Archive for the ‘Front Porch Blog’ Category

Unnecessary and Unwanted: Opposition to the Atlantic Coast Pipeline grows

Wednesday, March 22nd, 2017 - posted by Lara Mack
There’s still time to add your voice to the choir of people across the country urging FERC to reject the Atlantic Coast Pipeline.

There’s still time to add your voice to the choir of people across the country urging FERC to reject the Atlantic Coast Pipeline.

Despite a faulty format, the public has taken every opportunity to tell FERC to reject the Atlantic Coast Pipeline.

At the start of 2017, Appalachian Voices and our partners criticized the many flaws in the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s draft environmental impact statement (DEIS) for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline.

Now, as the 90-day public comment period nears its conclusion, thousands of people have told FERC that the DEIS is insufficient and the Atlantic Coast Pipeline poses significant threats to the environment and public safety. With less than two weeks left in the comment period, there’s still time to add your voice to the choir of people across the country urging FERC to reject the Atlantic Coast Pipeline.

FERC is required to provide an opportunity for the public to comment on the Atlantic Coast Pipeline DEIS, and communities have taken every opportunity to tell the commission to reject the pipeline. In February and March, FERC visited communities in North Carolina, Virginia and West Virginia to receive spoken and written comments. Community members turned up at every Atlantic Coast Pipeline DEIS listening session along the pipeline route to share their concerns. Turnout at the events varied from roughly 40 to more than 150 people, with the Nelson County listening session in Lovingston, Va., topping out at 157. Commenters at every listening session sent a clear message to FERC — nearly all spoke in opposition to the pipeline.

Groups not only found fault with the DEIS itself, but also with the FERC listening session format. Unlike the public hearing procedure that most of us are familiar with, FERC sequestered commenters one at a time into a separate room or private space to record their comments. The Society of Environmental Journalists, a professional association of more than 1,200 journalists, wrote the acting chairman of FERC to express their concerns about FERC’s listening session procedures.

“The ‘listening’ format, which may be an effort to encourage commenters to speak freely, bars the public and the media from bearing witness to the event, much less hearing the information and arguments presented by other citizens,” SEJ President Bobby Magill wrote in a letter to FERC.

“We understand that comments taken at such sessions are recorded, and that transcripts are posted in the online docket for the project in question, and that they are generally available for review there within a couple of weeks, Magill wrote later in the letter. “But that effectively suppresses the news about the content of the meeting by divorcing it from the immediacy of the event itself. The public is left to wonder what transpired, when there is no reason to make them wait.”

In addition to the FERC listening sessions, the DEIS written comment period has proved to be a rallying point for organizations to connect with new folks concerned about pipelines. A number of grassroots groups along the pipeline route are hosting comment writing parties and encouraging pipeline opponents to submit their concerns using FERC’s online system or via good ole snail mail. Comment writing parties have popped up in Charlottesville, Staunton and Buckingham, among other places.

But you don’t need to attend a party to learn more about the Atlantic Coast Pipeline or to send comments to FERC. A number of useful documents exist to help people navigate FERC’s website and comment submission process. And, if none of those are quite what you need, you can always call the FERC help desk to walk you through the online submission process or sign on to Appalachian Voices’ grassroots comments.

As we dive into the final two weeks of FERC’s public comment period for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline DEIS, don’t forget to tell FERC why the pipeline is unnecessary and unwanted!

White House budget leaves Appalachia in the dust

Tuesday, March 21st, 2017 - posted by thom
The White House's budget won't become law, but it should alarm people across the country — and perhaps especially people in Appalachia.

The White House’s budget won’t become law, but it should alarm people across the country — and perhaps especially people in Appalachia.

The White House released its budget blueprint last week, and the proposal is nothing short of a disaster for Appalachia and rural communities across the country. The Trump administration will release a more complete budget request in May, but we have a lot of information to go on already.

Congress, not the president, holds America’s purse strings, so the majority of the White House budget proposal will never become a reality. But the “skinny budget” still reveals a great deal about where Appalachian communities fall on the administration’s list of priorities.

First, let’s look at a few agencies and programs the White House wants to completely eliminate:

Appalachian Regional Commission – For more than 50 years, the ARC has provided funding for projects throughout the region to create economic opportunities and improve critical infrastructure. ARC funding and assistance has created an entire highway system, and introduced broadband, all while supporting local and sustainable projects like all of these. Recently, ARC has improved efforts to build leadership and community participation. Republican leaders from Kentucky, most notably Rep. Hal Rogers (KY-5), have successfully increased annual funding for the ARC in the past four years from about $60 million to over $120 million.

Economic Development Administration: The only federal agency focused entirely on economic development, the EDA promotes innovation and competitiveness in regions in need. The EDA has a crucial role in the diversification of Appalachia’s economy, as well as communities throughout the country coming together and seeking ways to overcome the downturn in the coal industry.

