Category Archives: Environment

Virginia’s Political Class Isn’t Doing Much to Reduce CO2 Emissions — And It’s Working Out Just Fine

Source: “California, Greenhouse Gas Regulation, and Climate Change”

As faithful readers know well, I remain unpersuaded that the world is facing global-warming Armageddon or that we need to force a restructuring of the global energy economy to avert it. But as long as there’s even a remote chance that the emission of greenhouse gases (primarily CO2) might be driving cataclysmic climate change, I suppose, it’s good to see CO2 emissions heading down.

Unlike some holier-than-thou nations I could name, the United States actually is making progress in reducing its CO2 emissions. And Virginia looks pretty good by comparison to other states, which suggests that Virginia is looking pretty good by global standards. Arguably, the most useful measure of carbon intensity is the number of metric tons of CO2 emitted per million dollars of Gross Domestic Product. The lower the number, the more carbon-efficient the economy. As can be seen in the chart above, Virginia is the 13th most carbon-efficient state in the country. Somehow, despite all the caterwauling, we must be doing something right.

Source: Environmental Protection Agency

The debate over Virginia’s energy policy over the past few years has focused almost entirely upon the electric power sector. But electricity accounts for only 28% of the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. An equal proportion comes from the transportation sector, which receives scant attention in the Old Dominion these days. Major contributions come also from industry, commercial & residential, and agriculture, which also goes largely ignored.

Market forces are driving the push to renewable energy in the electricity sector, and we would be seeing more solar power regardless of what the activists and politicians were doing. The reason: Solar’s time has come. Solar is an economically competitive power source, and an increasing number of major corporations are demanding it. As a consequence, Virginia’s largest electric utility, Dominion Energy Virginia, has done a remarkable about-face over the past two years, as can be seen by comparing the narratives of successive Integrated Resource Plans. As Dominion plots its energy future, it foresees a continued shift away from CO2-intensive coal to zero-carbon solar, using natural gas combustion-turbine engines to counter the inevitable variability in solar production.

By contrast, public policy is central to shaping the carbon intensity of the transportation sector — not by setting miles-per-gallon standards for vehicles as much as by shaping land use patterns that determine how frequently people drive their cars and how far they drive. Once upon a time, Virginia environmental groups kept these issues in the spotlight. For whatever reason, they have faded from view. But look what’s going on:

This graph, based on Virginia Department of Transportation data, shows how the average daily vehicle miles traveled dipped after the 2008 recession, leveled off for five years, and then began climbing again in recent years. (2010 numbers were not available from the data source I consulted.) Increased VMT translates directly into increased CO2 emissions. Curiously, the recent increase seems not to have set off any alarm bells. Needless to say, staff-shriveled Virginia news outlets aren’t writing about it. Even environmental groups, absorbed by the dramas of Mountain Valley Pipeline and Atlantic Coast Pipeline construction, seem to be ignoring it.

One long-term solution to rising VMT is building more Walkable Urbanism — compact, pedestrian-friendly, mixed-use development — that enables people to conduct their daily business with fewer and shorter car trips. Another long-term solution is figuring how out to harness the fast-approaching transportation revolutions of self-driving cars and Transportation as a Service. Public policy discussions are occurring behind the scenes — I understand that the Northam administration wants to make its mark in transportation policy by emphasizing innovation — but so far the rubber has yet to meet the road.

Then there’s the other 44% of CO2 emissions from the manufacturing, agriculture, commercial and residential sectors. I have seen next-to-zero attention paid to these economic sectors. One way to reduce the carbon intensity of Virginia’s economy would be to encourage the conversion of grassland and cropland to forest, thus sequestering carbon in trees — the reverse of the clear-cutting of Amazonian rain forest. This is happening on its own, without state government prodding. Perhaps it’s best to leave a good thing alone. But I’m surprised that we’re not hearing more about ways to accelerate the process.

There is tremendous potential, too, in building automation to conserve energy for heating, cooling, and lighting. While individual property owners are investing in energy efficiency, the next frontier is in collaborative projects across office parks and downtown business districts. Virginia state and local government have been totally AWOL.

