A natural gas -fired power plant. (Stock photo via Getty Images)

By Beth Kreydatus

State agencies have good reasons to uphold regulatory standards when fossil fuel developers propose big new projects in Virginia. First of all, it’s the law.

But after watching the destructive chaos unfold in Texas this February, we know that regulations protect citizens from significant economic risks and ensure steady access to affordable energy.

In the past year or two, Virginia policymakers have finally begun to reckon with a legacy of decisions that unfairly burdened poor and Black communities with polluting industries, with the passage of the Virginia Environmental Justice Act in 2020, and regulators are working out the essential details of how to uphold this new law.

And anyone with even limited understanding of climate science understands that the health of our air and water, our communities and our economy depends on a rapid shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources. Given everything at stake, we have good reason to expect our regulators to enforce the basic rules, especially when it comes to investors who are hoping to profit off fossil fuel energy production.

One such investor is NOVI Energy, an “independent power producer” that has received permits to build a merchant 1060 megawatt gas plant in Charles City County, up the road from a second proposed gas plant, and just a couple miles away from a mega-landfill. While C4GT and DEQ followed legal notification requirements, many residents in Charles City County —a majority-minority community — were not aware of the permitting process, a fact that has led to justified community outrage, and perhaps a motivating factor in the passage of the Environmental Justice Act.

C4GT received its final permits in 2017. The plant, if built, which may be in doubt, would be responsible for over 4 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (methane), 180 tons of particulate matter, and 295 tons of nitrogen oxides annually. Equally troubling, C4GT has been permitted to take 2.7 billion gallons of water from the James River annually, piped in from an area near where kepone deposits still lie submerged.

Charles City County residents began organizing to oppose the project in the summer of 2019, but were consistently told by state and local officials that the plant is a “done deal.” An opportunity for public participation emerged as NOVI and Virginia Natural Gas, a public utility, sought SCC permission to construct a pipeline that would potentially put ratepayers on the hook for infrastructure costing hundreds of millions of dollars to supply the gas to C4GT.

Virginians submitted over 1,400 comments and participated in remote hearings, flooding the SCC call lines to speak against the “Header Injustice Project.” In June, the SCC chose to withhold permission on the “HIP” pipeline unless C4GT could demonstrate it had its financing together, and in November, it was announced that the HIP wouldn’t be constructed.

C4GT has proven to be anything but a “done deal.” Not only has the project failed to secure a gas source, NOVI is facing a lawsuit from Virginia Natural Gas for failure to pay for the project costs from the HIP proposal. In addition to not paying their bills and failing to show up for court proceedings, C4GT representatives have been skirting Virginia’s regulatory process, and outrageously, the DEQ has been letting them get away with it.

The air permit issued by the DEQ was set to expire on Dec. 3, and rather than request (and pay for) an extension, C4GT developers hastily poured concrete for the pad for a fire pump on Dec. 3, claiming they’d begun construction. Residents and Sen. Jennifer McClellan have asked the Office of the Attorney General to weigh in on whether DEQ is following state law, which states that “if a program of continuous construction or modification is not commenced within 18 months from the date the permit is granted” that the permit will expire.

Since the Dec. 3 concrete dump, there has been no further construction. And the local government has finally begun to push back against this company. On April 27, the Charles City County Board of Supervisors voted to “revert” the 88 acres they gave to C4GT back to county ownership. While we wait for the outcome of this county effort, C4GT continues to drag out an expired permit at their leisure. Hopefully, the Certificate of Public Convenience and Necessity from the SCC, which was set to expire on May 3, is considered defunct, given the lack of legitimate evidence of “continuous construction.”

This project surely doesn’t deserve yet another pass from state officials. Virginia regulators shouldn’t allow an out-of-state fossil fuel developer opportunity after opportunity to threaten the residents of Charles City County with a gas plant that we don’t want or need.

It is crucial that Virginia regulators remember that our state laws were written to protect Virginians, and we shouldn’t be jerked around to favor developers, as if economic investment is our only priority. Virginians have been adversely affected by every step of this project. State environmental regulators clearly misunderstood their responsibilities to protect Virginia’s environment and citizens when they fast-tracked permits on this fracked gas plant in a majority-minority community with limited public engagement.

The VNG — a public utility beholden to ratepayers — financed lawyers to spend months advocating for a pipeline project intended to benefitted stockholders in NOVI, and they had to take this company to court when NOVI failed to pay their share of the project costs.

The Virginia DEQ has failed to uphold the terms of the air permit, allowing the company to interpret a hasty concrete pour as “continuous construction.” And Attorney General Mark Herring has thus far ignored requests to push the DEQ to uphold state law. Because of these decisions by state regulators, residents in Charles City County have spent the past two years worrying about the impacts this project would have on their community, health and safety.

Beth Kreydatus is a volunteer with the Richmond chapter of Mothers Out Front, an organization working for a livable climate for all children, and an associate professor at Virginia Commonwealth University.