Category Archives: Science & Technology

The Perils of Gas Fracking

By Peter Galuszka

More media accounts are showing up now that 84,000 acres of lands south and east of Fredericksburg have been leased for possible hydraulic fracturing drilling for natural gas.

This Sunday’s Richmond Times-Dispatch published a map showing the leased area covering big swaths of land from the Fort A.P. Hill military area east across the Rappahanock River on  into the historic Northern Neck. These are some of the loveliest parts of the Old Dominion, featuring  sloping valleys, rich bottom lands and meandering creeks and rivers that are filled with wildlife, not to mention farms and homes.

The newspaper quoted Mike Ward, executive director of the Virginia Petroleum Council proclaiming fracking as being safe and that the construction activity to place wells only takes a few months. “It’s like a construction site,” Ward said. “As it’s being done, there is going to be truck traffic. There’s going to be noise. There’s going to be some dust in the air. There’s going to be mud around the area. But that’s short-lived.”

Really? To be a better idea, I started surfing YouTube to see what the local impact of constructing fracking wells is really like. I happened upon several films from rural Harrison County, W.Va., an area where I lived as a child from 1962 to 1969.

The videos show an area in western Harrison County near the college town of Salem in landscape surrounded by rolling hills and dairy farms. There has been coal mining in the area and natural gas has been around for decades, but fracking wells are something new.

The videos depict an ongoing nightmare for neighbors who have found their quiet, bucolic existence interrupted 24/7 by the roaring of diesel generators, huge floodlights, and many, many trucks. One woman says that the well site across her road starts up around 4 a.m. and she can’t get back to sleep so she’s constantly tired when she goes to work.

Water and construction trucks, many 18-wheelers, are a big problem. They sideswipe cars on rural, two-lane roads or block traffic for a half an hour after they get stuck trying to turn around. The heavy trucks crumble pavement on country roads. Some local ones have had to be repaved four times since drill site preparation began a couple of years ago when the fracking craze began.

It seems likely that areas near Fredericksburg and on the Northern Neck and Middle Peninsula will taste some of the same problems if fracking begins. The Taylorsville Basin in the area may hold 1 trillion cubic feet of gas.

Further questions abound about the company that’s putting together leases for the area. It is an obscure company called Shore Exploration & Production Co. with offices in Dallas and Bowling Green. The plan, company officials have said, is to put buy up gas leases and then flip them to a drilling company.

The company insists it won’t use a “watery” method of fracking but can’t seem to explain its supposed substitute which is to use some form of nitrogen. In West Virginia, wells can need up to five million gallons of water that must be trucked in. Does this mean that trucks carrying nitrogen will come in instead?

Answers seem to be as fleeting as the Shore company which has two full-time employees and has no annual report or website. It has never drilled a well itself, just exploratory ones. One official told a newspaper that having an annual report and website “would provide information to competitors.”

That statement alone should give tremendous pause. What happens if you live in the country of the Northern Neck and a gas well emerges next door? What happens if your life is disrupted by 24-hour diesel generators, lights and dozens of heavy trucks? What happens if the “flow-back” ponds that contain waste, including radioactive material and methane from the drilling area below, breach?

Eastern Virginia is not used to such challenges. As a former resident of West Virginia where such challenges are common, I know well what this kind of set-up can mean, especially in Virginia that has some gas wells in its southwestern tip but has little experience with fracking.

The Demon in the Machine

Chris Spencer

Chris Spencer

By James A. Bacon

On Oct. 25, 2013, Chris Urmson, a leader of Google’s autonomous car project, proclaimed that legal and regulatory problems posed no major barrier to the commercialization of Self-Driving Cars (SDCs). When accidents did occur, he told attendees of the RoboBusiness conference in Santa Clara, Calif., data collected by the cars would provide an accurate picture of exactly who was responsible. He shared data from a Google car that had been rear-ended by another driver. The annotated map of the car’s surroundings clearly indicated that it had halted smoothly before being struck by the other vehicle.

“We don’t have to rely on eyewitnesses that can’t act be trusted as to what happened—we actually have the data,” Urmson said. “The guy around us wasn’t paying enough attention. The data will set you free.”

