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Youngkin’s energy plan shows the changing politics of energy

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When Gov. Glenn Youngkin released his energy plan last week in Lynchburg, Democrats and left-leaning environmental groups reacted exactly the way you’d expect them to: They criticized it.

That’s because Youngkin is not convinced that solar and wind can supply all of Virginia’s energy needs; he also likes natural gas and nuclear (he especially likes nuclear).

While Youngkin’s embrace of nuclear – especially his proposal for a small nuclear reactor in Southwest Virginia – was a surprise, it shouldn’t be surprising that a Republican governor isn’t nearly as all-in on renewables as Democrats are. So we wind up with two perfectly predictable things: a Republican governor who wants to back away from the strict provisions of the Clean Economy Act that mandates a carbon-free economy, and Democrats who think he’s retreating from a decarbonized future.

I do not profess to be an energy expert, so I will not weigh in on whether it’s practical to have a an electrical grid powered 100% by renewables. Those who do have opinions on both sides often come across as so passionate that it’s hard to tell how much is solid engineering and how much is simply belief.

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I do, though, profess to be a modest expert on politics so that’s where I will confine my observations today – to the changing politics of energy.

I was struck by several things in Youngkin’s plan (and his speech that accompanied it).

The big one was what he didn’t say. He didn’t say anything about coal.

I’ve long been accustomed to Republican candidates coming to Roanoke and making a big deal about coal, which always seemed to reflect their geographical naivete as much as it did their energy policies. Yes, Roanoke grew up as a railroad town where lots of coal passed through. And yes, there are some companies in Roanoke that are tied to the coal industry in Southwest Virginia. By and large, though, Roanoke isn’t particularly interested in coal. For that, a politician needs to go a lot farther west.

We’re also only five years removed from Donald Trump vowing that he would “bring back King Coal.” I wrote then for The Roanoke Times that he would not, he could not, and I was right: Coal production in the United States declined under a coal-friendly president. That’s because the free market (granted, prodded by various regulations) was voting against coal. More coal plants shut down under Trump than during Barack Obama’s second term, according to E&E News, which covers the energy industry.

Despite that economic evidence, we still saw West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice plead for utilities to build more coal plants – and seemed shocked when the president of Appalachian Power, that state’s biggest utility, told him his company had no intention of building any.

Youngkin did not do any of these things. He didn’t extol coal. He didn’t call for building new coal plants. He didn’t call for keeping open the existing ones that are slated to close. I thought there might be some call to keep open Dominion Energy’s controversial Virginia City Hybrid Energy Center in Wise County, which environmentalists despise because it burns coal and is expensive, and which local legislators love because it’s a big employer in the region. He did not. (Disclosure: Dominion is one of our donors but donors have no say in news decisions; see our policy.) In fact,Youngkin didn’t say anything about coal – except for a brief mention that if Virginia doesn’t produce enough energy, then it will have to import electricity from other states that will burn coal, and that electricity will be more expensive. So, indirectly, Youngkin conceded that coal-fired electricity is more expensive than other sources, something that Trump or Justice or other Republicans haven’t dared to do.

Furthermore, the 29-page plan talks up how Virginia has achieved “significant carbon emissions reductions.” True, that comes in the context of saying those reductions came before the state joined the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative – something Youngkin wants the state to withdraw from – but the point is here we have the Republican governor of a coal-producing state who a) doesn’t seem intent on trying to hold onto coal as an electricity source and b) is talking up emissions reductions as a good thing.

I fully understand why the critics are criticizing Youngkin’s plan over his enthusiasm for natural gas, but it’s still fascinating to see the political shift we’re witnessing here. Youngkin’s plan may seem retrograde to Democrats in 2022 but it’s not that different from what a Democrat might have presented in, say, 2014. I single out that year because that’s when Obama used his State of the Union address to praise natural gas. Yes, just eight years ago a Democratic president crowed that natural gas production was “booming.” That was also the year that the Mountain Valley Pipeline was proposed — and earned an endorsement from the state’s Democratic governor at the time, Terry McAuliffe (who had earlier endorsed Dominion’s proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline, which was later abandoned). This shows how much the politics of energy have changed. Nowadays, many Democrats have moved away from natural gas; they no longer tout it as a “bridge fuel,” as Obama did. Likewise, it wasn’t that long ago – the Trump administration, to be specific – that we had a Republican president who dismissed renewables as too expensive and impractical. The free market begged to differ, but rhetorically Trump routinely mocked solar and wind (and still does).

Youngkin does no such thing. He may not believe in solar and wind as much as Democrats do but he does seem to believe in them. In fact, in speaking with journalists in Lynchburg, Youngkin declared “we can be the leader in wind,” something we’ve sure never heard Trump say, even though it’s Republican states in the Midwest who are the leaders in the wind. (Kansas generates 43% of its power from wind, Oklahoma 35% and North Dakota 31%, according to Visual Capitalist.)The environmental community need not like Youngkin, or his plan, but they ought to at least declare a victory of sorts here: The conversation has changed. Instead of talking about whether we’ll have renewables, the question now is whether the grid will be 100% renewable or some lower percentage.