Weatherization Assistance Program and Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program: While the programs are quite different, they work in tandem to help low-income families reduce their energy bills. Energy efficiency and weatherization can greatly improve Americans’ health and quality of life, save money, and improve the value of homes. But without assistance, many low-income families cannot afford to make the necessary home improvements to achieve these benefits. Housing in Appalachian is among the least efficient in the country, and these two programs are needed to change that fact.

Abandoned Mine Lands: In response to widespread support from Appalachian local governments for ideas outlined in the Obama administration’s POWER+ Plan, Rep. Rogers and Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) last year carved out money for a pilot program to repurpose Abandoned Mine Lands for economic development projects. The program sent $30 million each to Kentucky, West Virginia and Pennsylvania for projects on previously mined sites. While the pilot program was never intended to continue indefinitely, Congress plans to continue funding it for one more year, this time including funds for Virginia, Ohio and Alabama.

We haven’t even gotten to the big cuts yet. You might have noticed I been buried the lead, and that’s mostly because it’s been widely reported since rumors started to emerge about a month ago.

Environmental Protection Agency: The White House wants to slash the agency’s budget by 31 percent. The EPA is America’s best defense against air and water pollution. Appalachian Voices has long worked to hold the EPA accountable for its shortcomings, but we should not for a moment overlook the immeasurable benefits the thousands of EPA employees have had on all of our lives. Before the Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act and National Environmental Policy Act were passed to provide us with the protections we now enjoy, we were racing down a dangerous path of pollution. The challenges have only gotten greater in the past 40 years, but we live in a stronger, healthier, more sustainable world because of the EPA. Hampering the agency’s ability to carry out its job is unacceptable.

Climate change programs: The official position of the White House Office of Management and Budget is that climate programs are a “waste of your money.” If you believe that climate change is a hoax, then I suppose that makes sense. On the other hand, if you agree with the rest of the world and recognize that an urgent and effective response to this global crisis is long overdue, then this is more than just crazy talk — it’s catastrophic thinking.

Everything else: The White House budget also eliminates the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the National Endowment for the Arts. These are not uniquely relevant to Appalachia, but the region is hardly unaffected by cutting these types of programs. Despite what the Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney seems to think, eliminating funding for things like PBS is not a favor to coal miners or anyone else in West Virginia. Mulvaney indicated that people in Appalachia have no use for PBS, NPR, or the arts, and maybe that just tells us what he thinks of those programs. Then again, maybe it tells us more about what he thinks of people in Appalachia.

It bears repeating that Congress has control of the budget and none of these proposals have become law. We are confident that most of the programs will continue to be funded at or near current levels for the near future. But the budget is the clearest, most comprehensive picture we have of the dangerous direction in which President Trump wants to take the country. And it’s a call to arms for everyone to protect successful programs that Americans support and benefit from every day.

Congress must act to protect coal miners’ benefits

Friday, March 10th, 2017 - posted by thom
The Miners Protection Act would solve the problem of expiring health benefits and a nearly insolvent pension fund that thousands of retired coal miners rely on. But Congress must act soon. Photo from Jobs With Justice.

The Miners Protection Act would solve the problem of expiring health benefits and a nearly insolvent pension fund that thousands of retired coal miners rely on. But Congress must act soon. Photo from Jobs With Justice.

In a matter of weeks, health care benefits for thousands of retired union coal miners will run out. In just a matter of years, the entire United Mine Workers pension plan, which covers nearly 90,000 former coal miners and their widows, may become insolvent.

Coal miners put this country on their backs for decades, and America owes them an immense debt. Allowing either the pensions they’ve been promised or the health benefits many of them and their families desperately need to expire would disgrace all of us.

The Miners Protection Act is a bipartisan bill that would help solve both problems. The bill would use U.S. Treasury funds associated with the Abandoned Mine Lands program to permanently extend health benefits and to cover shortfalls in the pensions. The bill would not redirect funds designated for cleanup of Abandoned Mine Lands. We see the Miners Protection Act as complementary to the RECLAIM Act and, aside from fulfilling a moral commitment to miners and their families, it would provide an economic boost to our region.

Unlike so many things in D.C. these days, the bill has broad support. Five key Republicans are among the 22 Senate cosponsors, and just last year a committee passed the bill by an 18-8 vote. Lead sponsor Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) has successfully gained the support of enough senators to pass the bill — if it ever gets to the floor.

Let’s get something out of the way; it doesn’t matter who you blame for the current crisis. Maybe you blame Wall Street greed for ruining the pension plans? Or maybe you’d prefer to focus on the demise of the coal industry, which you’d like to put on the shoulders of President Obama and environmentalists. What about the fact that cheap and abundant natural gas is beating coal in the market? And didn’t Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) block these benefits on multiple occasions?

Look, all of that matters. It just doesn’t matter today. Because today, we must solve the problem.

The miners pension fund covers nearly 90,000 people. The fund provides an average of $530 each month, a sum that can make an enormous difference in quality of life for retired miners and miners’ widows. While most pensioners still live in coal-mining states, many do not. More than 1,000 live in North Carolina, for instance. If the pension fund were to become insolvent, it would be devastating for coal communities, especially those in Central Appalachia. But that impact would be felt throughout the country, too.

