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Virginia Needs a Deep(er) State

“We don’t believe there is an equivalent to [the U.S. Energy Information Administration] for Virginia.”

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by A Siegel

Shallow language has, for too long, hindered our understanding of and valuing of core institutions and capacities. “Bureaucracy” and “bureaucrats” are viewed negatively by most even though these institutions and people (with failures and inadequacies to be acknowledged and reformed) do work that enables society to function. In the past few years, “Deep State” has become an even-more pejorative term of discussion (at least for one political party – the Trump GOP). A simple fact, however, is that bureaucracy, bureaucrats, and the “Deep State” truly matter for a well-functioning society: providing expertise to support decision-making and the capacity to execute direction effectively. And, a “Deep State” means multiple layers of existing and developing capacity enabling tackling of complex issues and ability for continuity of function even amid personnel turnover and other disruption.

Engagement on energy and climate-related issues in Virginia over the several few years (especially into the 2020 legislative session) is driving home that:

Virginia Needs a Deep(er) State

Whether discussions of electric school buses or looking at the potential implications of and options for the Virginia Clean Energy Act, there is a striking element that comes forth in discussions with firms, elected officials, interest groups, and activists: almost never is a government office pointed to as the key organization providing analytical support to decision-makers and/or the critical information resource. Expertise seems to come, all too often, from interested parties (contributors, businesses, non-profits). This does not seem how government should work.

Let’s be clear, there are numerous (often highly) competent people and offices in the Commonwealth’s government  – such as in executive offices, the Attorney General’s office, the State Corporation Commission and thus the requirement for a “deep(er) state.” Yet, there are clear gaps and shortfalls that are made quite clear during the legislative cycle when, for example, the lead discussant (who legislators turned to to ask questions and get clarifications) for an electric school bus program was a Dominion lobbyist rather than a government (whether legislative or executive) policy expert. This is repeated time after time — in public session, rather open work groups, and behind the scenes conclaves.

One role for such a “deep(er) state” would be for providing quality, up-to-date information to support governmental decision-making and public understanding. Searching for this when it comes to energy issues quickly leaves one shaking one’s head.

The Dept. of Mines, Minerals, and Energy “energy resources” page lays out Virginia’s “natural resources”. Some lines from that:

The amount of energy produced from Virginia’s resources accounts for less than one-half of the total amount of energy consumed in the State (VEPT, 2007) …

The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) estimated total energy consumption in Virginia during 2004 to be about 2,558 trillion Btu (British thermal unit).  …

EIA) estimated total energy consumption in Virginia during 2004 to be about 2,558 trillion Btu (British thermal unit).  During the same annual period, the total energy produced as fossil fuels mined in Virginia was about 722 trillion Btu, about 28% of the amount consumed …

Based on EIA estimates of power generation during 2005, coal-fired power plants remained the most important source of electricity in Virginia, with nuclear power generation a close second

Wait, what? Seriously DMME?!? Notice anything odd here? “2007 … 2004 … 2005”? That’s right: amid a rapidly changing energy world, DMME is providing 15-year-old information as the base (ground truth?) information Virginia’s energy resources. And, just to make sure that there isn’t a misunderstanding, coal is not – as you’d think if you went by DMME’s outdated data – the “most important source of electricity in Virginia.” In fact, coal hasn’t been Virginia’s top source of electricity in Virginia for many years – and, I write assuredly, it won’t ever be that again. Anyway, the point is, Virginians shouldn’t have to go to the New York Times in order to get more accurate information about basic and critical issues in the Commonwealth.

How electricity has changed (NY Times, Dec 24, 2018)

Oh, and DMME sends people to Virginia Tech’s Virginia Energy Patterns and Trends (VEPT) Electronic Database as a go-to for supposedly “up-to-date information on energy production, distribution, and use within the state of Virginia.” Up-to-date, that is, as of what happened in 2006. Honestly, I wonder if I should be dusting off an encyclopedia for better information about critical issues in the Commonwealth. VEPT, by the way, is within the Virginia Center for Coal and Energy Research, which was created by legislative mandate in 1977 with many missions, including the “Dissemination of coal and energy research information and data to users in the Commonwealth”.

Scratching my head, sure that I was missing something, I asked Virginia-focused energy wonks the following question: “Who do you see as the Virginia equivalent of the Energy Information Administration (EIA)? With a charter to do independent analysis and reporting to support the Governor, Administration offices and staffs, and the legislature?”

A response from an expert (with numerous articles and oft-cited by others):

“There certainly isn’t an equivalent. SCC, DMME, AG, and DEQ all have pieces. And I couldn’t tell you the extent of who does what or even how to find the information. Not helpful, I know.”

Another more simply put it

We don’t believe there is an equivalent to EIA for Virginia.”

Despite the niches with specific expertise, this gap seems to handicap (seriously) Virginia’s ability to develop best-in-class policy paths forward.

Staying solely within the energy domain, critical as we seek to foster increased prosperity while reducing pollution (especially climate) impacts and improving resiliency, think about legislation the legislature has been considering and is working on:

  • The Virginia Clean Economy Act (VCEA), with mandates for eliminating carbon emissions within the power (electricity sector) with a renewable portfolio standard (RPS) mandate, energy efficiency requirements, and other elements with decades of interaction and impact on the Virginia economy, billions of dollars at stake, and literally (due to pollution impacts on health) life and death implications.
  • Offshore wind (as much as 5.2 gigawatts of capacity) as in the public interest with a potential direct investment implication in excess of ten billion dollars and tens of thousands of jobs.
  • Electric School Bus (ESB) program authorization, with significant public-private relationship management, thousands of jobs, and many billions of dollars of implications.
  • And numerous other energy(-related) bills such as the Green New Deal, Solar Freedom, Energy Choice Act, and so on and so on.

These are pieces of legislation with:

  • many (MANY) billions of dollars at stake;
  • tens of thousands of jobs at play; and,
  • significant health and pollution implications.

Across all of these, something notable: the most significant voices and influencers are almost always not government experts, but lobbyists and representatives of special interest groups (from polluting business to environmental activists). Am I alone in thinking that this is not how the people’s business should be done? Am I alone in seeing a need for augmented Virginia government expertise, with a true center for research and expertise to Administrative and legislative requirements while providing more accurate information to government officials, businesses, and citizens?

For development of better energy and climate policy and legislative proposals and decision-making, there is a simple truth:

Virginia needs a Deep(er) State