Category Archives: Science & Technology

My Drive Through Two West Virginias

A natural gas well fire in nothern West Virginia

A natural gas well fire in northern West Virginia

 By Peter Galuszka

It was a biting eight degrees when I hit the road in Beckley, W.Va. last Wednesday morning having held a book signing and given a talk in Charleston the night before.

I wanted to drive two hours up to Harrison County, where my family lived from 1962 to 1969, and see what had changed. I hadn’t been there in a few years.

Harrison and neighboring counties Doddridge and Lewis had long been coalfield areas along with natural gas. Coal had pretty much played out after the 1980s but there are still some big mines. Its real claim to fame is the underground rock formation ideal for glass-making. In the 1890s, it had attracted hundreds of craftsmen from Italy who made Clarksburg an important glass center and home to the locally-famous “Pepperoni Roll” – a small loaf of bread with a long stick of pepperoni inside.

As I drove up Interstate 79, I noticed the first signs of the area’s most recent transformation. There were plenty of oversized truck rigs with oddly-shaped machines. A number carried long steel pipes.

When I drove on familiar roads, I noticed that small lots that might have stored strip coal mine gear were all now filled with bright-orange wellheads. Davisson Run, a small creek where we used to hunt for frogs, is now near a large new building for Dominion Transmission — yes, that Dominion based in Richmond — which plans a $5 billion natural gas pipeline from the area through Virginia and North Carolina.

Welcome to Fracking Central. This part of northern West Virginia is booming thanks the Marcellus Shale formation rich with hard-to-get natural gas. In just a few years, hydraulic fracking, using high pressure water and powerful chemicals to fracture underground gas pockets and pump them out, has revolutionized the U.S. energy industry.

My mission (which failed) was to find a woman living in a rural house in the rolling hills and dairy farms of western Harrison County. She had been on YouTube two years ago complaining how her neighbor had sold gas rights and turned pleasant pastureland into an obnoxious industrial site with all-night floodlights and diesel generators roaring 24/7. Huge trucks carrying water for high pressure injection clogged narrow county roads.

I drove through Salem, a tiny college town, and noticed signs reading “Antero Resources” that reminded truck drivers supplying rigs to drive slowly and not to “Jake Brake” – use brakes on some trucks that make a loud, machine gun sound as they tap engine exhaust to slow down.

Antero Resources was a big clue. They are an independent gas and oil firm based in Denver that has hit the fracking craze in a big way. They have rights to something like 384,000 acres of gasland in the surrounding area. Having gone public only recently, the company has revenues that have zoomed from $195 million in 2011 to $259 million in 2012 to $689 million last year.

Antero has had its problems. In July 2013, “flowback” material from a Doddridge Count well exploded, badly burning five workers and killing two. Earlier this year, the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection issued a case operations order to Antero because of tank ruptures. The firm has also been accused of released methane into the private wells of 12 individuals.

I couldn’t find out if some are enjoying the economic benefits of fracking. One reads of people suddenly drawing $1 million a year in royalties. I did notice was that there was a lot more drilling support activity and more shopping malls.

My road trip was in marked contrast to one I had taken the day before in the southern part of West Virginia.

Upper Big Branch memorial in Whitesville

Upper Big Branch memorial in Whitesville

I was on my way to give a talk in Charleston about the paperback edition of my book “Thunder on the Mountain: Death at Massey and the Dirty Secrets Behind Big Coal.” I had the time so I chose to head up fateful Route 3 through the Coal River Valley where I have spent a lot of time in the past four years.

Route 3 in Raleigh County is a lot different from any road in Harrison County. The peaks are taller, steeper with more distinct hollers. Rock outcrops jam out at you, unlike the gently rolling hills of the north. The late fall sun is dramatically restricted.

This is the road that suddenly became flooded with ambulance and fire trucks on April 5, 2010. A huge explosion at the Upper Big Branch deep mine owned by then-Richmond-based Massey Energy killed 29 miners. Before then, it had been Ground Zero in the environmentalists’ vigorous war against Mountaintop Removal, which is strip mining on an obscenely large scale. Hundreds of feet of mountaintops are lopped off by gigantic drag lines. The leftover dirt and trees are dumped into creek beds destroying habitat.

