Gov. Terry McAuliffe has become a target instead of an ally of environmental organizations frustrated by his support of proposed natural gas pipelines across Virginia and energy policies they say fail to protect the state in the face of climate change.
A coalition of almost 60 organizations — including a handful of national groups — delivered an open letter to McAuliffe on Wednesday that challenged him to change his positions on what it called “the biggest, most polluting issues of our times.”
Those issues include offshore oil drilling, disposal of toxic coal ash from electric power plants, and pipelines that would carry natural gas produced in the Marcellus shale fields of West Virginia. They include the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, which the governor announced enthusiastically almost two years ago with the leader of Dominion, the Richmond-based energy giant that is managing the proposed $5 billion, 600-mile project.
The organizations vowed to pay the governor a personal visit in a march on the Executive Mansion on July 23.
“We have tried repeatedly to speak to the governor, but he has refused to listen,” said Sharon Ponton, an organizer with the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League, in a conference call with reporters. “Our only choice is to take it to his doorstep.”
McAuliffe’s office responded with a forceful defense of his record on clean energy initiatives and environmental protection, such as promotion of solar power, investment in water quality improvements, and addressing climate change.
“The governor recognizes that clean energy is the lifeblood of the new Virginia economy, and a majority of Virginians support his work to create jobs while protecting the natural resources that are so important to the commonwealth’s quality of life,” spokeswoman Christina Nuckols said Wednesday.
Dominion responded to the coalition by reissuing a letter to the governor earlier this year from 52 Virginia companies, labor and business organizations that voiced strong support for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline.
Pamela F. Faggert, chief environmental officer and senior vice president for sustainability at Dominion, said the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and the plan to dispose of coal ash waste at Dominion Virginia Power electric plants are aimed at moving Virginia away from coal as a source of electricity to comply with greenhouse gas limits in the pending federal Clean Power Plan.
In the near term, that means expanding the supply of natural gas, Faggert said. “We believe the national policy of moving toward clean energy in the U.S. is the right one, it’s a good one,” she said.
However, the new environmental coalition is attempting to tap into a broader national network of environmental activists who have forged unlikely alliances with farmers and ranchers, Native American tribes and other minority groups, over issues ranging from protecting property rights to addressing climate change
At the same time, national organizations are looking to Virginia for the next high-profile battle over energy infrastructure since the Keystone pipeline, proposed to carry crude oil from Canadian tar sands to Gulf Coast refineries but canceled last fall by President Barack Obama after a State Department review.
“This is happening all over the country,” said Lorne Stockman, a Staunton resident and research director of Oil Change International. The Washington-based organization helped organize a series of protests last week against the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and Mountain Valley Pipeline, proposed by EQT/NextEra through western Virginia.
“Virginia is becoming an epicenter with these two pipelines,” Stockman said.
The protests — in the counties of Augusta, Nelson, Montgomery and Franklin, as well as two counties in West Virginia — used symbolism from the Keystone fight by planting what pipeline opponents called “sacred corn” in the paths of the projects, as the so-called Cowboy and Indian Alliance did in the Midwest to draw public attention to the battle against the Canadian pipeline.
The “Seeds of Resistance” protests also featured players in the Keystone fight — Nebraska-based activist Jane Kleeb, leader of Bold Alliance, one of the organizations that signed the letter to McAuliffe; Nebraska farmer Art Tanderup, whose land was in Keystone’s path; and Mekasi Horinek Camp, a member of the Ponca Nation, which was forcibly removed from its homeland in Nebraska to Oklahoma in 1876. They are traveling across the country to help protests against fossil fuel projects.
“We’ve had our wins and losses,” said Stockman, whose national organization also signed the letter to McAuliffe. “We’ve never had a win better than Keystone XL.”
At one of the protests in Nelson, more than 100 people planted Ponca corn from Tanderup’s farm on land owned by Samuel Woodson and his family in Wingina that lies in the proposed path of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. The Woodsons are part of an extended family descended from African slaves who worked on the plantations in the area and later established a freedmen’s community.
“We do feel like we’re being targeted,” said Woodson’s sister, Rhamonia, who noted that the proposed pipeline would cross the family property between two state historic districts, one approved and the other proposed. “The only reason we don’t have historic houses is we were building them.”
Public opposition to the pipeline frustrates Sen. Frank W. Wagner, R-Virginia Beach, who sponsored the hotly disputed 2004 state law that allows natural gas companies to survey private property without landowner permission.
Wagner contends the pipeline would be a major economic benefit to Hampton Roads, while helping the state comply with tougher federal limits on air pollutants that are linked to climate change.
“It really galls me that they would try to block a natural gas pipeline,” he said. “They don’t want any fossil-fuel burning, and to hell with the people who would have to pay for it. ... They don’t give a damn.”
But property rights is one of the issues that unites pipeline opponents, in Virginia and nationally.
“This is the largest land grab in years in this country by private industry,” said Roberta Motherway Bondurant, representing several Roanoke-area organizations opposed to the Mountain Valley Pipeline.
The letter to McAuliffe — titled “A New Vision for Energy Justice, Democratic Renewal, and Healthy Communities in Virginia” — is signed by 13 “initiating groups and leaders,” including the Allegheny-Blue Ridge Alliance; 38 local, state and regional groups, many of which are based in areas that would be crossed by the proposed pipelines; six national organizations; and several individuals and small businesses.
It does not include the state’s largest environmental organizations, such as the League of Conservation Voters.
Michael Towns, the league’s executive director, said his organization generally agrees with the positions taken on energy issues by members of the coalition, but it supports McAuliffe and his efforts to promote clean energy, including promotion of solar and other renewable sources, and expand environmental protections, including measures to address climate change.
“We’re going to continue to work with the governor to accomplish more rather than complain about what he hasn’t done,” Towns said.