ordinarily might have to go back to ratepayers. After  a 2011 SCC rate review, Dominion had to pay back $78 million to customers.

The other oddity is why Dominion and Wagner are suddenly so scared about exploding costs brought on by the EPA. After all, prices for natural gas, which fuel some of Dominion’s units and is  less polluting than coal, are very low – so low that the fracking boom that released a flood of cheap gas is slowing down considerably.

Environmental groups say that the Wagner bill is a gift for Dominion. The senator has received more than $43,000 in donations from the utility over the years.

The Many Problems of Offshore Drilling

deepwaterBy Peter Galuszka

Almost five years after the infamous Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, President Barack Obama has again proposed opening tracts offshore of Virginia and the southeastern U.S. coast to oil and natural gas drilling.

The plan poses big risks for what may be little gain. Federal surveys show there could be 3.3 billion barrels of crude oil and 31.3 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in the potential lease area stretching from Virginia to Georgia.

Energy industry officials praised the plan while complaining it doesn’t go far enough. Environmental groups including the Sierra Club and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation condemned it. Besides the ecological risk, the move is a step away from refocusing energy on renewables that do not lead to more carbon emissions and climate change.

Obama’s plan would restrict drilling to areas more than 50 miles off the coast. This is a sop to the Navy and other military which conduct regular exercises offshore and to the commercial and sports fishing industries.

Is the restriction worthwhile? It is generally easier for oil rigs to be placed in shallow water and much of the areas off of Virginia and northeastern North Carolina and off of South Carolina and Georgia are in plateaus that aren’t very deep – maybe just a few hundred feet. Yet the Atlantic takes a huge plunge not far off of Cape Hatteras, descending as much as two miles down.

Drilling in deep water presents special problems for oil companies involving high pressure and high temperatures. That was the case with the Deepwater Horizon tragedy on April 20, 1010 that killed 11 workers. One big factor that a blowout preventer, designed to shut down the rig if drilling hits abnormally high levels of pressure, didn’t work completely. The rig was in 5,000 feet of water and crude spewed uncontrolled. Winds from the south washed the oil towards land and polluted nearly 500 miles of coastline in Florida, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana. An estimated 49 million barrels of crude were released.

oil-drilling-mapAlthough it isn’t certain if energy firms would drill in the very deep waters off of North Carolina, there is cold comfort in the fact that the Deepwater rig was only 48 miles from shore. In other words, it would have been too close in for the latest plan involving the southeastern coast. Supposedly, blowout preventers have been upgraded but there were still spills involving them off of Brazil and China post-Deepwater.

If something like that happened closer to home, it is not exactly certain where the oil would go. Winds can blow from the ocean and currents are very fickle. The Labrador Current might tend to push spilled oil back onto environmentally sensitive shoreline while the Gulf Stream might tend to take the spilled oil out to sea.

There is no question that drilling off any of the southeastern coast would be of some benefit to the now-struggling Tidewater economy since it has plenty of steel-bending industries, an able workforce and no significant bridges to pass under to reach deep water. It might help since the defense sector is winding down, but who knows what world conflicts will be like in 2025. Hampton Roads would be a more logical staging area than other ports such as Wilmington, N.C., Charleston or Savannah.

There’s a rub, however. The 3.3 billion barrels of estimated reserves isn’t that much. It is a fraction of the total estimated reserves in the country. Energy sector officials claim there is probably much more. Okay, fine, but no one knows for sure. The natural gas reserves involved are also somewhat small – just a fraction of the estimated reserves in the U.S.

It’s not the first time offshore drilling has come up locally. There was a big push for it in the late 1970s, prompting oil rig giant Brown & Root to buy up land near Cape Charles for fabricating rigs. Nothing happened and much of the land now is used for a luxury golf community. Obama was supposed to back lease sales in 2010 but then Deepwater happened. This begs the question – if the offshore petroleum is so valuable, why has it taken so long?