Time is running out, but this is a fight we can win. Sen. McConnell has already agreed to extend miners’ health benefits, which is a big political step. But it’s not good enough.

Please contact your senators and tell them how important it is to pass the Miners Protection Act because America’s coal miners have earned their health benefits and their pensions.

FERC’s pipeline review process is broken

Monday, February 20th, 2017 - posted by Peter Anderson

Former chairman adds his voice to public demands for greater scrutiny

As new research refutes industry's pro-pipeline arguments, former FERC chairman Norman Bay is calling for greater scrutiny of proposed natural gas infrastructure projects.

As new research refutes industry’s pro-pipeline arguments, former FERC chairman Norman Bay is calling for greater scrutiny of proposed natural gas infrastructure projects.

Sign the petition to stop the Atlantic Coast Pipeline today!

It’s no secret: oil and gas pipelines have captured the nation’s attention, not to mention the new administration’s. Standing Rock’s resistance to the Dakota Access pipeline continues to put water protection, indigenous rights and environmental justice at the fore of any pipeline discussion. And not so long ago, the Keystone XL pipeline came to symbolize the United States’ willingness to lead (or not) on climate action. Now the Trump administration hopes to revive both.

The Trump administration also hopes to push through the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, which would transport fracked gas 600 miles from the Marcellus Shale in northern West Virginia through Virginia and into North Carolina. A list of the administration’s top 50 infrastructure priorities leaked in January includes the Atlantic Coast Pipeline at number 20. The document reports the pipeline’s permitting process as “done,” despite the fact that comment periods for some federal and state permits are currently open and no permits have been issued. How’s that for alternative facts?

Pipelines not needed

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), the agency with primary authority for permitting interstate gas pipelines, was generally viewed as pipeline-friendly even prior to the Trump era. The agency allows a 14 percent rate of return on investments in pipeline capital, and its environmental reviews typically fall short in analyzing both the need for additional pipelines and the projected climate impacts of new projects (in addition to many other deficiencies).

However, former FERC Chairman Norman Bay offered a surprising call for reform of the agency’s pipeline certificate process when he stepped away at the beginning of February (see the last six pages of this FERC order). Bay criticized the method FERC uses to determine whether or not there is a need for a pipeline. He pointed out that FERC usually looks to precedent agreements between pipeline owners and gas shippers as evidence of need. But this method is flawed.

According to Bay, “focusing on precedent agreements may not take into account a variety of other considerations, including … whether the precedent agreements are largely signed by affiliates.”

Norman Bay, a former commissioner and chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

Norman Bay, a former commissioner and chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

In other words, a company applying to build a new pipeline says, “Look, we have subscribers lined up to buy gas from the pipeline, so there must be a need for it.” But a closer examination reveals that the buyer and the seller are both affiliates of the same parent corporation.

This echoes a concern highlighted in a report from the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis published in April 2016. That report found that “in situations in which a pipeline developer contracts with an affiliate company to ship gas through a new pipeline, this is strong evidence that it is doing so because of the financial advantage to the parent company from building the pipeline, but not necessarily that there is a need for the pipeline.”

This report studied the risks of building both the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and the Mountain Valley Pipeline, a 300-mile gas pipeline that would also cut through the Appalachian regions of West Virginia and Virginia. It pointed out that for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, five of the six companies contracted to buy gas are affiliates of the companies building the pipeline. Energy behemoths Dominion Resources and Duke Energy have a combined 85 percent ownership stake in the pipeline, and their subsidiary companies have subscribed to 86 percent of the gas shipped. For the Mountain Valley Pipeline, all six of the buyers are affiliates of the companies building the pipeline.

Another report, published in September 2016 by Synapse Energy Economics, Inc., studied conservative estimates of future gas demand in Virginia and the Carolinas. It concluded that, even under scenarios where gas use for electricity production is high, existing pipelines have more than enough capacity to provide energy to the region. That is, we can keep the lights on and businesses thriving without ever building the Atlantic Coast and Mountain Valley pipelines.

Climate impacts of gas pipelines

In addition to the needs analysis, Bay also called on FERC to reform its evaluation of climate impacts. In its draft environmental review of the Mountain Valley Pipeline, FERC refused to consider that the pipeline would spur more gas production, enabling more methane leakage along the entire supply chain. Without quantifying them, FERC compared downstream smokestack emissions to global greenhouse gas emissions and concluded that the pipeline’s emissions would merely be a drop in the bucket.

In its draft environmental review for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, FERC did attempt a rough calculation of downstream emissions but again refused to analyze upstream effects or methane leakage. FERC’s review stated that emissions from burning the Atlantic Coast Pipeline’s gas would be roughly 29 million metric tons (MMt) per year.

