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Dominion’s Clever Legerdemain

Dominion's Chesterfield coal-fired plant is Virginia's largest air polluter

Dominion’s Chesterfield coal-fired plant is Virginia’s largest air polluter

By Peter Galuszka

You may have read thousands of words on this blog arguing about the proposed federal Clean Power Plan, its impact on Dominion Virginia Power and a new law passed by the 2015 General Assembly that freezes the utility’s base rates and exempts it from rate reviews for five years.

All of this makes some basic and dangerous assumptions about the future of Dominion’s coal-fired generating plants.

It has somehow gotten into the common mindset that the Environmental Protection Agency will automatically force Dominion to close most of its six coal-fired stations.

Is this really so? And, if it is not, doesn’t that make much of this, including Dominion’s arguments for its five-year holiday from rate reviews by the State Corporation Commission, moot?

In June 2014, the EPA unveiled the Clean Power Plan and asked for comments by this upcoming summer. The idea is to have Virginia cut its carbon emissions by 38 percent by 2025. Coal plants are the largest contributors to carbon emissions by 2025.

A few points:

Dominion announced in 2011 that it would phase out its 638-megawatt coal-fired Chesapeake Energy Center that was built between 1950 and 1958.

In 2011, it also announced plans to phase out coal at its three-unit, 1,141 megawatt Yorktown power plant by shutting one coal-fired unit and converting a second one to natural gas. The units at the station were built in 1957, 1958 and 1974.

Mind you, these announcements came about three years before the EPA asked for comments about its new carbon reduction plan. But somehow, a lack of precision in the debate makes it sound as if the new EPA carbon rules are directly responsible for their closure. But how can that be if Dominion announced the closings in 2011 and the EPA rules were made public in June, 2014? Where’s the link between the events?

When the Chesapeake and Yorktown changes were announced, Dominion Chairman and CEO Thomas F. Farrell II, said: “This is the most cost-effective course to meet expected environmental regulations and maintain reliability for our customers.” Now Dominion is raising the specter of huge bills and unreliable grid.

Dominion has other big coal-fired plants. The largest is the 1,600 megawatt Chesterfield Power Station that provides about 12 per cent of Dominion’s power. Four of its six units—built from 1952 to 1969 — burn coal. Two others built in 1990 and 1992 are combined cycle units that use natural gas and distillate oil.

Dominion has upgraded scrubbers at the units, but the Chesterfield station is the single largest air polluter in the state and one of the largest in the nation.

Another big coal-fired plant is Dominion’s 865-megawatt Clover Power Station. It is more recent, having gone online in 1995 and 1996. It is the second largest carbon emitter in the state.

Then there’s the 600 megawatt Virginia City Hybrid plant that burns both coal and biomass in Wise County. It went into service in 2012.

Dominion had a small coal-fired plant at Bremo Bluffs but has converted it to natural gas.

So, if you add it all up, which coal-fired plants are really in jeopardy of closure by the EPA’s new rules? Chesterfield, Clover or Virginia City?

It’s hard to get a straight answer. In a blog post by Jim Bacon today, he quotes Thomas Wohlfarth, a Dominion senior vice president, as saying “It’s not a foregone conclusion that [the four coal-fired power plants] will be shut down. It’s a very real risk, but not a foregone conclusion.” Another problem is that I count three possible coal-fired plants, and don’t know what the fourth one is.

In a story about the Chesterfield power plant, another spokesman from Dominion told the Chesterfield Observer that Dominion “has no timeline no to close power stations” but it might have to consider some closings if the Clean Power Plan goes ahead as currently drafted.

Environmental groups have said that because of Dominion’s already-announced coal-plant shutdowns and conversion, the state is already 80 percent on its way to meet the proposed Clean Power Plan’s carbon cuts. When I asked a State Corporation Commission spokesman about this last fall, I got no answer.

What seems to be happening is that Dominion is raising the specter of closings without providing specific details of what exactly might be closed and why.

Its previously announced coal-plant shutdowns have suddenly and mysteriously been put back on the table and everyone, including Jim Bacon, the General Assembly and the SCC, seems to be buying into it.

