Virginia: Energy Capitol or Energy Prison

Virginia: Energy Capitol or Energy Prison

Support for available, abundant, and affordable energy generally falls along party lines-with Republicans supporting “responsible” energy (the stuff that really works) and Democrats pushing “renewable” energy (the stuff they hope will work someday). But when an elected official, or spokesperson, makes foolish choices, he or she needs to be called to task.

I’ve encouraged people to tweet about Karl Rove’s contrarian position backing the extension of the wind energy subsidy, known as the PTC, which is set to naturally expire at the end of this year. Rove’s PTC extension support puts him at odds with most of the Republican Party. We can’t vote Rove out, but we can shame him for supporting a subsidy at a time when we have to borrow from China to do it. He should know better.

I’ve asked people to call or email Tennessee’s Republican Senator Lamar Alexander to pressure him to join his party-and coal state and vulnerable Democrats-in supporting Senator Inhofe’s resolution (SJ 37) that would neuter President Obama’s regulatory war on coal. Despite the known increase in electricity prices and the hardships the regulations will put on working families, Alexander is resolutely siding with the President.

Now, it is time to call out Republican Governor Bob McDonnell-whose actions on energy more closely resemble those of the Obama administration than his Republican colleagues.

While campaigning, McDonnell vowed to make his state of Virginia the “Energy Capital of the East Coast.” His campaign website states: “Bob McDonnell’s plan for ‘More energy, More Jobs’ takes an ‘all of the above’ approach to solving our energy crisis. His administration will continue to support the traditional sources of energy that provide thousands of jobs to Virginians and help keep our electricity costs fairly low. He will also expand investments in renewable energy sources and incentivize green job creation so that the future of Virginia remains bright.”

Governor McDonnell has made some strides-that parallel President Obama’s-toward investments in renewable energy. Though his heralded pilot offshore wind turbine project has been put on hold, in a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed, McDonnell touts his record: “During my term as governor, we have focused on making Virginia the energy capital of the East Coast. In just two years our state has taken aggressive actions to harness the power of offshore wind and promote greater utilization of solar energy. Had the president not stopped Virginia”s offshore oil and gas efforts, a portion of the revenue from those efforts would have gone-under a law passed during my term of office-to renewable energy research.”

Notably missing is any mention of nuclear power and the important fuel that makes it possible: uranium-both of which are abundant in Virginia. The state has four nuclear reactors and one of the world’s largest uranium ore deposits. Discovered in the late 1970s, the Coles Hill deposit has yet to be tapped-despite the fact that Virginia gets 40% of its power from nuclear and 92% of the uranium comes from outside our country.

In 1982, legislators imposed a temporary moratorium on uranium mining until the state could conduct an independent environmental study and state agencies could develop an appropriate regulatory program. After all, Virginia knows how to mine coal, but they have no experience with uranium. The study was completed in 1984 and determined that “uranium development in [in Pittsylania County] can be undertaken with minimal risks.” Based on the study, the legislature”s Uranium Task Force concluded that “uranium development activity can be undertaken with an acceptable level of risk and with economic benefits to the state,” and recommended, by a 15-2 vote, that the General Assembly lift the moratorium and task state agencies with developing a regulatory and permitting program. Before the moratorium was lifted, the bottom fell out of the uranium market and the company that had leased the mining rights moved on. Interest in developing the regulatory framework dissipated.

But that was then and this is now. The global uranium market is surging. With 430 nuclear power plants worldwide and 65 new reactors under construction-with more planned, more uranium is being consumed than is being mined. The difference is being made up by depleting inventories of Cold War weaponry.

The timing couldn’t be better! The economy is in shambles. People need jobs-good paying jobs. The American trade deficit is higher than ever. And, right there in one of Virginia’s most economically depressed counties-a region formerly known for tobacco farming-is a natural resource, owned by a consortium of local folks, that would create 1000 jobs-325 of which will be directly hired by the company with wages in excess of $65,000 per year for 30+ years.

Yet Governor “Energy Capital” is, according to an April 6, 2012 Richmond Times-Dispatch newspaper headline, “mum on mining”-the subtitle reads: “McDonnell will pass along uranium study but won’t weigh in.” Similarly, the Danville Register headline reads: “On uranium, Gov. to stay silent.”