A new briefing published by Oil Change International puts a comparable number on emissions from gas combustion for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, estimating 31 MMt annually. But when you add increased gas production and methane leakage along the supply chain, total emissions more than double, reaching nearly 68 MMt per year. The organization also published a briefing for the Mountain Valley Pipeline, estimating total life-cycle emissions at nearly 90 MMt annually.

To put that in perspective, emissions from the Atlantic Coast Pipeline would be the rough equivalent of adding 20 coal-fired power plants to the grid or putting 14 million more cars on the road. Emissions from the Mountain Valley Pipeline would be like adding 26 coal-fired power plants or putting 19 million more cars on the road.

While Norman Bay defended FERC’s existing climate analysis methods from a legal perspective, he also argued for change. He stated that “in the interests of good government” the agency should analyze downstream impacts and perform lifecycle analysis of greenhouse gas emissions — not just from pipelines — but from the entire Marcellus and Utica gas production region.

Other environmental impacts

Besides bludgeoning our atmosphere with huge amounts of new greenhouse gas pollution, the Atlantic Coast and Mountain Valley pipelines would, of course, threaten thousands of groundwater sources, surface streams and wetlands. Constructing the pipelines would force the permanent removal of trees along their routes, fragmenting habitats and spoiling views from the Appalachian Trail. The projects would threaten human health and safety, especially near powerful compressor stations used to pump gas along the line. They would disproportionately impact lower-income communities, communities of color and Native American communities, threatening important historic and cultural resources.

What can you do?

Unfortunately, Bay did not follow his own advice and revise the way FERC analyzes pipeline need or climate impacts while he led the agency. But here’s how you can do your part:

Mountain Valley Pipeline:

Atlantic Coast Pipeline:

Appalachia is blessed with abundant water — we should protect it

Monday, February 20th, 2017 - posted by Appalachian Voices

citizens_speak_spr

Editors’ Note: Earlier this month, Congress voted to repeal the Stream Protection Rule. Appalachian Voices’ members and friends urged lawmakers to defend the rule, which would improve protections for water and public health from mountaintop removal. Unfortunately, we were unsuccessful. But the rule was not our only means of defending Appalachian streams. We will continue to hold coal companies and state and federal agencies accountable to the laws that protect our natural heritage. We’re thankful to have allies who are willing to share their stories and help us in the fight for clean water. Here is what one of them had to say leading up to the Stream Protection Rule vote.

Of the many actions taken by the Trump administration in recent days, one that is skating by with little notice is an attempt to kill the Stream Protection Rule.

This country has a very real problem with water. In Flint, Mich., many still rely on bottled water as toxic lead pipes have contaminated their municipal water. One of the resources we are most blessed with here in Appalachia is fresh drinking water of the highest quality. We should be taking every possible measure that we can to protect it.

Enacted last year, the Stream Protection Rule is a modest, common sense safeguard to ensure the quality of our streams that are impacted by mountaintop removal mining operations. In Southwest Virginia and across Appalachia, it is common practice for mining companies to bury streams under tons of mining waste.

Streams are also frequently contaminated by heavy metals, and other pollutants discharged from surface mines. The Stream Protection Rule compels mining companies to monitor the water quality of streams they are operating near — waters that many others use for recreation or draw drinking water from — and to address any issues caused by mining.

The Trump administration and congressional Republicans have made it clear that they intend to attack many of the rules and laws that seek to protect the air and water of the United States. Now members of the majority party wish to kill this rule with little debate, using an obscure law known as the Congressional Review Act. We cannot allow that to happen.

As an Appalachian raised in Bristol, with family roots across Southwest Virginia and northeast Tennessee, I urge Senators Warner and Kaine to defend the Stream Protection Rule against attacks. Clean water is an incredibly precious and vital resource — one that so many do not enjoy. We must take every effort to protect our water. We must reject any effort to kill the Stream Protection Rule.

Mackay Pierce

Senate confirms Scott Pruitt to lead EPA

Friday, February 17th, 2017 - posted by brian

A longtime opponent of the agency, Pruitt was sworn in as EPA administrator Friday

pruitt

As expected, the Senate has confirmed former Oklahoma attorney general and walking conflict of interest Scott Pruitt to be the next administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

If President Trump still plans to cripple the EPA, as he repeatedly promised during his campaign, the man to lead that effort begins work on Monday. Pruitt will be tasked with making the EPA great again by dismantling climate programs and slashing funding for things like the enforcement of the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act.

The 52 senators, led by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who voted “yea” have much to answer for. Today, threats to clean water and air put millions of Americans at risk. We’re also running out of time act decisively on climate change. Putting a climate denier in charge of the federal agency in charge of climate policy is like pouring gasoline on a burning house.

The vote came down along party lines, except for Senators Joe Manchin and Heidi Heitkamp, both of whom are Democrats from coal-producing states. Not coincidentally, both senators also attended President Trump’s signing of a bill to overturn the Stream Protection Rule yesterday. Maine Sen. Susan Collins was the only Republican to break from her party.

