Category Archives: Science & Technology

Using Big Data to Bolster Student Performance

Principal Tina McCay with students at Goochland Elementary.

Principal Tina McCay with students at Goochland Elementary.

At the beginning of the 2013-2014 school year, 4th grade teachers at Goochland Elementary School were setting academic goals for their students, with an eye to their performance in the Standards of Learning (SOL) exams. With support from the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) and an innovative data system implemented in Goochland, the school had been provided historical data and predictive analysis of their new students’ standing. Teachers were alarmed to find that nine students were on a predicted trajectory to fail their reading SOLs.

In a 4th-grade class of 55 children, failure by nine students constituted an unacceptably high percentage.  “We refused to accept the outcome as inevitable,” said Principal Tina McCay. “The data gave us a peek into one possible future, but it also gave our team time to develop a strategy to reverse the trend and set our students on a solid path to achievement and success.”

Teachers decided that the targeted students would benefit most by the participation in small instructional groups. “As a result of the small groups, students who previously were crying from frustration suddenly became engaged and confident,” said teacher Krystle Demas. “It was exciting to witness. Just to see that spark in their eyes and a return of the excitement and passion for learning was so rewarding!”

The result: All nine students passed the SOL at the end of the school year. Said McCay, “This extraordinary success might never have happened without real time access to data at each step of the process.”

Over the past decade, the education data industry has churned out new tools for schools and teachers to analyze data and see trends that would have been overlooked in the past.  “Data can be used to help educators tailor curricula, identify at-risk students, customize classroom learning and improve their students’ college readiness,” said Bethann Canada, director of the Office of Educational Information Management at VDOE.

Building on Goochland’s success, VDOE is partnering with the state’s Center for Innovative Technology (CIT) with the goal of transforming itself from a static, one-way collector of data into a provider of support and service for data-driven decision making across the state.

In an elaborate consultation process, the data implementation team engaged more than 400 individuals across Virginia in focus group activities. Ninety-seven percent of Virginia’s school divisions took part. The end product was a strategy with two components: (1) Technology and Integration and (2) Professional Development and Division Support. Providing the data would not be enough. Educators needed to know what to do with it.

“It’s more than just having access to the data that’s important, it’s knowing what to do with it,” said Paul McGowan, vice president of consulting services at CIT. “Or, as some focus group participants explained, “Even if we’re able to run reports, a lot of teachers say, ‘now what?’ Many of us don’t know what to do with the data once we have it.”

Following up on the successful first phase of the project, the project team expects to roll out a similar capability statewide in the next year. Phase II is focusing on implementing the technology and integration solution and building a new Education Data Professional Development Center.

“We hope to attract, persuade and retain support for data use and to persuade all K-12 stakeholders to include data as an integral component of their work and educational plans and intervention strategies,” said Canada. “Generating a viable solution will take time and hard work, but will bring numerous dividends in the form of customized learning, stronger curricula, identifying and aiding at-risk students, and much more.”

(This is a condensed version of an article released by the Goochland Public Schools, Virginia Department of Education and the Center for Innovative Technology.)

“Hacking for Good” Comes to Virginia

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

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

by James A. Bacon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Closely Watched Trains?

wva oil trainBy Peter Galuszka

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Propping Up Coal at the Taxpayers’ Expense

W._Va._coal_mine_1908By Peter Galuszka

It’s always curious when big business and their bankrolled politicians complain about how the government and its regulations stymie the “magic of the free market.”

Then they turn around and keep protectionist policies that give certain industries big favors such as tax credits.

That’s what the General Assembly has done with a bill that would have reduced tax credits doled out to utilities that burn coal mined in Virginia. The original proposal backed by Gov. Terry McAuliffe was intended to help fill a $2.4 billion gap in the state’s biennial budget.

The idea quickly ran afoul of Dominion Virginia Power and the Virginia Coal & Energy Alliance. The original idea was to scale back tax credits but cap coal tax deductions at $500,000 in any given year. But after the utility and the coal industry lobbyists got involved, a bill to retain the tax credits was quickly approved setting caps at a more generous $7.5 million in a given year.

