Monday, April 5, 2010

Virginia: Bursting with Energy?

Gov. Bob McDonnell this week said he wanted to see Virginia become the "energy capital" of the East Coast.

The governor was commenting on a ruling by the Obama administration which might lead to drillling for oil and natural gas off Virginia's coast.

While Interior Secretary Ken Salazar somewhat downplayed the prospect, saying the administration had okayed a "look/see," Republicans, whose motto is "Drill, baby, drill," are already spending the money. In McDonnell's case, he wants to spend Virginia's future oil royalities on transportation.

Before the new governor of Texas-on-the-James gets fitted for a ten-gallon hat, there are a couple of problems with his plan.

First, under current law, Virginia can't collect any royalties for oil and natural gas extracted off its coast. Congess, dominated by non-coastal states, has been very relectant to allow East Coast states the same right to collect royalties that states on the Gulf Coast and Alaska have. Virginia's congressional delegation has introduced bills to change that, but there's no gaurantee that they will pass.

So, right now, an oil well off Virginia's coast won't benefit anyone except the oil company that drilled it.

There are a some serious environmental issues raised by the possibility of oil exploration in the Atlantic off Virginia. First, a mishap could endanger two of the state's current revenue sources, tourism at Virginia Beach and the operation of the Port of Virginia.

That second problem is why opposition isn't limited to your traditional "greens." Both the U.S. Navy and NASA, which is building a facility at Wallops Island, have "expressed concern" about oil drilling in the Chesapeake.

If royalties are ever approved, they won't start showing up for 10 to 15 years, according to most estimates.

And we're going to use them for transportation? Our transportation system is already suffering from ten years of neglect, while various governors and the General Assembly have fenced over a financing plan. If the next major cash infusion is ten years in the future, Virginia's road are going to look like something from the "Mad Max"  movies.

And why should the theoretical oil royalties go to transportation anyway? Because McDonnell and the General Assembly, with little input from the voters, have decided that they should? Since the royalties -- if they ever materialize -- will be the result of selling assets that belong to the citizens of Virginia, maybe we should have a say in how they are spent. Perhaps by referendum. Because there are other ways to handle that money. Alaska, for example, sends each citizen a check for his share of the state's oil and gas royalties.

Oil and gas aren't Virginia's only energy assets, of course.

The southwestern part of the state has long been a mecca for coal mining. Despite what it may mean for one of the commonwealth's poorest regions, you'd have to say those days are about over. Coal is just too dirty a fuel to be a major part of America's energy future, although it still has a role to play in the transition to that future. Despite campaign rhetoric from both Democrats and Republicans about "clean coal," it remains as mythical as the unicorn.

The western part of the state does have tremendous potential for another form of energy, wind.

Turbines on peaks in the Blue Ridge have the potential to provide a good deal of power for that end of the state. However, the inefficiency of transmitting that power, limits wind's statewide potential. Environmental concerns have also been raised. Seems those huge wind turbines are bird-killing, as well as energy-generating, machines.

The state's most valuable energy resource may lay in Pittsylvania County. There are deposits of uranium there. So far, the state has chosen not to allow a license for uranium mining. But the importance of nuclear power to the nation's energy future may mean that the time will come when that license will be granted.

Both Republicans and reasonable Democrats concede that nuclear power must play a larger role in generating electricity in the future. To be sure, there are those on the Democratic left who strongly opposed nuclear power. The "No Nukes" movement is a mistake that Democrats will have to get over. Like Republican opponents of legalized abortion or gay rights, Democrats opposed to nuclear power are fervent, dedicated, sincere ....and totally on the wrong side of history. In the name of ecology, they've blocked one of the greenest forms of energy. Nuclear power plants are highly regulated and their safety records compare favorably with any other type of power generating facility.

It's somewhat ironic that Republicans, who have so much contempt for the French ("Cheese-eating, surrender monkeys") in other areas are the ones urging the U.S. to more closely emulate France in utilizing nuclear power.

If Gov. McDonnell really wants Virginia to get in on the cutting edge of energy technology in the 21st Century, he might consider putting more emphasis on nuclear power than carbon fues, clearly a 20th Century technology.

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