No one is asking McDonnell to “weigh in” based on 30-year-old data. The Virginia Coal & Energy Commission engaged the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) to conduct an 18-month study of the public health and environmental impacts of uranium mining. They also hired Chmura Economics to do a socioeconomic study. Both studies were completed in December 2011, just weeks before the 2012 General Assembly. Most people expected a bill to lift the moratorium would be introduced. Instead of touting the positive economic impacts the socioeconomic study predicted-1,000 jobs, $5 billion in new revenue for Virginia companies, $110 million in local and state tax revenue or praising the major advances in best practices and regulations made in uranium mining over the past 30 years that drastically improve the industry’s environmental performance and mitigate the environmental problems experienced during the early Cold War days of the industry, as demonstrated by the NAS study-Governor “Energy Capital” followed President Obama’s Keystone Pipeline model. Refusing to take a decisive stand on one side or the other, McDonnell kicked the can down the road and “issues a directive to state agencies to analyze scientific and legal issues and report back prior to 2013.” This Uranium Working Group (UWG) is expected to produce another report: a “draft statutory proposal and regulatory framework” by December 1.

It is important to understand that, in addition to the 30-year-old studies and the two recent ones, members of the administration have personally been to the Coles Hill deposit site, and they have visited successful Canadian uranium mining operations. Lifting the temporary, 30-year-old moratorium would not allow one shovel of dirt to be extracted. Lifting the moratorium would allow the process of creating the rules and regulations necessary for uranium mining to begin. Actually extracting the resource would still be years down the road once the “regulatory framework” is in place.

Governor “Energy Capital” could come out with encouragement, “I eagerly await the release of the UWG’s report. I believe we can learn from successful mining operations in Canada and replicate their positive socioeconomic impact for Virginia. Assuming the report green lights the project, I look forward to issuing a recommendation that the moratorium be lifted so the state can begin layering in a regulatory regime, gathering public comments, and refining the oversight mechanism needed for future uranium mining.” Instead, he is “mum.” Even worse, McDonnell has dodged any position. He recently expressed his lack of commitment by saying he’d reserve the right to either recommend lifting the moratorium, recommend not lifting the moratorium, or to recommend nothing at all and let the General Assembly handle it. (Perhaps his all-purpose position is to avoid having a stand for which he can be held accountable should he get the VP nod.)

A May 29 radio interview offers a clue to his motives. Like President Obama on the Keystone pipeline, he’s been pressured by environmentalists who don’t want to see any mining (or any energy development for that matter). I’ve encountered the same type of obstructionists while fighting for uranium mining in New Mexico.

All is not lost.

McDonnell seems to be waking up to the fact that no matter how many studies they do, no matter how safe uranium mining is proven to be, no matter how many jobs will be created, and no matter how much producing a product in demand on the global market will help the American economy, the environmentalists will never approve. During the May 29 radio interview, he expressed his exasperation with them: “These people don”t want us to even study it. They”ve made their decision. They”ve made up their mind that they don”t want us to look at it. They don”t want us to study it. They don”t want us to have any mining going on. That”s just ridiculous. What I want to do is just get the facts. I don”t have a decision made. They do. Our job-at the direction of the General Assembly-is to get the facts and to determine ‘can we mine it safely?’”

The UWG is holding a series of four public meetings during the next six months as they draft a statutory and conceptual regulatory framework. The UWG will hear public comments following their presentation. The environmentalists have historically been activated-filling hearings with “anti” rhetoric. People, who support the prosperity a project like Coles Hill can create, sit them out. Often the only public comment received is from the obstructionists-leaving commission or board members to conclude that the vocal minority is the majority. You can show up, stand up, and speak up on behalf the safe extraction of uranium by adding your comments on the UWG website.

Will McDonnell keep his campaign promise and move Virginia toward being the “Energy Capital” or will he be kowtowed by the environmentalists who don’t want “any mining going on”-making Virginia an “energy prison” with the natural resources locked up? We know he’s been pressured from the left. Perhaps he just needs pressure from the right.

© 2013 Energy Tribune

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