In “Climate of Capitulation,” former Air Board member Vivian Thomson argues unpersuasively that state government favors energy over the environment.
In 2005 Mirant Corporation operated a 482-megawatt coal-fired power plant in Alexandria. The facility was 60 years old, and it was dirty, emitting almost twice the allowed limits of nitrogen oxide (NOx). Due to its proximity to Reagan Washington National Airport, the plant had unusually low smokestacks, which meant that NOx, sulfur dioxide and particulates settled nearby. A Harvard University health study contended that installing Best Available Control technology at Mirant would avoid about 40 deaths, 43 hospital admissions, and 3,000 asthma attacks each year. In August of that year, the Warner administration ordered the plant shut down.
Mirant complied, but within a few weeks, citing an order from the U.S. Department of Energy, it reopened the facility. Conflict between Mirant on the one hand and environmentalists and citizens of Alexandria on the other raged for years. Warner’s successor, Governor Tim Kaine, tried to find a solution acceptable to all, and in 2006 the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) negotiated a permit that would reduce the local impact on Alexandrians by increasing the height of the pollution plume and dispersing emissions over a wider area. But the State Air Pollution Control Board, a majority of whose members sided with the opposition, voted 3 to 2 against it. Later, in 2008, the company agreed to merge smokestacks to lift the plume, accept the Board’s sulfur dioxide limits, and invest $34 million to reduce particulate emissions. The Air Board approved that permit, but Mirant’s owner, GenOn, ended up closing the plant before undertaking the improvements.
Vivian E. Thomson, an environmental science professor at the University of Virginia, recounts the Mirant episode in her recently published book, “Climate of Capitulation: An Insider’s Account of State Power in a Coal Nation.” Mirant’s ability to keep the Alexandria plant opened, she argues, was just one of many examples of how the energy lobby exercise power in Virginia and other states at the expense of the environment and citizens’ health.
Officials in the Kaine administration undermined and opposed the Board’s work, she asserts. The General Assembly interfered with Board decisions and enacted a law to expand the board from five to seven members for the purpose of diluting the power of the three activist board members, one of whom was Thomson herself. Resistance to the board’s policing of the environment reflected “cozy relationships” between regulators and businesses and Virginia’s “corrupt” environmental policy-making process, she says.
Thomson details three major controversies in which she participated: the Mirant closing, the approval of Dominion Energy’s hybrid energy plant in Wise County, and the regulation of dust from coal trucks. Distressed by the way energy interests evaded her brand of environmental justice, Thomson describes a “climate of capitulation” — a system that shows “favoritism toward private interests and an inclination to maintain the status quo.”
By avoiding inflammatory rhetoric and maintaining a flat, academic style, Thomson strives to come across in the book as a reasoned observer of the political process. She doesn’t insult her opponents, she doesn’t engage in conspiracy theorizing, and she avoids a strident tone. But she never concedes that environmental regulation involves trade-offs with jobs, electric rates or electric reliability. In her analysis, protecting the environment and public health are not merely important goals, but the only goals worth considering.
Indeed, Thomson’s inability to acknowledge any perspective other than her own gives proof to the assessment of Kaine’s secretary of the environment, Preston Bryant, that the State Air Pollution Control Board was indeed a “rogue board.”
The Mirant controversy. Thomson’s blinkered view comes through most clearly in her recitation of the Mirant controversy. She never explains why the Department of Energy (DOE) issued an emergency order to reopen the Mirant plant after the Warner administration shut it down. The facility, as I discovered only by querying the Web, was one of three power plants supplying electricity to Washington, D.C. Pepco, the city’s utility, was planning to shut down one of the other three, the Potomac River Generating Station, for environmental reasons and it needed to upgrade a transmission line and substation feeding electricity to the capital from the outside. To avoid the risk of outages, the D.C. Public Service Commission petitioned federal authorities to keep the Mirant plant open until Pepco managed to complete the improvements. The DOE complied. Thomson deemed none of this background to be worthy of mention. Without it, the early behavior of Mirant and the Kaine administration are all but incomprehensible.
The controversy persisted after Pepco completed its grid upgrade in July 2007. As Mirant struggled to stay in operation — operating mainly as a peaker plant only during the hottest and coldest days — Mark Rubin, a gubernatorial aide, brainstormed possible solutions to the problem. Eventually, he worked out a settlement, which the Air Board accepted. But in the end, the aging plant was beyond saving as natural gas began displacing coal in the energy marketplace. GenOn shut it down permanently.
Let’s recap. Governor Warner ordered the Mirant plant closed. The federal government ordered it reopened to ensure a reliable supply of electricity to Washington, D.C. through July 2007. The Kaine administration sought a compromise to allow the plant to continue operating beyond that date while also addressing environmental concerns. Protracted negotiations resulted in a deal that the Air Board approved. This is an example of Virginia politicians capitulating to energy interests?
The Hybrid Energy Center controversy. A parallel controversy in Wise County in which the Kaine administration did not accede to the air board’s wishes provides another alleged instance of state government caving in to the energy sector. In this case, the villain was the electric utility now known as Dominion Energy.
In 2005 Dominion had proposed building a $1.5 billion “hybrid” energy plant that burned coal, coal waste and waste wood. Dominion and its supporters billed it as a boon to economic development — 800 construction jobs, 75 post-construction jobs, 300 coal mining jobs, and $5 million yearly in new tax revenues for a county with a $44 million budget. As a bonus, the Virginia City Hybrid Energy Center would consume waste coal that was polluting regional streams and rivers. But activist groups protested that the project would perpetuate the environmentally destructive practice of mountaintop removal, generate air pollution that would harm nearby forests, and emit carbon-dioxide that contributed to global warming.
Dominion submitted the first part of its application for air pollution permits in the summer of 2006, and a second part in early 2007. The first governed sulfur dioxide and particulates, the second mercury and other toxics. The status of state and federal regulation of toxics and greenhouse gases was in flux at this time, with widely diverging views on how to deal with the pollution issues. Long story short, the Air Board hewed to interpretations different than those of the General Assembly and the Kaine administration, and took an adversarial view in the proceedings. Continue reading