Archive for the ‘Front Porch Blog’ Category

Virginia General Assembly compromises on solar

Thursday, February 11th, 2016 - posted by hannah

Bills Headed to Special Subcommittee this Summer

Legislation being considered by the Virginia General Assembly would make a big difference for residents who want to go solar but can’t currently afford the upfront cost.

Legislation being considered by the Virginia General Assembly would make a big difference for residents who want to go solar but can’t currently afford the upfront cost.

While football fans were pumping up for the Big Game last weekend, supporters of clean power in Virginia were gearing up for a different showdown as key committees in the General Assembly prepared to take up important clean energy legislation.

Usually, these committees simply take a straight vote to pass or kill each measure. This week, however, several bills met with a different fate that we could not have predicted, and it could actually mean real progress for the solar solutions we want to see.

Where’s the controversy over freedom of clean energy choice?

A great group of bills were before the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee and the House Special Energy Subcommittee this past Monday and Tuesday. If passed, they would make a big difference for residents who want to go solar but can’t afford the upfront cost or do not have a roof or yard well-suited for an array of their own, or for a school or church that needs a no-upfront-cost option.

HB 618 and HB 1285 would allow community-scale solar installations to which customers could opt to subscribe; HB 1286 would clarify that it’s legal in Virginia for a company to sell a customer renewable energy from a system on the customer’s property; SB 140 would remove the punitive monthly fees called “standby charges” for accounts with solar arrays under 20 kilowatts, while increasing the allowable size of a residential solar array that can be connected to the grid.

Proponents of these measures point to the vast difference between the solar power installed in North Carolina and Virginia to date — our neighbors to the south have so far outpaced us 30 times over. It’s reasonable to expect that by adopting policies modeled on those states that have accelerated solar power, we can catch up and become more attractive to businesses that demand clean energy. It’s a point that Governor McAuliffe made in his State of the Commonwealth speech, which may turn out to be a motivating factor for legislators to begin getting serious about prioritizing solar development through innovative means.

Going into this week’s docket of energy bills, the leadership of the Commerce and Labor Committee must have found themselves between the devil and the deep blue sea: that is, between utilities’ preference for the status quo and reticence to embrace distributed clean energy, and fired-up constituents and renewable energy businesses calling for movement on bills that can grow jobs and enhance customer options. Advocates even planned a Clean Energy Lobby Day around the House subcommittee, so seats in the room were filled with representatives from energy efficiency and renewable energy firms and organizations from across the commonwealth.

Can’t table them, can’t pass them — they’ll tackle them this summer

So presented with these bills, in a committee room packed with interested parties, rather than table them (“table” being the customary polite term for unceremoniously kill), committee chairmen Terry Kilgore and Frank Wagner announced they are both forming a new special committee to consider these bills during the coming year. The committees then carried all the bills they did not “have sufficient time” to hear this week to 2017 with a letter directing the bills to these committees will meet in the summer — that is, almost every bill relating to clean energy financing, connecting to the grid, community scale, or in fact how efficiency programs are evaluated.

We do not yet know the membership of these committees; they will be selected from among the legislators who serve on the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee and House Energy Subcommittee and who contact the respective committee chair asking to be placed on the panel. We are aware that Dominion and Appalachian Power will bring their formidable influence to this committee. But we can take it as an indicator of the strength of our rationale for making these vital changes to our energy policy and of the progress of our movement that these bills weren’t tabled (killed) in committee.

Credit goes to everyone who took action in the past year: each constituent who met with their legislators, called their offices, sent an email. Every consumer that spoke out against standby charges, policies that block solar, programs that inflate the cost of solar and let utilities extract value from environmentally conscious customers had a hand in this outcome.

We’ll keep in touch about opportunities to inform the members of these special committees on our issues. For now, Governor McAuliffe has the authority to guide Virginia’s energy policy away from deeper dependence on gas-fired power plants and toward a renewable energy-centered future so take a moment to sign our petition to Governor McAuliffe.

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SCOTUS pauses the Clean Power Plan, for now

Wednesday, February 10th, 2016 - posted by brian

What the decision means, and doesn’t mean, for the historic climate rule

After a setback dealt by the U.S. Supreme Court, it’s imperative that decision makers in our region understand the opportunities presented by the Clean Power Plan rather than falsely attacking it as the cause of the coal industry’s hard times.