Although there have been significant improvements in cutting pollution, coal-fired plants still are said to be responsible for deaths and illnesses, not to mention climate change. This remains unaddressed. Why is it deemed so essential that coal-fired units built 40, 50 or 60 years ago be kept in operation? It’s like insisting on driving a Studebaker because getting rid of it might cost someone his job that actually vanished years ago.

Also unaddressed is why Virginia can’t get into some kind of carbon tax or market-based caps on carbon pollution that have seen success with cutting acid rain and fluorocarbons.

It’s as if the state’s collective brain is somehow blocking the very idea of exploring a carbon tax and automatically defaults to the idea that if the EPA and the Obama Administration get their way, Virginia ratepayers will be stuck with $6 billion in extra bills and an unreliable electricity grid.

Could it be that this is exactly the mental legerdemain that Dominion very cleverly is foisting on us? Could be. Meanwhile, they continue to get exactly the kind of legislation from the General Assembly they want.

Film Rips Climate Change Deniers

merchants-of-doubt-posterBy Peter Galuszka

A just-released documentary “Merchants of Doubt” seems tailor-made for the readers of Bacons Rebellion.

The film by Robert Kenner explores the profession of doubting climate change in which the energy industry quietly hires “scientists” to debunk the idea that carbon dioxide emissions are creating global warming that could have catastrophic consequences.

The strategy of confronting scientific evidence that is damaging to a particular industry has been around since at least the 1960s when the chemical industry tried to dismiss the idea that the insecticide DDT widely used to control mosquitoes could be deadly to wildlife for decades.

Big Tobacco took the concept to entirely new levels when scientific studies in the 1960s linked tobacco smoking to addictive nicotine, cancer and other bad things. Cigarette makers hauled out their own supposedly independent but payrolled “scientists” to raise doubt about the claims before congressional committees and to the general public.

The tobacco industry snowballed their phony science into yet another sphere. There had been complaints that people were being killed when they fell asleep on furniture while holding smoldering cigarettes.

The cigarette makers could have put in fire retardants in the smokes but they thought it would be too costly. So, they set up a scenario where furniture makers would load up sofas and chairs with fire retardants, which, unfortunately, proved carcinogenic or otherwise harmful. Then, of course, the chemical industry found its own “scientists” to claim the flame retardants they put in furniture were safe.

According to review so the film which I haven’t seen (it was just released March 6), Big Energy is using the very same tactics with help from the Koch Brothers and their network of paid think tanks (such as the “Heartland Institute”) to debunk the link between carbon and climate change. You may see some of those ideas popping up on this blog from time to time.

Kenner has won awards for such documentaries as “Food, Inc.” His latest film is based on a 2011 book with the same title by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway. According to a review in The Washington Post, “What’s disheartening about “Merchants of Death” is that the strategy still works so effectively in a hyper-partisan, intellectually lazy, spin-addicted 24-7 news cycle.”

Can anyone guess which news channel fits the bill?

Why Clean Energy Will Be Cheaper

Dominion's Cove Point

Dominion’s Cove Point

By Peter Galuszka

The Sturm und Drang to which utility executives, coal companies and politicians have subjected Virginians as they oppose President Barack Obama’s Clean Power Plan to reduce carbon emissions has always been a deliberate distraction from what’s really happening.

According to them and their confederates at the State Corporation Commission and the state Department of Environmental Quality, the clean air act which seeks to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by a certain date is a foolhardy, ill-intended bureaucratic effort to put coal out of business and slap ratepayers with bigger bills.

I had a moment of clarity when I read this morning’s Local Opinions page in The Washington Post  and a saw an article by Jon B. Wellinghoff. He is the immediate past chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission so he likely knows a little about energy.

His argument is that basic economics go against the electricity and coal industries’ arguments that reducing carbon will be too expensive. He cites a study by PJM, the large electricity grid of which Virginia is a part. “PJM announced this week that Virginia’s energy costs would be lower under the CPP than without it,?” he writes.

Why so? Wellinghoff says that utilities like Dominion are riding a nice low price natural gas bubble. Gas in the U.S. is going for $3 per million British Thermal Units. How long it will last is the crucial question.

