Category Archives: Environment

Bacon Bits, Your Tasty Morning Info Treat

More hidden deficit spending. Virginia devoted 33% less to capital spending on K-12 schools (inflation-adjusted) in 2016 than in 2008, according to the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. That compared to a 26% reduction nationally. The cuts, say CBPP, “mean less money to build new schools, renovate and expand facilities, and equip schools with more modern technologies, further diminishing the environment in which teachers educate and children learn.”

The CBPP made no effort to correlate the capital spending with K-12 enrollment, which has increased only modestly nationally since 2008 after years of strong growth. Presumably, stable enrollment limits the need to build new schools. However, it should surprise no one if school systems were engaging in hidden deficit spending by deferring maintenance and repairs.

Best colleges for the money. From Money magazine, which considered graduation rates, tuition charges, family borrowing, alumni earnings, and 22 other data points to rate educational value: University of Virginia, 10th best in the country; Washington & Lee University, 24th; Virginia Tech, 29th; James Madison University, 39th. Four Virginia colleges in the top 50. Not bad.

What if there aren’t any fascists to fight? When there weren’t any fascists to be found at weekend rallies in Washington, D.C., and Charlottesville, Antifa, the so-called anti-fascists, found someone else to fight. Yesterday, I noted how they turned on the police. Today, the Washington Post’s Avi Selk details how they turned on the media. “Videos show Antifa members accosting reporters specifically because they’re reporters.” Antifa uses the cause of anti-racism to shield the fact that they are enemies of a free society.

Coal mines and methane. Three hundred active and 200 inactive coal mines identified by Climate Home News account for one-tenth of all U.S. methane emissions into the atmosphere. Methane has 34 times the global warming effect of carbon dioxide.

Environmentalists have criticized natural gas as an electric power source. Although natural gas combustion produces less CO2 than coal combustion, the argument goes, when methane leakage from gas pipes and wells is taken into account, the natural gas supply chain is just as bad for global warming. I responded that the argument failed to take into account the massive outpouring of gas from coal mines, but I had no hard data. Now I do. Thanks Climate Home News!

I Want to Say Two Words to You: Plastic Reycling!

Reportedly, 90% of the plastic that reaches the world’s oceans gets flushed through just 10 rivers: The Yangtze, the Indus, Yellow River, Hai River, the Nile, the Ganges, Pearl River, Amur River, the Niger, and the Mekong (in that order).

by Bill Tracy

I  want to say one word to you: plastics!”

That’s the famous 1967 quote from “The Graduate,” which ranks #42 in the American Film Institute’s list of the top 100 movie quotations. Evidently, it was good career advice, because it now seems like just about everything in our homes and vehicles is made from plastic.

But plastics leave society with a number of waste problems including litter and ocean contamination. I have had some personal experience with plastics recycling, so here are some of my thoughts.

Misconception #1: Americans are disposing a lot of consumer plastics in the ocean. Answer: Not true.

As an affluent country, the United States has many landfills, incinerators, recycling centers, water treatment plants, and weekly trash pick-ups. The horrific videos we are seeing — oceans and beaches literally buried in tons of plastic waste — is originating from developing countries. In some parts of the world, unfortunately, dumping trash in the nearest river is the best waste disposal option.

How does America handle its waste problem? One way is to export it to less affluent parts of the world with cheap labor and weak environmental regulations. However, 90% of the waste plastics sent to China comes from Europe. This suggests that recycling works better than the U.S. is usually given credit for.

Misconception #2: Land-filling of plastics is a serious problem due to the non-biodegradability of the plastics. Answer: Not true

Even a hot dog will last for decades in a landfill. Worse, a hot dog will biodegrade creating methane,which eventually leaks to the atmosphere. Some environmentalists contend methane is the greatest threat to mankind, worse even than the greenhouse gas CO2, which is paradoxically non-toxic.

Additionally, some feel strongly that hydrocarbons (fossil fuels) should be left in the ground to prevent release of CO2. If you believe that, what’s wrong with carbon sequestration by putting plastics in a landfill? Apparently eternal hot dogs are morally OK, but plastics are immoral. Alternatively we could switch to biodegradable plastic silverware made from corn. But then, what’s going to happen in the landfill? A corn-derived hot dog will degrade eventually… and release methane. (Admittedly, some of the methane is in fact recovered.)

Solutions: Let’s move on to discuss potential solutions to the problems of plastic wastes. As a former “waste min” engineer, I know there is much merit in the Environmental Protection Agency’s classic waste minimization hierarchy.