In sum, If Virginia is one of the more carbon-efficient states in the U.S., it is hard to give any credit to the political class. The General Assembly has ratified a large-scale commitment to solar energy and grid modernization that likely would have occurred if left to normal market and regulatory processes. Meanwhile, nothing substantive is being done about CO2 emissions in transportation, manufacturing and the built environment. Perhaps that’s just as well. All things considered, Virginia is doing just fine. There’s a good chance that the politicians would just screw it up.

Virginia’s Competitive Advantage in Green Power

Solar power is looking better and better by comparison to wind power, and that’s a good thing for Virginia.

In Germany, a global pioneer of wind power, hundreds of wind turbines are experiencing metal fatigue and other issues as they pass their 20- to 25-year design lives — and they are literally falling apart. Turbines are falling to the ground. Blades are snapping off and flying hundreds of feet. Razor-sharp glass fiber splinters have been documented to have flown 800 meters away. So far, no one has been hurt, but one expert speaks of a “ticking time bomb.” (Die Welt has the story here.)

Problems with an energy-production source often don’t become evident for decades. That certainly was the case with coal and oil. Now, a couple of decades after the widespread deployment of wind turbines, we’re learning about a downside of wind. Compared to Deepwater Horizon-scale oil spills and mountaintop-removal coal mining, flying turbine debris may be small potatoes. But as we think about our energy future, the comparison isn’t between wind and coal or oil — no one is building new coal or oil plants — it’s between wind and solar. The great virtue of solar panels is that they just sit there… except when hurricanes tear them off their mountings. But, then, high winds are a problem for wind turbines, too.

Assuming we can design and test turbines to withstand hurricane-force winds, there will be a place for wind in Virginia’s long-term energy future. Wind turbines work at night, which solar panels do not, so they can partially offset the daily drop-off in solar production. Furthermore, if Virginia taps large-scale wind resources, most turbines will be located offshore. Flying turbine blades are less of a problem when people are 20 miles away. But solar power poses none of these issues, and solar is being rolled out on a large scale today. Right now.

The biggest barrier to solar power in Virginia isn’t technology, it isn’t grid reliability (not at this stage of development) and it isn’t obstruction in Richmond. State law now proclaims large volumes of renewable energy to be in the public interest, and Virginia’s largest utility, Dominion Energy Virginia, is forecasting the deployment of more than 5,000 megawatts of solar in its service territory alone. The biggest barrier is local zoning codes, as we are reminded by a story today in The News Virginian.

The Augusta County Board of Supervisors adopted an ordinance yesterday by a narrow 4-3 vote that allows for the leasing of county land for solar energy use. However, critics said the requirement for a 1,000-foot setback from other residences will discourage solar development. The ordinance also does not allow for solar projects on land zoned industrial.

Roger Willetts, who owns the 44 acres in Stuarts Draft, said his property is taxed $6,000 a year by the county. But he said if a solar farm is allowed, he could generate $60,000 in revenue a year. “I think it is an appropriate use. It won’t employ anybody and it won’t have any bathrooms,” Willett told supervisors.

But under the ordinance approved Wednesday, Willetts’ property would be excluded because solar energy on industrial land is not allowed.

Augusta County, situated in a once-beautiful stretch of the Shenandoah Valley, is not a “rural” county with pristine viewsheds of farms and forests. It is characterized by what I call “rural sprawl” — scattered, low-density residential, commercial and industrial development smeared across the countryside. The viewsheds are despoiled already. Sad to say, solar farms aren’t any uglier than what’s already there.

Everywhere a developer proposes to build a solar farm — arguably the most benign form of energy production known to man — the NIMBYs come out and call for restrictions. NIMBYs don’t want gas pipelines. They don’t want electric transmission lines. They don’t want wind turbines. They don’t even want solar farms.

Ironically, solar power could be a boon to the sluggish economies of Virginia’s non-metropolitan cities and counties. Not only do Virginia’s electric utilities envision more solar, the potential exists for Virginia, long a net importer of energy from other states, to export solar power. Virginia is the southern-most state (excluding the northeast corner of North Carolina) in the PJM electric transmission region. For both political and business reasons, there is an insatiable demand for more renewable power within that 13-state region, which stretches from Virginia north to New Jersey and Illinois. Much of that demand comes from Virginia itself, the nation’s leading location for data centers, because West Coast cloud providers insist upon renewable energy sources. PJM creates a  wholesale market for that region, which makes it easier for energy producers located within it to sell into the wholesale market than it is for energy producers on the outside.