Natural gas costs three times as much in Asia and Europe and (knock, knock) guess which companies are scrambling to get a new set of terminals so they can export it? Electric utilities like Dominion, that’s who.

Dominion is pressing ahead to convert its Cove Point liquefied natural gas plant on the Chesapeake Bay kin Maryland so that it can export gas to Japan and India. Dominion is also pushing a controversial $5 billion pipeline from West Virginia gas fracklands to the southeast. A spur of it would run to port areas in Hampton Roads but if you suggest that maybe Dominion plans to export gas from it, the public relations people get a mite testy.

Wellinghoff doesn’t specifically identify Dominion’s plans but he says there are 14 gas expert terminals underway.

For Virginia ratepayers, that means that a cheap, local commodity will become an expensive, global commodity. The United States will export a commodity and import price volatility.

Who will make money by exporting gas and messing up domestic prices?Dominion, that’s who.

It’s import to remember that the low price gas bubble will pop someday. Therefore, the state needs to stop whining about going to renewables and start applying them. Utilities need to make it easier for homes and business to deploy solar panels and sell extra juice back tot he grid. The U.S. uses 40 percent of the power it generates because of inefficient grids. Virginia is No. 35 in terms of state energy efficiency. Where are efforts to improve this?

Virginia’s disappearing coal industry has been complaining for years that government regulation is driving it out of business. The truth is that coal seams are becoming too uneconomic to mine. Gas is eating its lunch. I went to a Platt’s coal conference a couple of years ago In Florida where I learned that gas would have to jump to something like $8 per million BTU to make Virginia coal profitable again.

That might happen is gas prices rise as Wellinghoff predicts. But he is right that the cadre of utilities are barking up the wrong tree.

Why Sweet Briar Is Shutting Down

sweet briar girlsBy Peter Galuszka

Sweet Briar College, the all-female college sprawling on more than 3,000 acres of former plantation land north of Lynchburg, will be closing after 114 years.

The news March 4 stunned students and faculty alike. Forbidding trends, however, had been in place long before. Demographics, declining enrollment and funding quagmires are besetting colleges everywhere, especially those that occupy niche sectors of the market.

In this state, St. Paul’s College, an historically black college in Lawrenceville, and Virginia Intermont College in Bristol have closed their doors. Virginia State University in Petersburg faced a shakeup and the resignation of its president last fall after declining enrollment created an unexpected budget shortfall of $19 million.

At Sweet Briar, enrollment dropped from 760 to 700 during this academic year. Tuition and room and board is a hefty $47,000, but the school had been forced to discount that by 60 percent because it was drawing fewer students. On Tuesday, administrators announced the financial situation was unsustainable, despite an $84 million endowment.

Sweet Briar was known for its strong academics and even offered engineering to its all-female student body.

It also had a reputation, admittedly dated, of being something of a finishing school to prepare spouses for members of the state’s and nation’s white upper and upper middle classes. An equestrian center, the school attracted affluent girls who loved riding. One student was Janet Lee Bouvier, the mother of Jacqueline, wife of John F. Kennedy and the nation’s First Lady.

For decades, young men from schools such as Washington & Lee and the University of Virginia made Sweet Briar a popular destination for weekend road trips.

But these images belong in a different era. Today’s trend towards smaller enrollments is a national phenomenon. The U.S. Census Bureau reports that from 2012 to 2013, college enrollment had dropped by 463,000. The two-year drop was 930,000, the largest since the recession of 2007-2008.

Demographics may be one reason – that is fewer people are passing through their college-age years. Other problems are that student lending has gotten out of control and students balk at taking on hundreds of thousands of debt just to get a bachelor’s degree. At less affluent schools, like Virginia State, cutbacks in Pell Grants that help poor students go to school, have been chopped back, although VSU seems to be on the mend.

Meanwhile, critics say, colleges have become top heavy with administrators who get oversized salaries for jobs that are hard to define. As this happens, some universities rely on underpaid adjunct professors for more of the teaching load.

There’s also a trend that four-year college may not be as essential as it had been thought previously. High-skill blue-collar jobs may pay much better than ones available to college grads.