The very same day, Toyota settled a case in which an Oklahoma City jury had awarded $3 million for a 2005 incident in which a Camry driven by 76-year-old Jean Bookout had accelerated out of control. Bookout had said she tried to use the foot brake and emergency brake to no avail. Toyota lawyers had argued that she must have hit the gas instead. At issue was the performance of an electronic throttle control system that replaced mechanical links between the accelerator pedal and the throttle in older models. Siding with Bookout, the jury bought the story that the electronic throttle was flawed.

Google may have data on its side but accident victims sometimes have judges and juries on their side. Toyota had won all previous unintended-acceleration cases and an exhaustive study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration could find no flaw in the brake’s computer code, but the judge instructed the Oklahoma City jury that it could find a product defective even if no defect could be identified.

“It opened the floodgates,” says Chris Spencer, a Richmond, Va., attorney who has represented automobile manufacturers in hundreds of cases, including dozens that have gone to trial and reached a jury verdict. “All a lawyer has to do is get his client to say, ‘I did nothing wrong but something went wrong – it must have been the vehicle’s fault.’”

(Cross posted from the Datamorphosis blog.)

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Silicon Valley Knows Technology, Not Land Use

Apple headquarters, Cupertino, Calif.

Apple headquarters, Cupertino, Calif. Impressive facade but poor public spaces.

by James A. Bacon

Apple, Google and other collosi of Silicon Valley are re-shaping the world with their technology but you could never imagine them as masters of innovation by viewing their corporate campuses. While the office interiors may be arrayed with java bars and collaborative workplaces to stimulate creativity, the building exteriors are for the most part bland steel-and-glass boxes of a type that can be found anywhere in the United States. Moreover, surrounded by parking lots and landscaping, the buildings are isolated — islands in a sea of mulch and asphalt. Creativity and interaction end at the front door. The streets, sidewalks and other pieces of the public realm are innovation dead zones.

That was the impression I gained from the Bacon family’s whirlwind tour of Silicon Valley earlier this week that took in the corporate headquarters not only of Apple and Google but Hewlett-Packard, Yahoo! and LinkedIn. Perhaps we arrived at the wrong time of year, the wrong time of the week or the wrong hour of the day but we saw almost nothing going on. Most of the street-level activity at Apple was generated by tourist traffic to the Apple store. The environs of the famed Googleplex were even more desolate.

google_bikes

Vaughn and Wilson in “The Internship.”

I was expecting bustling outdoor scenes like those shown in the movie, “The Internship,” in which Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn finagled their way into summer jobs at Google and into movie goers’ hearts. We didn’t see bupkis. I sneaked around the back of one of the buildings in the Googleplex and did discover an inviting patio with bright umbrellas but didn’t see anyone except a couple of maintenance guys standing around and shooting the breeze. As we drove around the Google corporate campus with its dozens of buildings, we did espy one multi-colored Google bike leaning against a wall and we did spot one fellow riding down the road, but we saw hardly anyone walking outside. Undoubtedly, billions of neurons were burning brightly inside Google’s buildings — but there was no sign of the company’s massive brainpower on display outside. It turns out that, according to CNN, much of the movie wasn’t filmed at Google at all — but the Georgia Institute of Technology campus in Atlanta!

The Google H.Q. is so low-key in appearance, we wondered if we had the right place. According to the Google corporate address listed in Google maps, we did.

The Google H.Q. is so low-key in appearance, we wondered if we had the right place. This is where Google Maps led us.

Who cares whether the innovation occurs inside or outside? Why mess with a proven formula? More to the point, what does a techno-tard like me have useful to say to the likes of Apple and Google, two of the greatest wealth creation machines in human history?

I didn’t visit Silicon Valley with the idea of lecturing the region’s political, business and civic leaders how to improve, which would be incredibly presumptuous on my part. I visited to learn what lessons other communities might learn. Scores of regions around the United States yearn to re-create some of the valley’s technology magic, and I worry they could draw the wrong conclusions. The one dimension of Silicon Valley that others can most readily replicate is its “suburban sprawl” pattern of development — and that would be the worst possible lesson to take away.

Apple parking lot

The parking lots outside Apple’s headquarters are beautifully landscaped but they wall off pedestrian access to the world outside.

