Stacking the deck to boost business interests seems to be the modus operandi of the administration of Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell.
On Sept. 9, McDonnell announced his picks for the Virginia Coal and Energy Commission. It is an important decision because the commission will have significant influence on whether the General Assembly decides to end a decades’ long ban on uranium mining and go forward with a proposed and highly controversial operation near Chatham in Southside.
The commission also will influence the state’s policies on destructive mountaintop removal coal mining and hydraulic “fracking,” which uses water and toxic chemicals to release patches of natural gas but could threaten groundwater.
McDonnell has appointed a group of seven people with heavy ties to the energy industry. Not one is an environmental or civic activist. Not one has a scientific background. The list:
— Barbara Altizer of Jewell Ridge in the far western coalfields is president and executive director of the Eastern Coal Council.
— Jodi Gidley of Virginia Beach is president of Virginia Natural Gas.
— Ken Hutcheson founded the Virginia Alternative & Renewable Energy Association, which represents the renewable energy industry. But as a top lobbyist at Williams Mullen, one of Richmond’s most powerful advocacy firms, and a past Republican strategist, he’s not exactly a Sierra Club environmentalist.
— James K. Martin is a senior executive and lobbyist at Dominion Resources in Richmond. He is also a former executive at Peabody Coal.
— John Matney of Bristol has been in the coal mining industry since the 1970s.
— Donald L. Ratliff of Big Stone Gap is a lobbyist for coal-producer Alpha Natural Resources, which just took over troubled Massey Energy in June. Twenty-nine miners died in an explosion at a Massey mine in West Virginia in April 2010, and Massey has been accused to ruining parts of Appalachia with its mountaintop removal surface mining operations.
— Rhonnie Smith of Lynchburg is a retired executive from nuclear reactor maker Babcock & Wilcox, which has fuel facilities in Lynchburg.
McDonnell did not choose anyone from the Sierra Club, National Resources Defense Council, Union of Concerned Scientists or any of the groups that study the impact of fossil fuel on climate change.
Nor did he select anyone from the activist groups in Southside that are concerned that Virginia Uranium’s plan to mine 119 million pounds of toxic uranium might pollute the area and threaten drinking water supplies, including those of Hampton Roads. The firm has stirred controversy by flying a dozen state legislators to France, including a Paris stop-over to “study” uranium mining this summer. The firm plans a similar trip to Canada this month involving legislators whom the company declines to name.
The commission selections are entirely predictable for McDonnell, but the impact of his profound one-sidedness could be felt for years.