Some all-female colleges appear to be doing just fine, such as Barnard, but others found they could survive only by becoming co-ed. College administrators say they had had explored going coed, but it wouldn’t work out. There’s a “save” effort but the odds are against survival.

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.

The McDonnell Saga Is Far From Over

maureen mcdonnell sentencedBy Peter Galuszka

Former Virginia First Lady Maureen McDonnell has been sentenced to 12 months and a day in federal prison, but the GiftGate saga is far from over.

She will appeal as has her husband, former Gov. Robert F. McDonnell, who was sentenced to two years in prison last month. The now estranged couple was convicted of public corruption felonies, making McDonnell the only Virginia governor, past or present, to be convicted of a crime.

The next step is for the former governor’s appeals to be heard at the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in May. The issue is whether so-called “honest services fraud” for which both were convicted, should be interpreted broadly or narrowly.

During their trial, U.S. District Judge James Spencer took the broad approach, instructing the jury that there did not have to be a very strict “quid pro quo” for them to return a guilty verdict. He reiterated his stand on Friday by overruling a slew of motions from the defense relating to the issue.

The appeals could have far-reaching consequences, as I reported with a colleague on Bloomberg News this week. Charles James, a former federal prosecutor who works at the Williams Mullen law firm in Richmond, says the case “could be the next case to further restrict the use” of the honest-services fraud statute.

If the Robert McDonnell’s appeal is successful, then it would have a big impact on his wife, as well as loosen the interpretation nationally of how far “honest services” should go.

If the government is successful, then expect a crackdown on public official hankie-pankie.

At Friday’s sentencing, eight character witnesses described Ms. McDonnell, 60, as an empathetic, self-sacrificing woman who would do anything for her children and husband.

That image stands in marked contrast to the image defense lawyers for her husband painted during the trial. Incredibly, her own lawyers piled on with the idea that Maureen McDonnell was a naïve but abusive woman who hated being First Lady. She was so frustrated with her husband ignoring her for his political career that she got entangled with Jonnie (the serpent) Williams, who ran Star Scientific, a Henrico company that made and marketed vitamin supplements.

Williams gave the financially strapped McDonnells about $177,000 in gifts, loans and trips while the McDonnells set up meetings with state officials to the products of his money-losing firm. Ironically, the main product was Anatabloc, a skin cream, which has since been ordered off the market the Food and Drug Administration.

At the top of this blog, you see a teaser story that the convictions were corrupted by Williams’ dubious integrity. That’s nonsense, of course. Prosecutors use inside testimony, especially in organized crime and drug cases, all the time.

The bigger issue is whether “honest services” means bribery or whether it is a normal part of setting up appointments by public officials to consider projects that might benefit their city, state or country. This will be the key issue in the appeals.

Meanwhile, the soap opera has been weirdly painful, fascinating and entertaining. It’s also been rather crass. The former governor tries to come off like a Boy Scout yet refused a chance to cop a plea in exchange for Maureen not being indicted at all. She was not a public official, but non-public officials have been convicted in the past of honest services fraud.

Both defense teams made Maureen the scapegoat. She was portrayed as a greedy and unstable hustler who brought her husband down.

Before delivering the sentence to Maureen, who gave a tearful, first-time statement asking for mercy, Spencer made bitingly critical remarks of the defense lawyers. “The ‘Let’s throw Momma under the bus’ defense morphed into the ‘Let’s throw Momma off the train defense,’” he said. Ms. McDonnell seemed to be two very different people and Spencer had trouble figuring it out.

Her lawyers had asked for no prison time and 4,000 hours of community service. Federal guidelines could have given her more than six years but prosecutors asked for only 18 months in prison.

Spencer split the difference, mostly because he gave Mr. McDonnell a light sentence. He was more culpable since he was a public official, not to mention a former state prosecutor and the state attorney general.

He cut Maureen some slack, too. By sentencing her that extra day, he gave her the opportunity to get out in only 10 months for good behavior since that’s the rule under federal prison guidelines.

Why Hide Details of Lethal Injection?

lethal injectionBy Peter Galuszka

It has to be one of the creepiest bills ever considered by the General Assembly.

