Category Archives: Environment

Farrell Defends Dominion’s Environmental Record

Dominion CEO Tom Farrell

Under continual pressure from politicians, protesters and even shareholders to develop more renewable energy, Dominion Energy (which has changed its name from Dominion Resources) offered a vigorous defense of its environmental policies at its 108th annual meeting in downtown Richmond today.

Since 2000 the company has cut nitrogen-oxide emissions 81%, sulfur dioxide emissions 95% and mercury emissions by 96% — a performance exceeded by only one other electric utility in the country, CEO Thomas F. Farrell II told shareholders.

Dominion also has reduced the carbon intensity of its electricity by 43% between 2000 and 2015, Farrell said. Carbon intensity measures the pounds of carbon-dioxide (CO2) emissions per megawatt hour of electricity produced. Dominion’s performance compares to a 23% reduction for the electric utility industry as a whole.

Carbon intensity will fall another 25% as Dominion expands solar power generation to a projected total of 5,200 megawatts within 25 years. “Solar is growing very rapidly,” Farrell said. I know that a lot of folks would like all of our power to come from renewables. That’s not realistic. That’s not affordable.”

Of greater interest to most of the shareholders in attendance, Dominion reported an 11.8% increase in earnings in 2016 and an 8.1% increase in dividends. But numerous shareholders, some owning as few as one or two shares, lined up to take the microphone during a Q&A session. They pressed for changes to Dominion’s governance practices, urged more aggressive adoption of solar power, and chastised the company for construction of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline (ACP).

Several shareholders argued that Dominion should reduce its corporate exposure to environmental risks, especially those resulting from severe weather or drastic regulatory changes implemented in response to climate change. One formal shareholder proposal recommended the company nominate a director with environmental expertise; another asked Dominion to evaluate alternate technologies as a way to comply with Paris Agreement accords to cut CO2 emissions. All shareholder proposals were voted down.

Farrell unapologetically defended the company’s environmental record, citing its achievements to date and its plans for the future.

Dominion was one of only four electric utilities to file a brief in favor of the Obama administration’s controversial Clean Power Plan, Farrell said. The plan, the status of which is now up in the air under the Trump administration, mandates major cuts to electric-utilities’ CO2 emissions, although the amount would vary depending upon how each state implements the plan.

While some have suggested that the Trump administration will scuttle the Clean Power Plan, Farrell insisted that carbon regulation is here to stay. An EPA endangerment finding, upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court, declared that the EPA is required to regulate CO2. “I have no idea what that’s going to look like. Neither does anyone else,” Farrell said. But some form of regulation is unavoidable.

In the meantime, a McAuliffe administration task force has been looking at the CO2 issue and is expected to announce its recommendations for the General Assembly next month. “There’s going to be carbon regulation, and to suggest otherwise just isn’t true,” Farrell said.

The carbon-regulation issue is particularly sensitive to Dominion because critics have argued for a rollback of a rate freeze put into effect two years ago in response to the Clean Power Plan. Now that the plan is likely to be overturned, they contend, the justification for the rate freeze — to provide rate stability amidst regulatory uncertainty — no longer exists.

Farrell also defended the “urgent need” for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, a 600-mile pipeline that would bolster natural gas supplies to “grossly under-served” communities in Virginia and North Carolina. The pipeline has inspired fierce resistance from property owners along the route, especially in the steep mountains of western Virginia where environmentalists have raised concerns that construction on steep slopes and narrow ridges will lead to erosion and disruption to water fragile water supplies.

Large chunks of eastern Virginia and North Carolina have reached the limits of existing natural gas pipeline capacity, Farrell said. Furthermore, much of North Carolina is served by only one natural gas pipeline, Transco, making the region vulnerable to supply disruptions. He cited a recent outage on Transco that interrupted the gas supply to the company’s Brunswick Power Station near the North Carolina border, forcing it to halt generation temporarily. The ACP would provide an alternate pipeline to serve Brunswick and the nearby Greensville Power Station, which will be the world’s largest combined-cycle natural gas plant when construction is complete, as well as to Duke Energy power plants in North Carolina. Continue reading

McAuliffe Signs 11 Renewable Energy Bills into Law

Governor Terry McAuliffe has signed 11 solar and renewable energy bills into law.