I headed north along Big Coal River, which is anything but. Its valley provides just enough space for a road and a CSX rail line in some areas. I went past the new Marsh Fork Elementary School that Massey Energy was forced to build to replace one a few miles away that was threatened by its mine operations.

There was Jarrett’s store (new sign) where bystanders watched all the police cars and ambulances that fateful April day. Soon, the old Marsh Fork school appears. It had been a focus of yet another battle over coal but today it is abandoned and fenced in. Its playground is close to huge coal storage towers. Soaring above them is an earthen dam holding back a lake with about 3 billion gallons of toxic sludge.

There was very little activity – odd since the coal of the valley is the best in the world. Then it came – Upper Big Branch mine – lifeless. It was sealed after the disaster. Past roads with signs reading “Ambulance entrance” there was the portal where the UBB miners came and went. There is a lonely memorial of 29 black helmets at the base of a steel tower. Another memorial to them is a few miles north at Whitesville – a classic coal town filled with empty stores, although the florist shop is still busy.

No coal trucks, no pickups, for miles. The only activity was at the Elk Run deep mine at the very top of Route 3.

Why? One reason is that fracked natural gas from Harrison County and its region is stealing electric utility market share away from coal.

The other reason is Asia’s economic slowdown. Coal River and UBB provide metallurgical coal used for export to smelt steel in foreign mills. (They don’t anything to do with “Keeping Our Lights On” as the pro-coal propagandists say.) Met coal can be enormously lucrative but its prices are down two thirds from three years ago.

That’s bad news for Bristol-based Alpha Natural Resources, which bought out Massey for $7 billion after the disaster. Alpha is in such bad straits that hedge funds are lining its stock up for shorting trades, according to this morning’s Wall Street Journal.

Well, that’s my road trip. Not to worry, though, I’ll be back soon. The criminal trial of Donald L. Blankenship, former Massey CEO and otherwise known as “The Dark Lord of the Coalfields,” starts Jan. 26 in U.S. District Court in Beckley.

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.

Former Massey Coal Chief Indicted

DonBlankenshipBy Peter Galuszka

The indictment today in Charleston, W.Va. of coal baron Donald L. Blankenship, the former head of the notorious Massey Energy Company, for violating federal mine safety and securities laws, has been long awaited, especially by the families of the 29 miners who died on April 5, 2010 in a huge explosion at Massey’s Upper Big Branch mine in Montcoal, W.Va.

It was the worst coal mine disaster in this country in 40 years. It topped off a wild run by Blankenship, who thought he had political potential and spoke for the Appalachian coalfields while dodging safety violations and blowing away mountains in horrific surface mining practices.

He was a poster man for the view, popular among this country’s business elite, that cost cutting and productivity are sacrosanct, human lives are cheap and environmental concerns such as climate change are mere diversions from the country’s true goals. At one point he literally wrapped himself up in the American flag to push his ideas.

A federal grand jury today turned those arguments on their heads. The four charges accuse Blankenship of conspiracy in blunting the numerous federal safety violations that lead to the catastrophic disaster at the Upper Big Branch mine.

For several years leading up to that fateful day, Blankenship allegedly connived to ignore concerns that the mine had broken equipment and excessively high levels of highly inflammable coal dust. He also is accused of keeping federal mine inspectors from doing their jobs.

The grand jury also claims that Blankenship violated federal securities laws by giving investors misleading information about Massey stock.

Blankenship was a huge celebrity in the Appalachian coalfields. Tying himself to a reactionary ideal of doing what he thought was best for America, he spent a million dollars at what was an anti-Labor Day celebration in West Virginia in 2009. He wore a costume formed from an American flag and hired testosterone-infused country music stars Hank Williams Jr. and Ted Nugent to entertain his crowd.

The irony was that it was a holiday to celebrate labor unions while Blankenship and his firm were notorious for union-busting. He also had a habit of taking the chief justice of the West Virginia supreme court on vacation on the French Riviera.

Another irony is that Blankenship, like much of the U.S. coal industry, promotes the propaganda that there is a “War on Coal” and that coal is essential to “keeping our lights on.” Never mind that the free market and the flow of natural gas from hydraulic fracturing drilling from the very same area, not the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, are what is really hurting the Appalachian steam coal market.