While wind-swept Midwestern states in the PJM region are better situated for wind, Virginia is the best situated for solar. As the southern-most state, the Old Dominion has greater solar energy potential — more sunny days and a latitude closer to the equator — than its northern neighbors. As seen in the table above, Virginia has the highest percentage of sun — defined as the percentage of time between sunrise and sunset that sunshine reaches the ground — as well as the largest number of annual hours of sunlight of any PJM state.

Local government officials in Virginia should think of solar power as an economic development tool. Solar farms provide a royalty-income stream to landowners, and they augment the local tax base. While they create few long-term jobs, they do deliver a burst of short-term construction work. As utilities invest in grid modernization, Virginia can provide solar energy for its own needs — up to 30% of the electricity supply, some say, without diminishing grid reliability — and it can export green power to states to the north. This looks like a once-in-a-generation economic opportunity for rural Virginia. Let’s not blow it!

Another Warning of Sea-Level Rise

Ashville Park subdivision in Virginia Beach after Hurricane Matthew. Photo credit: Virginian-Pilot

By 2030, $838 million worth of residential property in Virginia is at risk of being chronically inundated by high tides caused by rising sea levels, directly affecting more than 6,000 people and $8 million in property taxes, according to a new report by the Union for Concerned Scientists. The definition of “chronic” inundation is 26 times per year.

“Sea levels are rising. Tides are inching higher. High-tide floods are becoming more frequent and reaching farther inland. And hundreds of US coastal communities will soon face chronic, disruptive flooding that directly affects people’s homes, lives, and properties,” states the report, ” Underwater: Rising Seas, Chronic Floods, and the Implications for US Coastal Real Estate.” “Yet property values in most coastal real estate markets do not currently reflect this risk. And most homeowners, communities, and investors are not aware of the financial losses they may soon face.”

By the end of the century, the study warns, sea levels could rise by seven feet, exposing 115,000 Virginia homes worth $30 billion to routine flooding.

That’s the worst-case scenario, predicated on the assumptions that global warming-induced sea-level rise is accelerating and that communities are incapable of adapting, and it’s the one highlighted by the report and the Virginian-Pilot coverage of the report. Under the report’s low-rise scenario based on effective global action against climate change, sea levels will rise only a foot and a half, and projected losses would be much smaller.

Scientists skeptical of alarmist global warming scenarios counter that sea levels have been rising steadily by 20 centimeters per century for at least two centuries with no sign of accelerating. The implied sea-level rise globally would be six and a half inches by the end of the century. But the impact varies geographically depending on whether tectonic plates are rising or sinking. In Virginia, the tectonic plate is sinking, suggesting that the impact could be greater locally.

I react negatively to alarmist environmental scenarios, which I think are fed more by wishful thinking that the world is in desperate need of saving. But I don’t dismiss the UCS report out of hand. If these scientists’ worst fears are well founded, Virginia’s coastline could face massive dislocation. Even if the skeptics are right, periodic flooding will get worse — not catastrophically worse but enough to force us to think differently about coastal development.

Given the array of risks, we cannot continue business as usual. I’m not suggesting that it’s time for draconian action, but we can at least stop doing stupid stuff. By “stupid stuff,” I mean we should stop subsidizing coastal development through the National Flood Insurance Program and through implicit promises that state and local government will maintain roads, power lines, water-sewer and beach restoration regardless of cost in the face of increasing floods. Homeowners should bear the costs and risks associated with their decisions to live on or near the water.

Local governments also need to stop zoning for large developments in flood-prone areas. In a separate and unrelated article, the Virginian-Pilot describes the issues surrounding the proposed expansion of the Ashville Park development in Virginia Beach. The developers won zoning approval for the giant, high-quality subdivision more than a decade ago, before periodic flooding became a concern. In 2016 Hurricane Matthew overwhelmed the project’s storm water drainage system, flooding many houses and leaving families stranded for days. Fixes are expected to cost $11 million. The developer will share the cost of the first phase of $2.75 million; the city will cover the rest. Remarkably, the developer claims the right to be able to build up to 400 more houses.

