August 31, 2018 6:01 am

Activists stood outside the governor’s mansion last month and read public comments opposing the Atlantic Coast and Mountain Valley pipelines into a megaphone. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury – Aug. 14, 2018)

If you step on it, you can drive from the Atlantic Ocean to Nelson County, Va., in about three hours. In the not-too-distant future, you could be able to make the trip in a lot less time.

That’s not because we’ll have flying cars or frictionless roads, or because Great Birnam Wood is moving to Dunsinane Hill.

It’s because the Atlantic Ocean is moving to the Appalachian Mountains.

We can make pointless arguments, against scientific evidence, that it’s not our fault the ocean is creeping ever inland.

But hey, look, there’s the water and it’s getting deeper. You can’t argue with that.

Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, recognizes the problem. Even his opposites in the state legislature can see the tide coming. They all gazed over the waters in the last session of the General Assembly and created a cabinet position called special assistant to the governor for coastal adaptation and protection.

On the first full day of summer this year, Northam went to the William & Mary Law School and signed the legislation.

Meanwhile, back in Nelson County, residents are putting up signs pleading with Northam and anyone else who will listen in Richmond to kill the pipeline that is soon going to be running through their fields and pastures and backyards.

Their argument, to the courts and agencies that have some say over the matter, is that Dominion Energy’s Atlantic Coast Pipeline is going to cause irreparable damage to the local environment.

The ACP and another project, the Mountain Valley Pipeline, are needed, their backers say, to transport natural gas from out yonder to, well, somewhere.

Northam, the governor who has taken action to at least try to deal with the coming floods, has been dithering, or vacillating, or waffling — depending on how deeply one reads into Webster — when it comes to the pipelines. Even in the face of the most recent report from his own advisory council that recommended that the state rescind permits for the pipelines, he has sat and waited.

Something doesn’t fit.

During his remarks at the bill-signing ceremony creating the special assistant job, according to an article printed by the William & Mary Law School at the time, Northam said that solving the problem of coastal flooding is one of the most important issues facing Virginia today.

“It’s important to folks that live on the water; it’s important to our economy; it’s important to our infrastructure and transportation; and it’s also important to our military,” the governor said.

Northam reminded attendees that the military and government contracting are a very important part of the Hampton Roads economy. Sea-level rise, he noted, might threaten the Navy to move carrier units to other places in the country.

“If we embrace this as a challenge for coastal Virginia, we can actually do it in a way that can drive the economy and put people to work,” Northam said. “So it’s really a win-win that we’re able to stand here today and move forward with this piece of legislation.”

In brief remarks, Del. Christopher Stolle, a Republican from Virginia Beach, said that the Hampton Roads area has, until recently, looked at water as an asset.

“We now have started looking at water as a threat to our future and to our well-being,” Stolle said.

No kidding.

Now Stolle and other legislators have come up with another plan to deal with the creeping Atlantic. Along with trying to mitigate the problem, they want to monetize it. They want the new special assistant to lead the state’s efforts to prepare for and lessen the impact of flooding and land subsidence along the coast and turn that into an economic opportunity for those areas.

So, instead of trying to make any changes to reduce the use of fossil fuels that are driving climate change and the rising sea levels, they want to make money from the slow-moving disaster.

This might be a tough sell to the owners of 47,035 properties in Virginia already affected by coastal flooding. That number, reported recently by Virginia Business, comes from a study by First Street Foundation, a New York-based nonprofit dedicated to addressing the impact of sea-level rise. The study also noted that “Virginia has lost $280 million in total property value from 2005 through 2017 because of sea-level rise.”

Doesn’t it strike anyone that we have in internal conflict here?

Northam is largely silent on two giant pipelines in the western part of the state carrying the fuel that is at least partially responsible for the rise in sea-level to continue.

He’s dodged his own Environmental Justice Advisory Council’s letter calling for a halt to the Atlantic Coast Pipeline.

He has said and done little in response to numerous rallies and reports and letters calling for movement toward a clean energy future in Virginia.

But, on the other side of the state, Northam has signed legislation creating a cabinet-level position to figure out what to do about the rise in sea level.

Here’s an idea for that cabinet level person: Stop the pipelines.

I’m sure the pipeline supporters would argue that we need the gas. Well, maybe, though many, including a pair of Federal Energy Regulatory Commission commissioners, question whether the projects are in the public interest.

But by endlessly enabling the people who bring us the gas, aren’t we contributing to our own demise? If we stop the flow of natural gas, the same suppliers would be forced to come up with other less toxic sources of energy — like solar and wind. Just a suggestion.

The governor doesn’t have the authority to unilaterally stop the pipelines. But the courts have already started to chastise the pipeline companies for running afoul of regulations intended to stop them from running afoul. He could at least take a stance, and that might give the energy companies pause.

Northam lives in Richmond, where he can look to the east and picture the rising water and look to the west to see the creeping natural gas lines.

These two visions are in direct conflict.

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Gordon Hickey
Gordon Hickey

Gordon Hickey is a lifelong reporter and editor who worked for more than 20 years at The Richmond News Leader and Richmond Times-Dispatch covering law enforcement, courts, and politics. He also served as Gov. Tim Kaine's press secretary and most recently was director of communications at the Virginia State Bar.