For Northam, con­tro­versy over Va. air board jobs a self-in­flicted wound

Richmond Times-Dispatch Weekend - - LOCAL PERSPECTIVES - Jeff E. Schapiro [email protected]­Dis­patch.com

On the en­vi­ron­ment, Ralph Northam is learn­ing that it’s hard to be green — as in in­ex­pe­ri­enced.

The rookie gover­nor, in of­fice barely 11 months, finds him­self in an em­bar­rass­ment of his own mak­ing, in­flam­ing his party’s deep­pock­eted, high-deci­bel clean air-wa­ter-and-soil crowd by ap­pear­ing to kow­tow to Do­min­ion En­ergy, the elec­tric mo­nop­oly that usu­ally gets its way — in that state gov­ern­ment stays out of its way.

Northam kicked off the State Air Pol­lu­tion Con­trol Board two mem­bers who are skep­tics on Do­min­ion’s ap­pli­ca­tion for a per­mit for a com­pres­sor sta­tion that is a vi­tal com­po­nent of a gi­ant nat­u­ral-gas pipe­line that the util­ity and its part­ners are snaking through ru­ral west­ern and south­ern Vir­ginia.

There’s also the dis­com­fit­ing over­lay of race: The sta­tion, de­picted as a noisy source of health-threat­en­ing tox­ins, would be erected at Union Hill, an African-Amer­i­can com­mu­nity in Buck­ing­ham County whose ori­gins reach back to Eman­ci­pa­tion.

The head of the state chap­ter of the NAACP, ini­tially enraged by Northam’s re­moval of the board mem­bers, is now friend­lier to the pro­ject, cit­ing — in a let­ter to the gover­nor — Do­min­ion’s of­fer to spend $5.1 mil­lion on im­prove­ments in and around Union Hill, in­clud­ing strength­ened emergency ser­vices.

Do­min­ion knows that money talks, re­duc­ing com­pli­cated is­sues to eas­ily un­der­stood dol­lar signs.

It is the largest cor­po­rate donor to Vir­ginia’s po­lit­i­cal class, steer­ing $11.4 mil­lion to can­di­dates over the past two decades. Another source of in­flu­ence: giv­ing by its char­i­ta­ble arm, the Do­min­ion Foun­da­tion, which typ­i­cally donates about $15 mil­lion an­nu­ally.

What makes this predica­ment thornier for Northam is that he must rec­on­cile his per­ceived im­pe­ri­ous­ness with the nice-guy per­sona he usu­ally projects — an im­age that can mask the oc­ca­sional stee­li­ness that he has brought to other en­vi­ron­men­tal fights on which he be­lieves in­dus­try is over­reach­ing.

Also, Northam is pay­ing a price for be­ing squishy dur­ing the cam­paign on the pipe­line. Out of loy­alty to Terry McAuliffe, the pipe­line pro­po­nent he would suc­ceed, Northam sorta, kinda backed the ven­ture. Out of loy­alty to en­vi­ron­men­tal groups, one of which do­nated $2.9 mil­lion, mak­ing it his sec­ond-largest con­trib­u­tor, Northam sorta, kinda ex­pressed con­cerns about it.

As gover­nor, the pipe­line be­came a pig in a poke for Northam.

It was some­thing with which he was stuck, be­cause the pro­ject, an em­blem of the McAuliffe new-jobs legacy, was un­der­way and be­cause, hav­ing ac­com­mo­dated both sides with his mushi­ness as a can­di­date, Northam sig­naled as gover­nor, by re­plac­ing the air board mem­bers, that some friends are more im­por­tant than oth­ers.

En­vi­ron­men­tal or­ga­ni­za­tions have emerged as a key source of cash and grass­roots sup­port for the Demo­cratic Party dur­ing its cur­rent as­cen­dancy. But in a state his­tor­i­cally ac­com­mo­dat­ing of busi­ness — Vir­ginia be­gan as one in 1607 — the en­vi­ron­ment is of­ten subor­di­nated to the econ­omy.

That en­sures Do­min­ion, the state’s largest util­ity and Northam’s 25th-largest donor at just un­der $200,000, a dis­pro­por­tion­ate say in busi­ness pol­icy. It’s been that way for gen­er­a­tions. Vir­ginia wouldn’t have a ban on com­pul­sory union mem­ber­ship as a con­di­tion for a job were it not for a right-to-work law en­acted af­ter mur­mur­ings in the late 1940s of a pos­si­ble strike against Do­min­ion’s pre­de­ces­sor.

In more re­cent years, leg­is­la­tors and gover­nors in both po­lit­i­cal par­ties hap­pily emas­cu­lated the agency that con­trols what Do­min­ion charges its cus­tomers, the State Cor­po­ra­tion Com­mis­sion, be­cause the com­pany sold both on the idea that it should be ac­count­able to in­vestors rather than bu­reau­crats. Wall Street loved it. Main Street less so.

