Category Archives: Regulation

Proposed CO2 Regs Will Harm Virginia’s Economic Competitiveness

Image credit: Department of Environmental Quality

Image credit: Department of Environmental Quality

by James A. Bacon

Proposed federal regulations to cut future carbon dioxide emissions from electric power plants would put Virginia at a significant competitive advantage by giving the state no credit for its progress in reducing CO2 over the past ten years, asserts the state Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) in a letter response to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Even back in 2005, Virginia power plants emitted less CO2, a greenhouse gas, per unit of energy produced than those of other many states, thanks to the state’s reliance upon nuclear power. Since 2005, Virginia power companies have phased out older coal-fired plants and substituted natural gas. Although natural gas is a fossil fuel that emits CO2, it is much cleaner burning than coal and produces less CO2 per unit of energy.

In 2005, coal accounted for 46% of Virginia’s electric generation; by 2012, coal had fallen to 20%.  Virginia reduced carbon “pollution” by 39% between 2005 and 2012, the seventh best performance nationally. In 2012 Virginia ranked 15th among the 50 states for the rate of carbon “pollution” from all electric generating sources.

Rather than credit Virginia for recent progress or how much citizens spent to get there, argues the DEQ letter, the EPA Proposed Emission Guidelines bases its performance targets on a state’s electric generating system as it exists now. States the letter:

EPA’s approach fails to recognize the achievements made by many states, including Virginia, that have reduced CO2 emissions by making significant investments in zero and low carbon emitting generation, such as nuclear power, and rewards states that have not done so by giving them substantially higher CO2 emission reduction targets.

carbon_goals

Source: Division of Environmental Quality

All of Virginia’s neighboring states have electric generating systems that are more carbon-intensive than Virginia’s, but all have emission rate goals substantially higher than Virginia’s final goal of 810 [pounds per Megawatt house]. In fact, the Proposed Emission Guidelines would require greater reductions in megawatt hours or carbon intensity from affected units in Virginia than from similar units in either Kentucky of West Virginia, even though those states generated approximately twice the amount of electricity on a megawatt hour basis from fossil fuel than did Virginia in 2012.

“The disparity in state goals,” writes the DEQ, “leaves Virginia at a competitive disadvantage to its neighbors and numerous other states because they will be able to comply with the Proposed Emission Guidelines more cost effectively. … Such states could use their competitive advantage over Virginia to keep their state electric rates or taxes relatively lower in order to lure away existing Virginia businesses and render Virginia less competitive in the quest for new business.”

Governor Terry McAuliffe says he supports the EPA’s goal of reducing carbon emissions to combat global warming. But he says the proposed regulations could be “more equitable,” according to the Times-Dispatch.

Bacon’s bottom line:  Not only are onerous new environmental regulations being imposed by executive fiat, not based upon anything contemplated by Congress when it enacted the Clean Air Act… Not only are these regulations being enacted  on the basis of claims that runaway global warming (a) is occurring, (b) will prove to be an unmitigated catastrophe and (c) that re-engineering the U.S. economy by reducing CO2 emissions is the best way to deal with it… but the state-by-state implementation of the regulations will punish Virginia for its previous efforts to be environmentally virtuous.

Virginia, like the United States, faces many environmental challenges. As a society, I believe, we should steadily increase our investment in environmental protection. But we also need to prioritize that investment to accomplish the most good per dollar spent. I’m far from convinced that spending billions of dollars — the proposed EPA regs could cost Virginians an estimated $5 billion — will generate anything tangible for Virginia or its environment. If these regulations go through, they will be a tragedy of the first order.

Fracking Our Pristine Mountain Forests

GW forestBy Peter Galuszka

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kudos: U.S.-China Climate Pact

Shanghai: Soot City

Shanghai: Soot City

By Peter Galuszka

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Takeaways From the GOP’s Big Win

gillespie warnerBy Peter Galuszka

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

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

    Increase in coverage by Obamacare
    The New York Times

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

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

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

Steve Nash’s Important Book

Nash bookBy Peter Galuszka

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

Here is a book review I did for Style Weekly:

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

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

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

To read more, click here.

In Energy Studies, No Renewables, Please

Karmis of VT's Center for Coal Research

Karmis of VT’s Center for Coal Research

By Peter Galuszka

For years, Virginia Tech has operated the Center for Coal Research which is dedicated to studying bituminous product, enhance its marketability and make mining it safer and less environmentally destructive.