I would humbly suggest that Silicon Valley has been insanely successful in spite of its dysfunctional human settlement patterns. Combine world-class research universities, the largest venture capital community in the world and an unparalleled workforce, then shake and stir. You’ll get technological innovation. Silicon Valley’s corporations can create a built environment that discourages interaction outside the firm and it doesn’t matter — the advantages of a Silicon Valley location far outweigh the drawbacks. But no one else has Silicon Valley’s potent mix of research universities, venture capitalists and the smartest engineers drawn from around the world. Other communities need every competitive advantage they can muster — and smarter land use patterns is one of them.

As Hans Johannson has argued in his book, “The Medici Effect,” innovation comes at the intersection — the intersection of different industries, disciplines, cultures or ways of thinking — that allow people to make unlikely combinations of ideas. Some places lend themselves to that kind of interaction, others don’t. Based on her experience living in Greenwich Village a generation ago, renowned urbanist Jane Jacobs brilliantly argued that sidewalks, small parks and mixed uses lent themselves to the kind of meetings and encounters, often serendipitous, where different perspectives and ideas can collide. To spawn entrepreneurship from the ground up, those are the kinds of neighborhoods and communities that aspiring tech centers should be creating.

The built environment of Silicon Valley is Northern Virginia with palm trees — predominantly single-family houses, strip malls and office parks. Thanks to municipal codes and NIMBYs, the region can increase density only sparingly, so it cannot grow “up” by building taller buildings. But wedged between the bay to the north and mountains to the south, it cannot grow “out” through additional sprawl. As a consequence, real estate prices are incredibly high. The cost of housing across the Valley and throughout the entire Bay area is consistently cited as one of the greatest hindrances to living there. The number of homeless in the San Jose metro region, according to the Wall Street Journal, numbers roughly 7,600. To adopt similar land use policies would suicidal for any other region.

Municipal leaders recognize these shortcomings and are attempting belatedly and with mixed results to deal with them. I will discuss two such initiatives in Sunnyvale, as time permits.

April Is The Cruelest Month

deepwaterBy Peter Galuszka

April is the cruelest month, especially for brutal energy disasters.

This Sunday is the fourth anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon offshore drilling blowout that killed 11 and caused one of the country’s worst environmental disasters. April 5 was the fourth anniversary of the Upper Big Branch coal mine explosion in West Virginia that killed 29.

What lessons have been learned from both? Not a hell of a lot. In both cases, badly needed, tougher regulations to prevent such messes from happening again go languishing while politicians – including Virginia’s Democratic Governor Terry McAuliffe – say move on fast for more exploitation of energy resources including in Virginia’s sensitive offshore waters.

Take Deepwater Horizon. The rig linked to British Petroleum in the Gulf of Mexico was tapping reserves 5,000 feet down. When the rig hit a rough patch, the blowback exploded upwards, racking the surface part with explosion and fires. Down below, a blowout protector was supposed to swing into action, chop into the pipe and shut down any flow. That didn’t happen and oil flowed freely at the bottom until July 15 generating one of the biggest oil spills ever.

Four years later, what has been done? According to experts S. Elizabeth Birnbaum, and Jacqueline Savitz, not enough. In December 2011, the National Academy of Engineering reported that Deepwater’s blowout preventer had never been designed or tested for the conditions that occurred and that other rigs may have the same problem.

Sixteen months later, nothing has been done in terms of new regulations – not even proposed one. It sounds as if that socialist-minded, regulation maniac Barack Obama is actually off the job. Meanwhile, McAuliffe changed his mind about the risks of offshore drilling and has jumped on board the Republican bandwagon led by former Gov. Robert F. McDonnell to expose Virginians to similar dangers.

McAuliffe’s turnaround came last year during the gubernatorial campaign. According to the Washington Post: “Terry has learned more about offshore drilling from experts in Virginia,” said McAuliffe spokesman Josh Schwerin. “He thinks that because of technological progress we can now do it in a responsible fashion.”

Say what? Maybe he should take a trip to Brazil and Norway that have more advanced blow-out preventers and policies. By the way, Democrat Mark Warner, running for re-election for U.S. Senate, is for offshore drilling as well.