Quasi-community solar. The most significant is SB 1393, which creates a mechanism for Dominion, Appalachian power Co. and Virginia’s electric cooperatives to sell solar-generated electricity to subscribers. While the law does not provide everything that solar enthusiasts would like, it does open up economic space for more local, small-scale solar development, and it provides consumers a green-energy option they didn’t have before.

Agricultural solar. HB 2303 and SB 1394 create a framework whereby farms can generate renewable energy and sell it to utilities.

Energy-efficiency. HB 1565 allows localities to establish “green development zones” providing special zoning and tax treatment for buildings and facilities that are deemed to be energy efficient or manufacture products beneficial to the environment.

Battery storage. SB 1258 expands the mission of the Virginia Solar Energy Development Authority to include promotion of battery storage technology.

The Fauquier Times enumerates all 11 bills here.

Electric Utilities Increasingly Open to Renewables

Graphic source: State of the Electric Utility 2017

by Thomas Hadwin

Editor’s note: Tom Hadwin submitted this article before Dominion and Appalachian Power filed Integrated Resource Plans Monday detailing forecasts of dramatically higher solar energy generation over the next 15 to 25 years.

According to a recent article in Utility Dive, U.S. electric utility concerns about integrating higher levels of renewables into the grid are declining.

Utility Dive surveyed more than 600 utility professionals in their fourth-annual State of the Electric Utility (SEU) survey. More than 80% of the respondents expect renewable energy resources to increase moderately or significantly over the next ten years in their service territories.

The lower costs of renewables and natural gas compared to other conventional generating sources are driving the trend to greater acceptance. PJM Interconnection Vice President, Mike Bryson, agrees that the very low price of natural gas and the declining price of renewable energy cause these sources to be favored over new coal and nuclear generation.

Survey respondents agree, with 62% expecting moderate or significant growth in natural gas generation, while 72% predict at least moderate coal retirements in the upcoming decade.

Southeastern states are less enthusiastic about the prospects for growth in wind resources. A majority (58%) of those responding from Southern states did not expect growth in wind generation, which might be due to the lower-than-average wind resource in the region. Advances in advanced turbine technologies might yield prices competitive with natural gas generation in the Southeast by 2025. In other parts of the country, especially the Great Plains, wind generation is often the lowest cost source of electricity today.

Texas is currently the nation’s leading wind generator with 18 GW of nameplate wind generation, with plans to add 14.5 GW more wind generation and 27 GW of solar by 2031 without any statewide Renewable Portfolio Standard. Economics are the driving force.

Utilities expect smaller scale solar will grow even faster than utility-scale facilities with 83% forecasting at least some level of growth in distributed generation solar units. This rapid build-out of solar will require other complementary technologies. Nearly 80% of the utility respondents expect moderate or significant growth in distributed and grid-scale storage units, while 81% predict more grid communication technologies and smart inverters will be required to ease grid integration of additional solar.

In last year’s survey, grid integration issues were the top concern, reported by 32% of respondents. This year, half of that number (16%), said grid integration of renewables was the most pressing problem. Instead, 35% of the utility officials indicated that since the election regulatory and market uncertainty are now the greatest concerns.

Few respondents reported concerns about transmission constraints, stranded assets, or having adequate flexible generation to cover variations in renewable output, which are issues often associated with renewable growth.

This might be due to the recent development of affordable and effective grid integration measures. A National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) study confirms that higher levels of renewable energy will not disrupt system reliability. The study showed that the Eastern Interconnection, the world’s biggest power system, of which PJM is a part, can reliably add ten times more renewable generation than exists today.

Renewables then would comprise about 30% of the system capacity. The remainder would be gas, coal, nuclear, hydro and other types of generation that would provide dispatchable power to cover the variations in the output from renewable sources.