Youngkin has good reasons to like at least some renewable energy. This is a governor who comes out of the business community and likes to declare that Virginia is “open for business.” He took the stage in Lynchburg to the tune of Bachman-Turner Overdrive’s “Taking Care of Business.” This is a governor who revels in economic development announcements. And what do we see? Some of the biggest ones he’s announced involved renewable energy. The Lego Group intends to build a $1 billion factory in Chesterfield County that will employ 1,760 people. Lego also announced that the plant would come with an onsite solar park because the company intends the plant to be 100% carbon neutral. In short, no renewables, no Lego. Earlier this month, Youngkin was in Halifax County to announce that a North Carolina company will build the nation’s first titanium recycling plant – 108 jobs in a rural county is a big deal, reshoring a critical minerals supply chain is also a big deal (particularly for a governor who’s being touted as a presidential candidate). How does IperionX intend to power that plant? Renewables.

A politician who is disparaging of renewables these days is simply out of touch with the economic realities. That seems quite an achievement.

Youngkin should not be mistaken for a Green New Dealer by any means — he’s big on natural gas and nuclear, after all — but he has more in common with Green New Dealers than either side will want to admit: Both tout the economic benefits of innovation in the energy industry.

The philosophical essence of the Green New Deal is that the transition from fossil fuels to renewables will create jobs. (Yes, it will eliminate some others, so the challenge is whether the jobs gained will be in the same places as the ones that will be lost – that’s often the Green New Dealers’ Achilles Heel.)

Youngkin, though, is saying much the same thing from a conservative point of view. The one point he hammered home in Lynchburg last week was the need for innovation in energy technologies. He and Green New Dealers likely have different views about what kind of innovation they’d like to see. Youngkin’s plan, for instance, talks up carbon capture; many environmentalists see that as a distraction that’s both impractical and philosophically objectionable because it might prolong coal. Big picture, though, both sides are talking up how the free market (augmented by lots of R&D) will save us. I heard Youngkin being skeptical of an all-renewable future, and liking the certainty of electrical generation by natural gas and nuclear. But I sure didn’t hear him say we should stick with what we know. In fact, his plan specifically says “Virginia will need more clean energy technologies that can also support baseload generation.”

The day after Youngkin’s energy plan announcement, he announced plans for an energy research park in Wise County. The idea for that park predates Youngkin, but he got to be the one to announce it. We don’t know exactly what all this park will be doing (maybe nobody really knows, technology being what it is), but the immediate plan calls for the site to be used to test wind and solar technologies – and the battery storage that makes them practical for use when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing. For a long time, coal country seemed resistant to anything that wasn’t coal. There’s been a sea change, though; we now have community leaders in coal country actively planning for a post-coal future, even if that means embracing the once-hated renewables. And we have a Republican governor championing this as a potential jobs creator.

This is how much the politics of energy have changed. We can still argue about the wisdom of Youngkin’s embrace of natural gas and nuclear but we ought to acknowledge that the context for that argument comes in a very different political environment than it once did. Do I dare say it? If this isn’t the liberal Green New Deal, it seems at least the conservative Partly Green New Deal.

Read the governor’s energy plan:

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Teams focused on politics performed worse at World Cup – FIFA’s Arsene Wenger

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AL RAYYAN, Qatar – Speaking in his capacity as FIFA’s Chief of Global Football Development, Arsene Wenger insinuated that teams which made political statements early in the World Cup saw their on-field performance suffer as a result.

The comments came at a media briefing for FIFA’s Technical Study Group, in which Wenger and Jurgen Klinsmann shared the group’s findings from the group stage.

 

In response to a question about the impact of the truncated preparation period in advance of the tournament, Klinsmann spoke about the importance of being able to “mentally and physically” adapt to the challenges of playing during a break in the European season and in the Middle East.

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“If you struggled to adapt, to come here and for whatever reason — especially mentally — were not able to adapt yourself to everything you find here and how dynamic this World Cup is, you will struggle,” Klinsmann said. “And you will get a negative surprise like we saw with Germany, we saw with Denmark and other teams.”

Those comments prompted Wenger to jump in.

“I would just add that the teams who were not disappointing with their first game performance — because when you go to the World Cup, you know not to lose the first game — are the teams who have experience,” Wenger said. “They have results in former tournaments like France, like England, like Brazil. They played well in the first game. And the teams, as well, who were mentally ready, like Jurgen said, that [had] the mindset to focus on competition and not on the political demonstrations.”

Though Wenger did not mention Germany by name, it was a clear reference to Klinsmann’s home country, who lost their opening game to Japan, before which the players placed their hands over their mouths during the pregame on-field photo. The gesture came in response to threats from FIFA to seven European teams that they would face sanctions if they wore the “OneLove” armband symbolising diversity and tolerance.

