On Jan. 8 — after months of public protest, two postponements and Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s (D) ham-handed removal of Rebecca Rubin and me from the Virginia Air Pollution Control Board after we questioned the suitability of the site Dominion chose — the remaining four Air Board members unanimously approved the air pollution permit for the Buckingham Compressor Station, an integral part of Dominion’s Atlantic Coast Pipeline.
The practical impact of the decision is not as enormous as it seems. Contrary to the dreams of pipeline opponents, rejection of the Buckingham permit would not have ended its construction. The only legal grounds for denying the permit would have been based on the specifics of the chosen site, in the heart of Union Hill, a community founded by freed slaves.
Dominion could have avoided those issues at some expense by moving the compressor station to a location a few miles away and applying for a new permit.
The Air Board currently has no legal basis for regulating the ACP directly. The Air Board has not yet adopted rules governing methane emissions, even though methane is a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide and will likely have dramatically more damaging effects on civilization decades before excess carbon makes the planet physically uninhabitable. So the Air Board is unable to prevent construction of the ACP without first engaging in a multiyear rulemaking process — too late to matter.
Nevertheless, the decision sets important, undesirable precedents for environmental justice decisions and for the global “business in liquidation” approach of continuing to invest in fossil fuel infrastructure.
To undermine the environmental justice opposition, Dominion committed $5 million for improved health and safety facilities in Union Hill that the community certainly needs — but only if the permit is approved. This deal divided the public opposition.
It may also have swayed one or more Air Board members. The Dominion commitment presented the Air Board with a Hobson’s choice: The board could protect this disadvantaged minority community from the risks emanating from the compressor station, but only by depriving it of funds that will improve the lives of the residents. The existing statutes and regulations on environmental justice in siting energy facilities do not address the existence or relevance of such compensatory “incentives” (some would say “bribes”).
Whatever the wisdom of the Air Board decision in this case, the outcome tells major corporations that they can buy their way out of environmental justice embarrassments by spending a tiny fraction of the total project cost to benefit the poor minority residents who are inconveniently located in their way. Such a controversial policy is not the law, and in any case it should come from the General Assembly, not the manipulated quorum of a single board.
The larger picture is the Air Board’s acquiescence to continuing “full speed ahead” with construction of fossil fuel infrastructure, a policy that fundamentally contradicts the current recommendations of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
The IPCC, the latest science and the daily news all tell us mankind’s only hope of avoiding irreversible climate disasters is to stop all use of fossil fuels no later than 2050. Thereafter civilization must rely entirely on emission-free energy sources. Even then, we can survive only by actively removing carbon from the atmosphere on an industrial scale, using nonexistent technology the IPCC hopes will be developed before that time.
So why would Dominion or anyone else invest billions on pipelines and power plants that must close down before 2050, far short of their expected useful life? Beginning more than 20 years ago, the fossil fuel industry began promoting natural gas as the “bridge” from coal to sustainable, emission-free technologies. The “completion” of the bridge was silently assumed to be many decades in the future.
Government policy still embodies this outdated idea, most egregiously in the rules of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), which guarantee a 14 percent return on capital invested in fossil fuel pipelines to encourage their construction.
This is why Dominion, facing slow growth in electricity demand and legal requirements to build wind and solar facilities, is building a pipeline that would make no sense, except that the return to shareholders and management is guaranteed by FERC regulations, even if it’s closed long before its useful life expires. As we approach 2050, Dominion will of course argue for keeping the pipeline open for the rest of its useful life.
Unless we change the obsolete policies that incentivize construction of unnecessary fossil fuel infrastructure, communities like Union Hill remain at risk and electricity monopolies will continue to profit, despite the suffering of affected communities, and the costs of climate change inaction multiply.
Sam Bleicher was a member and vice-chair of the Virginia Air Pollution Control Board until November 2018. He is also a member of the Board of the Virginia League of Conservation Voters.