Yet another issue is what cut Virginia would actually get from offshore drilling. There was a flap a few years ago when offshore drilling was being pitched. Some revenues to states from offshore petroleum production are computed by how much shoreline a state has. In Virginia’s case, it is not much, at least when compared to North Carolina. Virginia politicians have pointed this out and hope for some adjustment.

No one can predict energy markets a decade from now. For instance, no one knew that hydraulic fracturing would increase petroleum production by 64 percent and possibly make the U.S. a petroleum exporter for the first time since the 1970s. Granted it is a rock and a hard place kind of choice. Fracking is fraught with pollution problems just as offshore drilling is.

There are certain to be plenty of lawsuits over the offshore plan and economics will likely determine its future. An important choice is whether it is worth risking Virginia’s military, resort and fishing businesses for Big Oil whose promise is uncertain when it comes to offshore drilling.

The Importance of “Selma”

Selma_posterBy Peter Galuszka

“Selma” is one of those fairly rare films that underline a crucial time and place in history while thrusting important issues forward to the present day.

Ably directed by Ava DuVernay, the movie depicts the fight for the Voting Rights Act culminating in the dramatic march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala. in 1965. It portrays the brutality and racism that kept Alabama’s white power structure firmly in charge and how brave, non-violent and very smart tactics by African-American agitators shook things loose.

Holding it all together is British actor David Oyelowo as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Oyelowo’s subtle and vulnerable approach while dealing with infighting among his colleagues and revelations of his marital infidelities contrast with his brilliant skill at oratory. During the two hours or so of the film, Oyelowo’s booming speeches and sermons never bored me. By contrast, the recent “Lincoln,” the Steven Spielberg flick filmed in Richmond, was a bit of a snoozer.

To its credit, “Selma” never gets too clichéd even with the extremely overexposed Oprah Winfrey assuming roles as a film producer and also as an actress portraying a middle-aged nursing home working who gets beaten up several times protesting white officials who kept her from registering to vote.

“Selma” has been controversial because nit-picking critics claim the film misrepresents the role President Lyndon B. Johnson played in getting the Voting Rights Act passed. The film shows him as reluctant and the Selma event was staged to push him to move proposed legislation to Congress. A series of LBJ biographies by highly-regarded historian Robert A. Caro show the opposite – that Johnson, a Southern white from Texas — was very much the driver of civil rights bills. In fact, his deft ability to knock political heads on Capitol Hill was probably the reason why they passed. It was a feat that even the Kennedys probably couldn’t have achieved.

One scene in the movie bothered me at first. King leads protestors to the Selma court house to register. When a brutal sheriff stands in their way, they all kneel down on the pavement with their arms behind their heads in a manner very reminiscent of last year’s protests against a police killing in Ferguson, Mo.

I thought, “Hey, I don’t care how they present LBJ, but fast-forwarding to 2014 is a bit of stretch.”

Then I decided that maybe not, history aside, the same thing is really happening now. There’s not just Ferguson, but Cleveland, Brooklyn and other places. The Richmond Times-Dispatch reports this morning that over the past 14 years, police in the state killed 31 blacks and 32 whites. Only 20 percent of the state’s population is black. Now that is a disturbing figure.

Another disturbing allusion to the present is the widespread move mostly by Republican politicians in the South and Southwest make it harder for people to register to vote. In one move scene, Oprah Winfrey wants to register before an arrogant white clerk. He asks her to recite the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution. She does. He then asks her how many judges there are in Alabama. She gives the correct number. He then demands that she name all of them, which very few might have been able to do. She is rejected.

The moves to blunt new voters today is focused more on Hispanic immigrants but it is just as racist and wrong. And, Virginia is still stuck with the anti-voter policies of the Byrd Organization that was in power at the time of the Selma march. The idea, equally racist, was to keep ALL voters from participating in the political process as much as possible. That is why we have off-year elections and gerrymandered districts.