I firmly believe that people should be able to build where they want — as long as they are willing to pay the full cost associated with their location decisions. The problem is not insoluble. Virginia Beach and other coastal localities should establish special tax districts in flood-prone zones, with provisions to expand the geographic scope of those zones as sea levels rise. Property owners in those zones would be assessed a tax surcharge to fund infrastructure projects — storm water drainage systems, flood control berms and dikes, the re-engineering of roads and bridges, whatever — deemed necessary to protect the community. The tax structure should be adjusted to penalize sprawling, low-density housing projects that require greater public investment and reward compact, infrastructure-efficient investment.

The risk of sea-level rise is likely exaggerated, but no one knows for sure. It is not right to transfer that risk — however great or small — from home-owners in flood-prone areas to the tax-paying public. The time to enact reform is now, not when the floods are upon us.

Grasses, Fisheries Drive Health Gains for the Bay

More good news about the Chesapeake Bay. While still plagued with problems, the Bay’s ecological health continues to improve, reports the 2017 Chesapeake Bay Report Card.

Last year stood out for the spread of aquatic grasses and the highest-ever Fisheries Index. The biggest gains were found in the James River, the Elizabeth River and the Upper Western Shore.

Solar Farms and Rural Blight

Non-solar visual blight in rural Virginia

Governor Ralph Northam is committed to solar energy in Virginia. So is the General Assembly. So are Virginia environmentalists, investor-owned utilities and entrepreneurial solar developers. Now all we have to do is convince the people of rural Virginia that installing massive arrays of solar panels in their neighborhoods poses no threat to their quality of life.

I’ve documented numerous instances of resistance to solar projects around the state on this blog. Here are a couple more.

Campbell County. The Campbell County Board of Supervisors is moving forward with an ordinance to regulate solar farms, three of which have been proposed for the Central Virginia county, reports the News & Advance. Much of the discussion at a hearing yesterday focused on the noticeable hum emitted by solar inverters, which convert the electricity from solar panels into a form that can enter the electric grid. One supervisor argued for a 200- to 300-foot setback for the devices, which can generate noise at a level comparable to an air conditioner or dishwasher. Other supervisors rejected the idea, but the ordinance does require solar projects to conduct traffic studies and decommissioning studies.

More non-solar visual blight in rural Virginia.(Image credit: Hamell.net.)

Culpeper County. Meanwhile, a standing-room-only crowd turned out for a public hearing yesterday on a proposed 1,900-acre solar farm in Culpeper County. Concerns included impacts to view sheds in the area, screening, construction noise, setbacks and property values, reports the Free Lance-Star.

Bacon’s bottom line: I find noise concerns laughable. If inverters required 200-foot setbacks to mitigate an air conditioner-level hum, so would every new house constructed in Campbell County! Is construction work on solar panels louder and more objectionable than construction work on convenience stores, housing subdivisions and manufacturing plants? As for traffic impact, c’mon, a solar farm might generate two or three trips on a typical day. Solar farms are about as low-impact an activity as it’s possible to get. Even cemeteries see more action! 

Even more non-solar visual blight.

People may have a point about the aesthetic impact of solar farms upon bucolic rural views. But, dude, why just pick on solar farms? I’ve seen plenty of run-down shacks, gas stations, and industrial structures barns in rural Virginia that no one gets exercised about. Why not clean them up, too?

Solar’s time has arrived. Virginia was prudent to not mandate solar power when the technology was more primitive and the electric output far more expensive than it is today. But costs have plummeted, and a big chunk of solar in the electric-generating mix makes economic sense. Plus, solar is clean. Even if you don’t lay awake at night worrying about global warming — which I certainly don’t — that’s a major bonus. Get with the program, people! Solar farms bring tax and royalty revenue into your community. Find something else to worry about!

Snakeheads vs Blue Catfish: Fear the Cats

by D.J. Rippert

Undocumented swimmers.  The Chesapeake Bay Watershed has more than its fair share of non-native species. Mute swans escaped from an estate on the Eastern Shore where they had been imported from Eurasia. Today they are the largest birds in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed. Nutria were introduced to a nature preserve in 1943 in the hopes of kick-starting a fur farming industry. Today these waterborne rats eat sediment-holding plants in salt marshes. Phragmites accidentally introduced into the holds of ships now crowd out native marsh plants. In fact, the Chesapeake Bay itself could be seen as an invasive species since it was created about 35 million years ago when a large meteorite hit Earth just off what is today Hampton Roads.