After a setback dealt by the U.S. Supreme Court, it’s imperative that decision makers in our region understand the opportunities presented by the Clean Power Plan rather than falsely attacking it as the cause of the coal industry’s hard times.

Last night, in a 5-4 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court temporarily stayed the Clean Power Plan in a challenge brought by a coalition of states and industry groups.

Responses poured in from opponents and supporters following the court’s decision, some of which could cause a bit of confusion. Perhaps the most important thing to point out is that the Supreme Court did not “kill,” “block” or “overturn” the Clean Power Plan.

The hold is temporary until legal challenges to the rule are resolved, and we fully expect the plan will prevail. The court put the issue on an expedited docket, with oral arguments scheduled for June 2.

You also may see some opponents celebrating the decision as a “public victory.” But across the country, there is strong and growing public support for limiting carbon pollution from power plants — exactly what the Clean Power Plan is designed to do. In other words, public appetite for expanding energy efficiency and renewables has already been raised. Americans recognize the need to address climate change and the widespread economic and environmental benefits of clean energy. This temporary stay won’t change that.

As a spokeswoman with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said: “We’re disappointed the rule has been stayed, but you can’t stay climate change and you can’t stay climate action.”

The breakneck growth of solar and wind in many parts of the country, and coal’s concurrent decline, are not the result of the Clean Power Plan’s requirements, which would not be enforced until 2022. Instead, investments in renewables are taking off because of their increasing affordability and reliability.

In some cases, states in Central Appalachia and the Southeast could easily comply with the Clean Power Plan. Many are positioned to exceed their carbon-reduction targets, and they can do so while creating jobs, protecting ratepayers and fostering healthier communities. We hope states that are already pursuing compliance stay the course.

It’s imperative that decision makers in our region understand the opportunities presented by the Clean Power Plan rather than falsely attacking it as the cause of the coal industry’s hard times.

A statement from Appalachian Voices Economic Diversification Campaign Coordinator Adam Wells:

The Clean Power Plan has never been a factor in the decline of the coal industry in Appalachia. Rather, the decline is a result of depleted reserves and low competitiveness when compared to western coal and other energy sources. Those trends are unlikely to reverse, no matter what the regulatory environment is. The Supreme Court’s actions yesterday won’t undo the decades-long trend of declining coal employment and production in Appalachia.

At the same time, the job-creating potential of the Clean Power Plan has been put at risk. We want to see a future in Appalachia where energy efficiency and solar power save people money, create local jobs and help build wealth in our communities. The Clean Power Plan is still years away from being implemented, so we can’t rely on it to bring about change tomorrow. But we still urgently need as much investment as we can get for a just transition to a new economy, and that’s why we’ll continue pushing for passage of the RECLAIM Act, the POWER+ Plan and state policies that create clean energy jobs.

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POWER+ Plan has a place in Obama’s final budget

Tuesday, February 9th, 2016 - posted by brian

new-economy-main

Last year, the Obama administration accelerated the conversation about economic transition in Appalachia when it proposed a multi-billion dollar plan to invest in economic development in areas most affected by the coal industry’s decline.

The president’s eighth and final budget intends to continue that conversation.

On Tuesday morning, President Obama sent his plan for the federal government’s expenses during fiscal year 2017 to Congress. It lays out the president’s vision for spending on everything from clean energy to cancer research. We’re happy to announce that the POWER+ Plan is included.

Read the White House’s fact sheet: Investing in Coal Communities, Workers, and Technology: The POWER+ Plan

The version of POWER+ in the new budget essentially mirrors last year’s plan. It calls for hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funds to be spent cleaning up abandoned strip mines, and to support economic development and workforce training in mining communities facing massive layoffs as coal is increasingly outcompeted in America’s energy mix.

The most significant difference may be the increased urgency of investments in Central Appalachia as some of the nation’s largest coal companies announce more layoffs, close mines and file for bankruptcy.

If you’re a regular reader of this blog or The Appalachian Voice, you know we’ve tracked the ups and downs of POWER+ over the past year. This time around, we hope to see Congress give this promising plan the attention it deserves.

Learn more about or work to diversify central Appalachia’s economy.

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Action needed: Va. General Assembly considers pipeline policy fixes

Thursday, February 4th, 2016 - posted by hannah
Virginians expressed their opposition to proposed natural gas pipelines in front of the Capitol Building in January.