Pruitt disqualified himself from effectively leading the agency long before being nominated by then President-elect Trump. During his seven-year stint as attorney general, Pruitt sued the EPA no less than 14 times. Siding with industry in every case, his goal seems to have been sinking as many federal rules as possible — ozone limits, limits on power plant emissions of mercury and carbon dioxide, clean water protections, scenic protections for national parks, to name a few.

Following his nomination, Pruitt caught flak describing himself as “a leading advocate against the EPA’s activist agenda” on his LinkedIn profile. As of today, a few hours after the confirmation vote, that proud proclamation is still on his page. I checked.

And, really, why would he feel the need to downplay his opposition to the EPA’s mission? He’s received ringing endorsements from members of Congress including the majority leader. “Pruitt is just the candidate we need at the helm of the EPA,” Sen. McConnell said today.

Republican senators heaped praise on Pruitt during his confirmation hearing for his attempts to hamstring the EPA and for being a good baseball player — a quality some Democrats on the Senate Environment & Public Works Committee turned on him in calling out his losing record in lawsuits against the EPA.

This also isn’t Pruitt’s first time in the national spotlight. He was the subject of a 2014 investigation that exposed his secretive ties to the oil and gas industry. The investigation famously revealed that, while attorney general, Pruitt took a letter drafted by lawyers for Devon Energy accusing the EPA of overstating the problem of air pollution from natural gas drilling in Oklahoma, changed a few words, slapped it on official letterhead and sent it to the EPA with his signature. “Outstanding!” a Devon Energy lobbyist replied.

The controversy du jour — because every day it’s something new — relates to emails and other documents detailing communications between Pruitt’s office and the oil and gas industry. The day before Pruitt’s confirmation vote, an Oklahoma court ruled in favor of the Center for Media and Democracy and ordered the release of as much as 3,000 emails that would presumably be of interest to senators weighing Pruitt’s confirmation.

In response to this development, Democrats pushed to delay the vote. Nevertheless, Sen. McConnell persisted. When asked why he did not extend debate and wait for the emails to be released, McConnell responded, “Because I choose not to.”

The fact that, unlike the president, Pruitt acknowledges that the decline of coal is not a result of the EPA’s “heavy hand” is of little consolation. He is a staunch proponent of deregulation and consolidation. Now that Congress has signed off on his nominee, Trump will waste no time. The president plans to pay a visit to EPA headquarters next week and sign a package of executive orders that a source told The Hill could “suck the air out of the room.”

Of course, not all is lost. Hundreds of current EPA staff took a moral stand in speaking out against Pruitt, while nearly 800 former agency staff signed onto a letter to McConnell stating that Pruitt’s record suggests he does not “share the vision or agree with the underlying principles of our environmental statutes.” In an interview today, Gina McCarthy, who became Obama’s EPA administrator in 2013, emphasized that most EPA employees are “smart, dedicated, hard-working, mission-driven public servants.”

We should keep in mind who the real protectors are as Pruitt takes his position atop the agency tasked with safeguarding our air and water.

Protect natural resources for Southwest Virginia’s future

Wednesday, February 15th, 2017 - posted by Appalachian Voices

Editors’ Note: Earlier this month, Congress voted to repeal the Stream Protection Rule using a rarely invoked law called the Congressional Review Act. Appalachian Voices’ members and friends rushed to urge lawmakers to defend the rule, which would improve protections for water and public health from mountaintop removal coal mining. Unfortunately, we were unsuccessful. But the rule was not our only means of defending Central Appalachian streams. We will continue to hold coal companies, state agencies and the federal government accountable to the laws that protect our natural heritage. We’re thankful to have allies who are willing to share their stories and help us in the fight for clean water. Here is what one of them had to say leading up to the Stream Protection Rule vote.

Ron Short

Ron Short

I was born and raised in the coalfields of Southwest Virginia. My father was a coal miner, and without his efforts to send me to school, I would have been a coal miner also. For all my life, the coal economy has ruled this region and its people. Now we are facing the demise of the coal industry, and we must save the valuable natural resources that we have left if we are ever to develop cultural tourism and eco-tourism as important parts of a new economy that works for everyone.

When I was small, one company dumped coal waste into the Pound River and I saw the deadly effects that followed: thousands of dead fish, mink, muskrats, frogs, birds and water so polluted with metals and minerals that for the first time in my life I could not swim in the river. I was 10 years old and it took the river 50 years to heal itself. My father was 90 years old before we could go fishing in the Pound River together again. Sadly, pollution from mining operations is still contaminating our waterways today.

The Stream Protection Rule — the product of nearly a decade of community engagement and scientific and economic studies — is designed to preserve this life-giving resource. Unfortunately, Donald Trump and Republicans in Congress have vowed to kill the Stream Protection Rule using an obscure procedure known as a Congressional Review Act as part of the mad rush to rip the last of the coal out of the ground at any cost.