Batteries are not yet cheap enough to make solar plus battery combinations competitive with natural gas-fired combined cycle plants for base-load use. But solar plus batteries is currently cheaper than the more expensive peaking units in some regions. The batteries respond more rapidly to load fluctuations than do existing peaking units. Expected ongoing price declines will make their use more widespread. Continue reading

The Failed Mountain “Decapitation” Narrative

Schematic filed with West Virginia regulators of a two-mile stretch of the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline near the Virginia state line.

Schematic filed with West Virginia regulators of a two-mile stretch of the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline near the Virginia state line. (Click for larger image.)

Environmentalists say the Atlantic Coast Pipeline will “decapitate” pristine mountaintops in western Virginia. They have no evidence to back the claim.

Last week foes of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline (ACP) leveled their most rhetorically heated charges against the 600-mile pipeline project yet. Construction teams would have to excavate some 247,000 dump-truck loads of rock and soil as they blasted a path across steep mountains and ridge lines. Describing the “decapitation” of pristine mountains, opponents likened the process to highly destructive mountaintop removal by the coal industry.

There was just one problem. The environmentalists’ calculations were based on the assumption that the ACP would flatten a 125-foot-wide construction corridor through the mountains. That assumption was inaccurate, Aaron Ruby, a spokesman for Dominion Transmission, managing partner of the pipeline project, responded at the time. On ridge lines, the company would carve out just enough space to excavate the trench, which will be “significantly narrower” than 125 feet. Without the 125-foot assumption, the rest of the “decapitation” analysis falls apart.

Ruby’s comment seemingly constituted a devastating rebuke. But pipeline foes are sticking to their guns. Building on the “decapitation” theme, the Chesapeake Climate Action Network (CCAN) is planning a rally today in front of Governor Terry McAuliffe’s office to demand that the governor use his regulatory power to “halt Dominion’s proposed mountaintop removal plans.”

A CCAN briefing paper asserts that “the choice to build along ridgelines is part of Dominion’s preferred and deliberate design. Working on these ridgelines will require creating a wide and flat surface to allow Dominion’s earth-moving vehicles and deep-trenching machines to operate and maneuver. The federal government’s report on the environmental impacts of the pipeline declares that ‘narrow ridgetops’ [will] require widening and flattening in order to provide workspace in the temporary right-of-way.”

What proof does CCAN have to back up such claims? None at all.


ANALYSIS


In a follow-up email distributed to members of the media late last week, Rick Webb with the Dominion Pipeline Monitoring Coalition (DPMC), a CCAN ally, attached a document that included the schematic above, which Dominion had submitted in a West Virginia regulatory filing. The schematic shows an elevation profile and a top-down view of the pipeline route on a two-mile section of the proposed pipeline near the Virginia border. A report by RESPEC, a geoscience engineering consulting firm hired by Appalachian Mountain Advocates, another anti-pipeline ally, estimated that construction would remove 130,000 cubic yards of material in that one segment alone.

That report, “Atlantic Coast Pipeline and Supply Header Project Volumetric Analysis,” made several assumptions. Among them, the firm created “typical cross-sections” to facilitate the computation of the volume of excavated material. One of the four cross-sections — “Ridgeline – Steep” category (shown below) — was applied to topography located on a ridgeline with an overall slope of greater than 20%.

Source: “Atlantic Coast Pipeline and Supply Header Project
Volumetric Analysis.” (Click for larger image.)

The graphic clearly shows the assumption that the top of the ridge-line will be removed in its entirety.

But the assumption is invalid. As ACP spokesman Ruby elaborated in an email: “We will not need to grade the entire 125-foot-wide construction right of way on every ridgeline. We may need to clear the entire ROW so we have room for our equipment, but we will only grade enough space so we can safely excavate the trench and install the pipe.”

There is nothing in the Dominion schematic to contradict Ruby.

In an interview with Bacon’s Rebellion, Webb acknowledged that pipeline foes were making assumptions for the purposes of their analysis, and he shifted the burden of proof to Dominion to prove their analysis wrong.

“We’re taking the information we have and saying, ‘It can be this bad,'” said Webb. “If Dominion says this is an exaggeration, show us the details to prove otherwise. Informed decisions can’t be made,” he added, until more information is made available.