The credits stem from a law passed in 1999. Its purpose is to make it easier for big utilities like Dominion to choose thermal coal mined in Virginia over product mined elsewhere.

Coal production peaked in the state at 46 million tons. It’s now about 22 million tons or less. Coal employment has likewise dropped sharply over the years.

Much of the coal mined in Southwest Virginia is of high quality and some can be used either to generate electricity or make steel. The problem is its cost. Many of the seams in the state have played out and coal is increasingly thinner and is in  harder to reach areas. The cost of mining it has gone up.

For years coal maintained a price advantage over alternatives such as natural gas but thanks to hydraulic fracturing, that is no longer the case. Utilities like Dominion have been converted facilities to gas or are building new plants that use gas. Its last coal-related plant is a hybrid near St. Paul.

What’s causing this shift away from coal? High production costs and cheaper alternatives. Out West, in the Powder River Basin of Wyoming and Montana, coal is cheap and easy to mine. It does well. In other words, the free market is affecting  the declining Virginia coal industry  yet the General Assembly wants to prop it up at the expense of taxpayers and the budget.

By the way, Dominion and coal giant Alpha Natural Resources in Bristol are among the biggest political donors in the state.

The Silent Sun and Climate Change

sunspotsby James A. Bacon

One of the reasons I call myself a climate change agnostic — I’m not yet persuaded that man-made influences on the climate are pushing temperatures calamitously higher — is that there are alternative explanations for what has been driving long-term temperature fluctuations on the planet. One serious body of thought, largely overlooked by the climate establishment, posits that sun spots have a significant influence on the climate. That proposition is due to experience a major test.

As I understand it, sun spots are said to exercise an effect on climate through a complex chain of physical causation. According to this theory, sunspots indicate a heightened level of electro-magnetic activity on the surface of the sun. Electro-magnetic energy ejected from the sun interacts with the Earth’s magnetic field to reduce cosmic radiation penetrating to the atmosphere. Cosmic radiation interacts with chemicals in the atmosphere to seed certain types of cloud formations that reflect sunlight. The prediction arising from this series of conjectured linkages is that a dearth in sunspots will result in weaker electro-magnetic forces radiating from the sun, less blockage of cosmic rays, more cloud cover and lower temperatures.

Sun spots come and go in regular cycles, but the cycles vary in amplitude. As it happens, the sun is experiencing one of its weakest solar cycles in a century. (See this account at Vencore Weather.) Weak solar cycles — the so-called Maunder Minimum of 1645 to 1715 and the Dalton Minimum of 1790 to 1830 — coincided with the Little Ice Age. Some critics of the “consensus” climate-science view — that human-caused increases in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is the critical variable driving climate change — suggest that the paucity of sun spots will induce a cooling of the Earth.

After reaching a new plateau of high temperatures in the 1990, the planet is in the 18th year of no meaningful temperature increases. That pause was not predicted by anyone hewing to the Global Warming “consensus,” and scientists are busily working to explain it within their own paradigm. But it’s also put-up or shut-up time for advocates of the sunspot hypothesis. If sunspots play a significant role in Earth’s climate, the weak solar cycle soon should be reflected soon in lower temperatures.

If global temperatures actually decline in the next few years, we could reasonably conclude that predictions of the Warmist camp to be refuted and the conjectures of the sunspot camp to be confirmed. On the other hand, if temperatures don’t decline, the sunspot people will have to go back to the drawing board and scribble some new equations. The one thing neither group is predicting is another two decades like the past two. It is entirely possible that both camps will be confounded. Wouldn’t that be something?

Testing Educational Technology in Real-World Settings

Bavaro Hall, Curry School of Education

by James A. Bacon

The University of Virginia’s Jefferson Education Accelerator will contribute to the creation of educational technologies and solutions by helping entrepreneurs test their ideas in the classroom, the Curry School of Education Foundation announced yesterday.

When word of the accelerator program first leaked out last year, the Curry School left its value proposition vague. The idea, as then described, was to create an accelerator/incubator to foster the start-up of enterprises that use technology to improve educational access and outcomes. The Curry School had given rise already to several entrepreneurial spin-offs such as PALS, CaseNex and Teachstone, and the thinking was that an accelerator could support even more.

