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Energy in Communities: Virginia Beach, Virginia

Energy Supports Military, Empowers Shipping and Tourism Economy in Virginia’s Hampton Roads


Just footsteps from the Great Dismal Swamp in southeastern Virginia, an inconspicuous warehouse is Donnie Mills’ business headquarters. From this facility and another, both located in Suffolk, workers from Mills Marine & Ship Repair deploy to the shipyards of Hampton Roads, Virginia’s economic dynamo. They service electrical and HVAC systems, fuel tanks and more aboard commercial and military vessels, including massive U.S. Navy aircraft carriers and submarines.

“Low energy bills mean households have a better chance to thrive.”
– Esmel Meeks, Executive Director, Citizens for Energy Equity
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Mills’ company is the culmination of a career of more than 30 years, linked to the water culture of Hampton Roads and its member communities – Suffolk, Virginia Beach, Norfolk, Chesapeake, Newport News and more. And everywhere you turn, abundant energy is playing important empowering roles.

An industry that supports the Navy and commercial shipping, as Mills’ company does, relies heavily on skilled workers and natural gas and oil. From the heavy machinery that shipwrights use to assemble and maneuver key parts and equipment, to the marine fuels, lubricants and other petroleum-based products, natural gas and oil help empower sea-going vessels cruising the world over, connecting the United States with important trading partners and defending American interests. For Mills, business equals opportunity.

“Ship repair and servicing is a stable industry where people can get trained without incurring any student loans or debt and make $55,000 or more working on marine hydraulics right out of high school,” he says.

Energy also is foundational for the armed forces’ sprawling regional presence, the largest concentration of military personnel outside the Pentagon. More than 85,000 service members and their civilian colleagues represent every branch of the military at more than 75 federal facilities and defense installations.

Virginia produces the 17th most natural gas in the U.S., and these abundant, low-cost domestic energy resources are essential to the work these men and women do every day. Helping ensure the availability of that energy is a sophisticated network of pipelines, terminals and storage and distribution facilities that safely supply military installations with gasoline, jet fuel and other petroleum products.

In Virginia’s 2nd Congressional District, where Virginia Beach is located, the natural gas, oil and petrochemicals industry:

$122 Million

Directly adds $122 million in labor income – wages, salaries and benefits that go to the district’s workforce

$546 Million

Indirectly supports an additional $546 million in labor income

$1.2 Billion

Directly and indirectly adds more than $1.2 billion each year to the district’s overall economy

Others recognize energy’s significance as well. Virginia Beach native Esmel Meeks says affordable domestic energy boosts the state’s economy, supports the area’s robust tourism industry and improves the overall quality of life for all Virginians – especially the commonwealth’s lower-income citizens.

“I want community leaders and those who work on behalf of our most vulnerable residents, to understand the importance of smart energy policy and what access to reliable, low-cost domestic energy means for everyone,” says Meeks, executive director of Citizens for Energy Equity, a statewide nonprofit that works to ensure Virginia energy policy remains focused on people, their families and their livelihoods.

“Low energy costs lead to price stability and job creation for businesses and industries,” Meeks says. “That translates to opportunities for families. And low energy bills mean households have a better chance to thrive. … Energy education at the community level is a must in order to move Virginia forward.”

Certainly, a part of that education is understanding the benefits that safe offshore oil and natural gas development could bring to Virginia – tens of thousands of jobs and billions in industry spending and economic contributions to the state. But only if federal offshore areas beyond Virginia’s shores are opened for development.

The benefits of abundant energy, stable energy costs and record U.S. natural gas production are seen throughout Hampton Roads.

According to Jim Kibler, president of Virginia Natural Gas (VNG), the region’s gas utility, homes and businesses throughout the area save more than $1,000 annually in energy costs. He attributes much of this to new techniques in natural gas and oil production that have helped to stabilize energy prices and support the area’s workforce.

As an example, Kibler says VNG invested $40 million on pipeline replacement projects in 2019 and plans to invest up to $70 million annually going forward to modernize more than 453 miles of aging pipeline infrastructure through 2024.

“The 350 full-time VNG employees and nearly 600 contractors take pride in providing clean, safe, reliable and affordable natural gas to more than 300,000 customers across Coastal Virginia,” says Kibler.

And with the growing number of energy jobs comes a greater need for a skilled workforce. The utility, through its workforce training program, is tapping into the area’s large veteran population. In partnership with area colleges, Virginia Natural Gas offers a three-year training program on local campuses. Once complete, candidates can qualify for 23 credits that go toward an associate degree in industrial management.

From his Suffolk warehouse, Donnie Mills echoes Kibler’s passion to recruit and train skilled workers. “These are career opportunities that can change the trajectory of someone’s life forever,” Mills says. “The shipbuilding industry needs skilled workers and there are people in the area who need income. If we can attract more workers and fill positions, it’s a win for everyone.”

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