Waiting for the Man

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Sissonville, West Virginia gas pipeline explosion sent flames shooting 100 feet into the air, melted a section of Interstate 77 and destroyed four nearby homes, investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board said it took Columbia more than an hour to isolate the section of the pipeline where the explosion occurred and shut off the flow of gas to the pipeline. Photo, NaturalGasWatch.org.

 

There’s a great scene in Scott Frank’s Dead Again that summarizes all that can be said about addiction. Andy Garcia, playing a newspaper reporter, winds up in a rest home, crippled by cancer of the larynx. Kenneth Branagh gives Garcia a cigarette and then looks on in horror as Garcia takes a satisfied drag—through his tracheotomy hole. That’s the way addiction works. Faced with our drug of choice or death, we’ll take the drug of choice. The ever transgressive William Burroughs made a great point about heroin dealers that could easily apply to our energy industry. “The junk merchant doesn’t sell his product to the consumer; he sells the consumer to his product. He does not improve and simplify his merchandise. He degrades and simplifies the client.”

Our energy industry has decided not to change its drug of choice, merely to degrade and simplify the client. Last week, the US Senate passed a bill supporting the Keystone XL Pipeline, which if built, according to 350.org founder, would be “game over for the Earth.” That may be a touch hyperbolic, or it may not. The vast majority of scientists think it’s a bad bet. Certainly it’s no better for the Earth than a junkie looking for another collapsed vein to shoot up smack.

2014 was the hottest year on record. All 10 of the hottest years on record have come after 1998. In 2014, several regions in the world smashed their heat records. California hit record-high temperatures. It’s now in the middle of the worst drought in history. Australia hit unprecedented high temperatures in January — and the continent’s so hot this year, that people are already frying eggs on sidewalks. Literally.

What about the storms for 2014? Snowmaggedon– that record level snow fall from Lake Erie? Strange, but sadly predictable as a result of global climate warming. Hotter temperatures cause higher moisture retention in the atmosphere and thus more precipitation—more storms. Parts of Brazil were struck by floods and landslides following record rainfall. The very warm surface waters in the Pacific Northwest during November fueled Typhoon Haiyan, the strongest tropical cyclone to make landfall anywhere in the world, which killed more than 5,700 people in the Philippines. And it’s not like these events are hidden or in some dim, chiaroscuro past. This is real time, with the American Senate voting to allow pipeline access happening on the same day California suffers through its worst drought in history and Australia fries eggs on sidewalks.

The Keystone pipeline vote was not a strictly partisan endeavor, by the way. Nine Democrats saw fit to join the pack. It’s like the loser kid from the suburbs who wants to be hip and promises to only shoot up once. We all know how that ends. Our very own Mr. Business Everyman, Mark Warner decided to enable the destruction of the planet so that he might preserve his good name as Virginia’s preeminent Wall Street lickspittle. The rest of the nine were fairly predictable votes. All centrist wannabes, with Bob Casey of Pennsylvania sticking out principally because his vote aligns him with an industry that has done so much to turn Pennsylvania’s water into a dual use commodity: part drinking water, part lighter fluid.

**

Speaking of Pennsylvania…apparently not one to be left out of this enormously bad idea, Virginia politicians have embraced the idea of an Atlantic pipeline that would transport natural gas from Pennsylvania’s fracking fields to North Carolina and Hampton Roads. The usual suspects, Duke Energy and Dominion Energy have joined forces to make this next environmental catastrophe a real possibility for areas slicing through the west and center of our state. Residents of Nelson and Augusta County have been fighting this battle and are losing steadily in the current General Assembly session because Virginia politicians, like their national doppelgangers, will have their next fix.

According to the Richmond Times Dispatch, Dominion has begun the process of enforcing a 2004 Property Access statute that guarantees gas transmission companies access to private property — even without a landowner’s permission. The owners say the law is unconstitutional; that it wrongly allows an invasion of private property by a private corporation invoking the authority of the state.

Dominion is bringing a lawsuit to enforce the 2004 statute against landowners in Augusta and in Nelson County, with lawsuits filed already against property owners who have refused access to their land. But six landowners in Nelson have struck back with two lawsuits pending in federal court to challenge the constitutionality of the law. A federal judge in Harrisonburg will consider Dominion’s motions to dismiss the suits in separate hearings in February, but the bigger battle lies ahead as the partnership behind the pipeline seeks a federal certificate of need that would allow it to traverse the area in question, including the federally owned George Washington National Park.

How this will turn out will be decided in the courts. If the certificate of need is granted by Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), it will make the project that much more difficult to stop. But, one method of slowing it down, as the Nelson County folks are discovering, is to stop the surveys. Another is for citizens with relevant property to just say no, though that is more difficult. In Virginia, even if a homeowner still refuses to consent to the pipeline being built on their land, Dominion could obtain a land easement using a court order. Under the Natural Gas Act of 1938, pipeline infrastructure qualifies as “public use” under eminent domain. Therefore private companies can seize private land for their own profit with the assumption that it will benefit the public. Recently this notion got a boost in the General Assembly with a bill that achieved near unanimity in passing the House—HB1475. Dominion introduced HB1475 thanks to the diligent efforts of Delegate Lee Ware who lives in Powhatan and has received a little over half of his campaign funds from…Dominion Power. HB1475 declares gas pipelines and associated infrastructure to be de facto, “in the public interest” which is key to invoking eminent domain. HB1475 does a couple of other bad things. It passes the costs of building their infrastructure onto the client (Virginia citizen) and it stipulates that the SCC keep its nose out of any related rate increases. This bill passed on a 95-2 vote in the House. A companion Senate Bill SB1163 does much the same thing, stating, “it is in the public interest to authorize and encourage the expansion of natural gas infrastructure in the Commonwealth and to promote the use of natural gas as an integral component of a diversified portfolio of energy resources…” SB1163 was introduced by Senator Richard Saslaw whose top donor is…Dominion Power. He has received just less than a quarter of a million dollars from Dominion over the course of his career.