The coal mined at Upper Big Branch, however, had nothing to do with power generation. It was metallurgical coal that was exported to make steel in markets such as China. At the time of Upper Big Branch, China’s steel market was hot and met coal prices were going through the roof.

The indictment reads that the group of mines associated with Upper Big Branch “generated revenues of approximately $331 million, which represented 14 percent of Massey’s approximately $2.3 billion in in revenue.” Obviously, it was in Blankenship’s interest to keep the steel-making coal flowing.

In that process, according to the indictments, Blankenship oversaw efforts to cut corners, dodge safety issues and keep miners on edge. They are rich in detail about poor ventilation; flawed water sprays to keep explosive coal dust down and warning when federal coal inspectors were on the prowl.

After he was forced to resign from Massey Energy with an over-sized golden parachute, Blankenship kept quiet for a couple for of years. Recently he came back on the scene with a self-made documentary just on the eve of the fourth anniversary of the Upper Big Branch disaster. The movie was so tasteless that even Joe Manchin, a U.S. Senator from West Virginia who was quoted in the film, disassociated himself from it. Families of the dead mines were appalled.

The long-in-coming indictments illustrate the problems of coal as an energy and steel source and just how its issues have been ignored in the Appalachians for about 150 years. In the past, huge mine disasters, such as the 1968 blast at Farmington W.Va. that killed 78, sparked real safety reform.

Not so after Upper Big Branch. Pro-coal Republicans in Congress have blocked bills to toughen rules. This is a reason why the federal indictments are so important. They show that leading a culture of safety laxity will no longer be tolerated.

It may be curious that Blankenship’s indictments come just after President Barack Obama has just agreed to a turning point treaty with heavy polluter China to cut carbon emissions. But they should give some closure to long-festering problems in a part of the United States where industrial death and destruction are considered business as usual.

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.

Dominion Responds to My Renewable Energy Post

Dominion logoBy Peter Galuszka

In recent days, there’s been a plenty of discussion about renewable energy.  After I wrote two posts,  Chester “Chet” Wade, a senior spokesman for Dominion Resources, called me to take issue with some of my ideas. I  offered him space to explain Dominion’s views. Here is his response:

Your follow-up column has the same shortcoming as the first one. They both ignore the facts that don’t support your conclusion.

We discussed a lot of issues on the phone. As I said, my point on contributions was that you were being selective in your reporting and unchallenging of the other side. We don’t mind being asked tough questions, but we think others should face the same level of scrutiny. That disparity seems to be present again.

Here are some of the other points you left out from our conversation, along with additional details:

Approximately half the electricity Dominion produced last year came from carbon-free nuclear and renewable sources. Our carbon intensity is among the best in the nation, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council. At the same time our electric rates in Virginia are 14.7 percent below the national average, and our reliability is at an all-time high. All are important points to those who depend on us for their energy.

Dominion values renewable energy as part of a diverse, clean mix of power generation to provide reliable, affordable energy.   For example, in Virginia, Dominion operates more renewable biomass than any other utility in the nation.  We’ve invested in biomass, because it is cost effective and can run around the clock.

We’ve also invested in solar energy with our innovative Solar Partnership Program, and we are a leader in developing offshore wind. The U.S. Department of Energy awarded a Dominion-led team $47 million to develop a Virginia pilot project aimed at making offshore wind more affordable.

Dominion did not “squelch” the solar project at Washington & Lee, as you reported. We reached an agreement that allowed the project to go forward.

The Sierra Club’s “analysis” of renewable energy standards you cited is specious, at best.  For example, it fails to mention that states with mandatory renewable portfolio standards also typically have significantly higher electricity prices.

And it does not mention that West Virginia has an alternative and renewable energy standard that counts natural gas, coal bed methane, waste coal, and pumped storage hydro. By that same standard, Dominion has more than 9,000 megawatts of alternative and renewable energy. And that total does not include wind or solar energy we have outside of Virginia.

Your column also touted West Virginia as a regional leader in wind production. What it missed is that we own 50 percent of West Virginia’s largest wind farm, paid for not by our utility customers but by our shareholders.  On the other hand, an onshore wind project we proposed for Virginia withered with virtually no support from the Sierra Club.

Producing affordable, reliable and clean energy requires a balance. That balance was sadly missing from your column.

 

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.