Senate Bill 1393, sponsored by Sen. Richard Saslaw (D-Fairfax), would drop a veil of secrecy over how Virginia executes prisoners by lethal injection. Its backers, including Gov. Terry McAuliffe, are pushing it against a backdrop of global politics and questions of morality.

Virginia is one of 32 states that allow capital punishment. Since 1982, it has so far killed 110 prisoners, either by lethal injection or in the electric chair.

The preferred method is lethal injection. In the process, a doomed prisoner is strapped in a gurney and is given a series of three shots. One is to anesthetize; another is to paralyze; and the third is to stop his or her heart from beating. In some states, one drug may be used. Usually, there are witnesses to the execution, including members of the news media.

But Saslaw wants to start hiding crucial aspects of the gruesome practice. His bill would make information about lethal drugs. Companies that make or compound them would be exempt under the state Freedom of Information Act.

There are persistent national shortages of drugs used in the death process. According to The New Yorker, the sole American manufacturer of sodium thiopental stopped making the key, killer drug in 2011. Death penalty states looked to European manufacturers, but the European Union, which crusades against capital punishment, forbids European drug companies to export it if it will be used in executions.

Harried U.S. prison officials started shopping around to their counterparts in other states as shortages spread to other drugs. The situation seemed dire enough for Virginia to consider dusting off the electric chair, which it also allows for executions.

For a while, Virginia did have a good supply of killer drugs but by 2014,it ran short or drugs went past their expiration dates. A solution is to use pharmacies to compound drugs for executions but it could expose the firms to lawsuits.

So, as is too often typical in Virginia, Saslaw & Company started pushing the rights of private companies over the public’s right to know. His bill has drawn criticism from the American Civil Liberties Union, the Virginia Coalition for Open Government and the Society of Professional Journalists.

Underscoring the horror of the drug drama is what happened last April in Oklahoma during the execution of convicted murderer and rapist Clayton Lockett. He was injected with the three-drug cocktail, but 10 minutes into the process, he revived as stunned onlookers watched. He died after another half an hour.

There is considerable evidence that lethal injection is not a painless way to go. In fact, the issue may be back before the U.S. Supreme Court again about whether injections are an unconstitutional “cruel and unusual” punishment. Another issue is why facts around execution must be made confidential.

There are larger issues about the ethics of capital punishment. Virginia, after all, follows only Texas when it comes to legally-sanctioned killing. Virginia does not have an unusually high crime rate (ranking No. 34 in violent crimes  per 100,000 population according to 2006 U.S. Census statistics). So why is it so intent on keeping capital punishment and hiding it?

 

Coal Giant Won’t Pay Blankenship Legal Bill

don-blankenshipBy Peter Galuszka

The the man described by Rolling Stone as the “The Dark Lord of the Coal Fields” is suing coal giant Alpha Natural Resources of Bristol for refusing to pay his legal bills as he approaches his criminal trial April 20 related to the worst coal-mine disaster in 40 years.

Donald L. Blankenship, the former head of Richmond-based Massey Energy, filed suit in Delaware against Alpha which said: “Going forward, we do not intend to pay any legal fees with regard to Don Blankenship’s defense.” Those fees are likely to run in the millions.

Blankenship was indicted in November on four felony counts related to safety violations at the Upper Big Branch mine where an explosion killed 29 miners on April 5, 2010. He is also accused of securities fraud.

Blankenship resigned from Massey in December 2010 with a parachute estimated at $86 million. Alpha bought Massey in 2011 for $7 billion.

Since then, Alpha has been retraining the hundreds of Massey workers it absorbed but has gone through severe layoffs as demand for coal has stumbled.

Alpha’s stock has slipped from about $5 a share a year ago to $1.19 a share now. The firm lost $875 million last year. Demand for thermal coal has been drying up as cheaper natural gas from fracking has flooded the market. Also, the rich steel-making coal reserves Alpha got with its buy of Massey have gone wanting as Asian nations, especially China, go through an economic slump.

Blankenship will go on trial in U.S. District Court in Beckley, W.Va.

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.