Virginians expressed their opposition to proposed natural gas pipelines in front of the Capitol Building in January.

Late last month, we learned that the U.S. Forest Service rejected the Atlantic Coast Pipeline’s proposed route. This development significantly checks the lickety-split pace of the project.

If that renews your desire to take action, there are opportunities channel that feeling into these important legislative fights in the General Assembly.

Lobby days in Richmond displayed pipeline opposition — now, committees coming up

As the chorus of Virginians voicing opposition to fracked gas pipelines in our region grows and becomes more diverse, we took our movement to the General Assembly for a major day of action to educate legislators about our agenda to safeguard land and water. On Tuesday, Jan. 19, participants from across Virginia came to Richmond and held dozens of meetings with state delegates and senators. Addressing attendees the morning of the event, State Senator John Edwards made it clear that he stands with Virginians who are concerned about the risks of the dirty pipeline proposals.

Citizen lobbyists covered issues including the landowners’ right to deny pipeline companies permission to enter their land to conduct invasive surveys (SB 614 and HB 1118) and the importance of requiring rigorous site-specific sediment and erosion control plans to protect streams and ensuring unrestricted public access to such plans (SB 726). Now these bills have been scheduled for upcoming committee meetings, so here are directions on informing your legislators:

SB 726 in Agriculture, Conservation and Natural Resources Committee on Feb. 4

SB 726 would fix a serious problem with how Virginia limits erosion and sediment pollution from utility company construction projects, including pipelines. The status quo system would allow the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and the Mountain Valley Pipeline to avoid proper regulation through a loophole. Area legislators in the relevant committee include senators Emmett Hanger and Mark Obenshain.

Tell your senator the current system is wrong — and here are some reasons why: it allows utility companies to avoid proper government agency oversight; it exempts utility companies from requirements that apply to all other construction projects; it excludes the public and local governments from involvement; and it greatly increases the threat of damage to the environment and property due to the extensive and complicated nature of these projects.

Virginia State Senator John Edwards speaks with citizens about pipeline legislation.

Virginia State Senator John Edwards speaks with citizens about pipeline legislation.

Urge your legislator to restore proper government oversight of these developments and revoke the free pass that companies now have to pollute Virginia waterways. Use the blue tab at the top of the General Assembly’s website to look up who represents you and find contact information for his or her office.

If you can make it, we encourage you to attend the committee at the General Assembly in Senate Room B on Thursday afternoon starting at or around 2 p.m. to impress the importance of these decisions upon our legislators in person.

Help Win Repeal of the “Survey Without Permission” Statute — Bills Up Soon in Commerce Committee

On Feb. 8 and 9, respectively, committees will take up SB 614 and HB 1118 related to companies’ ability to survey without landowner permission. You can contact your legislation in support of these measures by going to the General Assembly’s website and clicking the blue bar up top to find out who represents you and how to email or call their offices.

As background, HB 1118 and SB 614 are House and Senate versions of a bill to repeal VA 56-49.01, which allows Dominion to force surveys on unwilling property owners. That means that under Virginia law there is really no legal way for property owners to unequivocally demonstrate opposition to a gas pipelines, no matter the size, going through their property.

Be sure to contact your legislators before committees deal with these bills so that your comments will be most effective: the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee will discuss SB 614 Monday, Feb. 8, starting at approximately 2 p.m. The House Subcommittee on Energy will discuss HB 1118 on Tuesday, Feb. 9, starting at approximately 4 p.m. Again, feel free to attend, and contact hannah [at] appvoices [dot] org if you have questions about how to participate in these committees’ decisions.

What else does recent news tell us about these risky pipelines?

The U.S. Forest Service (USFS) letter to the Atlantic Coast Pipeline (that is, Dominion Resources) states that alternative routes cannot cut through “highly sensitive resources … of such irreplaceable character that minimization and compensation measures may not be adequate or appropriate and should be avoided.” The pipeline company has not, in the USFS’s view, demonstrated “why the project cannot reasonably be accommodated off National Forest Service (NFS) lands.”

If Dominion tries to stick with the original route, it will have to say why it thinks the pipeline has to be built on USFS lands. The company could propose a new route, impacting a different set of landowners and their properties, or it may have to go back to the drawing board with a new application. -We hope Dominion will turn in an entirely different direction, as this project, like the other pipelines proposed in Virginia, is unneeded, hazardous and misguided.