Johnny come latelys. Two invasive species of fish have recently been introduced to the Chesapeake Bay: the Snakehead and the Blue Catfish. Snakeheads were introduced after being purchased as aquarium fish and then discarded in local waterways. Long and large with conspicuous teeth, the snakehead has caused quite a sensation. They now occupy at least 60 river miles of the Potomac River. After an explosive start recent evidence suggests that the snakehead population might be leveling off or even declining slightly.  Not only do largemouth bass (another invasive species in the Potomac River) enjoy an occasional breakfast of snakehead fry but people have found the “Potomac Pike” to be fun to catch and delicious as well. Governor Northam’s signing of a law that will allow the sale of Snakehead meat ought to help keep the toothy predator in check.

Stupid is as stupid does. The most vexing invasive species in the Chesapeake Watershed wasn’t introduced by accident or by some World War II brain cramp intended to spur fur farming. No, it was a deliberate act during the 1970s designed to improve sport fishing in Virginia. The environmental wizards of the day saw no issue with introducing an apex predator which can grow to over 100 pounds.  At the time of the Blue Catfish introduction, I suppose horribly polluted rivers such as the James could allow only a few nearly indestructible fish species like Blue Catfish to thrive. And thrive they did. Today, Blue Catfish surveys indicate that the total fish biomass of large sections of the James River is 50% or more Blue Catfish.

So, can we turn the Blue Catfish into the equivalent of the Snakehead (aka the Potomac Pike) – a tasty treat? Blue Cats are large, plentiful and delicious. They are easy to catch and abundant in rivers like the James. However, one may want to think twice before ordering the Blue Cat Blue Plate Special at Bookbinders. It seems that Richmond’s efforts to clean up the James have been …. well … spotty.  A recent survey of Blue Catfish stomach contents from catfish caught in the James near Richmond produced tampons, condoms and human feces. In fairness to River City I’m not sure that I’d eat Blue Catfish caught near Alexandria either. What a sad state of affairs.

Visual Impacts and Transmission Lines

Will the Surry-Skiffes Creek transmission line look like this….

Last week the U.S District Court for the District of Columbia rejected a last-ditch appeal by the National Parks Conservation Association and allied groups to block  construction of the controversial high-voltage transmission line across the James River near Jamestown. Dominion Energy Virginia had embarked upon preliminary construction in February after winning a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers permit, and the ruling clears the utility to complete the project by the summer of 2019.

Apparently, a favorable ruling was not a foregone conclusion. At the preliminary injunction phase, wrote Judge Royce C. Lamberth, the plaintiffs made “a powerful argument on the merits” that the Corps had issued the permit improperly. However, he added, “now that the Court has dug into the administrative record and relevant case law it is evident that the Corps made a “fully informed and well-considered decision.”

Lamberth made clear that he was not saying that the Corps made the correct decision; rather, it met all relevant standards and criteria for issuing the permit. 

… or like this?

For those interested in the controversy, the guts of the ruling shed new light into aspects of the seemingly interminable Corps decision-making process.

Perhaps the most contentious issue was the visual impact of the 500 kV Surry-Skiffes Creek transmission line upon a relatively pristine stretch of the James River associated with Jamestown and the English settlement of Virginia. Early in the controversy Dominion prepared visualizations showing the transmission-line towers as barely visible on the horizon when viewed from Jamestown Island. Power line foes disputed the accuracy of the renderings.

The Corps studied the visual impact in detail, creating a 400-page visual effects assessment, entitled the Cultural Resources Effects Assessment (CREA). Employing various vantage points and line-of-sight analyses, expert consultant Truescape created photo simulations demonstrating how the river crossing would appear to the human eye.

After the Corps made the document public, opposition groups criticized the Truescape methodology, noting that the analysis failed to analyze how the project would impact a visitor traveling on the river in close proximity to where the power line would cross the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historical Trail. “In other words,” summarized Lamberth, “while the CREA’s visual analysis captured what the electrical line would look like from historical vantage points on land, it would not capture the impact to a visitor traveling by boat on the river. He continued:

In response, the PhotoSimulation Overview was updated in June 2016 to include nearly 80 pages of additional reference photographs and visual simulations depicting views from the river. … Moreover, the PhotoSimulation Overview was updated again in August 2016 to include additional simulations based on a second round of photographs taken from the river.