  1. Reduce
  2. Reuse/Recycle
  3. Treat
  4. Dispose of Residuals

Many recycling and treatment technologies are under-utilized. One of many technically feasible treatments is energy recover, e.g.; trash incineration,  as practiced by Fairfax County. Plastics have enormous energy content which can be recovered to generate electricity and play a significant role in the alternate energy picture.

But recycling and treatment require tax dollars to help solve the waste problem.  Enter American Conservatives and their staunch anti-tax views.  The unworkable Conservative view is partially supported by the backwards Liberals who feel treatment (incineration) represents an unacceptable pollution source. Liberals believe the ultimate solution is not making any waste at all. While waiting for this utopia, Liberals and Conservatives both like landfills.

Who gets the landfills? Virginia loves landfills. I assume the infamous trash train still hauls trash from New York and New Jersey through Washington, D.C., and then on into southern Virginia. Hampton Roads has Mount Trashmore Park as a testament to our support of making new mountains from imported trash. If we account for all the trash we bury, we can say that Virginia has accomplished more for carbon sequestration than any other state in the nation!

Whichever strategy we pursue, we’d better get cracking. China has recently stopped importing contaminated waste plastics from the U.S. and Europe, which  in my view is a valid attempt to take control of their boundaries and concentrate on solving its internal waste problems. Meanwhile, developed countries are under greater pressure to solve their own waste-handling problems, and within their own boundaries.

Bill Tracy, a retired engineer, lives in Northern Virginia.

A PETA-Free Zone for Tarheel Ponies

The Bacon family is vacationing in Emerald Isle again this summer, and today we took an excursion to Shackleford Banks near Beaufort, N.C. Shackleford Banks is a beautiful barrier island uninhabited except by a small herd of ponies. As with the famous swimming of the ponies from Assateague, Va., to Chincoteague, in which wild ponies are auctioned off by the community, Carolinians cull the pony population of Shackleford to keep the herd to a size consistent with the island’s ecological carrying capacity. There is no swimming from island to island, however, and, as far as I know, no ponies have died — as happened in Assateague last week in a freak accident. So far, the Beaufort community has avoided getting in the crosshairs of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). Let’s hope it stays that way. The Bacons enjoyed their visit to Shackleford Banks so much that they have resolved to return for a longer visit and more wide-ranging exploration of the island.

Goodbye and Good Riddance to Goodlatte

Carpetbagger. Bob Goodlatte is the 13-term congressman from Virginia’s 6th Congressional District who has blessedly chosen to retire this year. In my opinion he represents just about everything that is wrong with the GOP. Born in Holyoke, Massachusetts and educated at Bates College in Maine, Goodlatte somehow avoids the “carpetbagger” moniker so quickly put on Terry McAuliffe by Virginia’s Republicans. He won his congressional seat at age 39 and has spent the last 26 years in Congress. Yet he goes uncriticized as a “politician for life” by the conservative Newt Gingrich types who claim to eschew such long running elected officials. He is a polluter’s best friend with apparently no concern for the property rights of those negatively affected by the pollution he justifies and defends. However, he’ll be gone soon and you’d think we’re past the damage done by this phony conservative. Oh no.  Even in his final days in office Goodlatte is actively denying people protection of their property rights despite “property rights” supposedly being a core tenet of conservative Republican dogma. What a farce.

Blowing up the blueprint. The Chesapeake Bay represents not only a national treasure but a working laboratory for the protection of property rights. Certainly right thinking conservatives must believe that allowing a small minority of people and corporations to pollute a public waterway unfairly takes away the property rights of non-polluters. In the case of a waterway that borders multiple states, one would think that sensible and honest conservatives would insist that the federal government protect the property rights of all the states.  Isn’t this both a core tenet of conservatism and a reasonable construct of property rights?  Not according to Bob Goodlatte.

The Chesapeake Bay watershed states have claimed to be working together to clean up the Bay for the past forty years. For 31 of those years the effort failed as various states simply ignored their clean up commitments. Then, in 2009, the EPA was authorized to provide scientific leadership and oversight for a new clean-up plan — the Chesapeake Bay Clean Water Blueprint. Progress has been substantial since that time. Despite Virginia being a major beneficiary of the blueprint, one of our own Congressmen has put forth an amendment to curtail the EPA’s role in this effort.  You guessed it, ole Bob Goodlatte sponsored an amendment to H.R. 6147 forbidding the EPA from spending money to provide firm, science-based accountability over the blueprint. As a press release from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation puts it, “Congressman Goodlatte’s amendment would keep EPA from using any funds to provide this “firm accountability” if a state fails to meet its pollution-reduction goals set under the Blueprint.” So much for preservation of property rights from this so-called conservative.

