Why Coal Still Has Clout in the Commonwealth

May 17, 2017

Terry McAuliffe won strong support from environmental groups when he ran for governor, but many have expressed disappointment with his policies so far.  He has, for example, enthusiastically supported construction of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline to carry natural gas from the fracking fields of West Virginia to Virginia and North Carolina.

Now, however, eco-warriors are singing his praises after the governor announced plans to regulate emissions from power plants that burn coal and other fossil fuels.  Those rules will be considered by the state Air Pollution Control Board later this year.

Republicans have criticized the order, and at least one professor at the University of Virginia warns the pollution control board is subject to political pressure and the influence of the coal industry.  She spent several years investigating that subject – making notes from inside the organization. Sandy Hausman has details.

This photo of the moon over Shenandoah National Park serves as the cover for Vivian Thomson's new book, Climate of Capitulation.
Credit Hullie Moore

Utility regulation may seem an unlikely subject for those who love thrillers, and you probably wouldn’t mistake the sleight, bespectacled UVA Professor Vivien Thomson for a spy, but from 2002 to 2010, she was a sleuth of sorts, trying to figure out why this state continued to burn so much coal. There was, at the time, growing concern about air pollution and strong public support for green energy -- even among Republicans.

“Something like two-thirds of Republicans across the board in the United States favor moving away from fossil fuels and toward renewables,” Thomson says.

Even now,  Dominion Virginia Power generates a quarter of its electricity from coal, and in her new book -- Climate of Capitulation – Thomson tries to solve this puzzle -- suggesting clues to why coal still has clout in the Commonwealth.  The book is based on the eight years she served on Virginia’s Air Pollution Control Board.

“It’s an independent board, nominated by the governor,  and once the board members have been approved by the general assembly they have independent authority and fixed terms,” Thomson explains.

The 5-member board had to decide how much pollution to allow from an existing power plant in Northern Virginia and a new one planned for Wise. As a former EPA executive and a professor of environmental science, Thomson thought proposed limits from the state’s Department of Environmental Quality didn’t go nearly far enough.  That worried then-governor Tim Kaine.

“There are documents that I talk about in the book that sort of pull the curtain back on those discussions and indicate the extent to which the governor was worried that the board, would either deny the permits or write permits that would be too strict in Dominion’s eyes,” she recalls.

And members of the General Assembly were, in her view, fairly clueless.

“Legislatures made a decision to try to be close to their constituents.  They didn’t want to be professionals, so they don’t have a lot of staff, and of course they meet for only a brief period. There are legislatures that have professionalized, and they meet for longer periods.  They have more professional salaries, and they have experts on staff, and I think there’s a real question about whether citizen legislatures can have independence in these particular arenas that are very complicated and technical.”

She found elected officials often rely on industry lobbyists for information – this after taking money from utilities and coal companies for their campaigns. The Air Pollution Control Board ultimately imposed strict limits on pollution from Dominion’s plant in Wise – a limit upheld in court, and years later, accepted by the company.

“Dominion has a promotional video for that particular facility, and in the middle of the video Dominion proudly announces that these were the strictest permit limits anywhere in the United States.”

But at the time, Thomson says, Dominion and many elected officials were not happy. 

“The legislature started putting together a bill that would take away all of the board’s permitting power.”

In the end, lawmakers added two more members to the board, diluting the power of three progressive panelists, and Vivian Thomson, who left the board in 2010, figures her days as a regulator are done.

“It’s safe to say that after this book I’ll be very surprised if I’m appointed to another board.”

But her book, Climate of Capitulation, is winning good reviews including one from noted climate scientist Michael Mann, who calls it a must read.  At Dominion Virginia Power, executives say there really is no mystery surrounding coal. It’s cheap and available close to home – but the company says it will be a smaller part of our future fuel mix.  We’ll look at Virginia’s energy future in our next report.