The center receives funding and has sponsors and an advisory board made up of big utilities like Dominion, coal-hauling railroads like Norfolk Southern, a few state officials and coal company executives from Alpha Natural Resources, Arch Coal and Patriot Coal. No environmental advocates are advisers nor are proponents of renewable energy.

So, it was with considerable interest that I was introduced to a new “watchdog” group named the Checks and Balances Project, based in Northern Virginia and  funded by advocating clean energy and sustainability such as the New Venture fund and Renew American Prosperity Inc.

In several intriguing blog posts, Scott Peterson, a former media spokesman for the New York Stock Exchange and now executive director of Checks and Balances, asks why Michael Karmis, an internationally-known VT coal expert, was asked to write the cost-benefit analysis for the State Energy Plan released last month that will guide the General Assembly in passing laws relating to energy.

Peterson notes that Karmis’s report was a foundation document used by the State Corporation Commission staff when it gave a big thumbs down to the U.S. EPA’s proposed rules to cut carbon dioxide. The SCC claimed that the rules would shutter much coal-fired generation (much of which was going to be shut down anyway) and that renewables like solar and wind are too expensive, unreliable and scarce to replace the lost generation capacity.

I blogged about this repeatedly in recent weeks and I asked why Virginia has such a puny share of renewable energy compared to its neighboring states. I got responses from the SCC and also from Dominion as well as the Virginia Chapter of the Sierra Club and posted them.

Peterson’s points are spot on. Why would the state and the SCC go to such an overwhelmingly pro-coal group for what seems like a self-serving and self-dealing cost-benefit analysis? Do Virginians not deserve input from other players pushing forms of energy? Why did they not consult economic forecasting groups specializing in energy but chose instead Chmura Economics & Analytics of Richmond, which has no special energy expertise and has been criticized (by me) for tending to say what state officials want.

It is really a shame that the administration of Gov. Terry McAuliffe is following the same stacked-decks that former Gov. Robert F. McDonnell used to use. During his time in office, I outlined several instances where McDonnell chose “advisors” mostly from the coal and nuclear and natural gas industries to “study” energy needs or whether uranium mining near Chatham would be safe.

Also take a look at who the sponsors of the Virginia Tech coal center are:

  • Alpha Natural Resources of Bristol bought the extremely troubled and controversial Massey Energy whose renegade CEO, Don Blankenship, was so loose with safety and so strong on production demands that 29 miners lost their lives in a massive blast at the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia on April 5, 2010, according to three probes of the incident. I wrote a book about it.
  • Arch Coal is one of the most controversial users of ecologically devastating mountaintop removal surface mining in southwest Virginia, Kentucky and West Virginia,.
  • Evan Energy Investments is a Richmond-based firm started by E. Morgan Massey, whose family started A.T. Massey coal which later became Massey Energy. E. Morgan Massey had no corporate duties at Massey Energy during the 2010 blast but during the 1980s, he beat the United Mine Workers by instituting his “Massey Doctrine” of tough negotiating.
  • Patriot Coal is a spin-off of Peabody Coal, the largest coal firm in the U.S. Peabody had assets in the Central Appalachians but found that its western U.S., Illinois Basin and foreign operations were more profitable so it created Patriot. The spin off has been bankrupt at least once and has been criticized for trying to cut benefits for retired miners who had worked for Peabody.

To be sure, several state and federal organizations are also sponsors and I’m told that the center does do worthwhile working on setting up computer-based networks of sensors that would automatically shut down a deep mine’s operations if it found bad levels of explosive coal dust or methane. It also has done work to find carbon capture technologies that could allow coal to be burned cleanly.

The larger point is that the state is structured in ways that do not provide a place at the table for people not associated with big, traditional, base-loaded energy such as coal and nuclear power stations. Many accounts show that solar and wind are becoming much more technically and cost effective. Although the U.S. Department of Energy does not expect wind or solar to be more than about 20 percent of the total energy mix any time soon, its growth is picking up speed.

If more houses and businesses adopt solar panels as they get cheaper and better, they will reduce their need for Big Energy. As that happens, the large utilities, coal firms and railroads may get stuck with trillions of dollars’ worth of “stranded” and unused assets. Guess will end up paying for a lot of them? The ratepayers, of course, with the SCC’s blessing.

Why Private Space Firms Need Oversight

By Peter Galuszka

Virgin galacticDoes bad news come in twos or threes?

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

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

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

For some background, here’s space.com:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There are questions that need answering.

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.