If you really want to see evidence of the lack of regulation, check out Upper Big Branch owned by the former, Richmond-based Massey Energy.

The firm was notorious for its anti-regulation, anti-labor union policies led by its in-your-face chief executive Don Blankenship. Four reports say that Massey’s lax safety standards allowed the disaster to happen, including letting badly maintained equipment be used and not taking measures to keep highly explosive coal dust from building up. A flame caused by a ball of flaming methane touched off the dust leading to an underground blast that covered seven miles underground. In the process, 29 miners were either blown apart of asphyxiated in the worst coal mine disaster in 40 years.

Every mine event has led to some kind of regulatory reform such as the one at Farmington, W.Va. that killed 78 in 1968 and the Buffalo Creek W.Va. coal sludge pond breach and flood that killed 125 in 1972.

Post-Upper Big Branch reforms have been proposed, notably the Robert C. Byrd bill that would protect whistleblowers, hold boards of directors responsible for knowing and doing nothing about safety threats and giving the feds subpoena power which, incredibly, they do not now have in the case of mine safety. The Department of Agriculture can subpoena records in the case of possible milk or meat price-fixing, but the Mine Safety and Health Administration cannot in the case of human miners.

The Byrd bill is all but dead mostly because of the Republican controlled House of Representatives where the majority leader is none-other than business toady Eric Cantor of Henrico County.

And if you want to understand just how little miners’ lives are regarded, compare the media coverage of Deepwater Horizon versus Upper Big Branch. I guess you could say that in the media’s eyes, the life of an offshore rig worker is worth 2.6 times that of a coal miner.  Six months after Deepwater, there were at least six books about the disaster. Four years after Upper Big Branch there is one book about it and it happens to be mine.

So, this Sunday, I propose a toast to the dead oil rig workers and coal miners. Let’s not allow their souls to stay on our consciences. Let’s have anti-regulation reign in the name of free market economic policies and profits! It doesn’t matter if you are a Republican or a Democrat. Salute!

Fracking the Mother of Presidents

fracking rigBy Peter Galuszka

Controversial hydraulic fracking appears to becoming a distinct possibility in areas south and east of Fredericksburg on land that is famed for its bucolic and watery splendors along with being the birthplaces of such historical figures as George Washington, James Monroe and Robert E. Lee.

After several years of exploring and buying up 84,000 acres worth of leases from Carolina to Westmoreland Counties, a Dallas-based company that uses a post office box as its headquarters address participated in the first-ever public discussion of what its plans may be.

According to the Free-Lance Star, the meeting was put together by King George County Supervisor Rudy Brabo to air concerns and hear plans of Shore Exploration and Production Co., which is based in Dallas and has offices in Bowling Green. Its headquarters address is registered with the State Corporation Commission as P.O. Box 38101 in Dallas.

About 100 people attended the meeting April 14, but judging from the newspaper’s account, not many questions were answered. Participants repeatedly asked Shore CEO Ed DeJarnette what his plans were regarding fracking and who would be responsible for damages if something went wrong.

DeJarnette responded that his firm is merely buying up leases and is looking to sell them to other gas drillers and operators. The state’s Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy issues permits one at a time and is responsible for enforcing them, he said.

Hydraulic fracking and horizontal drilling have touched off a revolution in the American energy industry in recent years, particularly in the Marcellus Shale gas formations that stretch in the Appalachians from New York State to southwest Virginia. The methods have also been used to reach rich shale oil deposits in North Dakota and other western states.

Fracking has been used as a drilling process for years according to media accounts and authors such as Gregory Zuckerman whose recent book “The Frackers” covers the process’s increasingly widespread use in the past several years.

Among concerns are that the toxic chemicals mixed with water and then pumped hundreds of feet underground could eventually ruin groundwater serving streams and wells. Other concerns are that the inevitable “flowback” in drilling will require surface ponds to handle toxic waste. In places such as Pennsylvania and West Virginia where fracking is permitted, quiet country areas are badly disturbed by the roar of diesel generators at drilling sites and from trucks that are constantly delivering drilling supplies. Methane can leak from drilling rigs, further complicating global warming issues, and flash fires can be problems. Fracking can also consume great amounts of water which often has to be trucked in.