Moreover, from a process perspective, the Corps held discussions with [the National Park Service] regarding its its methodological concerns and received an NPS guidance document on how to evaluate visual impact assessments. … The Corps forwarded the document to Dominion, asking them to address whether the methods used were comparable and what the plan would be going forward. … Dominion demonstrated that the methodology used followed NPS guidance and provide[d] reliable simulations of how the Project would look. Upon considering the methodological concerns raised by NPS and reviewing Dominion’s updated analysis, the Corps concluded:

“Dominion’s simulations provided enough accuracy to sufficiently analyze effects to both historic properties and a visitor’s experience. … While there are various methods for predicting visual impact it is not likely that employing further methods will result in substantively different views or information.”

In the ruling Lamberth also alluded to the involvement of Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke in the controversy.

NPS sent a detailed letter in January 2017, in which it pointed to “fundamental flaws” with the decision-making process that “remain unresolved.” NPS specifically noted the flawed visual analysis. Although the Corps was not required to accept NPS’s critique, Lamberth wrote, senior staff met with Interior Department officials to discuss the comments.

In March 2017, the new Secretary of the Interior Zinkie (sic), who ultimately presides over NPS, stated that the information that had been provided by the Corps reflected “thoughtful and thorough consideration of the issues raised by my predecessor. …”

Secretary Zinkie’s letter effectively withdrew the Department of Interior’s previous stance that an [Environmental Impact Statement] was required. “As we all know, elections have consequences” and the Interior Department’s shift in position demonstrates to the Court that there is no longer active disagreement between the Interior Department and the Corps.”

As it happened, Lamberth agreed with the Corps that the visual impact would not be significant. Boaters traveling the James, he wrote, already are exposed to views of de-commissioned Navy ships comprising the Ghost Fleet, the water tower at Fort Eustis, the Surry nuclear power station, several large, modern houses on the shoreline, barges and other commercial vessels, and recreational boaters and water skiers from Kingsmill Resort.

“The Corps did enough,” concluded Lamberth. “It engaged in reasoned analysis, consulted experts, responded to criticisms of both its methodologies and conclusions, took a hard look at the potential impacts, and concluded that the impact of the Project would be ‘moderate at most.'”

“Malicious Yet Delicious”

Thanks to a bill signed by Governor Ralph Northam signed a law last week, it will be legal come July to sell snakehead fish, an invasive species that is spreading fast in the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries. Legislation swam through the General Assembly this year despite concerns by some that commercializing the Asian invader would encourage people to stock it in Virginia waterways. The hope is that legalizing sales will encourage more anglers to catch the piscine predator, thus slowing its growth in numbers and the threat it poses to good ol’ Virginia fish.

The hard part, I expect, will be persuading customers to eat a fish named snakehead. Restaurateurs have a real branding challenge.

Rocky and Blair Denson, owners of Denson’s Grocery and Oyster Bar in Colonial Beach where Northam signed the legislation, have no qualms. They say they plan to put snakehead on the menu as soon as it becomes legal to do so. Reports the Free Lance-Star:

They will serve fried “snakehead bites” with a remoulade dip.

“Malicious, yet delicious” is how a good friend of Rocky Denson describes the freshwater predator, which will eat just about anything.

“Fried, dipped in remoulade, it’s fabulous,”

I admire their panache. But all I can say is, “Good luck with that!”

Virginia’s Date with RGGI

RGGI states: Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Rhode Island, and Vermont

There’s a good chance that Virginia will participate in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) to cut utility CO2 emissions. The impact of the cap-and-trade system would be mostly symbolic.

Barring litigation, Virginia could start participating later this year in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI, pronounced Reggie), a cap-and-trade program designed to reduce CO2 emissions of electric utilities and large industrial customers by 30% over a 10-year period. All it will take is for the State Air Pollution Control Board to approve regulations, now undergoing public comment, that have been drafted by the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ).

Cap-and-trade programs have proven highly cost effective at bringing down emissions in sulfur dioxide and nitrous oxide, and proponents say that a similar approach could work just as well for carbon-dioxide, widely held to be the primary driver of global warming. Cap-and-trade, they say, avoids the inefficiencies of bureaucratic command-and-control regulations. Instead, the auction arrangement steers power output to entities that can reduce CO2 emissions the most cost effectively. Not only will RGGI cut emissions, they contend, it will flatten electric rate increases, lower electric bills, and stimulate economic growth.