I was only 12 years old when Selma occurred but I remember watching it on television. I was living at the time in West Virginia which didn’t have that much racial tension. But I do remember flying out of National Airport in DC on the day that King was assassinated. The center of town, mostly 14th Street, appeared to be in flames.

The Real “War on Coal”

Blankenship at 2009 Labor Day rally

Blankenship at 2009 Labor Day rally

By Peter Galuszka

Over in West Virginia, some things never seem to change.

Families of the 29 miners killed on April 5, 2010 at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch are asking a federal judge to lift her gag order so they can testify before West Virginia legislators considering tougher rules that would make it easier for workers to sue employers over job-related injuries and deaths.

U.S. District Judge Irene Berger issued the gag order last year after Donald L. Blankenship, the former chief of Richmond-based Massey Energy, was indicted on four criminal charges for his role in the disaster – the worst one in 40 years. He is scheduled to go on trial in Beckley on April 20.

The question seems to be that the judge is protecting Blankenship’s rights over those of the people hurt by his management. It is not really news in the Mountain State that has always supported Coal Barons over workers. It’s a weird, neo-colonialist thing that never seems to change.

This month, Berger denied a move by several news agencies, including the Charleston Gazette and The Wall Street Journal, to lift the gag order.

As head of Massey Energy, which has since been taken over by Bristol-based Alpha Natural Resources, Blankenship was a true publicity hog. He was never shy about pushing his arch-conservative, pro-business views or bankrolling politicians and judges. Worrying about protecting his legal rights at the expense of free speech is a real travesty.

Yes, there is a “War on Coal” – but the other way around. The conflict is how coal bosses wage war on their employees and their families.

Interview: McAuliffe’s Economic Goals

 maurice jonesBy Peter Galuszka

For a glimpse of where the administration of Gov. Terry McAuliffe is heading, here’s an interview I did with Maurice Jones, the secretary of commerce and trade that was published in Richmond’s Style Weekly.

Jones, a graduate of Hampden-Sydney College and University of Virginia law, is a former Rhodes Scholar who had been a deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development under President Barack Obama. Before that, he was publisher of The Virginian-Pilot, which owns Style.

According to Jones, McAuliffe is big on jobs creation, corporate recruitment and upgrading education, especially at the community college and jobs-training levels. Virginia is doing poorly in economic growth, coming in recently at No. 48, ahead of only Maryland and the District of Columbia which, like Virginia have been hit hard by federal spending cuts.

Jones says he’s been traveling overseas a lot in his first year in office. Doing so helped land the $2 billion paper with Shandong Tranlin in Chesterfield County. The project, which will create 2,000 jobs, is the largest single investment by the Chinese in the U.S. McAuliffe also backs the highly controversial $5 billion Atlantic Coast Pipeline planned by Dominion because its natural gas should spawn badly-needed industrial growth in poor counties near the North Carolina border.

Read more, read here.

(Note: I have a new business blog going at Style Weekly called “The Deal.” Find it on Style’s webpage —   www.styleweekly.com)

Whatever Happened to “Boomergeddon?”

rush_limbaugh5By Peter Galuszka

Attention ditto-heads!

Before President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address last night, there was an interesting piece on CNN of hard-line conservatives claiming two years ago that the U.S. economy would collapse if Obama were re-elected.

They claimed that the U.S. faced uncontrollable government spending and ever-growing budget deficits. Obama’s efforts to kick-start the economy were just one missfire after another. Don’t believe me? Look up a zillion posts in Bacon’s Rebellion written by the usual suspects.

My favorite segment on the CNN report was radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh making his usual dire predictions about our plunge to Boomergeddon:

“How long does this country have if Obama wins? We’re headed toward an economic collapse and we are the leader of the world. ….If Obama’s re-elected, it will happen. There’s no IF about this. And it’s gonna be ugly. It’s gonna be gut-wrenching, but it will happen. The country’s economy is going to collapse if Obama is re-elected. I don’t know how long: a year and a half, two years, three years.”

