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Editorial: What shade of green is Northam's energy plan?

Editorial: What shade of green is Northam's energy plan?

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Gov. Ralph Northam has signed an executive order that sets a goal to make Virginia’s electric grid carbon-free by 2050.

This is unequivocally a good thing if you like breathing clean air. It’s also unequivocally a good thing if you are concerned about the massive amounts of carbon that humans keep pumping into the atmosphere — now higher than any time during the whole of human history on this planet. “In fact, the last time the atmospheric CO2 amounts were this high was more than 3 million years ago, when the temperature was 3.6–5.4 degrees higher than during the pre-industrial era, and sea level was 50–80 feet higher than today.” What climate alarmist does that quote come from? Umm, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, so technically that comes from the Trump administration itself.

Caution, which used to be a hallmark of conservatism, would suggest that maybe we shouldn’t try to run a global science experiment on the only home we have. After all, we already know what can happen if too much carbon gets spewed into the atmosphere. Just this week NASA announced that Venus might well have been habitable for 2 billion to 3 billion years — a lovely planet with oceans — until something geological happened to fill its atmosphere with enough carbon dioxide that the planet now averages a scorching 462 degrees. We don’t want to be Venus. We don’t want to be another Eocene Epoch, either — the geological era when volcanoes were belching out carbon at a rate that surpasses industry today. That’s also when maybe half the earth’s species went extinct. Put another way, we have created small man-made volcanoes out of coal plants without much regard for the consequences.

Still, some context is in order here:

1. Making the electric grid carbon-free doesn’t mean Virginia will be carbon-free. Utilities account for only 33% of Virginia’s carbon emissions, according to the federal Energy Information Administration. Eliminating a third of the state’s carbon emissions is no small thing, of course. But utilities aren’t the main source of carbon emissions, merely the easiest for the state to regulate. The single biggest source of carbon emissions is, well, you and me. Cars and trucks account for 45.5% of the state’s carbon emissions; industrial, commercial and residential uses account for 20.5%. Unless you’re driving an electric car, you’re part of the problem, too.

Electric cars are coming; it’s just unclear how fast. Norway has made a rapid conversion to electric cars: Nearly 60% of the new cars sold there are now electric. General Motors has declared it’s working toward an “all electric” future. That’s one of the issues animating the current strike against GM. It doesn’t take as many workers to build electric cars as gasoline-powered models. This roils the usual political dynamics: Democrats historically like to side with unions, but the United Auto Workers in this case isn’t on the same page as the party’s environmentalists. Meanwhile, Republicans who still embrace fossil fuels aren’t typically found on picket lines. If you believe in “think globally, act locally,” then go buy an electric car — and then hope that electricity is generated by carbon-free sources.

2. Why no mention of natural gas pipelines? It’s easy for the governor to set a goal for something 31 years in the future. Northam curiously overlooks the present, and the two big natural gas pipelines in the works – the Mountain Valley Pipeline and the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. The ACP is a project of Dominion Energy. If Virginia’s electric grid is really going to be carbon-free, then in theory Dominion won’t need the ACP for its own needs, but we don’t exactly see Dominion cancelling that project. That’s one of the important things to keep in mind about Northam’s executive order: It’s more aspirational than actionable. Simply because he’s signed it doesn’t really make any of these things happen. Regulating utilities is a lot more complicated than that: When the General Assembly mandates that the State Corporation Commission require utilities go carbon-free, well, then things might happen.

Still, it’s odd — we’re being generous here — that the carbon-fighting Northam says nothing about those pipelines. Northam’s environmental credentials would be a lot more convincing if he came out against them. Some more context: The argument for natural gas is that it produces less carbon than coal. That might be true, but so is this: Our increasing reliance on natural gas means that natural gas pumps nearly 50% more carbon into the atmosphere in Virginia than coal does, according the Energy Information Administration. The biggest sources of carbon emissions in the state are petroleum (54.3%), natural gas (29.7%) and coal (20%). As we noted above, Northam’s executive order doesn’t cover the main carbon offenders. He can’t really do anything about gas-burning cars, and maybe he can’t really do anything about natural gas pipelines, either — but he also hasn’t tried.

3. While this comes in the form of a state action, this is actually the free market at work. One key part of the governor’s order says that by 2022 — the year Northam leaves office — the state will buy at least 30% of its power from renewable sources. The state might be the state but the state is still a customer in the marketplace. The state here is acting in line with certain private companies — from Amazon to Walmart — that have made it a point to buy renewable energy. That’s one reason we say the so-called “war on coal” is now being waged by the free market. This also roils politics: Conservatives used to like the free market, and liberals are historically skeptical of big business, but in many cases, it’s big business that is now driving green energy.

4. Coal counties are simply out of luck. The goal of a carbon-free electric grid helps the planet but hurts those communities whose economies have been based on coal — and no one outside far Southwest Virginia seems to really care. Those localities need a new economy, but nothing in the governor’s executive order helps them create one. Northam’s order says his action will “spark the high-demand jobs of the 21st century” in renewable energy and that’s likely true — but those jobs probably won’t be in the coal counties. You’d think social justice would demand some affirmative action on their behalf. So where is it? Not here, and certainly not in the Green New Deal, either. Make no mistake: Northam’s move is a good one, but it’s not the deepest shade of green available.

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