Wenger did not expand upon how he reached that conclusion, nor did he clarify if the comments represented his personal opinion or that of the committee he was on stage representing.

“Of course it’s important for us to do a statement like this,” Germany striker Kai Havertz told ESPN postmatch. “We spoke about the game, what we can do, and I think first it was the right time to do to show the people that — yeah we try to help wherever we can. Of course FIFA makes it not easy for us but we tried to show with that thing.”

Added Germany coach Hansi Flick: “It was a sign from the team, from us, that FIFA is muzzling us.”

After losing the first match, 2-1, despite outshooting Japan 26-to-12, Germany responded with a 1-1 draw against Spain and a 4-2 win against Costa Rica, but did not advance.

Earlier in the briefing, Klinsmann assigned blame for Germany’s elimination to the lack of a productive No. 9.

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Ministers decline request to testify on Afghan aid blockade as desperation grows

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Three Liberal ministers have declined invitations to testify in the Senate as the upper chamber probes why Canada still won’t allow humanitarian workers to help in Afghanistan.

Aid groups say Ottawa has told them that paying people in Afghanistan or buying goods there could lead them to be prosecuted under anti-terrorism laws.

Many of Canada’s allies have found carveouts so that aid workers don’t get charged with supporting the governing Taliban, which is designated as a terrorist group.

But Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has no explanation for why Canada hasn’t fixed the issue.

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The Senate’s human-rights committee will launch hearings into the issue on Monday and invited three ministers to attend, but all of them said they had prior commitments at the time of the planned meetings.

The United Nations says six million Afghans are now categorized as being at risk of famine, while another fourteen million are in critical need of food.

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When politics wasn’t a team sport

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It has all been downhill in America since the first six presidents. Western civilisation was never the same after ancient wisdom gave way to the sentimental Gospel. Roosevelt should have stayed out of that damn fool war in Europe and the Pacific. People are breeding too much. The state must stop them.

I like Gore Vidal so much that I involuntarily smile when I see the spine of his essay collection, United States, in my bookcase. Even before his dotty late phase, though, he was a reactionary kind of liberal. If his 1968 debates with the conservative William Buckley Jr still grip us, it is because of the two men’s underlying oneness, not the superficial Democrat vs Republican framing.

Best of Enemies, James Graham’s otherwise fine play about the duel of the drawlers, might have made more of this. I fear much of the audience leaves with the sweet notion in their heads that Vidal would today have been a woke ally. The play wants to suggest that his showdown with Buckley was a trailer for the culture wars, the partisan spite, of now. I have come around to the opposite view.

The debates marked the end of something good, not the start of something bad. It was the last time being politically hard-to-place was normal.

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Put it this way. If you tell me what you think about, say, the return of the Benin bronzes, I can infer with some confidence your views on public spending, the EU, rail strikes, immigration, working from home, climate change, Meghan Markle and much else. Nothing connects these subjects. It should be possible to be a small-government Remainer who thinks imperial loot is better off in western museums and who loses sleep to visions of a burning planet. But such a person would stand out now. To take a more concentrated example, lots of people should be anti-lockdown and pro-vaccine mandate. How many do you know?

I have aired Ganesh’s First Law of Politics before, but allow me a recapitulation. People do not work out their beliefs and then join the corresponding tribe. They join a tribe and infer their beliefs from it. The sense of belonging, the group membership, is what hooks people, not the thrill of being right or pursuing a thought on its own terms. Politics has become a team sport, goes the line on this. But even that is too kind. Sports fans are sardonic and irreverent about their own team. It isn’t so central to their identity as to require consistent adherence.

We have lost all sense of how weird it is to seek connection with others through politics. And how new. Watching Buckley and Vidal is a reminder of a less needy age. The former had his own credentials as an apostate of the right: his loose line on marijuana, his Catholicism, his Spanish-speaking intellectualism. Nor was the audience at the time much easier to place. Millions of whites were pro-New Deal and anti-Civil Rights in a way that stumps modern notions of “progressive” and “conservative”.

Noting the change since then is simple enough work. Accounting for it is trickier. One theory suggests itself. The rise of politico-cultural blocs more or less tracks the decline of church membership, trade unions and marriages that go the distance. An atomised population began to cast around for other kinds of belonging, didn’t it?

The mid-20th century voter was heterodox, yes, but heterodox in the way that someone with strong roots could afford to be. With such a firm social anchor, there was less need to seek emotional security in a political tribe. As I’ve used two metaphors for the same thing there, let us keep them coming. A rudder, a bedrock, a cornerstone, a north star: people used to find these things in their personal relationships. In their church, family, factory or town. As modernity scrambled those things, mostly for the good, the need to subsume oneself into a group was going to have to be met some other way.

That turned out to be politics. We live with the wicked results all the time now. The perverse consequences of ostensibly desirable change: Buckley would call this a conservative insight. And I, though a Vidalist, always thought he won those debates.

Email Janan at janan.ganesh@ft.com

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