Water truly is life! We have more pristine and biologically valuable waters than most places in the world, and we need to protect them for our health, our economic future and our grandchildren. Senators Kaine and Warner, you are our only allies in Washington. Please do not let your colleagues kill the Stream Protection Rule. Killing this rule would produce a short-term political gain for their ilk, but it could create a future that we in Southwest Virginia may never be able to recover from.

Ron Short

Energy policy in Virginia: 2017 General Assembly update

Thursday, February 9th, 2017 - posted by Peter Anderson
As legislation "crosses over" this week, it looks like the 2017 General Assembly session will be result in incremental progress in promoting clean energy in Virginia. That said, there’s still much work to be done. Photo by Peter Anderson.

As legislation “crosses over” this week, it looks like the 2017 General Assembly session will result in incremental progress in promoting clean energy in Virginia. That said, there’s still much work to be done. Photo by Peter Anderson.

It’s “crossover” time at the Virginia General Assembly.

As of Wednesday this week, the House of Delegates may only work on bills already passed by the state Senate, and vice versa. Less than three weeks remain in this legislative session — a “short” session year.

Here at Appalachian Voices, we are closely tracking bills that will impact Virginia’s energy future. Will the commonwealth continue the fossil fuel-friendly policies of the past, or will we start building a clean energy economy today? Here’s a quick look:

Coal

The Virginia Coalfields Expressway (CFX) is a four-lane highway project that was proposed in the mid-1990s — in theory to promote economic development in Buchanan, Dickenson and Wise counties. However, the project would use the state’s eminent domain power to open new areas for devastating mountaintop removal mining. Over the years the CFX has stalled due to funding barriers, and this session’s HB1831 would have exempted it and U.S. 460 from the state’s prioritization process for receipt of highway funds. This bill failed in committee. However, HB2474 — which would create the Virginia Coalfields Expressway Authority, a 12-member panel that would coordinate with stakeholders to promote the development of CFX — passed the House unopposed.

In another effort to prop up the coal industry, HB2198 and companion bill SB1470 would revive the recently expired coal production and employment tax credits. A Joint Legislative and Audit Review Commission report to the governor shows that, despite hundreds of millions of dollars in credits received by coal companies under this policy since 1998, coal production and employment have declined at rates the same or faster than expected in the absence of the tax credits. Because the tax credit did not slow the loss of coal jobs, the policy did not achieve its purpose. Both bills passed their respective chambers without serious opposition. However, as in years past, the governor is expected to use his veto if the bills reach his desk.

Renewable Energy

On the clean energy side, there are several exciting developments. HB1760 and companion bill SB1418 would promote the development of pumped hydroelectric storage facilities in Virginia’s coalfield counties. In this type of system, water flowing from an upper reservoir into a lower reservoir powers a turbine during periods of high demand. The water is then pumped back uphill by another power source when demand is lower. This legislation would allow the utilities to recover the costs of building pumped storage facilities if the facilities use renewable energy as all or a portion of their power source and are located in the coalfield region.

These bills are not perfect, but they have tremendous potential. First, if a facility used predominantly wind or solar power to pump the water uphill, it would essentially operate as a renewable energy battery. There is also potential to repurpose abandoned mine shafts and pits for use in a pumped hydroelectric storage system. But the current language of the bill is so broad that it may not result in any new wind or solar generation. Additionally, utility customers are left somewhat vulnerable; they would be forced to cover the cost of the new infrastructure through increased rates (if approved by the State Corporation Commission) without necessarily realizing a comparable efficiency benefit. The House version of the bill already passed both chambers with virtually no opposition.

Three bills intended to promote solar energy in the commonwealth are also well on their way to becoming law. SB1393 would establish a three-year “community solar” pilot program in the territories of the investor-owned utilities. Under the bill’s terms, the utilities must contract with third-party solar developers to construct a minimum of 10.5 megawatts of new solar generation. The utilities would then market subscriptions to customers who want to buy solar power from these new facilities (the pilot would not raise rates for non-participating customers). This subscription-based solar program is a win for customers who want solar power but cannot afford the upfront investment to put solar on their own rooftops, or who don’t own their rooftops, or whose rooftops cannot accommodate a solar system. This bill passed the Senate unopposed.

SB1394 and companion HB2303 would offer a new “buy-all, sell-all” option for farmers looking to increase the amount of renewable energy they can generate and sell. The bill would depart from the existing net energy metering statute by allowing small agricultural generators to produce up to 150 percent of their own expected energy consumption. It would require the relevant utility or cooperative to buy all of the electricity generated by the small agricultural generator. Agricultural customers in the utility territories could continue to use the existing net metering program, but the old program would sunset elsewhere after two years. These bills passed their respective chambers.

The third solar bill, SB1395, would promote larger wind and solar farms — like the Amazon solar project that was approved in 2015 using the permit by rule process. The permit by rule process streamlines project approval by having the Department of Environmental Quality review and approve project applications rather than subjecting each project to a full State Corporation Commission hearing. This bill would raise the maximum size of wind and solar projects that qualify from 100 megawatts to 150 megawatts. This bill passed the Senate chamber with little opposition.