Well we’re almost there and guess what? Obama felt comfortable enough strong economy last night to rebrand himself as a liberal and push programs to finally help out the middle class. They include a more fair tax system and helping make community college study free. In a University of Richmond poll in last year’s fourth quarter, most of the 62 chief executive officers of Central Virginia companies said they had “strong optimism” about the country’s brightening economic picture.

What about deficits? Well, not to raise any names associated with this blog, but last October, the budget deficit had dropped to its lowest level since the Great Recession. It had fallen to $483 billion in f/y 2014. That’s only 2.8 percent of GDP and less than the average of the previous 40 years, the U.S. Treasury Department reported.

Hmm. Does anyone have a copy of the book “Boomergeddon?” I can’t find mine and want one as a keepsake.

Back to Pork at Ft. Pickett

fort pickettBy Peter Galuszka

It was curious that Gov. Terry McAuliffe, while emphasizing that the state needs to wean itself from the sweet milk of federal spending, pushed a very interesting government project in the piney woods of Nottoway  and three other counties.

In his speech to the 2015 General Assembly on Wednesday, McAuliffe said he was “thrilled to help convince the State Department and the General Services Administration to choose Fort Pickett as the home of the Foreign Affairs Security Training Center, bringing as many as 500 jobs and millions in investment along with it.”

The U.S. State Department has been trying for years to get an adequate training facility for its guards and U.S. embassies and consulates around the world. The U.S. Marines they use are pretty much ceremonial and the deployment of private armies such as the former Blackwater of Moyock, N.C. is fraught with problems as several recent high-profile court trials attest.

The need for well-trained, non-privatized guards was underlined on Sept. 11, 2012 in the bloody siege of the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya. Last spring, Ft. Pickett, a Virginia Army National Guard base, was chosen for the $461 million Foreign Affairs Security Training Center which will create 1,500 permanent and part-time jobs.

It’s a project both parties can love. Republican U.S. Reps. Randy Forbes and Robert Hurt are smitten as are Democratic U.S. Sens. Tim Kaine and Mark Warner and of course, McAuliffe. It may be ironic that the Ft. Pickett site can draw such bipartisan support in Virginia when Republicans beat everyone up so badly, especially former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, over Benghazi. It’s also curious that a national security expense like this goes down so easily with politicians while accepting federal money to expand Medicaid coverage to 400,000 lower income Virginians is such a no-no. Conservatives argue that Medicaid would hurt budget discipline, but won’t this training center do the same?

The State Department says it has 2,000 security people in 160 countries and plans 75 more. They now take a 10-week training course at a military base in West Virginia that includes a local race track that is considered inadequate.

Ft. Pickett is probably a logical site. Its 45,000 plus acres were carved out of several counties during World War II and an airfield was built. During the Cold War (as now) the facility was used for artillery and tank practice since its rolling pine-gum forest somewhat resembled the terrain of Eastern Europe where the real fighting might be.

It had been marked for closure but somehow survived, sustaining the small town of Blackstone where one often sees troops in utilities at the local Hardees or McDonald’s. From time to time, Ft. Pickett hosts special guest trainees such as the Navy SEALS, the Marines, Army rangers and Delta Forces, the FBI, Secret Service, Drug Enforcement and others. I live about 20 miles from the base and from time to time, my house shakes either from artillery shots or helicopters that roar at low altitude. One particularly loud weekend, I looked up the fort’s website to see who was there. It was the Canadian Army shooting up Old Virginny.

There was a rumor going around a couple years ago that Ft. Pickett housed a to-scale mockup of Osama Bin Laden’s hideout in Pakistan and that SEALS used it to train before killing him. The story was so juicy that it ended up on the Blackstone Chamber of Commerce Website for a while but I don’t think it is true. It was probably in North Carolina at a CIA base at Harvey Point on Albemarle Sound or at Ft. Bragg.