In formally launching the accelerator yesterday, the Curry School of Education Foundation said it would provide more than office space and venture funding. Said Curry School Dean Robert Pianta, who will chair the Accelerator board:

Increasingly, schools of education have a responsibility to ensure that classrooms and campuses are equipped with tools that carry strong evidence of their effectiveness.

The Jefferson Education Accelerator is building a nationwide network of K-12 schools, colleges and universities that have demonstrated both an interest and capacity, to test promising products and services.

“Successful education technologies must be informed by the insights of teachers, administrators, and real-world implementation data,” said Accelerator CEO Bart Epstein. “The number one criterion for investing in education has to be efficacy. We want to bring transparency to the process of evaluating solutions—to help both educators and investors make better informed decisions and make an impact.”

Bacon’s bottom line: The project sounds  well conceived. Raising capital and finding affordable space is the easy part of launching a new educational enterprise. The U.S. educational system is ponderous and bureaucratic. It resists innovation and change. Decision-making is diffuse. Failure is punished and success is little rewarded. Anyone seeking to introduce new technologies or services to schools would be well-served by testing innovations in real-world environments and providing social scientific support of efficacy. The Curry School’s accelerator addresses those challenges head-on.

There may be hope for American education yet.

How Hospitals Can Take the Lead in Economic Development

exxon-mobil

The Exxon Mobil facility

by James A. Bacon

As budgetary pressures continue to squeeze federal spending in the Washington metropolitan area, who will assume the mantle of economic growth in the region? An unlikely champion has emerged — Inova Health Systems, Northern Virginia’s dominant health system. The company announced yesterday its intention to lease and ultimately purchase Exxon Mobil’s 117-acre campus to house a world-class facility dedicated to genomics and personalized medicine.

The story is fascinating in many ways: first, for the ambitious thinking behind the venture, which sounds like it has a legitimate shot at success; and second, for what it says about the economic clout of Virginia’s major health care systems.

Genomics and personalized medicine is one of the hottest areas of medical science today. The human genome contains about 23,000 genes, the variations in which account for much of the difference in how individuals respond to chemotherapy-based cancer treatment. The goal is to tailor treatments for a patient’s specific genome — to “personalize” medicine — to attack cancer cells while minimizing side effects.

Under the vision laid out by Inova CEO J. Knox Singleton, the health system will establish a world-class facility, akin to the prestigious Mayo Clinic, that can recruit top physicians and draw patients from around the country, according to the Washington Post.

Inova has several advantages. First, the Washington region is a prestigious, world-class metropolitan area, which should aid in recruiting world-class scientific talent. Second, Inova’s flagship hospital, Inova Fairfax Hospital, is situated right across Gallows Road from Exxon Mobil, a campus assessed at $193 million in value. Third, while not in the same biotech league as Boston, San Francisco or San Diego, Northern Virginia does have significant assets, most notably the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. (See a list of biotech assets.) Fourth and most intriguingly, the data-intensive field of genomics could draw upon the region’s strength in IT. Writes the Post:

Singleton said the use of translational medicine to develop treatments for cancer and other diseases could be accelerated by taking advantage of Northern Virginia’s expertise in cloud computing and data analytics.

“The beauty of Northern Virginia is we’re building in sort of a greenfield when it comes to this personalized medicine, genomics research,” Singleton said. “But when you look at the big data and bioinformatics capacity, there are a ton of companies in Northern Virginia who are extremely sophisticated and well-advanced; they’ve just been working on cybersecurity or weather forecasting.”

Oh, and there’s one more advantage Inova brings to the venture: It is an incredibly profitable non-profit company. In 2013 (the most recent figures I could find), Inova generated operating income of $132 million. That profit is non-taxable. Not only can Inova make philanthropic appeals to the community — the Peterson Family Foundation also announced yesterday a $10 million gift to recruit cancer specialists — it can tap the cash thrown off by its own operations. Nobody else, not even the Commonwealth of Virginia, has that kind of money to pump into an economic development project.