Energy Efficiency

Finally, the cheapest energy resource — energy efficiency — has been woefully underutilized in Virginia. In 2007, the commonwealth established a goal of reducing retail electricity consumption 10 percent from 2006 levels by the year 2020. The governor’s 2016 update to the 2014 Virginia Energy Plan reported that we have accomplished only about one-quarter of this goal to date. SB990 would simply require the Department of Mines, Minerals, and Energy to report annually to the Governor’s Executive Committee on Energy Efficiency and to the General Assembly on progress made towards this goal. It is a common-sense approach; hopefully the additional transparency will help drive further deployment of efficiency measures. This bill passed the Senate with relative ease.

All told, this legislative session should be a net positive. The General Assembly looks like it will largely avoid handing big incentives to strip mining companies, and we should see incremental progress in promoting clean energy resources. That said, there’s still much work to be done as current policies continue to leave Virginia’s solar industry lagging far behind neighbors like North Carolina and Maryland. Plus, none of this is a done deal. A lot could happen over the final two weeks of the session.

Fighting for clean water after the Stream Protection Rule

Tuesday, February 7th, 2017 - posted by Erin
A valley fill beneath a mountaintop removal mine in eastern Kentucky. The Stream Protection Rule would have limited the practice.

A valley fill beneath a mountaintop removal mine in eastern Kentucky. The Stream Protection Rule would have limited the practice.

UPDATE: On Feb. 16, President Donald Trump signed a bill to reverse the Stream Protection Rule. Read our press release here.

Citizens across the nation are talking about mountaintop removal right now, following the House and Senate votes last week to repeal the Stream Protection Rule.

The Senate voted 54-45 on Friday to repeal the rule through a rarely-used law called the Congressional Review Act. Contrary to some claims that the Stream Protection Rule was a last-minute Obama dig at the coal industry, the rule had actually been under development by the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement for most of Obama’s presidency.

It would have updated a 34-year-old version of the regulations, known as the Stream Buffer Zone Rule. Both rules spell out implementation details of the 1977 Surface Mining Reclamation and Control Act, which remains in effect even without the Stream Protection Rule.

Headlines widely shared over social media alerted the nation to the end of a rule that would have “stopped” coal companies from dumping waste in streams. In the comments, people braced themselves for the coming impacts. But what many do not realize is that coal companies have been dumping their waste into streams in Central Appalachia for decades, and continue to do so now. They did it under President Bush. They did it under President Obama. The practice is called “valley filling” and is a byproduct of mountaintop removal coal mining in Central Appalachia. The new rule would have limited this practice, but it would not have ended it.

Threats to public water from corporate and political interests are nothing new in Central Appalachia, nor is the problem unique to this area. The chemical spill in Charleston, W.Va., coal ash contamination across North Carolina, lead contamination in Flint, Mich., and the fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline in Standing Rock Reservation have shown us that.

Despite intense polarization in the United States, polling shows that a majority of Americans are concerned about threats to clean drinking water. Communities that already have contaminated water are imploring their leaders to do something about it.

“We can’t live without clean water,” said Paula Swearigen of Sophia, W.Va. “This administration has totally dismissed the health and safety of people in places like Flint and Appalachia. What does it say about America if we don’t value the lives of innocent people? We have to hold our leaders accountable. Our children have to contend with the decisions they make.”

Meanwhile, politicians in Appalachia and elsewhere ignore this public demand and continue to act in favor of corporate interests.

Mountaintop removal production in Central Appalachia has declined by about 70 percent since its peak in 2008. Coal is being outcompeted by natural gas and renewables, and the easily accessible coal in Central Appalachia is running out. Appalachian people know this. They know that now is the time to diversify the economy and protect critical resources like clean water. Despite the decline, mountaintop removal is still happening. New permits are still being issued and citizens living downstream are still suffering the consequences. The Stream Protection Rule was not going to end mountaintop removal, but it would have improved clean water protections.

The communities of Flint, of Standing Rock and of the Central Appalachian coalfields are glad for the attention they are receiving right now because it strengthens their fight. But what they really need is continued support for a long fight. Indigenous people, communities of color, Appalachian Americans, and poor and working class people across the country have always had to fight for basic rights like clean water. This fight will continue. Not because it is easy, but because it is necessary.

Here’s what you can do:

  • Donate to help us fight for Appalachian streams and communities.
  • Learn how your representative and senators voted on the Stream Protection Rule
  • Call your elected officials regularly to share your concerns
  • Support the RECLAIM Act
  • Vote in the midterm elections in 2018
  • Read reliable news sources fully and critically
  • Show your support to water causes across the country by joining direct actions, writing letters to politicians and newspapers, or making donations

Serving residents by saving energy

Thursday, February 2nd, 2017 - posted by Katie Kienbaum

LightBulb

Instead of celebrating the first weekend of the spring semester by sleeping in, students at Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C. spent a recent Saturday volunteering with different community organizations as part of the school’s 18th annual Martin Luther King Challenge. Appalachian Voices was proud to be counted among those organizations and to once again participate in the service day. Thanks to the help of the student volunteers along with AmeriCorps Project Conserve members, myself included, our Energy Savings team was able to improve the energy efficiency of two local homes.