Hall of shame. Bob Goodlatte’s amendment for the protection of raw sewage in public waters passed the House of Representatives by a vote of 213 to 202.  Seven of Virginia’s Representatives (Wittman, Taylor, Scott, McEachin, Beyer, Comstock and Connolly) repudiated Sideshow Bob and his amendment by voting against it. However, four of our so-called representatives (Garrett, Goodlatte, Brat and Griffith) couldn’t find the mental acuity to understand how a clean Chesapeake Bay might help the Commonwealth of Virginia. While it’s no excuse for their buffoonery Garrett, Goodlatte and Griffith have districts far from the Bay. Brat, by comparison, has a district bordering the city of Richmond. What are the voters in the 7th district thinking? Will “Kepone Dave” get re-elected? Here’s a good article about the cleanliness of the James River in Richmond (warning: true but disgusting content)

Going forward. The congressional seat being vacated by Bob Goodlatte’s retirement will be contested by Ben Cline (R) and Jennifer Lewis (D). Cline is a member of the General Assembly and long time Goodlatte toady. Lewis is a bleeding heart liberal with minimal political experience. So far, Lewis has raised $72,000 to Cline’s $787,000. The Cook Partisan Voter Index for the district is R+13. Sadly, Cline will almost certainly win and continue the anti-conservative, anti-Virginia activities of his predecessor.

— Don Rippert 

A Mercifully Brief Coal-Ash Update

Coal ash at the Chesterfield Power Station. Photo credit: Richmond Times-Dispatch

A year ago, Virginians couldn’t open up a newspaper without reading about Dominion Energy’s coal ash controversy. Then the issue disappeared from view. Months passed without news of any kind. Then earlier this week, I noticed a stray phrase in Dominion’s 2nd quarter 2018 financial results: The company had written off $81 million to reflect the cost of closing its coal ash ponds at its Bremo, Possum Point, Chesterfield and Chesapeake power stations. 

Wondering if Dominion had written off coal ash-closure expenses in previous quarters, I contacted Dominion spokesman C. Ryan Frazier. He confirmed that the company had made three previous write-offs, bringing the total this quarter to $377 million so far.

The write-offs reflect the cost of two things mainly: (1) treating and draining the coal ash ponds of water, and (2) consolidating the ash at each power station in a single containment basin. Dominion’s preferred plan has been to cap those basins with an impermeable synthetic liner covered by vegetation. However, environmental groups and neighbors fear that groundwater will migrate through the coal ash, pick up heavy metals and leak into public waters.

In April 2017, the General Assembly passed a law ordering the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality VDEQ not to issue solid waste permits for closure of the coal ash ponds until Dominion had conducted an assessment of closure alternatives. Depending on the option chosen, concluded the report written by Dominion’s consultants, landfilling the coal ash could cost between $1 billion and $3 billion. Environmental groups argued that Dominion had significantly overstated the costs and had not given serious consideration to recycling the combustion residue into concrete and other products.

In April Governor Ralph Northam signed legislation into law extending the permit moratorium until July 2019. The law, says Frazier, requires Virginia Power to compile by November 2018 “information from third parties on the suitability, cost and market demand for beneficiation or recycling of coal ash from these units.”

So, there you have it, folks. The coal ash fracas now can safely fade from view again for another three or four months.

Wasn’t the U.S. Supposed to Be the Villain Here?

Source: ZeroHedge

AP’s Latest Hit Piece: Journalism or Polemic?

Here we go again. The Associated Press’ Alan Suderman has popped out another context-free article making an issue of Dominion Energy’s tenfold increase in lobbying expenses over the past year to more than $1 million. That spending, writes Suderman, “came during a period when the company successfully pushed through legislation that could lead to substantial increases to electric bills.”

It is a legitimate exercise in journalism to report the lobbying expenditures of the state’s largest investor-owned utility, especially when it is as politically influential as Dominion and when the utility backed controversial and far-reaching legislation. But it’s not legitimate to strip the story of highly relevant context such as… oh, I don’t know… maybe, how much other stakeholders spent on lobbying, advertising, education and outreach.

