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Interview with Former Virginia Air Board Member Sam Bleicher, Who Was Removed by Gov. Northam Ahead of Vote on Union Hill Compressor Station

I had an opportunity to take a seat down yesterday with Sam Bleicher, an adjunct professor of regulation at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., and a robust environmentalist, who was a member and vice chair of the Virginia Air Air pollution Control Board from June 2014 to November 2018, when he was eliminated by Gov. Northam “less than a week after they raised concerns about a natural gas compressor station planned for a historic black community in Buckingham County and ahead of the board’s vote on the project.” Yeah, I do know…what was *that* all about???

What spurred our meeting was that Bleicher is now out with a superb new novel, “The Plot to Cool the Planet,” which we discussed for a while. I’ll submit about that individually in the subsequent couple days. After talking about his ebook, we then proceeded to a prolonged dialogue about Virginia environmental issues, notably the fracked-gas pipelines, Bleicher’s service on and dismissal from the Air Board, the Union Hill compressor station problem, Dominion Power, DEQ director David Paylor, environmental racism, and so forth, and so forth. By the best way, many of the questions I asked Bleicher have been “crowdsourced” from people I respect in the anti-pipeline group. See under for highlights from that half of our discussion…tons of fascinating comments by Bleicher, IMHO.

  • In response to Bleicher: “The Air Pollution Control Board did not have regulations that provided authority over the pipeline; the vote at the Air Pollution Control Board was about the siting of the compressor station at Union Hill. And I probably would have voted against that. There was an argument, there were some internal Board Member views that you know, you’re depriving this poor community of a half million dollars worth of benefits and maybe they’re better off with the money. If we’re really worried, if the whole issue is about whether the community is better off, maybe they’re better off with a half million dollars. Maybe not, but that’s at least a respectable argument.”
  • In contrast, Bleicher believes that there’s no respectable argument for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline (ACP). Among different issues, Bleicher believes it’s “ridiculously expensive,” “the rate of return that [Dominion has] been promised has no economic rationale to it at all unless you want to subsidize pipelines.”Bleicher added, “Look at this from Dominion’s point of view; they’ve got this big windfall tax benefit from the tax bill, they’ve got a lot of cash. ‘What are we going to do with it? Well, let’s build a pipeline; we have a guaranteed 14 percent rate of return.’ ”
  • So why would anyone aside from Dominion Power and its shareholders go along with this pointless venture? In line with Bleicher, he doesn’t know for positive, but “Dominion has persuaded all the economic development type people in all the counties that the pipeline is going through that they will benefit, because they will have access to natural gas from the pipeline…I’m not even sure that’s true,” but the declare (by Dominion, Terry McAuliffe, Ralph Northam, and so on.) is that it’ll “attract industry.”
  • In response to Bleicher, one of the explanation why the ACP is designed to have a compressor station in Union Hill is that it’s principally on the intersection of the ACP and the prevailing Transcontinental Pipeline…”if they put the compressor station there, they will service the brand new pipeline to the east utilizing the natural fuel from the Transco pipeline if they don’t ever get the fracking or if the fracking doesn’t produce as much fuel for as long as they hope…in order that’s why that location [was chosen].”
  • I asked whether or not he thought Union Hill was chosen because of environmental racism. Bleicher responded, “I wouldn’t go that far, I’ll just say they were completely tone-deaf to the whole subject…They weren’t going to let the nature of the community stand in the way of what was economically sound…One person on the board said to me at one point, ‘you know, Dominion’s mistake was they could have put this a mile and a half down the road.’” So they might have largely prevented all this controversy if that they had just put the compressor station a number of miles away, however “they didn’t see the controversy coming, they just weren’t in tune with the public sentiment.”
  • Did Dominion goal Union Hill in any method? Bleicher responded, “On the contrary…[I think Dominion’s attitude was] this has nothing to do with people, we’re just putting it where it’s most efficient…mostly they sat down with a map and drew a line and said this is the place to put it.”
  • Bleicher added that there’s little question that Dominion tries to keep away from putting infrastructure in places where there can be a fantastic deal of political opposition. But Dominion didn’t assume it will have that drawback in Union Hill. Buckingham County’s Board of Supervisors dangerous accepted the challenge.
  • Relating to the authority of the Air Board, Bleicher stated that the Air Board has no laws and has by no means asserted jurisdiction relating to regulating methane emissions in state or out of state.  There’s now a activity pressure now learning learn how to undertake methane laws in Virginia.
  • Bleicher added that, with regard to regulating methane emissions, DEQ might try to “flex its muscles and try to do that,” however “the governor doesn’t want…it to interfere with the pipeline, that’s clear…Dominion wanted one thing from the governor, and what’s he going to say, ‘no, I’m not going to give you the one thing you want?’ That’s hard to do. That’s hard to do. And especially it was hard for McAuliffe seven years ago now…there wasn’t a legislator who wasn’t taking contributions from Dominion, and you weren’t going to get anything else done.”
  • So does Dominion management the legislature? Bleicher stated it’s not black and white lately, that Dominion “has problems” and isn’t all highly effective.