The Wacky World of Private Space Firms

 Antares-Explosion-VideoBy Peter Galuszka

The spectacular explosion on the evening of Oct. 28 of an Orbital Sciences Corporation rocket at Wallops Island on the Eastern Shore of Virginia raises safety questions about the rush to commercialize space launches.

The Antares rocket with a Cygnus cargo shipment had been bound for the International Space Station but the rocket burst into flames and exploded six seconds after liftoff. The blast from the sandy barrier island was powerful enough to shatter glass windows at nearby business, according to news reports.

Dulles-based Orbital Sciences is one of several private firms competing for business from the federal government as part of a plan to reduce costs for the Air Force and budget-strapped NASA. Orbital, Blue Origin, SpaceX and United Launch Alliance made up of space veterans Boeing and Lockheed Martin are all vying for contracts by aggressively touting lower prices.

It can get nasty. SpaceX’s iconoclastic leader Elon Musk famously sued the Air Force to break ULA’s monopoly on military satellite launches. He’s also sued to squelch concerns about his rockets’ safety. His firm, as are some others, is pushing manned flights to the space station, space tourism or perhaps missions to Mars or other outer space locations.

Orbital picked up a $1.9 billion contract from NASA in 2008 to deliver cargo to the space station from 2011 to 2015 using its Antares rockets made at a facility in Dulles. Using Wallops Island for its launch site, Orbital successfully launched two demonstration shots in 2013 and two cargo rockets early this year.

According to The Washington Post, the engines used on the Antares rocket were modified, decades-old, Soviet models that the Kremlin stopped using in the early 1970s because they were prone to explode. Orbital picked up some, apparently cheaply, because it was having trouble locating rocket engines from other sources powerful enough to lift its cargoes.

It isn’t known yet what exactly went wrong with the launch this week, but the Russian-made engines are certainly going to be studied. This raises questions about how much cost-cutting and cheap buying the private firms actually do to keep their costs down and maintain their competitiveness.

Musk of SpaceX has criticized using decades-old technology, but he has been accused of pushing cost cuts too hard. He’s been sued by employees who claimed he made them work 60-hour weeks. Obviously, tired workers are prone to make mistakes.

Up until now, politicians and economic development officials in Virginia and Maryland have proudly touted the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport as a sexy, futuristic display of how up with the times they are.

When SpaceX launched a Falcon 9 rocket in May 2012 from Cape Canaveral, then Virginia Transportation Secretary Sean Connaughton told Virginia Business magazine, “Obviously a lot of people focus on SpaceX. But Virginia now is pushing its own plan to grab a share of the commercial space market.” He unwittingly added: “Do you realize that in the fall (of 2012), it’s not going to be SpaceX you’ll be talking about. It’s going to be Orbital.” Missed it by two years. Ouch.

Other officials have tried to make Wallops Island a tourism destination. The Web site of the Norfolk-based Virginia Commercial Space Flight Authority pitches the draw for visitors. “The people on the Eastern Shore are wonderful,” writes Zig Leszczynski, the authority’s deputy executive director. “Chincoteague is a great area, so when folks come out to see the launches, you can also enjoy a kayak trip and some good seafood.”

NASA has had its share of disasters, including the 1986 loss of the Challenger Space Shuttle and then the loss of the Columbia Space Shuttle in 2003, killing a total of 14 astronauts. But as private firms accelerate their space activities, there are concerns that they might not have the rigorous safety testing that government launches have had.

On Aug. 25, a three-engine Falcon 9 rocket launched by SpaceX blew itself up seconds after leaving its Texas launch pad. Other problems have included “several anomalies” that occurred in the company’s civilian space flights” including having not enough fuel during a launch and a fire on an engine structure. The Air Force is investigating.

Private companies are still racking up deals. Blue Origin, a firm started by Jeff Bezos, the Amazon chief and owner of The Washington Post, got a deal last month to help supply rocket engines for ULA, which had been depending solely on Russian-built engines to launch its heavy rockets. Their continued use is in jeopardy because of current political tensions with Russia and Ukraine.

So what used to be an A-OK world of slim, professional astronauts and nerdy guys with pocket holders for their pens has turned into something of a free-for-all. It can be seen from the comfort of your kayak in an Eastern Shore salt marsh.

FLOP! Goes Their Argument

maureen_and_bob(1)By Peter Galuszka

How confusing can we make it?

Together, former Gov. Robert F. McDonnell and his wife Maureen had numerous conversations with businessman Jonnie R. Williams from 2011 until 2013 about more than $177,000 in gifts and loans. They were convicted of corruption in federal court on Sept. 4.

