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