By Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 30, 2008
RICHMOND -- Gov. Timothy M. Kaine has been battered by criticism from environmentalists over his support of a new coal-fired power plant for southwest Virginia, which Dominion Virginia Power says is essential to the state's energy needs but which could also lead to higher utility rates for consumers statewide.
The controversy pits Kaine (D), who has made environmental protection a top priority, against a sizable chunk of his political base, even though the governor said he is powerless to stop the project even if he wanted to. The State Corporation Commission and other regulatory agencies issue the construction permits.
Dominion is pushing to build the $1.8 billion plant in Wise County, in Virginia's coal country, as part of a multi-pronged strategy for meeting the state's growing demand for electricity. Dominion will pass the cost of building the project on to ratepayers over a period of years, although company officials said they cannot yet estimate how much the average bill might go up.
The plant, slated to be in operation by 2012, is designed to lessen Dominion's reliance on electricity produced and transferred from out of state while boosting the slumping economy in southwest Virginia.
"In a state with a growing economy, you need a strategy to make sure when people hit the switch, the lights come on," said Dominion Vice President Robert M. Blue, who noted that the state's energy needs will grow by 4,000 megawatts, equivalent to the usage of 1 million homes, over the next decade.
Kaine agrees. "The sustainability of our economic development successes are dependent on having a reliable energy source," said Delacey Skinner, the governor's communications director.
Dominion, which has 2.3 million customers in Virginia, said the plant would be "one of the cleanest" coal-fired facilities in the nation because it would have a sophisticated emissions-control system.
But environmentalists are opposed to the project, saying that coal-fired plants are a leading cause of airborne pollution, which has been linked to global climate change. They say Dominion should be investing in more environmentally friendly energy sources, such as solar and wind power, and encouraging more conservation.
"Global warming is the most serious environmental issue that we face as humanity, and new coal-fired power plants are not part of the equation," said Glen Besa, director of the Virginia chapter of the Sierra Club.
The club is part of a coalition of environmental groups, religious leaders and public officials that oppose the plant, including Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Gerald E. Connolly (D), who is running for Congress.
On the other side are state and local officials from southwest Virginia, including U.S. Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.) and the eight-member Wise County Board of Supervisors.
The debate over the 585-megawatt plant, which could power 146,000 homes, comes as a growing number of states are trying to reduce their reliance on coal-fired power plants because of their role in producing greenhouse gases.
There are about 40 coal-fired plants planned or under construction in the United States. But this month, Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius (D) vetoed a bill to build two coal-fired plants in her state.
Sebelius, a rising star in the Democratic Party who is close to Kaine in part because Kansas is also his home state, explained her decision in a statement that said "greenhouse gases contribute to climate change."
Kaine has stood firm in supporting Dominion's plans, which still must win regulatory approval.
"We are not going to eliminate coal, a native source that we have, as one of the sources that will power our country," Kaine said in a radio interview. "The portion [of the energy supply] that is coal is going to get smaller, and it is going to get cleaner, but we are not going to abandon coal from the portfolio."
Kaine and Dominion emphasize that the proposed power plant, to be called the Virginia City Hybrid Energy Center, would use updated scrubbing technology to limit emissions of carbon dioxide, a big source of acid rain. The plant would also be equipped to burn waste coal, a major source of pollution in southwest Virginia, as well as newly mined fossil fuels.
And if the facility is built, Dominion has agreed to convert one of its 11 coal-burning plants in Virginia and North Carolina -- Bremo Power Station in Fluvanna County, Va. -- into a cleaner, natural gas-burning plant.
Dominion also plans to build a third nuclear reactor at North Anna Power Station in Louisa County, northwest of Richmond, as well as increase conservation efforts.
Environmentalists, who played a key role in helping Democrats retake the state Senate last year, counter that a coal-burning plant in Wise would harm the environment, despite Dominion's efforts to embrace new technology.
Antigone Ambrose, an organizer for the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, said the plant would produce 5.3 million tons of carbon each year, the equivalent of having an additional 1 million vehicles on Virginia's highways.
"Dominion says it will be using clean coal, which means it's better than a plant that was built 50 years ago, but that by no means makes it a good thing," Ambrose said.
Advocates said they also worry about coal mining's impact on Virginia's landscape.
The plant proposal originated from a 2004 law approved by the General Assembly and signed by then-Gov. Mark R. Warner (D). The provision, part of a deregulation effort, encouraged Dominion to build the plant to meet the state's energy needs while boosting coal production in southwest Virginia.
Pete Ramey, president of the Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards, said the proposed plant would exacerbate "mountaintop coal mining" in Virginia. The process, used mostly in Appalachian coal mines, involves using explosives to blast away part of a mountain in search of coal.
"This plant is just going to increase the terrible devastation we are already seeing of our mountains," said Ramey, who lives in Wise.
Dominion says the project would create hundreds of jobs, one of the reasons state and local officials support the plant.
"It will be a huge economic boost for our town, and we are in need right now," said Rita McReynolds, a town council member in St. Paul, which is in Wise.
Environmentalists, who have collected 30,000 signatures opposing the plan, say Kaine's support runs counter to a detailed energy proposal he put forward in September. Although the plan expressed support for the new Dominion plant, it also called for a 30 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2025.
Kaine, who has accepted nearly $250,000 in campaign contributions from Dominion since 1996, has sought to deflect some of the criticism. He said the State Corporation Commission and other regulatory agencies, not the governor, will decide whether the project gets built.
"I am not the one who hands out the permits," Kaine said in a radio interview on WRVA in Richmond.
The state Department of Environmental Quality decided this year that the project deserved a permit because it met all environmental laws, said Bill Hayden, an agency spokesman. But it hit a snag March 20 when the state Air Pollution Control Board voted to oversee the permitting process after environmental concerns were raised.
Sierra Club's Besa noted that Kaine, who also accepted tens of thousands of dollars in donations from environmentalists, will appoint two members to that board this summer. "The buck does stop with the governor," he said.
Skinner replied: "We are going to pick good members of the air board and not try to gauge it one way or another based on this particular permit. The system is set up so politicians don't make permitting decisions. . . . The decisions are supposed to be based on science."