Applied CARMA: Dominion Power, Fairfax Country, and Virginia’s Proposed Wise County Coal Plant
Although from the start, CARMA was intended in part to help empower local activists fighting for more climate-friendly energy policies in their own communities, I hadn’t expected to join their ranks. Things changed when I found out about plans for a massive coal-fired power plant that in a few years could be supplying my home with electricity while at the same time accelerating climate change and poisoning the air that my family breaths. Unfortunately for Dominion Virginia Power, the company that wants to build the plant, a quick search on CARMA.org and a bit of internet sleuthing gives concerned citizens like me a remarkable amount of information—or shall we say ammunition? Each fight will be different, but it’s a good hunch that the stakes will be similar—and the powerful forces for business-as-usual similarly entrenched—in communities around the world.
Dominion is calling its proposed $1.8 billion coal-fired power plant the Virginia City Hybrid Energy Facility, a name that seems calculated to reassure northern Virginian’s Prius-driving environmentalists. The plant shows up on CARMA.org as St. Paul, named after a nearby town that will host the emission of some 5.3 million tons of CO2 annually. This would make the plant the third largest utility source of CO2 in the state, accounting for roughly the same amount of CO2 as Mongolia’s entire power sector, and slightly less than Jordan’s.
To win support for the plant from Virginians who hope that mining means jobs, Dominion has promised that coal for the new plant will be mined exclusively in Virgina. What this means in practice is accelerated mountaintop removal mining (high resolution photos here), a practice that creates few jobs but has already destroyed more than 475 mountains in Appalachia. In Wise County, where the plant would be built, 25 percent of the land has already been reduced to a sterile moonscape. By blasting away more ridges and filling valleys with hundreds of feet of unstable rubble, future mining would also ruin potential wind farm sites.
Groups like Chesapeake Climate Action Network and Appalachian Voices, which have joined forces in Wise Energy for Virginia, must compete with Dominion’s vigorous lobbying efforts. In 2007 alone, Dominion made nearly three-quarters of a million dollars in campaign contributions to members of the Virginia Senate and House of Delegates, in addition to LOTS of flowers, banquets, and Redskins tickets (click on any “Yes” in the “Gifts” column at the link above see who got which Dominion goodies). According to Grist, Virginia governor Tom Kaine, a Democrat who likes to tout his green credentials, received $135,000 from Dominion for his campaign and inauguration. Kaine reportedly backs the plant.
Arlington County, where I live, adopted a resolution against the plant in December, citing its impact on climate change as well as concerns about pollution. A similar resolution in neighboring—and much larger—Fairfax County, in northern Virginia, would be a much bigger worry for Dominion, because growing demand for power in that part of the state is the primary justification for the plant. (Virginia, meanwhile, ranks a miserable 38th in energy efficiency of the 50 U.S. states). A proposed motion by the Fairfax county supervisors [PDF] expressing reservations about the new plant was scheduled for a vote on February 25. Mysteriously, county executive Andy Griffin withdrew the motion without explanation on the night of the meeting.
What happened? Evidently alarmed by the rising opposition to the plant, Dominion offered in a Feb. 1 letter to state environmental regulators to convert the Bremo Bluffs Power Station from coal to natural gas. Bremo Bluffs is one of the state’s oldest and filthiest coal plants and is much closer to Fairfax than Wise County. As the letter rather baldly states:
“This new commitment… will help to reduce emissions of SO2 and Mercury in Virginia to below current levels, and will help to offset emissions of NOx, CO2, and PM [particulate matter] while at the same time resulting in a significant increase in electrical power generation”
Not surprisingly, conversion of the Bremo Bluffs to less polluting natural gas would only proceed AFTER the Wise County power plant is built. And reduced mercury pollution may not be the only sweetener. The word in Fairfax political circles is that the county wants to start taxing Dominion properties that are currently exempt. According to this view, Dominion would not fight these new taxes if Fairfax refrains from a resolution against the plant.
Dominion’s apparent offer, arguably a combination of blackmail and bribery, make for a terrible deal. In essence Dominion agrees to start paying taxes and poison Fairfax less, so that county officials will turn a blind eye to blowing up mountains, poisoning people living farther away in Wise County, and accelerating climate change that threatens us all, particularly poor people in developing countries.
With coal on the defensive across the country there’s clearly a lot at stake. The Fairfax county board, which is scheduled to consider the matter again on March 9, should take courage from these trends and demand that Dominion both clean up the Bremo Bluffs plant and scrap plans for Wise County in favor of energy efficiency and renewables. And while they are at it, the board could tell Dominion it’s time to start paying local taxes, too. Shouldn’t be too hard to find the money. According to Forbes, in 2006 Dominion CEO, president and chairman Thomas F. Farrell II, an outspoken advocate of more coal, received total compensation of more than $7.3 million.
Stay tuned! And feel free to tell us about your own adventures using CARMA data and other information to persuade power companies and government regulators to get serious about climate change.