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Virginia Energy Plan Public (Pretend We’re) Listening Session

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It’s that time in a new administration, time for the new Governor to develop his Virginia Energy Plan that will guide energy and environmental policy for the time he serves. For a Governor who already faces criticism for his failure to protect Virginia’s natural resources and landowners rights by demanding the careful stream by stream analysis of the fracked gas pipelines that he indicated he supported during the gubernatorial primary; and who has not once visited the people of Virginia impacted by these pipelines; and whose communications director accused environmental activists of “not acting in good faith” while shielding the Governor from having to respond to questions about the pipelines on WTOP Ask the Governor; for this Governor, one would hope to have a transparent process for developing this plan, with as many stakeholders–scientists, citizens, businesses–involved as possible.

So I optimistically attended the Northern Virginia “public listening session” for the Virginia Energy Plan. A small number of similar sessions had been held in Richmond, Newport News, and elsewhere in the state. (At first, Northern Virginia wasn’t even on the schedule of listening sessions despite its huge population, and it wasn’t until we complained that it was added to the schedule!)

Over a hundred people attended, and about 40 people stepped up to speak. Each was given three minutes, timed, to say their piece. While two representatives from the administration “listened.” I suppose they were listening, although there was no back and forth, just the two sitting staring blankly, and saying “thank you” when time was up. To be fair, most of the people said the same thing over and over, and nothing that anyone who’s even marginally involved in creating an energy policy plan shouldn’t already know. The earth is facing increasing temperatures and rising sea levels and flooding and more freak events of nature–storms, fires, droughts. They talked about health effects–student-athletes suffering heat strokes with increasing frequency, increase in ticks and Lyme disease, air pollution contributing to Alzheimer’s, and more. The time to act is yesterday, and we should be moving with every speed towards ending the use of fossil fuels. We shouldn’t be investing in MORE fossil fuel projects like MVP and ACP fracked gas pipelines. And we need solar–no, scratch that, we need SOLAR!

(Okay, actually, I have to insert here that not EVERYONE said the same thing. There was one guy who was an actual real-life climate change denier! With 55 years as an environmental economist, including 30 years at the EPA! Nope, CO2 has no significant effect on temperatures. I’ve never seen that many gaping jaws in one room at one time in my life!)

I’d be naive if I truly thought that the purpose of this listening session was for citizens to play an active role in helping to formulate Governor Northam’s energy policy. It’s just a charade where we pretend that we have a voice in our government. And after we’ve been patted on the head and sent back home, the real work of drafting the energy policy is done in the back rooms by the administration, the utility companies, and whatever big donors get an actual seat at the table. I know this isn’t unique to environmental policy, or unique to Virginia, but maybe it’s time we started demanding more?