But it’s not like Delegate Ware or Senator Saslaw are special in this regard; nearly every member of the General Assembly of Virginia has had money handed to them by Dominion Power. In a recent Richmond Times Dispatch article, Jeff Shapiro points out that “The company [Dominion Power] has steered more than $800,000 to delegates and senators in the last fundraising cycle and $18 million to charities in the 12 states in which it does business. This allows Dominion to win — even when it loses.”

Shapiro then offers a little background on the power behemoth: “Dominion is run by Tom Farrell. His brother-in-law, Richard Cullen, leads the company’s law firm, McGuireWoods. It’s where McAuliffe’s chief of staff, Paul Reagan, worked. And don’t forget: Farrell’s son, Peter, is a Republican delegate from Henrico County. The 2004 property-access bill was written by Sen. Frank Wagner of Virginia Beach. The bill was signed into law by Gov. Mark Warner”…who, we might add, most recently voted for the XL Keystone Pipeline as a US Senator and who favors the Atlantic pipeline. According to Shapiro, “His former consigliere, Bob Blue, is head of Dominion’s Virginia Power subsidiary.”

So there you have the political line up–not pretty. In fact, opposition at this point might even seem quixotic, if the stakes weren’t so high.

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Should it become a reality, the Atlantic pipeline will cross through unstable karst topography, which is prone to sinkholes. This significantly increases the likelihood of the pipeline collapsing which would lead to the release of dangerous chemicals into the groundwater and explosive vapors ending up in homes, schools and business. The threat of pipeline explosions is very real — exemplified by an explosion in Appomattox Virginia in 2008 which injured five people and damaged 100 homes, and another that occurred this year in Kentucky, which sent two people to the hospital and destroyed two homes. Because living in range of a pipeline is both a threat to property and life, property rates will decrease and home insurance rates will increase. That’s probably one big reason the folks in Augusta and Nelson counties are fighting this so hard. How this is in the public interest according to the General Assembly’s vote should be a matter of some serious contention.

What’s worse in the long view is that the installation of natural gas infrastructure locks Virginia into an energy reliance that has no place in our future energy economy. That’s part of what leads to “game over for the Earth.” The construction of the Atlantic Pipeline, like the Keystone Pipeline, removes incentive for the necessary development and investment in renewable energy that would move us off fossil fuels, entirely. Natural gas is not an alternative to renewables, it’s more of the same, or worse. Like coal, it’s a finite fossil fuel that — while emitting less CO2 than coal — creates far more methane byproduct, which is about twenty times more potent. Methane leakage can contaminate groundwater supply. And fracking — the method by which natural gas is commonly extracted, especially in Pennsylvania — is a disaster for the environment. Unless, of course, you like ancillary earthquakes and burning water.

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At the same time it pushes the Atlantic pipeline, Dominion is using the EPA’s climate action, the Clean Power Plan, as their excuse for jacking up rates without SCC oversight. Dominion is telling legislators that the costs of the EPA’s climate plan will be very high, but that Dominion is willing to absorb those costs if the legislators will just freeze their base rates and block the State Corporation Commission from reviewing them. We can thank Senator Frank Wagner and SB1349 for this travesty should it be signed into law. This bill would prohibit review of Dominion Power overcharges by the State Corporation Commission and would allow the company to keep those overcharges that in the past have been refunded to customers. Yes, Dominion Power is a top donor to Senator Frank Wagner’s campaign chest, as well.

Dominion is on track to score $280 million in excess profits for this past year alone. Yet our politicians –both Democrat and Republican- seem incapable of responding in some type of coherent fashion. On the conservative side, they could work to preserve private property rights. On the progressive side, they might try not to destroy the Earth. At this point, either of these seem like laudable goals. This isn’t just a right/left issue, after all. This is a who-has-the-power-issue, and it doesn’t appear to be the people or their representatives but rather a faceless energy conglomerate addicted to a dangerous product it refuses to kick.

To channel William Burroughs again:

“We have a new type of rule now. Not one-man rule, or rule of aristocracy or plutocracy, but of small groups elevated to positions of absolute power by random pressures, and subject to political and economic factors that leave little room for decision. They are representatives of abstract forces who have reached power through surrender of self. The iron-willed dictator is a thing of the past. There will be no more Stalins, no more Hitlers. The rulers of this most insecure of all worlds are rulers by accident, inept, frightened pilots at the controls of a vast machine they cannot understand, calling in experts to tell them which buttons to push….After one look at this planet any visitor from outer space would say ‘I want to see the manager.’”

But there doesn’t appear to be one.

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