  • Do Air Board members have experience on these issues? In line with Bleicher, some do but some completely don’t. As an example, one member was an actual estate developer who didn’t even understand what the problem was with methane or carbon air pollution. As an alternative, these are citizen boards; “DEQ is the experts.” “In the four years that I was on the board, we didn’t once vote against DEQ’s recommendation, except on the carbon rule, which was a slightly different situation [because it wasn’t in response to Federal requirements]…we offered some minor amendments…small changes.”
  • Is DEQ truly making an attempt to guard the surroundings or are they “captured” by business? Based on Bleicher, the reply is “somewhere in between…they worry about their budget…those appropriations have been threatened…they don’t have enough inspectors…”
  • How does Bleicher view DEQ head David Paylor? “First and foremost, [David Paylor]’s a bureaucrat; he wants to keep his budget, he doesn’t want to alienate legislators.  He said to me on several occasions, ‘I have two bosses, I have the governor and the Air Board, when they don’t agree I’ve got a problem’…until recently, we haven’t even come close to having an environmentalist legislature, so in some sense he’s never been tested…I don’t think he’s passionate [about the environment] at this point.”
  • On the position of the Lawyer Common’s workplace in discussions by the Air Board, Bleicher stated the AG’s representative “hardly said a word ever, but when asked he was very helpful.”
  • I noted that there are individuals against the pipelines who are very suspicious concerning the AG office’s position. In line with Bleicher, the AG’s workplace completely didn’t play a nefarious position, that AG Herring “has done a lot of good work for the environment,” and that the AG’s office “can’t put their opinions ahead of the Board…basically they’re there to help…I don’t think they thought it was their job to be pro-pipeline or anti-pipeline or compressor station…[their job was] to provide support, and if you asked for their help, they’d give it.”
  • So what happened exactly when the Board went into closed session? Bleicher stated “they might be consulting with counsel about what they can do and what they can’t do…they have to vote and they have questions about their authority…They weren’t supposed to be deciding about the pipeline, this is about the compressor station, this is a different question…”
  • What would killing the compressor station have carried out exactly? Bleicher stated “it’s hard to know…Dominion might have sued…or Dominion [might have said] we’ll move it a mile down the road.”
  • If the compressor station had been killed, wouldn’t it have also killed the pipeline? Bleicher: “There’s no reason to think that’s true…I made it very clear…my views on the pipeline were irrelevant to this decision…this was a decision about the compressor station…We don’t have any clear policy about environmental justice issues…We don’t even know how we’d measure environmental justice, we have no criteria for that…does that mean no industry can ever move into Union Hill?”
  • Is there any purpose to assume that the Air Board was “strong armed?” In accordance with Bleicher, that undoubtedly didn’t happen to me once I was there – “nobody said to me, ‘you better vote this way’.”
  • Why precisely was Bleicher removed from the Board? “The Secretary of the Commonwealth’s Office called me up and said, ‘thank you for your service, we no longer need you on the Board’…I think the governor’s office made the decision…Dominion was concerned that they weren’t going to win if six people were voting. If Rebecca Rubin and I were there [Dominion might have lost the vote on the compressor station].”
  • Bleicher stated he had utilized for reappointment to the Board months earlier, and the idea within the environmental group was that he’d undoubtedly be reappointed after all the help they gave to help elect Northam.
  • Is there any cause to consider that Northam and/or his Chief of Employees have been instantly concerned on this? Bleicher stated “I don’t think it could have been routine…somebody decided to do it…It looks like it was done at Dominion’s behest…My impression is that DEQ was not involved in that decision…I thought they were maybe even surprised.”
  • Should the Air Board contemplate issues like environmental justice in citing amenities like the compressor station? Based on Bleicher, “yes, the law calls for it, but there isn’t enough guidance to direct a decision about this, when Dominion is offering money to the community [and] the community is split…It is [racist] in the sense that Dominion could simply ignore what’s there, because the community isn’t rich enough and noisy enough…”
  • What impression did citizen activism and engagement have on the Air Board? Does it make a difference? Bleicher: “In some ways it makes a productive difference; in some ways it makes a counterproductive difference…[but] even people who don’t like it have to take into account the intensity of feeling…part of the problem is protests are so undifferentiated, it doesn’t give you material to work with”; what’s wanted is knowledge, empirical info…”Protests may be offputting and off message…Anyone even shouted ‘we know where you live’…” which some Board Members took as a physical menace.
  • On one other concern – the Regional Greenhouse Fuel Initiative (RGGI) – Bleicher stated Northam’s failure to veto the Republican finances restriction on RGGI participation was “in many ways an outrage…in the end, McAuliffe’s and Northam’s 3-year carbon rulemaking effort was all blown up by the Republican legislature and Northam acquiesced.”
  • Bleicher agreed that the most effective thing at this level is for Democrats to take management of the legislature and have Virginia be a part of RGGI. “If Democrats can win the House and the Senate, I don’t think Northam can run away from environmental issues the way he has.” Bleicher added that none of the supposed horror stories by Republicans about shifting to 100% clean power are true at this level.  The DEQ research of RGGI participation say the other.
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