There has been a lot going on in the environmental movement lately. Report after report confirms the urgency of our climate crisis and activists across the world are showing up… larger and louder.
Take the offshore drilling fight for example. Just a few months ago, the Federal government was poised to lease areas in the Mid Atlantic (including waters off Virginia’s coast) for oil and gas drilling but pulled the plan and specifically cited public opposition as a central reason for doing so.
This didn’t happen overnight though– it was a result of the work of dozens of organizers and thousands of activists up and down the East Coast who helped pass more than 100 local resolutions against offshore drilling and generated tens of thousands of public comments in opposition to drilling over the past couple of years.
Now the other side of the story is that there is still drilling proposed in the Arctic and the Gulf of Mexico, and more generally the fossil fuel industry is doing everything it can to solidify its hold on our energy infrastructure. The fossil fuel industry and some lawmakers are challenging the legal standing environmental regulations like the Clean Power Plan (the first national plan to reduce CO2 emissions from power plants and a central piece to national action on climate change) and the past several years have seen a boom in natural gas extraction and infrastructure like pipelines and storage facilities.
Unfortunately, Virginia hasn’t been left out. Dominion, Virginia’s largest utility, is proposing a massive natural gas build out with the giant, more than $5-billion-dollar Atlantic Coast Pipeline and several proposed new gas plants.
Dominion’s Integrated Resource Plan (IRP) calls for 9,000 to 10,000 megawatts of new gas fired electricity generation, which, according to Dominion, would increase its carbon pollution by more than 60%. Dominion’s Atlantic Coast Pipeline will actually increase its carbon pollution emissions beyond the 60%+ associated with its gas plants. The pipeline alone would contribute 40 to 68 million tons of carbon pollution per year.
Hampton Roads is the second most vulnerable region of the country in terms of economic impacts of sea level rise, which makes Dominion’s planned 60% increase in carbon pollution especially irresponsible. Estimates of the amount of sea level rise continue to increase and several have put the number as high as 6 feet over the next 100 years. Dominion’s new gas plants and pipelines commit us to at least 30 years of heavy reliance on natural gas, and that is too long. Pound for pound, the comparative impact of methane (CH4), the primary component of natural gas, on climate change is more than 25 times greater than CO2 over a 100-year period.
Virginia is lagging far behind in solar, wind and efficiency. In 2015 alone, North Carolina installed 1,134 MW of solar electric capacity, ranking it second nationally. Meanwhile, Dominion has pledged to develop just 400 MWs of solar by 2020. This year Rhode Island will beat out Virginia, being the first state in the U.S. to install an offshore wind energy project. Virginia’s poor standing among states in developing solar, wind and efficiency is a direct result of Dominion’s efforts to block competition in the energy market place.
In May of 2016, because of their lack of commitment to renewable energy, Dominion lost a $40 million dollar grant from the federal government meant to kick start offshore wind in Virginia, and now Dominion is questioning whether they will move forward with offshore wind at all.
Not only is this bad for the climate, it’s bad for the economy. Renewable Energy creates more jobs – $1 million dollars worth of coal output directly creates 1.9 jobs and for oil and natural gas it’s only 0.8 jobs. Compare that to building retrofits for energy efficiency (7 jobs per million $), wind (4.6 jobs) and solar (5.4 jobs). Fully developed offshore wind leases could power 700,000 Virginia homes and create as many as 11,600 career jobs in Virginia in the next two decades. Even more, Hampton Roads is perfectly situated to be a hub for the production and distribution of wind turbine components, providing a major boost to regional and state-wide economy. As of November 2015, the solar industry employed 208,859 solar workers, representing a growth rate of 20.2% since November 2014.
On top of all that, Dominion has a conflict of interest when it comes to natural gas. It is important to recognize that Dominion Virginia Power is part of Dominion Resources, which is one of the nation’s largest natural gas processing, storage and transmission companies. This explains Dominion’s bias (and conflict of interest) in promoting gas as the primary means of meeting our energy needs.
While Dominion is pushing aggressively to build the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and big natural gas plants, it continues to drag its feet on renewable energy generation, which would bring more jobs for the Commonwealth and Hampton Roads as our nation pivots to a clean energy future that reduces the carbon pollution that is driving climate change and sea level rise.
Now back to the other side of the story… you, me, us. Despite the political and institutional power wielded by Dominion, activists in Virginia just won’t pipe down. Across the Commonwealth, organizations large and small are fighting the pipeline and calling on their leaders to stand up to Dominion. They’re organizing marches, film screenings, concerts, meeting with General Assembly members, passing city council resolutions, testifying at public hearings, submitting public comments, and working to educate the public and raise awareness about these issues. This work is happening and it is beautiful and it is what will be required if we’re going to win the fight for a cleaner, healthier, more just future for everyone. There is no substitute for the grassroots, regardless of what issue you care most about.
And if you’re one of those who thinks that your voice doesn’t matter here is another way to think about civic engagement: Imagine the potential. What I mean is that the vast majority of people have never participated in the political/civic process beyond voting. Voting is absolutely essential and major props to Norfolk Voter Turn Out Project for the awesome work to get out the vote this May, but it is only the beginning. Think about this: only around 60% of people vote in our national elections… if only a little over half of people vote, how many do you think have contacted at least 1 of their elected officials once?
Then take into account that we all have multiple elected officials representing us; how many people have contacted all of their elected officials once? I’m not pointing fingers, I promise. I honestly can’t say that I’ve contacted all of my elected officials this year, and I definitely can’t say I’ve done it for every single issue I care about…the point I’m trying to get at is the potential. I know the system is not set up to make it easy to participate, but there is a HUGE potential power that we all have as individuals if we act collectively. Social movements are made up of individuals, but the strength lies in the shared message and goals.
If you just got really excited about organizing and activism and you’d like to spend a week learning about how to be a better organizer and activist then you should register for the Sierra Student Coalition’s (SSC) SPROG happening in Courtland, VA on July 24-31. The SSC is the youth-run branch of the Sierra Club. SPROG is run entirely by young folks, mostly college-age and recent graduates, and it’s open to anyone between age 14 and 28. Basically, it’s a week of intensive activist training, with a lot of work on campaign planning and leadership skills, and a strong emphasis on anti-oppression and environmental justice. I attended SPROG in 2011 and it was a formative experience for my growth as a human being but also as an activist. I highly recommend it for anyone interested in making social change (if you can make the weeklong commitment). Follow this link for more information about SPROG and to register (registration is still open and we have scholarships).
So I’ll end this with a pitch to get involved locally! The Sierra Club’s Virginia Chapter is about to launch a new campaign called Turn Not Burn focusing on the issues raised above with Dominion, natural gas, and renewable energy. We will be working to meet with all of the General Assembly members in Hampton Roads to discuss these issues with them and push them to be more proactive when it comes to addressing the sources of climate change, not just the impacts. We will be kicking off a large public awareness push, speaking to community groups, civic leagues, churches and anyone willing to listen. Hampton Roads cannot stay silent; we are some of the most impacted and we can be some of the loudest most influential voices calling for action. To find out more about this campaign and how you can get involved join us at our Happy Hour at the Beach on Wednesday 6/15 at 6:30 at Croc’s in Virginia Beach or join us for a screening of “Won’t Pipe Down” at the Mary D. Pretlow Library on Thursday 6/16 a 7pm or Wednesday 6/22 at Greenbrier Library in Chesapeake at 7pm.
We’ll also be out and about over the summer at various events spreading the good green word, so if you see us out there come up and chat, sign a petition, take some stickers, and find out how you can get involved in the work we’re doing in your city.