In an opinion piece that is breathing taking in its misrepresentation and confusion, Jim Bacon, Paul Goldman and Mark J. Rozell wrote in the Roanoke Times Sunday and on this blog that the government’s case against the McDonnells is substantially flawed because Bob McDonnell did not discuss terms on one of Williams’ loan  payments to them.

The opinion piece also says that U.S. Atty. Gen. Eric Holder must come clean about supposedly fiddling with evidence before the McDonnells are sentenced next year. The opinion piece fails to present any hard evidence that Holder did just this.

Their argument falls apart because Bob McDonnell did most definitely discuss loans and terms with Williams on several occasions.

Here’s what Bacon, Goldman and Rozell wrote:

“Prosecutors conceded Maureen McDonnell had personally asked Williams for the loan on May 2, 2011. She promised to reciprocate by helping Star. Williams testified understanding she spoke solely for herself, not her husband. Virginia’s first lady is not a public official under federal anti-corruption laws. While disgraceful, this two-way deal did not break the law.

“The Star pitchman personally delivered a $50,000 check payable to her on May 23 when they met at the Executive Mansion. Gov. McDonnell swore he didn’t learn about the check until two weeks afterwards. The prosecution self-evidentially believed it crucial to show his knowledge prior to her accepting the money.

“During testimony, Williams said he couldn’t remember when he spoke to the governor, or even whether he had spoken by telephone or in person. But he remained adamant, saying, “I am not writing his wife any checks without him knowing about it.”

But wait, here’s Trip Gabriel in the New York Times reporting about ANOTHER loan nearly one year later.

“Mr. Dry, who has led the federal investigation for 16 months, began the timeline with Mr. McDonnell’s own notes on a legal pad from Feb. 3, 2012, when he was negotiating a loan from Mr. Williams of Star Scientific.

“That initial deal was for 50,000 shares of Star Scientific stock, at $3.15 a share, worth more than $150,000, to be paid back with the repurchase of 50,000 shares at $1.90 a share. In other words, Mr. McDonnell would have had to repay a $150,000 loan with $90,000, after he was out of office, according to his own notes.

“Five days later, an aide to Mr. McDonnell sent an email saying Ms. McDonnell and the governor “were going over the list last night for the health care industry event.” The email indicated that both wanted Mr. Williams and his company at the event, where they could mix with university researchers in Virginia.

“On Feb. 9, Ms. McDonnell emailed her husband about potential clinical trials at the University of Virginia and Virginia Commonwealth University. “Here’s the info from Jonnie. He has calls into VCU, UVA and no one will return his calls,” she wrote.

“On Feb. 10, Ms. McDonnell emailed Jasen Eige, the governor’s senior policy adviser and lawyer, saying, “Gov wants to know why nothing has developed with studies.” Mr. McDonnell said he wanted no such thing.

“At 12:02 a.m., Feb. 17, Mr. McDonnell emailed Mr. Eige: “please see me about Anatabloc issues at VCU and UVA.” Four minutes later, the lawyer responded, “will do,” and added, “We need to be careful with this issue.”

“On Feb. 18, Mr. McDonnell personally emailed Mr. Williams to resume loan negotiations.

“Then on Feb. 29, Mr. McDonnell and Mr. Williams held a private meeting ostensibly on the health care leaders’ meeting that night. But the subject was the loan, which was growing more favorable. Mr. Williams offered 52,000 shares of Star Scientific, valued that day at $3.75 — a $187,000 offer, to be repaid with 50,000 shares repurchased at $2.20 a share, or $110,000.

“That night, less than five hours later, Mr. Williams was back at the Governor’s Mansion for the health care leaders’ meeting.

“Mr. McDonnell said the terms of the loan were of no consequence, since ultimately the stock loan fell through and he took $50,000 in cash for his real estate company, known as MoBo.

“Mr. Dry, if you are suggesting I got a $50,000 loan for MoBo in order to get Mr. Williams’ calls returned, you’re completely off base,” a prickly Mr. McDonnell snapped at one point.”

Hmm. Let’s see. We have one loan in 2011 apparently without Bob and another in 2012 with Bob (not to mention the golf bag, Ferrari, vacations, golf jackets, and so forth.)

The three authors have made a serious error by cherry picking one of several loans involving the McDonnells and Williams and making, forgive the pun, a federal case out of it. Flop goes their argument.