And when it comes to cor­po­rate re­cruit­ing, the state rou­tinely con­sults with Do­min­ion on meet­ing the en­ergy needs of in­dus­trial prospects. With the in­ter­net de­mand­ing more juice — 70 per­cent of the web’s traffic is said to stream through Loudoun County — Do­min­ion de­mands more free­dom to sup­ply it.

This means Ama­zon’s Jeff Be­zos, even af­ter de­cid­ing to lo­cate half of HQ2 in Vir­ginia, is de­pen­dent on Do­min­ion’s Tom Far­rell.

Northam might have avoided this headache had he been mind­ful of his knit­ting.

The terms of the two reg­u­la­tors lapsed in June. If Northam named their suc­ces­sors then, as part of the first huge wave of ap­point­ments by a frosh gover­nor, any shift in the board’s ori­en­ta­tion might have gone un­no­ticed. The board mem­bers were among 237 ap­pointees whose terms had ex­pired.

For Northam, there might have been safety in num­bers.

That Northam, in­stead, acted on the air board ap­point­ments in the run-up to the Dec. 10 vote on the per­mit is viewed by en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists as Trump-like in its un-sub­tlety.

The ad­min­is­tra­tion would want you to be­lieve this is all a mis­un­der­stand­ing; that Do­min­ion, whose ex­ec­u­tives and lob­by­ists have di­rect ac­cess to Northam and his clos­est aides through po­lit­i­cal, per­sonal and pol­icy chan­nels, has had no say on ap­point­ments to the air board.

Be­sides, the gover­nor’s of­fice says, the new mem­bers won’t be sworn in un­til af­ter the vote on the per­mit — a move that, de­pend­ing on your per­spec­tive or level of para­noia, in­di­cates Northam is tak­ing a hand­soff ap­proach to the per­mit or that a de­ci­sion fa­vor­able to Do­min­ion by the re­main­ing mem­bers of the board is hands-down done.

His­tory shows that Do­min­ion should worry about the air board.

Dur­ing Demo­crat Tim Kaine’s gov­er­nor­ship, the board, it­self, wrote the air per­mit for Do­min­ion’s hy­brid plant in South­west Vir­ginia. Typ­i­cally, staff does the deed, with the board mas­sag­ing the rec­om­men­da­tions, many of which are drawn from talks with the com­pany, lead­ing some to view the air board as cap­tive to Do­min­ion.

The fi­nal per­mit al­lowed the plant to belch only a smidgen of the lev­els of mer­cury and sul­fur diox­ide ini­tially rec­om­mended by the staff. But it fol­lowed a con­tentious give-and-take be­tween Kaine’s Do­min­ion friendly ad­vis­ers and the board, which was branded rogue by crit­ics and later ex­panded to seven mem­bers.

The trou­ble Northam has brought on him­self with the air board con­tro­versy clouds his en­vi­ron­men­tal cre­den­tials.

Though he’s any­thing but mil­i­tant on clean air, wa­ter and soil, as a na­tive of the ru­ral East­ern Shore, Northam is sen­si­tive to Ch­e­sa­peake Bay and coastal is­sues. Once amenable to off­shore drilling for oil and gas, Northam is now against it. He’s hos­tile to frack­ing, the process used to ex­tract the North­east­ern and Mid­west­ern nat­u­ral gas that will flow through the Do­min­ion pipe­line.

Northam has also pro­posed tripling what the state spends on nat­u­ral re­sources. It wouldn’t be a breath­tak­ing amount — 2 per­cent of the gen­eral fund — but it’s more than the cur­rent level: 0.6 per­cent.

And Northam has been qui­etly bat­tling Omega Pro­tein, which scoops tons of men­haden from the bay, trans­form­ing the small, oily fish into an es­sen­tial in­gre­di­ent of fer­til­izer, pet food and makeup. Over-fish­ing threat­ens nour­ish­ment for other crea­tures and could elim­i­nate an oceanic jan­i­tor that scrubs wa­ters clean of al­gae.

Men­haden, over Northam’s ob­jec­tions, is the only species not reg­u­lated by the state agency that su­per­vises fish­eries. In­stead, it is di­rectly con­trolled by the Gen­eral As­sem­bly. Omega keeps it that way by show­er­ing the politi­cians with cash — about $128,000 in 2017, in­clud­ing $34,000 to Northam.

Think of Omega as Do­min­ion, but with an ac­tual fishy odor.

Con­tact Jeff E. Schapiro at (804) 6496814 or [email protected]­dis­patch. com. Watch his video col­umn and lis­ten to his pod­cast on Rich­mond. com. Fol­low him on Face­book and on Twit­ter,@RTDSchapiro. Lis­ten to his anal­y­sis 8:45 a.m. Fri­day on WCVE News, 88.9 FM.

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