It remains to be seen whether the state will contribute to the effort. A key component of the project will be a new medical school. The Post notes that Singleton has not yet struck a deal with a college or university to operate the school. Governor Terry McAuliffe told the Post the state had not been approached for funding, and he did not expect to provide it. “This is all being done privately, which is great.” But you can bet your bottom dollar that George Mason University would love to get into the medical school business, which could require some level of state support. It will be interesting to see how this plays out.

As an aside, there are parallels between Inova’s plans and the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine, a partnership between Carilion Health System in Roanoke and Virginia Tech, which combines “Virginia Tech’s world-class strength in basic sciences, bioinformatics, and engineering with Carilion Clinic’s highly experienced medical staff and rich history in medical education to train the next generation of physician thought leaders.” The medical school in Roanoke, which averages 42 students, had a $59 million bond package included in a state bond issue. Don’t think that Singleton hasn’t considered that precedent.

As promising as the project sounds, caution is warranted. Inova made a similar splash in 2009 when it announced plans for a $200 million Ignite Institute, which also had a focus on genomics and personalized medicine. That project fizzled, and Ignite moved to Philadelphia instead. As GenomeWeb explained in a 2010 article:

That plan collapsed after Inova Health Systems withdrew a commitment to provide $25 million over five years to the institute, citing in a statement, “The scope and scale of the project and the time needed for capital development in the current market.” Inova’s pullout, in turn, prompted Fairfax County to retreat from its own plan to partially finance the permanent facility by issuing up to $150 million in Fairfax County Economic Development Authority industrial revenue bonds.

Hopefully, Inova has learned from the experience, and the financial chemistry will be different this time.

Dominion Resources Is on a Tear

acl pipeline map By Peter Galuszka

Dominion Resources has been on a tear recently.

It’s been muscling through a dubious law in the General Assembly that would allow it to avoid State Corporation Commission rate audits for six years.

And, it has been throwing its weight around in less populated sections of the state. It is suing to force its way on the land of private property owners to survey its $5 billion Atlantic Coast Pipeline project that would take fracked natural gas from the Marcellus Shale formation in West Virginia and Pennsylvania on new routes to the southeast.

Property owners, particularly those in Nelson and Augusta Counties, are fighting in federal court in Harrisonburg.

What’s most interesting about this case is how the Commonwealth of Virginia, which swaddles itself in the ideals of the American Revolution of individual rights , somehow ignores the rights of small property owners when a big utility with deep pockets for political donations is involved. One wonders where all the conservatives are who were huffing and puffing over the Kelo case a few years back

And (bonus question) what do the two situations have in common? Republican State Sen. Frank Wagner of Virginia Beach, that’s who. He introduced the bill for Dominion to sidestep SCC oversight with the excuse that Dominion has deal with the impacts of a yet-to-be-finalized set of new federal carbon emission rules.

In 2004, Wagner also carried water for Dominion and other power companies by getting a law passed that would allow a “public service company” to survey private property without getting permission.

This is the basis of several hundred lawsuits Dominion has filed against small landowners. In the pipeline case, it will be interesting to see whether the natural gas is used for the common good of American customers or will end up being exported to foreign countries. Dominion insists it won’t,  but time will tell.

Another oddity is that Dominion is demanding access to survey a pipeline route when it hasn’t formally applied for  the project with the Federal Energy Energy Commission. Imagine if some private landowners showed up at the front door of Dominion’s downtown Richmond headquarters and demanded access to the building because they were thinking about building a natural gas pipeline? (Somebody call security!)

Here’s an opinion piece I wrote for this morning’s Washington Post.

Dominion’s Strange Ploy to Avoid Audits

dominion By Peter Galuszka

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Many Problems of Offshore Drilling

deepwaterBy Peter Galuszka

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

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

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

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

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

Drilling in deep water presents special problems for oil companies involving high pressure and high temperatures. That was the case with the Deepwater Horizon tragedy on April 20, 1010 that killed 11 workers. One big factor that a blowout preventer, designed to shut down the rig if drilling hits abnormally high levels of pressure, didn’t work completely. The rig was in 5,000 feet of water and crude spewed uncontrolled. Winds from the south washed the oil towards land and polluted nearly 500 miles of coastline in Florida, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana. An estimated 4.9 million barrels of crude were released.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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