On the plus side, holders of mineral leases can receive great sums in royalties and various taxes and other payments can boost local tax coffers. Natural gas is cleaner and less deadly source of energy than coal, plays a big role in electricity power generation in the Mid-Atlantic.

At the King George meeting, DeJarnette told the audience that he preferred using nitrogen as an element in fracking rather than water, but there were few details in the newspaper story.

While providing scarce details on who would actually handle the drilling, how it would be done and who would be responsible for damages, DeJarnette repeatedly emphasized the monetary benefits and jobs fracking would bring.

If it proceeds, fracking in the Taylorsville Basin would likely be confined to Virginia, which is more business-friendly than Maryland where the basin also extends. The field stretches across the Potomac River into Charles, St. Mary’s, Calvert and Anne Arundel Counties but Maryland has a moratorium on fracking until it can be studied further.

DeJarnette says he wants drilling to start by late this year or in 2015. Major oil firms explored the Northern Neck area and found some evidence of oil and gas deposits there in the 1980s.

Rethinking Online Classes at U.Va.

President Sullivan

President Sullivan

By Peter Galuszka

Just two years after the University of Virginia weathered a crisis and the short-lived resignation of its president for supposedly not embracing online education fast enough, Mr. Jefferson’s school is taking a cautious approach about Web-based courses.

This is a good thing, despite the excitement over having thousands of distant students sign up for MOOCs, or large scale college online courses, and expect to instantly log on to all the good things universities offer with supposedly few of the negatives.

Although U.Va. does participate in offering online courses through Coursera, they are not for college credit and Virginia is not following the example of Georgia Tech which is offering an entire degree program via the net.

The Daily Progress reports that U.Va. administrators and professors are worried that it is too easy for unseen students to cheat on the courses – an important consideration due to U.Va.’s strict honor code. Other problems are the high dropout rate of MOOCs and the fact that they may be best suited for introductory courses because professorial classroom involvement is important for more advanced ones.

These views raise questions after all the hype about MOOCs, including many posts on the blog. A special irony is that just two year’s ago, U.Va.’s highly capable and popular President Theresa Sullivan was forced to resign in Board of Visitors putsch led by chairman Helen Dragas supposedly because of her lack of enthusiasm in embracing new technologies.

One well-known blogger wrote a gushy lead paragraph on a posting stating that “Helen Drags gets it.” Err, maybe not, because Sullivan was reinstated after a huge outcry within the U.Va. community and after major, negative world media coverage.

Elsewhere, MOOCs do seem to be gaining some traction. One at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill noted that a Tar Heel course got 30,000 sign ups on-line.

But a University of Pennsylvania study showed that of 16 open online courses the school offered, fewer than half of all registrants even watched the first lecture.

So, it seems that MOOCs are going through a period of adjustment. And, they are politically charged since many conservatives, still angry over social changes in the 1960s and 1970s, see MOOCs as a way to overcome what they view as the overweening political bias of cossetted universities.

As the Daily Tarheel at UNC reports: “Rob Schofield,, director of research and policy development for the left-leaning think tank N.C. Policy Watch, said though MOOCs have many positive aspects, there are drawbacks.

“This problem is especially worrisome in the current political environment in which far-right politicians are doing everything they can to de-fund public schools and universities and turn them into on-the-cheap education factories,” he said.

Luckily for the Old Dominion, the University of Virginia is evaluating MOOCs with its eyes open.

Is Blackwater Successor in Ukraine?

blackwaterBy Peter Galuszka

A private security company with ties to Virginia and northeastern North Carolina has been linked to rising tensions between Ukraine and Russia that some fear could turn into war.

The Russian Foreign Ministry issued a statement April 8 saying that a security firm named “Greystone” that is tied historically to the defunct and controversial Blackwater special security operations company has sent “about 150” mercenaries to Ukraine disguised as a military unit called “Falcon.”

A spokeswoman for Greystone denied to ABC news that the firm was involved with Ukraine while other news outlets were told the firm had no comment.