Dominion has yet to file detailed construction plans for the route, Webb said. “The only detailed plans in Virginia we’ve seen is a one-tenth of a mile section in Highland County using high-tensile steel mesh nailed into the ground with six-foot nails. We want to see what they’re planning to do with the rest of the pipeline. Dominion has presented a concept. … We want to see solutions now.”

It’s one thing for pipeline foes to demand Dominion to make more information available to the public. It’s a very different thing to claim that the company intends to engage in mountaintop decapitation with devastating environmental consequences. Dominion insists that it won’t, and pipeline opponents have offered no tangible evidence to indicate otherwise. Perhaps proof will turn up in future filings to support their view. But it hasn’t yet, and pipeline foes undermine their credibility by trumpeting claims with no basis in demonstrated fact.

Reusing the Reusens Hydro Dam: A Tax-Driven Deal?

The Reusens hydroelectric dam.

The Reusens hydroelectric dam. Photo credit: Roanoke Times

Appalachian Power Co. (Apco) has sold the Reusens hydroelectric dam on the James River near Lynchburg to Eagle Creek Renewable Energy LLC for an undisclosed price, according to press accounts.

Apco started generating electricity at the dam in 1903 and stopped in 2011. “Over the past few years, the five generators and other equipment at Reusens began to show wear and required extensive maintenance or replacement — primarily the result of age,” says Apco spokesman John Shepelwich. The utility reviewed a variety of alternatives, one of which was selling the facility, which “we explored for a few years.”

Eagle Creek plans to re-open the facility, which it expects to generate an estimated 40,000 megawatt hours per year. Why would Eagle Creek want to run the facility when Apco didn’t?

It’s not as if Apco doesn’t have abundant experience operating hydroelectric dams. It has six others, which it is keeping in its electricity-generating portfolio. Given the pressure all utilities are under to increase their commitment to renewable energy, one would think that Apco and its parent company American Electric Power would want to hang on to Reusens. Shepelwich says that the company will “more than offset” the 12.5 megawatt capacity of the Reusens dam with other investments in renewable energy, but in the current political environment, there’s no such thing as too much renewable — especially hydroelectric, which, unlike solar and wind, produces electricity steadily, reliably and predictably.

I tried to contact Eagle Creek but got no response to my email.

But here’s my guess: The decision to sell was influenced by federal tax incentives. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, the federal government offers several tax incentives to stimulate deployment of hydroelectric power.

  • In 2014 Congress appropriated funds for Hydroelectric Production Incentives. Eligible facilities may receive up to 1.8 cents per kilowatt hour (indexed for inflation) with maximum payments of $750,000 per year during the incentive period.
  • A Renewable Electricity Production Tax Credit provides 1.1 cent per kilowatt hour for electricity production by hydroelectric dams and other renewable energy sources over a 10-year period. Alternatively, project owners can take tax credits worth 30% of the value of the facility up-front.

Shepelwich confirmed for me that no tax incentives were available to Apco for Reusens.

Official statements by Eagle Creek don’t mention incentives one way or another, but here’s what I’m betting happened. Apco ran the numbers and determined how much it would cost to bring the dam back to operating condition. The cost-benefit to ratepayers was not sufficient to win approval by the State Corporation Commission, so Apco couldn’t justify the investment. Access to a 30% up-front tax credit and up to 1.8-cents-per-kilowatt-hour production incentive made the old dam worth a lot more to Eagle Creek. Therefore, it made sense for Apco to sell the facility.

Public policy questions arise. Is this incremental addition to Virginia’s green power mix worth the dual subsidies? How would we say unless we knew how much those subsidies amount to? When the governor of Virginia pays a subsidy from the governor’s opportunity fund to land a corporate investment, agree with it or disagree with it, the expenditure is a matter of public record and included in every press release. If Eagle Creek is receiving subsidies, are they on the public record anywhere? Should anyone know the answer, please contact me.

