Gov. Ralph Northam
Gov. Ralph Northam listens to speeches at the annual tax-tribute ceremony at the executive mansion. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Can Gov. Ralph Northam’s decision to yank two members off the State Air Pollution Control Board as it weighs a permit for the compressor station Dominion Energy plans for Buckingham County be seen as anything other than what it appears to be: a clumsy attempt to tip the scale for the influential utility?

In the nearly three weeks since the decision, Northam’s administration has offered nothing in the realm of the remotely plausible that explains the move and its timing.

In fact, he’s sunken deeper into this mess of his own making by preventing his handpicked replacements from voting on the contentious air permit next week, which, curiously, Northam now says was the plan all along.

“I would ask the listeners to really give them a chance, let them do their job and I think they’ll be pleased with what they do,” Northam said on WTOP last week.

Except they won’t be doing anything at the meeting next week, at Northam’s instruction.

“I had no expectations from the time I made these appointments that they would be voting,” the governor said. “We tried to make that clear.”

Actually, the governor’s office made nothing clear when it removed Rebecca Rubin and Samuel Bleicher, who asked tough questions and raised major concerns about the proposed permit for the compressor station in Union Hill, a majority African-American community that is being asked to host the station.

Word of the Nov. 15 move leaked to furious environmental groups minutes afterwards and the governor’s office played it like it was a par-for-the-course performance of Northam’s more mundane responsibilities.

“The terms of two members serving on each of these boards expired at the end of June,” Northam spokeswoman Ofirah Yheskel wrote in a statement to us that day. “The governor is exercising his statutory authority to appoint members of his choosing to these board seats.”

The Richmond Times-Dispatch blasted a hole in the narrative that this was all in the course of ordinary state business when it pointed out that some 235 people with expired terms were serving on state boards and commissions. So it seems clear that, for the Northam administration, the expired terms on the air board were more deserving of prompt attention.

Then, the administration, in a unwieldy attempt to parry some of the criticism, revealed that the new members wouldn’t actually vote at next week’s meeting on the compressor permit, crucial for Dominion’s controversial Atlantic Coast Pipeline.

In drips and drabs to media outlets, the administration has said the replacements had nothing to do with the pipeline permit.

Secretary of Natural Resources Matt Strickler told The Washington Post that they were planned when the administration thought the compressor permit meeting on Nov. 9 would be the end of the matter.

When the board decided to delay action, the governor opted to continue as planned, Strickler says.

“Whether there was an up vote or down vote was really immaterial,”  Strickler said.

The implicit, and thus far unanswered, question in that line of logic, though, is why not wait until after the Dec. 10 meeting?

And if his replacements are the “very-qualified individuals” Northam says they are, why not let them vote?

“Obviously, it’s a learning curve and they need to catch up to speed. And also, there’s a lot of political pressure on these individuals,” Northam said on WTOP. “I would just ask people to let them do their job. Let them be as objective as they can be. Let them know of the law and of the science and make their decision.”

So, to sum up, what the governor has done here is pull two members who sat through two days of meetings on the permit in question and replaced them with two people who, while qualified, he says, aren’t well-enough versed on the issue to cast a vote.

That means he has taken two votes on the seven-member air board out of play on the Dominion permit, which, with one member recusing himself from the decision, means the permit will be decided by just four members.

Which brings us back to why the change was necessary in the first place.

“It just was,” is evidently the best answer the administration can muster for why it has now cast a deep shadow of illegitimacy over a vote on an ultra-contentious project already seen as a dubious power grab by an energy giant mainly focused on shareholder profit.

The reaction has been furious, earning the governor a sharp rebuke from the Virginia State Conference of the NAACP and Virginia League of Conservation Voters, one of his biggest donors in 2017, which said Northam had a made a “huge mistake,” that “immensely marred his standing and reputation in the conservation community and one that should impact overall public trust in this administration as well.”

Environmental groups had grown accustomed to being disappointed on the pipeline projects by Northam, though several representatives have told me they at least expected him to hew to his well-worn fence-straddling position and stay out of the permitting process.

There was genuine astonishment that he would make such a forceful move on a project under so much scrutiny.

Careful politicians like Northam, used to weighing the costs and benefits of an action meticulously, don’t do something like that for no reason.