Greystone is registered in Bermuda, according to ABC. It was at one time linked to Blackwater although its ties to Xe Services and Academi which succeeded Blackwater after its demise are unclear.

Blackwater was founded by Erik Prince, a former Navy SEAL, in Moyock, N.C., near the Virginia border.  It hired former special forces military and used a swampy tract for training. The Moyock operations is close to a Navy facility at Dam Neck in Virginia Beach which is the base for the SEALs’ Team Six that tracked down and killed terrorist Osama bin Laden.

Blackwater was hired by the Bush Administration to handle security for officials and other duties in Iraq. Employees of the Blackwater firm were involved in the shooting of 17 people in Baghdad in 2007 and the firm was later banned from U.S. government work after a slew of problems in Iraq, Sudan and other countries.. During the controversy, it changed its name to Xe Services and then again to Academi, which has its headquarters in McLean. Prince has left the company.

Greystone, ABC reports, was formed as a sister company of Blackwater to handle security matters for foreign clients while Blackwater concentrated on U.S. government contracts.

The Russian government started accusing both Blackwater and Greystone of being involved in Ukraine last month although U.S. officials have denied it. Tensions have risen after Ukraine’s pro-Russian president was ousted and Russia seized Crimea. Russia has thousands of troops massed on the Ukrainian border.

Another footnote in this strange tale: a director of Academi is retired Navy admiral Bobby Ray Inman, who is a former head of the National Security Agency, a deputy director of the CIA and a former head of naval intelligence. Inman also had been a director of as the last board chairman of then-Richmond-based Massey Energy, which was forced to be sold to Alpha Natural Resources after a deadly explosion at a West Virginia coal mine.

I’m not making this up.

Tech Insurrection

AnthonyTownsendSmart cities, says Anthony Townsend, will be forged by geeks, activists and civic hackers through bottom-up technological innovation.

By James A. Bacon

Anthony M. Townsend, a research scientist at New York University, has made a big splash with his book, “Smart Cities: Big Data, Civic Hackers, and the Quest for a New Utopia,” in which he makes the case for a bottom-up, technology-driven transformation of the world’s cities.  But he’s not satisfied with preaching from his academic perch on how a grassroots movement of civic hackers is rewriting the social contract between citizens and government. He is taking active part.

As audacious as it may sound, Townsend hopes to build a peoples’ wireless telecommunications system on the New Jersey coast in place of the ATT and Verizon networks that failed during Hurricane Sandy. He is one of a group of citizen volunteers in the Hoboken area who are patching together a distributed wireless network at very little cost. Paralleling the municipal Wi-Fi movement of a decade ago, each participant contributes a piece of the network. The trick is to tie all the pieces together.

“For $60 we can configure a radio that someone can take to their house and point to our rooftop tower,” he explains. The devices discover one another and, in the fashion of a bucket brigade, pass packets of information from one to another. “We’re putting a network together with our bare hands and spare change.”

The reward will be reliable, almost no-cost Internet service that should have enough redundancy built in to withstand another hurricane. Elevating the network to a level of performance on a par with the incumbent providers will be a challenge, Townsend admits.  There will be gaps in their system. But the plug-and-play, distributed nature of their system will cost a tiny fraction of what the telecoms spend on cell towers, infrastructure and other overhead. “It’s very cheap and easy to build,” he says. “We’ll be a lab to test it in the real world.”

Imagine the same kind of technological disruption applied to the electric grid, mass transit, paid transport services, parking, municipal lighting, water and sewer, education and other municipal systems. Then imagine technology applications that no one in municipal government or the Fortune 500 companies are even thinking about – like citizens collaborating to monitor the environment. Municipal government could become unrecognizable. Indeed, it’s no exaggeration to say that, if Townsend’s vision pans out, institutions for providing utilities and local government services will be reinvented on a scale not seen since the early 1900s.

The agents of disruption likely will not be municipal governments themselves, nor even the big technology companies and management consulting firms peddling efficiency and productivity solutions to local governments, says Townsend. The innovators will be tech-savvy citizens – civic hackers – who exploit the rapidly declining cost of sensors, microchips, wireless connectivity and networking technologies to conduct lots of experiments, learn rapidly and disseminate best practices around the globe. Already, he says, “The really transformative things are built by hackers, artists and entrepreneurs that are very end-user focused.”