Dominion Sings New Tune, Embraces Solar

Dominion’s White House Solar farm in Louisa County

Dominion expects to install up to 5,200 megawatts of solar generating capacity by 2042 — about thirteen times its current commitment and enough to power 1.3 million homes — according to forecasts contained in its 2017 Integrated Resource Plan (IRP). That represents a dramatic shift from forecasts in previous versions of the long-range planning document, which is filed annually with the State Corporation Commission.

Natural gas emits half the carbon dioxide per unit of electricity than oil and coal, and solar produces no carbon emissions at all. Increasing reliance upon those two energy sources will shrink a typical Dominion Virginia Power customer’s carbon footprint (carbon dioxide emitted per customer) by 25% over the next eight years, the company stated in a press release.

“The ‘installed cost’ of large-scale solar facilities … has dropped 50 percent over the past four years,” said Paul D. Koonce, CEO of the Dominion Generation Group. “Our customers want more renewable energy, and changing economics make the transition to renewable resources easier.”

Dominion has been slow, compared to many other utilities, to embrace solar power. In past years, the company stressed that solar produced electricity only when the sun was shining, which made necessary extensive backup capacity, and that solar peak production in the mid-day did not match up well with peak demand for electricity on late summer afternoons or early winter mornings. Until now, the company had committed to building only 400 megawatts by 2020.

Environmental groups have been highly critical of the utility’s approach to renewable energy for years, and Dominion’s latest announcement changes little. The Sierra Club Virginia Chapter today attacked the utility’s continued reliance upon “dirty” “fracked” natural gas and criticized the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline.

“Dominion’s actions don’t match its words when it comes to promoting renewable energy,” said Kate Addleson, director of the Virginia Sierra Club, said. “Despite the fanfare, this does not appear to be a sharp change from what we have seen in the past.”

“Rather than deliver a clear energy plan, this document only serves to raise more questions about what Dominion really wants to do over the long-term and who really stands to benefit,” said Will Cleveland, Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) attorney. “While Dominion is taking a good step toward expanding solar, they are simultaneously taking two steps back by doubling down on dirty fossil fuels.”

In related news, Appalachian Power Company also filed its IRP, forecasting the addition of 500 megawatts of universal solar by 2031, 1,350 megawatts of wind energy by 2031, and 10 megawatts of battery storage resources by 2025. “Universal” solar is the term for generating capacity that feeds into the broader system, not reserved for the use of a single customer or set of customers.

Dominion executives attributed the company’s rhetorical about-face to continued improvement in the economics of solar energy and a conviction that, despite the Trump administration’s antipathy toward the Clean Power Plan, some form of CO2 regulation will remain in place.

“We believe this balance … of solar, natural gas, and nuclear hits the sweet spot in terms of cost, environmental performance, and reliability for our customers,” Koonce said.

Dominion graphic shows the declining carbon footprint as the company’s four gas-fired power plants came online, replacing coal units and displacing out-of-state energy purchases.

Modernizing the grid. Aside from boosting the efficiency of solar panels, new technology enables utilities to better handle fluctuations of frequency and voltage on the electric grid caused by variable solar output.

“For the first time, our long-range plan discusses the need to modernize the energy grid in order to accommodate the changes in how power will be produced as well as to meet the needs and desires of our customers,” said Bob Blue, CEO of Dominion Virginia Power.

The existing transmission and distribution grids were built to facilitate a one-way flow of electricity from a handful of large power plants to millions of distributed customers. “The energy company produces a large amount of electricity at a relatively small number of locations,” Blue explained. “It then sends that power across big wires, then medium-sized wires, then small wires.”

Solar output will be more distributed. “When solar is connected, the distribution grid must become a two-way network so we can deliver energy seamlessly to everyone, including people with solar panels on their rooftops,” Blue said.

Continue reading

Follow Ups: Fracking and Taxes

Fracking does not, repeat, does not harm underground water. But it can pollute surface water.

Frack me a river. A week ago, I noted how American Rivers had designated the Rappahannock River the fifth “most endangered” river in the United States on the grounds that the gas industry was showing interest in drilling in the Taylorsville shale basin beneath the river. Environmentalists claim that fracking is a hazard to drinking water, while industry groups say it is not. My take at the time: Who knows?