There’s just one problem. Virginia’s largest electric utility, Dominion Energy Virginia, doesn’t believe it. In fact, in its 2018 Integrated Resource Plan, the utility fired a broadside against the regulatory initiative. The company maintains the following:

  • The program could impose $530 million in additional costs on Virginia customers between 2020 and 2030.
  • In effect, Virginia will subsidize other RGGI states through lower compliance costs to the tune of $876 million over the decade.
  • Virginia’s linkage to RGGI will not reduce CO2 emissions. To the contrary, the auctions will increase CO2 output by 5.7% more than it would have been otherwise.

PJM service territory

A big reason RGGI proponent’s optimistic forecasts won’t pan out, Dominion says, is that there is a geographic mismatch between the RGGI states and PJM Interconnection, the wholesale market of which Virginia is a part. The nine RGGI states are concentrated in the Northeast; the 14 states of PJM are located in the Mid-Atlantic and the Midwest. The only overlap between the two are Virginia, Maryland, and Delaware. Because Dominion, Appalachian Power Co., and other electricity producers don’t control which power sources are dispatched to meet electric demand — PJM does — generators in Virginia would suffer a cost disadvantage compared to competitors in neighboring states not subject to RGGI, such as North Carolina and West Virginia.

“The effect of RGGI-equivalent reduction requirements in Virginia is likely to limit the dispatch of highly-efficient and lower-emitting [natural gas combined-cycle] facilities in Virginia and to encourage the dispatch of higher-emitting resources and increased emissions in neighboring states outside of the RGGI region,” states the IRP.

But environmentalists insist the cap-and-trade program will be beneficial. “Carbon pollution is a big contributor to climate change. Cap-and-trade is a market-based way of dealing with that environmental problem,” says Will Cleveland, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center.

“We think this is a really good opportunity,” says Harry Godfrey, Virginia director of Advanced Energy Economy. “To the extent that there are still older, coal-fired plants online, we foresee … less utilization of those assets in the future. But we see less utilization anyway. All of our analysis shows a coal-to-gas shift. … Our analysis shows that you can limit cost impacts, and even reduce rates in the process.”

How RGGI works

In 2009 ten Northeastern and Mid-Atlantic states accounting for one-eighth of the U.S. population and one-seventh of its economic activity created the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative as an interstate cap-and-trade program. Broadening the geographic scope of the trading system beyond the boundaries of a single state, it was thought, would create a bigger pool of CO2-cutting opportunities.

Under RGGI’s “direct” auction trading system, RGGI sets a regional limit on the total amount of CO2 that power plants in member states are allowed to emit. Owners of fossil fuel power plants with capacity greater than 25 megawatts are assigned an allowance to release a certain amount of CO2. Then they are required to purchase pollution permits at quarterly auctions sufficient to meet that output. The plan is for RGGI to ratchet the CO2 allowances by 3% each year over a decade. Utilities and big industrial producers who can’t find ways internally to cut their CO2 emissions can go to the auctions to buy extra allowances. Power generators who can find ways to cut emissions economically can sell their excess allowances to those who need them.

In the first auctions between 2009 and 2011, RGGI sold 395 million tons worth of CO2 allowances. The cap was a generous one, so the auction price for allowances was low — ranging between $1.86 and $3.35 per ton — according to the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions. As the CO2 allowances tightened, prices increased, reaching a high of $7.50 per ton in 2015. Prices fell after the Trump administration nixed the Clean Power Plan but the next round of CO2 emissions cuts — 30% by 2030 — likely will push the price back up. Continue reading

The Logperch Veto

The Roanoke logperch

Virginia has its very own snail darter — the Roanoke logperch, a threatened species of fish, the existence of which could delay or even obstruct a multibillion-dollar infrastructure project.

The snail darter became a cause celebre for endangered species in 1973 when concerns arose that the habitat of the endangered fish would be obliterated by construction of the Tellico Dam on the Little Tennessee River. Although the dam ultimately was built, the controversy over the snail darter’s fate held up the project through years of legal appeals and eventually required a literal act of Congress to override a U.S. Supreme Court ruling.