Needless to say, there is some very smart money – with very deep pockets – that says Townsend is wrong. Tech giants like Cisco and IBM see local government, utilities and infrastructure as an emerging multitrillion-dollar market. At the 2014 Consumer Electronics Show, Cisco CEO John Chambers forecast cumulative revenue and productivity gains for the government sector globally to reach $4.6 trillion by 2020. Big Tech promises the ability to monitor things that have never been monitored, collect unprecedented volumes of data and crunch the numbers to identify patterns and anomalies that municipal managers had not noticed. By reducing leakage from water pipes, improving police response times, coordinating traffic signals and reducing power usage by street lights, technology companies promise billions of dollars in savings. Equally ambitious, IBM markets a “decision support system” that accesses vaults of under-utilized municipal data to analyze the interaction between everything from building permits to high school drop-out rates, housing vacancies to commuting times, to help managers and elected officials understand how investing money in one government sector will reverberate through the system to impact other sectors.

In a recent online debate with Townsend organized by the Economist magazine, Irving Wladawsky-Berger, a VP emeritus with IBM, argued against the proposition that “smart cities are empty hype,” insisting that top-down governance could work. “Digital technologies and the many data services they are enabling will significantly transform cities and make them smarter,” wrote the IBM executive. “These are highly complex projects, requiring considerable research and experimentation. As is generally the case with disruptive technologies, it is all likely to take longer than we anticipate, but the eventual impact will probably be deeper and more transformative than we imagine.” Not surprisingly, Wladesky-Berger sees the big corporations playing a major role.

Taking the position that smart cities are hype, Townsend raised the specter of tech companies creating proprietary “urban operating systems” and ecosystems of software vendors that extract royalties for “shuttling our money and data around smart cities.”  Worse, he said, “once ensconced, these firms will be nearly impossible to dislodge.” Read more.

(Cross posted from the Datamorphosis blog.)

An Ex-Coal Baron’s Strange Movie

Blankenship

Blankenship

By Peter Galuszka

Almost four years after 29 miners employed by then Richmond-based Massey Energy were killed in a West Virginia mine explosion, its former chief executive under federal investigation for widespread safety violations has come forward with an apparently self-funded “documentary” proclaiming his innocence.

Donald Blankenship released the film “Upper Big Branch, Never Again” this week which reiterates his claims that he and the firm were innocent of wrongdoing and that an unexpected flood of natural gas and meddling by federal regulators caused the blast.

Three investigations have cited Blankenship and Massey for a culture of cost-cutting  and ignoring safety problems. So far, four former Massey employees have been imprisoned for related convictions.

The strange, 51-minute film brought immediate demands for its retraction by U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia who claims he did not know of Blankenship’s involvement when was interviewed for the film  being played on YouTube. Manchin is shown making what seem to be supportive statements of coal in general and, presumably, Blankenship.

The film also features interviews with E. Morgan Massey, a retired Massey executive who lives in Richmond. Another is University of Utah mining professor named Tom Hethmon who has told National Public Radio that he was also misled about the film and wants nothing to do with it.

The movie was made by a Chesapeake –based firm called Adroit Films whose officials have refused to tell reporters who funded the production.

In the film, Blankenship, Massey and Stanley Suboleski, a former Massey director who lives in Chesterfield County, repeat earlier claims that the explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine in Montcoal, W.Va. on April 5, 2010 was caused by an unexpected flood of natural gas. The explosion was affected by what Blankenship claims were wrong-headed demands by the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration to change the ventilation system which stretches for more than seven miles underground.

An MSHA probe along with one ordered by Manchin when he was state governor claim that the blast was caused when badly-maintained mining equipment hit a pocket of gas that touched off a huge coal dust explosion. The company was required but failed to keep highly combustible coal dust at bay by spraying mine shafts with powdered limestone, investigators say.

After he was forced out as Massey’s CEO in 2010 and the company was sold in 2011 for $7 billion to Alpha Natural Resources of Bristol, Blankenship kept a low profile.  He stirred to life about a year ago when he launched a website offering his views that coal is overregulated and that global warming is a hoax.He is also well-known for his staunchly anti-labor views and his support for mountaintop removal mining methods that are highly destructive of watersheds, wildlife and landscapes.