If Dominion were alone in increasing its investment in influencing legislators, that would be one story. If, given the magnitude of the stakes involved, the utility’s spending was matched by the spending of other interest groups, that would be a very different story. Suderman did not raise the latter possibility in his article, thus creating a highly negative impression of Dominion — an impression he reinforced by quoting Clean Virginia, a group formed to counter Dominion’s political influence:

“It’s unfortunate that at a time when refusing monopoly money has become a hallmark of good governance, Dominion is doubling down on its political spending in an attempt to rig the rules in Richmond and mislead Virginians about the cost of their corruption,” said Brennan Gilmore, executive director of Clean Virginia.

Suderman notes in passing that Clean Virginia is a “newly formed group.” Ironically, Clean Virginia does not yet appear in the Virginia Public Access Project (VPAP) database as a campaign donor, even though the organization has pledged to back General Assembly candidates who refuse Dominion money, nor as a registered lobbyist, even though the group is actively involved in influencing public opinion. Come to think of it, the Clean Virginia website does not say where its money comes from either. One guess is that some, if not all, of its funding comes from its founder and chairman, Michael Bills, a wealthy investment manager (founder of Bluestem Asset Management) from the Charlottesville area. But there is no way for members of the public to find out — Clean Virginia’s 990 filings have yet to show up in the ProPublica database of nonprofit companies.

While Clean Virginia is a cipher, Dominion details precisely how much money it contributes to political campaigns, whom it has hired as a lobbyist, how much it has contributed in gifts and entertainment, and (through other reports) how much, and to whom, its nonprofit foundation donates money.

There’s a real asymmetry at work: Dominion scrupulously documents its lobbying activities but other players in the burgeoning renewable-energy and energy-efficiency fields, not to mention some of the company’s most relentless critics, do not. Suderman calls out Dominion for its spike in lobbying-related activity but cares not a whit what others are spending or their refusal, for whatever reason, to be fully transparent about their activity.

Actually, there’s an even bigger asymmetry at work. While Dominion exercises its influence largely through campaign donations and lobbying, the company’s critics make their power felt by devoting resources P.R., education and outreach to influence public opinion — expenditures that aren’t captured in any database.

If it were possible to compile all the information needed to make a valid comparison, perhaps we would find that Dominion’s bolstered its spending by many times more than others did — although that would raise a different set of issues. (Dominion spokesman David Botkins argues that the spending surge was necessary to “break through the fake news and propaganda perpetuated by anti-energy groups like Clean Virginia and their ilk.”) Alternatively, perhaps we would find that Dominion’s spending increase was matched by others. We don’t know what we’d find until someone does the digging. But it is patently unreasonable to skewer Dominion for its spending surge without (a) comparing the increase to that of other stakeholders, and (b) acknowledging that Dominion is being more transparent than many of its critics.

Biased journalism such as Suderman’s is what causes many Virginians to mentally discount whatever they read. “What is this reporter not telling me?” readers wonder. “Is this just a hit piece?”

State Solicits Input from Solar, Wind Stakeholders

A nonprofit company specializing in addressing complex public policy issues has begun holding a series of meetings to solicit input from solar and wind energy stakeholders that will be used to formulate the Northam administration’s update to the Virginia Energy Plan.

Discussion topics will address community solar, corporate procurement of clean energy, state/local barriers to the deployment of renewable energy projects, and net metering (connecting rooftop solar panels to the electric grid).

The nonprofit, Washington, D.C.-based Meridian Institute is organizing the sessions under contract with Dominion Energy, as provided for under the Grid Transformation and Security Act enacted earlier this year. Meridian will publish a compilation of comments around the end of August. The feedback from this and other stakeholder groups addressing energy efficiency, electric vehicles and battery storage will provide input into the Northam administration’s development of the state’s energy plan. The previous plan, written by the McAuliffe administration, was published in 2014.

The inaugural session was not organized to collect input on the designated topics but to discuss the way Meridian had organized and framed the issues. Stakeholders will have a chance to make specific comments in hearings scheduled in July and August.

Given the preliminary nature of discussions, no strong points of contention emerged at the meeting, which was held at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond earlier today.

A few members of the roughly 60 people in attendance did wonder if Meridian might suffer from a conflict of interest due to its engagement by Dominion. Tim Mealey, a Meridian managing director, responded that his group is committed to openness, transparency, and reflecting the voices of all stakeholders. Meridian will not be issuing a report or making policy recommendations — its work product will be a summary of the participants’ views. Dominion will not review or approve the summary.