Now a Duke University study using sophisticated chemical tracing techniques has demonstrated that fracking has not contaminated groundwater in sample of 112 drinking wells in West Virginia, although accidental spills of fracking wastewater have polluted surface water. Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, is a technique in which drillers inject pressurized sand, water and chemicals deep underground to fracture shale in order to release the oil and gas it contains. Environmentalists have long claimed that the procedure can contaminate water in underground aquifers.

“Based on consistent evidence from comprehensive testing, we found no indication of groundwater contamination over the three-year course of our study,” said Avner Vengosh, professor of geochemistry and water quality at Duke, co-author of a peer-reviewed study. States the press release:

Samples were tested for an extensive list of contaminants, including salts, trace metals and hydrocarbons such as methane, propane and ethane. Each sample was systematically analyzed using a broad suite of geochemical and isotopic forensic tracers that allowed the researchers to determine if contaminants and salts in the water stemmed from nearby shale gas operations, from other human sources, or were naturally occurring.

The tests showed that methane and saline groundwater were present in both the pre-drilling and post-drilling well water samples, but that they had a chemistry that was subtly but distinctly different from the isotopic fingerprints of methane and salts contained in fracking fluids and shale gas. This indicated that they occurred naturally in the region’s shallow aquifers and were not the result of the recent shale gas operations.

What’s true of West Virginia is not necessarily true of Virginia — geologies differ. And the Duke study warned that impact of fracking on groundwater might take longer than the three years of the study period to take place. Still, with its sophisticated science, the study undermines the endlessly repeated claim that fracking is a threat to underground water.

Solar farms: no longer a money-loser for local government.

Fixing a tax quirk. Three weeks ago, I blogged that a quirk in the way the state treats the value of solar energy projects for tax purposes could throttle Virginia’s solar industry in its infancy.

Under state law, solar farms qualify for an 80% tax exemption on projects exceeding 25 megawatts — an inducement for developers to build large solar facilities in Virginia. The exemption significantly reduces local government revenue from the project. At the same time, the Secretariat of Treasury has not taken the exemption into account when calculating the local tax base for purposes of distributing state aid for education. The perverse result is that local governments could lose tax dollars from a big solar investment, creating disincentives for them to provide needed permits.

Reston-based solar developer SolUnesco brought the discrepancy to the attention of state officials. After reviewing the matter, the Tax Commissioner issued a ruling to eliminate the discrepancy: “The actual assessed value will be reported by the Department to the Department of Education (DOE) as the true value of property to be used by DOE to calculate the amount of state educational funding.

“The So What,” says Francis Hodnall, CEO of SolUnesco, is that “projects over 25 mw … will provide a net revenue to counties.”

Widgeon Grass, another Chesapeake Success Story

widgeon grass

Widgeon grass. Photo credit: Bay Journal

Spurred by a tripling of widgeon grass, the acreage of underwater grasses in the Chesapeake Bay grew 8% between 2015 and 2016 to about 97,000 acres. The expanse, which exceeds the 2017 restoration goals set under the Chesapeake Bay program, was the highest recorded by the Virginia Institute of Marine Science in 30 years of measurements, reports the Daily Press.

The achievement is “fantastic,” says Robert “J.J.” Orth, who heads up the seagrass monitoring and restoration program at VIMS. “It speaks a lot to the fact that … the efforts to clean up the bay, the TMDLs, probably are working.”

TDMLs, or total maximum daily loads, are limits set by the Environmental Protection Agency for levels of nitrogen, phosophorous and sediment allowed into the bay and its tributaries.

Underwater grasses are a critical element in the bay ecosystem, providing habitat for blue crabs, young fish, and other aquatic animals. They also absorb excess nutrients, buffer shoreline erosion and promote water clarity.

Widgeon grass, a food for migratory water fowl, thrives in the moderately salty waters of the middle and lower bay. A “boom or bust” species, the grass can experience rapid growth and dramatic declines. There is a risk that a 2003 die-off that resulted in the loss of half the bay’s widgeon grass could occur again. But the Daily Press says Orth is optimistic that warmer bay temperatures will forestall a repeat next year.