The State Department facility will be built on 1,500 acres of land and supposedly 10,000 students a year will use it. I can’t understand where they get that number if there are only 2,000 State Department guards, but never mind.

The base used to be fairly open. When my German Shepherd was alive sometimes we’d drive down there to see what was going on. Usually, nothing, but on occasion you’d see helicopters or an Air Force cargo jet practicing takeoffs and landings.

The facility will help the local area but I am sure the old access will be limited. Meanwhile, it’s back to federal money that Virginia loves so well, at least in this case.

Chutzpah, Thy Name Is Joe Morrissey

Fighting Joe -- showboating with an assault rifle in the General Assembly.

Fighting Joe — showboating with an assault rifle in the General Assembly.

by James A. Bacon

“Chutzpah” is a Yiddish word for cheek and audacity. Eastern European Jews may have invented the term, but Joseph D. Morrissey, D-Richmond, personifies it. Convicted of contributing to the delinquency of a minor, he won re-election to the House of Delegates in a snap election yesterday while cooling his heels in Henrico County jail,

I know Joe Morrissey. I like Joe Morrissey. He’s smart, curious and outgoing, and he has an infectious enthusiasm. When I published my book, “Boomergeddon,” four years ago, he invited me to lunch to talk about it. He disagreed with my thesis — that the United States was heading for a fiscal breakdown in 15 to 20 years — but he was open to discussing it. When he’s on good behavior, he’s interesting, well-informed and entertaining. Fortunately for me in my dealings with him, I’ve only encountered the good Joe Morrissey.

But the bad Joe Morrissey is very bad. He’s hot headed, infamously getting into a courthouse brawl with another attorney years ago and later assaulting a handyman who worked for him. The latter incident resulted in a suspension of his law license. He’s also fathered three children out of wedlock with three different women — and that doesn’t include the young woman, 17 years old at the time and now 18, with whom he allegedly had sex in a dalliance that landed him his current spell in jail. That woman, who worked in his office, now is pregnant and won’t identify the father.

Morrissey has parlayed his colorful past into an electoral asset. He portrays himself as a fighter and a scrapper, willing to stand up for the little guy — a message that resonates in his predominantly African-American legislative district in Richmond, eastern Henrico County and Charles City County. African-American voters apparently are more forgiving of his moral foibles than straight-laced political leaders such as Governor Terry McAuliffe and House Speaker William Howell, who find Morrissey an embarrassment and would like to see him gone from the legislature.

I’m inclined to forgive Morrissey a lot. In the 19th century, his ready resort to fisticuffs would have been considered ordinary. And one can argue that his irregular domestic affairs are his own business. But there is one big problem I cannot overlook: He appears to be an outrageous liar. Rather than admit to his misdeeds with his under-age receptionist, he launched an all-out denial. He never had sex with the girl, he said, and, besides, he thought she was older than 17.

What about the incriminating photos and text messages on his cell phone that prove otherwise? You can’t match Joe Morrissey for chutzpah. The photos and messages, he claims, were planted by the girl’s jealous lesbian lover who hacked his phone! Somewhere in New York, Anthony Weiner must be kicking himself for not thinking of that line.

Cynics can argue that politicians lie all the time, so what’s the big deal? Well, it is a big deal when we catch them. And few lies have been as flagrant as the whoppers that Morrissey wants the public to swallow. He has repeatedly shown bad judgment and he has no credibility with fellow legislators. He cannot possibly provide effective representation. He should do his constituents a favor and step down. Of course, he won’t. He wouldn’t be Fighting Joe Morrissey if he did.

Addendum: Here’s the Alford plea agreement summarizing the commonwealth’s case against Morrissey and Morrissey’s defense. Decide for yourself.