Several others questioned the way Meridian framed issues relating to the siting of solar and wind projects: What is Virginia doing right regarding the siting of renewable energy projects, and do stakeholders believe there are impediments to siting renewable energy projects in the Commonwealth?

Adam Gillenwater with the American Battlefield Trust said members of his group do not see the preservation of battlefields as an “impediment” to solar farms but rather as a competing good to be taken into consideration in siting decisions.

Others noted that the problems encountered by utility-scale solar and wind projects are different from the obstacles experienced by small power producers generating electricity at the rooftop level. Perhaps Meridian would consider conducting separate discussions for utility-scale and rooftop-scale issues, suggested Katharine Bond, Dominion senior policy adviser.

Mealey did not indicate what changes he might make to the discussion format. It is a “very unusual arrangement” to have an electric utility pay and contract for policy discussions mandated by a piece of legislation, he said. But he did not see that as a problem. His charge is to address the topics enumerated in the Grid Transformation and Security Act without being “unduly constrained” by the wording of the act.

Eat My (Coal) Dust!

Possum Point coal ash ponds

In a possible early-warning sign of what may be in store for Virginia electricity consumers, North Carolina regulators have decided that Duke Energy could charge their Tarheel rate payers the first $778 million chunk of an estimated $5 billion in coal-ash cleanup costs. The sum does not include $100 million in two mismanagement penalties for practices that “resulted in cost increases greater than those necessary to adequately maintain and operate its facilities,” reports the Associated Press.

Dominion Energy Virginia will likely incur coal-ash disposals costs in the $1 billion to $4 billion range, although no firm figure will be available until the state issues solid-waste permits for a disposal plan. Dominion says that de-watering the coal ash, consolidating the material in a single pit at each power plant, and covering it with a synthetic liner will protect the public at a fraction of the cost of the alternative, favored by activist groups, of hauling the ash to landfills with greater environmental protections.

North Carolina’s Attorney General said he would go to court to stop Duke from passing along its disposal costs to rate payers. “This case will ultimately be decided by the North Carolina Supreme Court,” he said.

The coal-ash disputes in North Carolina could prefigure in part what happens in Virginia. State regulators must approve disposal plans for millions of tons of coal ash that accumulated legally over the decades at Dominion’s Bremo, Possum Point, Chesterfield, and Chesapeake power plants. Presumably, Dominion will file with the State Corporation Commission (SCC) to pass along as much of that cost as possible to ratepayers.

What makes Dominion’s situation different from Duke’s is that Dominion’s base electric rates were frozen between 2015 and 2018, and Dominion has already written off a portion of disposal costs incurred during that period. Also, under terms of recently enacted grid-modernization legislation, Dominion now will plow surplus earnings into renewable-energy, energy-efficiency and grid-upgrade projects. The public has not yet been informed how multi-billion charges for coal ash-disposal costs would be treated from an accounting viewpoint, what impact they would have on Dominion profits, or how the costs would ripple through to grid modernization.

I cannot foresee any circumstances in which the SCC would dun Dominion for mismanagement penalties. The company has complied with state and federal laws and regulations as well as judicial rulings throughout the process.

Save the Honeybees

File this under the heading, “Environmental Problems that I do Worry About. The collapse of honeybee colonies in Virginia this past winter was devastating. Reports the Daily Press:

Virginia lost 59.5 percent of its honeybee colonies last winter, nearly double the average rate for the past decade, according to the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

The rate of loss was about double the loss for managed colonies nationally. Scientists still aren’t sure what the cause is, although they have proffered various theories: pesticides; habitat loss; a cooler, wetter climate this year; diseases such as Varroa mites and nosema infections that shorten the life of worker bees; even the proliferation of electromagnetic fields from electric lines and cell towers that interfere with navigation or suppress the immune system.

Honeybees are a keystone species. As pollinators, they facilitate the reproduction and survival of hundreds (perhaps thousands) of species of plants and the organisms that depend upon those plants. They are dying in record numbers, not only in North America but Europe.

At this stage, our scientific knowledge is so patchy that it’s difficult to suggest meaningful public policy initiatives. Virginia Tech is conducting some bee-related research but the focus is narrow, deciphering how honeybee “waggles” communicate the whereabouts of food to other bees. There are dozens of other initiatives around the country. Given the critical role of bees in the environment, and commercial crops in particular, it strikes me that the federal government, the states and land-grant universities should reallocate research dollars to bees from less pressing priorities.