The film also shows footage of President Barack Obama as if to suggest a connection between him and the mine blast. At the time, Obama had been in office for a little more than a year. In other words, if he mangled the coal industry, he did so in a remarkably short period of time. The film also revives “War on Coal” footage shot during the 2012 presidential campaign. It tends to suggest that the coal mined at Upper Big Branch was used to generate electricity for America’s benefit when, in fact, all of it was of a metallurgical variety bound for export to foreign steel mills.

Another odd aspect of the film is why Manchin would agree to an interview with filmmakers he did not know. When I was researching my 2012 book “Thunder on the Mountain: Death at Massey and the Dirty Secrets Behind Big Coal” (St. Martin’s Press), I could only talk to Manchin and other elected officials at public events, although Massey, Suboleski and other former company officials spoke with me at length. Blankenship declined to be interviewed.

Federal prosecutors in West Virginia say that their ongoing probe may extend to top officers and directors of the defunct firm. It is unclear why Blankenship made the movie now.

Full Disclosure: I have been interviewed and have acted as an unpaid consultant for an upcoming documentary  titled “Blood on the Mountain” produced by Evening Star Productions.

Mark Warner: Let’s Out-Gas Putin

 mark warnerBy Peter Galuszka

One way to clip the wings of Russian President Vladimir Putin and his aggressive land grabs, says U.S. Sen. Mark Warner who is running for reelection, is to expedite permitting of the 20 or so proposals to export liquefied natural gas, including one by Richmond-based Dominion Resources.

“Most of Europe and Ukraine are heavily dependent on Russian gas in particular for their energy use,” Warner told reporters. Europe depends on Russia for 30 percent of its gas.

It is true that hydraulic fracking has turned the oil and gas business in the U.S. upside down by creating such a flood of products that the U.S. may not only become energy independent but in a position to export. Environmentalists point out that fracking has its dangers but the remarkable change in energy dynamics plays to the producers’ hands.

The big problems with Warner’s proposal are that exporting LNG to Europe will be more time-consuming and costly than he might imagine. It also does nothing to address the climate change issues that gas contributes to, albeit not as much as coal.

One reason why Warner may be so interested in the issue — House Speaker John Boehner, a Republican, is making exactly the same proposal — is because of Dominion. The utility plans a $3.8 billion expansion of its Cove Point, Md. LNG import facility on Chesapeake Bay so that it can export LNG as well. Some of that gas could very well come from fracking operations in the Marcellus Shale fields of Pennsylvania and West Virginia along with the Gulf Coast.

Dominion is in the permitting process – perhaps No. 3 or 4 in line – for Cove Point. It has the gear to take super cold gas pf about minus 265 degrees and warm it up to a gaseous state so it can be sent through pipelines. Now it wants equipment to reverse the process – take gas and chill it into shippable LNG. Dominion has everything else it needs – a water terminal, tanks, and so on.

Warner, of course, gets lots of campaign money from Dominion and has just brought on as his campaign manager Eva Teig Hardy, who retired as one of Dominion’s top lobbyists and public affairs executives. I have known Eva since the 1970s and can attest that she is supremely competent.

There’s nothing wrong with Warner’s ties to Dominion although they should be known. What is troublesome is that his plan may not work.

Take Dominion. If Dominion gets its permits, it won’t be able to export LNG for maybe three years. By that time Putin will either have calmed down or gone beyond Crimea to conquer Europe as far as the Czech Republic or maybe France.

Dominion already has customers lined up for its LNG and they aren’t in Europe. They are utilities in India and Japan – which are the markets of choice for many of the American export hopefuls.

And as Steve Mufson of The Washington Post points out, while Russia exports gas via pipelines to Europe, it still isn’t as big a supplier as Norway. In fact, Cove Point used to see the odd tanker full of Norwegian LNG pull up at its bay terminal. Why can’t Norway increase its sales on the Continent?

Europe would have to build more LNG import facilities and that may take a few years. Meanwhile, the global money seems to be on sending LNG to Asia. Continue reading