How to Make Enemies and Lose Influence with People

richmond_council

Photo credit: Times-Dispatch

The traveling radical minstrel show has moved from Charlottesville to Richmond, it appears. Last night, a group of activists paraded through City Council chambers beating drums and making a series of demands, from stronger citizen oversight of police, care for the homeless, more money for schools and public transit, ending mass incarceration and “respect for black life,” according to the Times-Dispatch.

The crowd also threatened to “disrupt” the world championship bicycle races in Richmond next year if their demands were not met.

Forced to take a 15-minute recess, Council postponed action on many of the issues on its agenda.

If Richmond’s village radicals want “respect for black life,” perhaps they should start showing respect to others. Try playing by the same political rules everyone else abides by and working for change by presenting evidence, disseminating information, lobbying and getting sympathetic people elected. Issuing threats and disrupting the business of government accomplishes nothing good. Indeed, it just ticks people off — especially people like me. My reaction to threats is, “Bite me.”

Does this crowd have anything to offer other than ignorance and belligerence? Let’s see the evidence that the City of Richmond — a black majority city with a black mayor, black commonwealth attorney, black sheriff and (on again/off again) a black police chief — lacks respect for black life. I’m open to hearing about it. But present me evidence, not chants, drum beating and disruption. If you act like a mob, people are inclined to think that you think like a mob and deserve to be treated like a mob. They will write off your concerns as ill-informed demogoguery.

– JAB

Wind Power Hits Some Nasty Gusts

offshorewindturbines By Peter Galuszka

Wind power has taken some hits with the New Year.

A proposed 145-acre, 20-megawatt project in Clarke County is being scuttled because Dominion Resources has shown little interest in buying its power. In New England, a pioneering offshore wind project, Cape Wind, is on the ropes because of the merger of two utilities and opposition by one of the Koch brothers.

According to the Winchester Star and blogger Iveymain, OCI Power is pulling the plug on its plan to erect 100,000 solar panels – enough to power 20,000 homes –due “due to the lack of long-term solar procurement efforts by Dominion and other VA utilities.”

There is no clear program in Virginia to push solar power. The General Assembly and Gov. Terry McAuliffe have paid lip service to the idea but haven’t done anything to actually fund it. Moreover, Virginia has no mandatory renewable portfolio standard as do other states so efforts for renewable energy are set up to dawdle. Dominion also has been slow, if not downright negative, about buying renewable party from third party sources.

Cape Wind off Cape Cod had been might have been the nation’s first real offshore wind farm. It would run 130 turbines in Nantucket Sound with electric utilities buying the output.

But the project’s price tag of $2.5 billion seemed daunting. One group, National Grid had agreed to buy half the power, but another utility, NStar, wanted to drop its interest in the project when it was being taken over in a $17.5 billion merger with Northeast Utilities.

Cape Wind had drawn opposition from people one might expect, such as conservative activist William Koch, who owns millions of dollars’ worth of seafront vacation real estate, but also from odd sources such as the late TV anchorman Walter Cronkite who likewise owned waterfront land.

Closer to Virginia, there have been auctions of offshore areas from wind farms. Dominion has about $50 million in federal funds to build two, six-megawatt turbines 27 miles off the Virginia shore. Dominion says it wants to develop wind, but the reality is that it wants to take tiny steps to it while dominating the market.

Another factor is the rush to natural gas that has Dominion and other regional utilities pitching billions worth of pipelines. Cheap gas hurts renewables because it takes away the urgency to get them going.

That may change. There is so much gas and oil, in fact, that drilling is slowing quickly. Petroleum prices are way low. This is a normal cycle. When production slows because of low prices, supply will likewise diminish. When that happens, prices will rise and drilling will be robust again.

The problem is really an economic one. As long as natural gas remains in its current cycle, it’s going to be really hard to force a play into wind – at least – without some kind of top-down, government involvement. Dominion, once again, is getting away with playing it just as it wants.