Eco-City Alexandria Kvetches about Accelerated Potomac Cleanup

Nasty! Oronoco Bay in eco-city Alexandria.

Nasty! Oronoco Bay in eco-city Alexandria. Image credit: Greater Greater Washington.

The City of Alexandria bills itself as an “eco-city.” In 2007, it published a “green-ventory” of environmental plans, policies and programs. In 2008, the city adopted an “eco-charter.” Since then, the city has launched initiatives to tackle invasive plants, expand the regional BikeShare program, bolster transit bus service, weatherize apartments of low-income Alexandrians, design LEED-certified city buildings, install energy-efficient lighting fixtures, and replace diesel buses with hybrid-electric buses — all trendy, green priorities.

Meanwhile, the city’s aging combined sewer overflow system dumps an estimated 70 million gallons of raw sewage, waste and rainwater into the Potomac River every time it rains. The city has had years to fix the problem, which it estimates will require $386 million in local funds. Until yesterday, the plan was to pay for the sum through a gradual 500% increase in city sewer fees over the next ten years.

Now city officials are “reeling,” reports the Alexandria Times, after Governor Terry McAuliffe signed into law a bill that will compel the city to accelerate its timetable for fixing the problem by two years to 2025.

“We appreciate the governor’s earlier efforts to substitute a more reasonable deadline, and we remain fully committed to getting all four outfalls in Alexandria done, and to getting them done right,” said Mayor Allison Silberberg in response to the news. “While we are moving full steam ahead, we are very concerned that this legislation requires a deadline engineers have indicated is not feasible.”

Bacon’s bottom line: Yeah, yeah, yeah. If Alexandria really wants to consider itself an “eco-city,” its first priority should be to stop dumping human excrement into the Potomac River. Which would have a greater positive impact? Investing in save-the-world efforts to reduce CO2 emissions, which, might reduce global warming by a hundred-thousandth of a degree over the next 100 years, or stop fouling the river? I’ll hazard a guess that people living downstream would prefer the latter.

Until Alexandria gets its act together and stops polluting the Potomac, maybe it could do the rest of us a favor and spare us the “eco-city” blather.

Pipeline Approaches Approval, but Foes Still Full of Fight

Ridge removal zones along the ACP route are shown in red based on Dominion Pipeline Monitoring Coalition calculations.

From the perspective of its managing partner, Dominion Transmission, the Atlantic Coast Pipeline is looking more and more like a done deal. Dominion has completed more than 65% of the high-performance steel pipe needed to build the roughly 600-mile pipeline, and it has procured almost 85% of the land, materials and services it needs, pipeline executives disclosed today.

Pipeline officials also say they are nearing the end of a two-year regulatory process. In December, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) issued a favorable draft Environmental Impact Statement. The final EIS is expected by June 30th.

“We have every reason to believe the favorable draft EIS and — ultimately — the final EIS will provide a strong foundation for final approval of the project later this summer or in the early fall,” stated Diane Leopold, CEO of Dominion Energy, the pipeline’s managing partner, in a press conference this morning.

But foes of the pipeline have raised an issue they hope will derail ACP’s plans. The pipeline will cross 38 miles of mountains in Virginia and West Virginia that would require 10 feet or more of their ridge tops to be removed — up to 60 feet in places, they claim. Comparing the pipeline construction to the coal industry’s practice of mountaintop removal, Mike Tidwell, director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, said in a dueling press conference today that the pipeline would cause “irrevocable harm” to the region’s environment.

Creating flat space on steep mountaintops to provide room for trench digging and construction activity would require removal of an estimated 247,000 dump-truck loads of excess rock and soil, asserted Dan Shaffer, spatial analyst with the Dominion Pipeline Monitoring Coalition. Finding somewhere to place the massive volume of this “overburden” even temporarily without causing runoff into rivers and streams will be a huge challenge, he said, And, even though ACP would be required to restore ridge lines to their “approximate original contour,” breaking up the rock causes the volume to swell, creating a large amount of spoil that must be permanently disposed somewhere.