The Roanoke logperch is one of six endangered or threatened species whose habitat will be crossed by the Atlantic Coast Pipeline (ACP), according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch. The ACP won’t obliterate the habitats of the logperch, the Indiana bat, the Northern long-eared bat, the Madison Cave isopod, the rusty patched bumblebee, or the clubshell mussel in the way that the Tellico Dam did the homeland of the snail darter. But the pipeline will cross these species’ habitats, subjecting them to additional stress, and perhaps killing some individuals. A federal appeals court ruled that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had set unacceptably vague criteria for monitoring and complying with the Endangered Species Act. Pipeline foes regard the threat to the species as sufficient grounds to shut down construction.

A question unasked by the media in coverage of the ruling is just how threatened are these species? What impact might pipeline construction have on their habitat? Could the pipeline precipitate their extinction or will the effect be marginal? But alert reader D.J. Rippert raised the issue in a comment to an earlier article on the topic. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCM) Red List, he wrote, “the Roanoke Logperch is one notch above endangered. The key question is whether the pipeline would push it from vulnerable to endangered.”

Good point, Don. Let’s see what IUCM has to say about the six species in question. But first some nomenclature: A “vulnerable” species is one that is likely to become endangered unless the circumstances threatening its survival and reproduction improve. The next steps up the ladder towards extinction are a “endangered” and then “critically endangered.” The term “threatened” applies to any species “likely to become an endangered species within the foreseeable future throughout all or a significant portion of its range.”

Roanoke logperch. Precina Rex is listed as “vulnerable.” Its range extends through the upper Roanoke, upper Dan, and upper Chowan river systems. Eight populations are separated by wide river gaps or dams. The fish resides in riffles, runs, and pools with sandy to boulder-strewn bottoms. Despite the ongoing threats of urbanization, industrial development, flood control projects, and agricultural runoff, the population is believed to be increasing. However, siltation from agricultural “and other human activities” remains a concern.

Indiana bat. Myotis soldalis is listed as “near threatened.” The bat has an extensive range across the eastern United States but the range and population have shrunk in recent years.  The most significant threats to the species are habitat loss, forest fragmentation, winter disturbance and environmental contaminants. Half the bats are believed to hibernate in Indiana (hence the name); other major population centers are located in Kentucky and Missouri. Virginia is a minor and peripheral part of the bat’s range.

Madison cave isopod. Antrolana lira is classified as “vulnerable.” This tiny critter is an eyeless, unpigmented freshwater crustacean that lives in flooded limestone caves in the northern Shenandoah Valley, with documented population centers around Staunton and Harrisonburg. The ICUN database contains little information about the isopod. Contamination of underground water is the major threat to the creature’s habitat — definitely an issue in the karst terrain in Virginia mountain terrain.

Rusty patched bumble bee. IUCM does not have this species of bumble bee in its database. But Fish & Wildlife does refer to it as “endangered.” “Rusty patched bumble bees once occupied grasslands and tall grass prairies of the Upper Midwest and Northeast, but most grasslands and prairies have been lost, degraded, or fragmented by conversion to other uses,” states the endangered species website. The range has constricted to 13 states, of which Virginia is one, plus one Canadian province. The biggest threat comes from intensive farming and the use of pesticides.

Clubshell mussel. Also not included in the IUCM database, the clubshell mussel is described by Fish & Wildlife as an “endangered” species. The bivalve, which lives in small to medium rivers and streams, once was found from Michigan to Alabama, Illinois to West Virginia — Virginia does not warrant mention as part of its range — and now is relegated to “portions of only 13 streams.” The major threats listed are pollution from agricultural run-off, industrial wastes, and extensive impoundments for navigation, all compounded by competition with the Zebra mussel.

Northern long-eared bat. The Northern long-eared bat does not appear in the IUCN’s red list but it is listed as “threatened” by Fish & Wildlife. The bat’s range extends throughout most of the Eastern U.S. and parts of Canada. Its population decline has been caused by the “white-nosed syndrome,” a fungal disease. The disease has spread to bats in Virginia.

Bacon’s bottom line: This is a superficial survey, and I welcome the input of anyone who has more detailed and authoritative knowledge. But it seems reasonable to draw several conclusions.

First, none of these species are “critically endangered.” Only two are listed as “endangered.” The other four are classified as “threatened” or “vulnerable.” Continue reading