We have some advice for voters this fall.
Some of you won’t like it.
We’re not going to tell you who to vote for. You’re big boys and girls; you can figure that out on your own. But we will offer what we think is some practical, fact-based and nonpartisan guidance:
Don’t base your vote on how candidates stand on the proposed Mountain Valley Pipeline.
Why not? Easy. They can’t do a thing about it, one way or another.
The pipeline won’t be decided by the General Assembly. It’ll be decided by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission — an unelected body which, as we’ve pointed out before, is basically in the business of approving pipelines.
If you want to change that, well, good luck. Don’t look for Republican presidential candidates — who love fossil fuels — to do anything about that. And don’t look for Democrats to do anything about it, either. Even President Obama’s controversial Clean Power Plan leaves plenty of room for natural gas in America’s future energy mix.
Further, keep this in mind: Obama’s plan deals only with what utilities burn to generate electricity; not what other companies use — and the marketplace is virtually demanding that those manufacturers convert from coal to natural gas because the latter is cheaper and less likely to run afoul of environmental regulations on carbon emissions. The Celanese plant in Giles County, which recently switched out all its coal-fired boilers and hooked up to a natural gas line, is a poster child for that.
The point being: We’re going to see more demand for natural gas — and the pipelines that get those molecules to market — until something comes along that’s even cheaper and just as reliable. FERC’s charge is basically to make sure that happens. It’s only blocked one natural gas pipeline, and that Turtle Bayou project in Texas was something of an oddity because it wasn’t proposed by an energy company. In fact, energy companies opposed it.
And get this: A natural gas company in Texas asked FERC for permission to take 21 of its compressor stations out of service because they weren’t being used enough to justify their operation. FERC said no — the company couldn’t shut them down. Can things be any clearer? FERC wants pipelines.
But back to our legislative candidates: We have some who are very much against the pipeline. We have some who are very much for it. And we have some who’ve cleverly avoided taking any position at all.
Again, none of that really matters — because none of them gets a vote on the pipeline anyway. Nor will a seat in the General Assembly be a big enough bully pulpit for a legislator to use his or her moral influence to change the outcome, or even change the route.
Now, maybe you don’t care — maybe you just want to feel good voting for someone who has the same position you do, even if they can’t do anything about it. That’s your call; just don’t have unreasonable expectations of what will come from it.
To be fair, there are potentially some things a legislator could do on the margins — but only on the margins.
For instance, take Don Caldwell, the independent candidate in the state Senate district that Democratic incumbent John Edwards and Republican Nancy Dye are also running in. He’s been pushing a proposal to make pipeline companies pay an ongoing royalty to landowners. “Let’s make that pocketbook tingle a little bit in their back pocket,” he says. He says one benefit of this would be that pipeline companies would be encouraged to avoid crossing private land — and instead route their lines along public rights-of-way, such as highways.
Environmentalists are horrified by that idea — they see pipelines going ka-boom and taking out motorists with them. In any case, the odds of such a bill getting through the business-friendly General Assembly are probably pretty nil. Business interests would be just as horrified, for reasons of their own. Why would energy companies — which often hold great sway in Richmond — want to increase their expenses? They’d simply pass the costs on to their customers, of course; so why would their corporate customers want to pay more? Those are the unforgiving politics that bill would face.
The real question is a physics problem that anyone who has ever picked up a cue stick and played a game of pool would understand: A single legislator pushing a particular route (such as Caldwell is doing indirectly) probably would get nowhere — but could that legislator put enough pressure on the governor for him to use his bully pulpit with FERC to pick that route? In billiards, that’s called a carom shot.
FERC’s probably not inclined to listen to a governor either, though. The agency has already essentially told our two senators and two of our congressmen to sit down and shut up when they made a pretty simple request for FERC to hold more public meetings. So why would a governor pushing something even more serious — a particular route — magically have more influence?
Oh, and don’t even think about getting the governor to oppose the pipeline: Terry McAuliffe has already endorsed both the Mountain Valley Pipeline and the Atlantic Coast Pipeline to our north on the grounds that a greater flow of cheap natural gas would be a “game-changer” — his words — for creating jobs in the state.
Some candidates — most notably Edwards and Dye — say they want to repeal the law that gives energy companies the right to enter private property for surveying without the landowners’ consent. Edwards, it should be noted, voted for that bill four times, so much like John Kerry’s famous line, he was for the bill before he was against it. In any case, that probably doesn’t matter either, for the same reason Caldwell’s idea doesn’t: Would it really get through a legislature friendly to energy companies? Even if it did, and even if the governor signed it, by the time it took effect next summer, it’d likely be too late to do any good on this pipeline.
So we’re sort of back to where we started: The candidates’ positions on the pipeline don’t really matter. Maybe they matter indirectly in that they give you a window into that candidate’s thinking — which might apply to other issues that they can do something about. But please don’t vote for or against somebody based on their position on the pipeline and think that will make a difference.
See, we told you some of you wouldn’t like that.