MLK Challenge 2017

Energy efficiency upgrades can help families lower their energy bills and make their homes more comfortable, while at the same time benefiting the environment. Unfortunately, these upgrades often have a high upfront cost that many families cannot afford. Even low-cost, do-it-yourself efficiency projects can be inaccessible for people who have limited mobility or lack experience with home repair. While there are programs that provide free and low-cost weatherization services, such as the Weatherization Assistance Program, the existing need greatly exceeds the available aid. In Western North Carolina for instance, there are tens of thousands of old homes that likely require efficiency improvements, but less than 500 receive weatherization assistance each year. Furthermore, high energy costs disproportionately burden low-income, African-American, and Latino households, making access to energy efficiency an issue of environmental justice.

For our two local home projects, John Kidda of ReNew Home Inc., generously provided energy assessments free of charge to identify needed efficiency upgrades. All houses are different, so getting a professional energy audit done ensures that time and resources are spent wisely, prioritizing the upgrades with the most impact. Installing insulation and sealing air leaks are often identified as prime targets of efficiency improvements.

One service day site was an old farmhouse in Todd, N.C. that had been pieced together over decades. When Brooke Walker, the resident, applied for Appalachian Voices’ Home Energy Makeover Contest in 2014, she was spending more than a quarter of her income on her electric bill. At the time, she described the difficulties in improving her home’s energy efficiency: “Our home was built in the 1950’s, so it has no insulation and the windows are single pane and drafty. Since our main income is from the farm, we find it very hard to have extra money for fixing those problems.”

Brooke’s home lacked any insulation in the walls, basement and crawlspace, and the existing insulation in the attic was inadequate. With the volunteers, we were able to air seal and insulate the basement, as well as weatherstrip two leaky exterior doors and install LED light bulbs throughout the house.

“We didn’t have enough resources to re-insulate her attic, but we did insulate the basement ceiling, which will greatly reduce cold air infiltration into the house from the basement. So Brooke will be able to live a lot more comfortably in the winter,” said Rory McIlmoil, Appalachian Voices’ Energy Savings Program Manager. John, the energy auditor, was also able to advise Brooke on other insulation projects she may perform in the future.

The second participant, Faith Wright of Vilas, N.C., had insulation in her basement, attic, and walls, but it was in various states of disrepair. So the volunteers, or “student worker-bees,” as Faith called them, realigned basement insulation that had shifted or fallen and filled gaps in the basement ceiling around pipes and other penetrations. These simple fixes will stop cold air from leaking into Faith’s home. We also weather-stripped the basement door and attic hatch to keep heated air from leaking into the unconditioned basement and attic.

“They caught energy leaks I knew nothing about,” Faith said after the work day. “There was a major gap in my flooring below the bathtub that was funneling cold air up from the basement, plus an un-insulated access door to the attic that was letting heat up out of my living space.”

The service day was a beneficial experience for everyone, not just the homeowners. “It was great to see the students so eager to learn and to help community members. We were able to teach them quite a bit about how to safely and effectively make energy efficiency improvements, and their enthusiasm for the work was inspiring,” said Lauren Essick, our N.C. Energy Savings Outreach Coordinator.

Materials for these projects were donated by Watauga Building Supply, which had also donated materials to an Appalachian Voices service project in 2015, and by Lowe’s Home Improvement of Lenoir.

To make energy efficiency more accessible to our neighbors like Brooke and Faith, Appalachian Voices is advocating for the establishment of on-bill financing programs by electric cooperatives in Western North Carolina and East Tennessee. These programs would provide the co-ops’ member-owners with the upfront cost of energy upgrades, like insulation and air sealing as well as heating and cooling improvements, which they would pay back over time through a minimal charge on their electric bill. The best designed programs structure repayment as a tariff, tying repayment to the property’s electric meter, not the person, making the program accessible to renters and homeowners who plan on moving. Ideally, monthly repayment amounts are less than the average savings on electricity costs as a result of the improvements, meaning the member-owner will have lower energy bills even while paying the extra charge. And, importantly, they will enjoy more comfortable, health living conditions right away.

Brooke and Faith are both member-owners of Blue Ridge Electric Membership Cooperative, which offers the Energy SAVER Loan Program. Launched after community organizing and outreach efforts led by Appalachian Voices, the program offers loans to member-owners to finance home energy efficiency upgrades worth up to $7,500. Unfortunately, the current program is only available to homeowners — not renters — and is not as affordable as it could be.

We hope that Blue Ridge EMC converts soon to a tariffed on-bill financing program so more of its member-owners, like Faith and Brooke, can benefit from lower energy bills and more comfortable homes as a result of energy efficiency improvements.

Read more about the MLK Challenge and our work!