Pipeline foes raised these concerns about “mountaintop removal” with FERC in comments submitted during the draft impact statement. The draft document “failed to address this important issue,” noted Ben Luckett, an attorney with the Appalachian Mountain Advocates. He contends that the pipeline requires a new draft EIS and a new public comment period.

Even if FERC declines to re-open the draft process, anti-pipeline forces plan to raise the issue in state “401 certification” water-quality reviews. In Virginia the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) has promised to allow extensive public input. Given the potential for massive runoff, erosion and sedimentation, said Luckett, “states cannot reasonably make a determination that the pipeline won’t lead to violations of clean water standards.”

Dominion spokesman Aaron Ruby strenuously objected to the comparison of pipeline construction with coal-mining mountaintop removal, which “conjures up images of mountains that have been completely flattened. … We’re not removing the tops of mountains. That is total misinformation.”

Building pipelines in rugged mountain terrain “is not new to us,” said Leslie Hartz, vice president-pipeline construction for Dominion Energy. Only “small clearings” will be required for construction purposes on ridge lines. Contractors will restore the terrain with native material to its original contours, as required by FERC. There may be a “small amount” of spoil left over, but ACP has identified ways to employ it usefully for other purposes.

In describing the construction process, Hartz said the project would be broken into 17 “spreads,” or construction units, each of which will be built simultaneously in linear fashion. Mountainous terrain would have shorter lengths, perhaps 15 to 20 miles. Some blasting would be required to remove rock, she said. Material left over after the mountain contours are restored will be used to re-establish habitats and create protective barriers to restrict access to right of way.

Pipeline foes question whether ACP fully comprehends the challenges it faces. The Friends of Nelson, contracted with Blackburn Consulting Services LLC to walk the route along Roberts Mountain. The soil there is thin, and construction will require extensive blasting to remove enough bedrock to dig pipeline trenches eight feet deep. Some slopes along the route are precipitous, as much as 65°. (Forty degrees qualifies for a black diamond ski slope.) Creating 125-foot wide rights of way would require removing enormous amounts of rock.

States an issue brief released by the pipeline opponents:

Numerous engineers who have looked at this issue have asked the obvious question: What does Dominion plan to do with the tremendous amount of overburden? Dump it into surrounding valleys as companies do with mountaintop removal for coal? Truck it off the mountains with massive dump trucks? And take the massive amounts of rock and soil to what location?

While ACP has vowed to restore the mountains to their approximate original contour in line with FERC requirements, foes say there is a qualifier. ACP will restore the mountain ridges to the extent practicable “taking into consideration cost, existing technology, and logistics in light of the overall purpose of the ACP.”

Ruby retorted that ACP understands the challenges far better than the pipeline foes. For starters, he said, there is no need to flatten a 125-foot-wide area on the ridge line, he said. The company will carve out just enough space to excavate the trench, which will be “significantly narrower” than 125 feet.

Further, he said, the company has “one of the most protective programs ever used by the industry, specifically designed to provide enhanced protection of soil erosion. We have site-specific plans for every steep slope we encounter, based on the unique conditions and characteristics of each slope.” These plans take into account the soil type and depth, the grade of the slope, the depth of the bedrock, the width of the ridge line and the types of vegetative cover.

ACP also disputed the Dominion Pipeline Monitoring Coalition estimate of construction impact.

In explaining how he calculated miles of ridge-line impacted and thickness of overburden to be removed, Shaffer said that he was forced to rely upon publicly available information. He used the centerline depicted on Dominion Project Facility Maps submitted to FERC (here & here), generated a 125-foot Right of Way from that and overlaid them with topographical and elevation data. He estimated the thickness of the mountain that would be removed by creating transects across the Right of Way at periodic intervals and sampled the elevation value along each transect. The methods, he conceded, were “fairly simple.” While acknowledging some room for error, Shaffer said there was no escaping the conclusion that the impact would be significant.

The assumption that ACP will cut away a full 125 feet is wrong, Ruby said. Without the assumption, the rest of the analysis falls apart.