Communities in our region have been on the receiving end of the fracking boom. A major build-out of this kind of infrastructure will only worsen the impacts of fracking in those communities while locking us into decades of dependence on dirty energy. At the same time it defers our collective chance to harness the cleanest, most-sustainable energy sources — which happen to be a great deal for customers too.

Our work seems to be provoking a reaction. Dominion recently went into high-gear in its public relations. Spokesman Jim Norvelle said last week that gas-fired power plants are widely viewed as essential to meeting the goals of the Clean Power plan. To anyone who understands the economic opportunity presented by the EPA’s carbon pollution standards, or for those who have been reading recent reports describing the benefits of prioritizing renewable solar power, wind power and energy efficiency in Virginia, that probably sounds ludicrous. Whatever the polluters say or do next, and whenever there’s a chance to take action, we’ll be keeping you in the loop.

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Appalachia’s stream health in the balance

Wednesday, February 3rd, 2016 - posted by willie

I can remember swimming, fishing, and camping on the Powell River. I can also remember times when those activities were not possible due to mining in the Powell River’s watershed that had devastated the ecosystem, wiping out fish populations and polluting the water to the point that it was unhealthy to swim in. My hope is that the Stream Protection Rule will ensure our rivers and streams are healthy for all the life that depends on them – including us. — Adam Malle, Big Stone Gap, Virginia

This is what Adam Malle of Big Stone Gap, Va., wrote to the federal Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement last fall. He and dozens of others in Central Appalachia urged the agency to finalize the strongest possible Stream Protection Rule, expected sometime before the end of the Obama presidency.

Today, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee heard testimony on the rule. Predictably, the Republican members of the committee, chaired by the staunchly anti-regulation Sen. James Inhofe, ignored the vast body of scientific data and the perspectives of coalfield residents as presented in testimony by Appalachian Voices’ Director of Programs, Matt Wasson. They likewise dismissed OSMRE Director Joe Pizarchik’s explanation that, based on the science over the past 30 years, there is still surface water and groundwater that is being impacted by surface mining.

Matt Wasson testifying at the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee hearing

Instead, Inhofe and the other GOP senators mostly harped on the tired accusation of federal overreach, commonly lodged against any federal government entity engaged in the execution of its duties, in this case the OSMRE. In so doing, these senators reduced any possible discussion of mining’s impacts on our water, and the failings of current regulations, to a mere political side-show.

Aside from these proceedings, and a nakedly deceitful report by the National Mining Association, discourse on the Stream Protection Rule has dropped off steeply ever since a series of public hearings and the OSMRE’s formal public comment period on the matter concluded in November.

The rule is intended to protect streams and rivers from the adverse impacts of surface coal mining and certain underground mining operations. Regulations designed to mitigate such impacts have not been updated since 1983, failing to address significant advances in scientific monitoring as well as changes in mining techniques. While public dialogue on the Stream Protection Rule has largely faded, the impact of mining on our streams has not.

On January 15, residents of Martin County, Ky., reported a black water spill into Wolf Creek, which empties into the Tug River above the municipal water intake of Kermit, W.Va. A week earlier, I spotted new orange water seeping from a mine site into the Powell River just a few miles from my home in Wise County, Va. Orange water is common around Central Appalachia. It’s not easy to treat once it appears, and new seeps seem to appear all the time, even after mines have closed down. Upon analysis of this particular point source, we discovered high levels of dissolved solids, which is likely due at least in part to the iron that causes the orange color, but can also indicate unsafe levels of other more harmful pollutants associated with coal mining, such as selenium, arsenic or beryllium.

According to the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy’s citizen complaints log, there have been 13 incidents of discolored and/or odorous water discharging from mining operations into Southwest Virginia’s waterways over the past year and a half. This may not sound like a huge number, but bear in mind that it reflects only incidents that are reported. It does not account for discharges of contaminants that may have gone unreported because they are essentially invisible, such as exceedances of heavy metals that are toxic to wildlife and humans. Nor does it reflect the concerns of community members who simply don’t bother to file complaints, as they believe the DMME to be either inept or outright complicit in the routine pollution violations of the coal industry.

During the same time period, the DMME also logged dozens of reports of hydrological disturbances such as increased flash flooding, mudslides, saturation of ground and sedimentation of streams adjacent to active, reclaimed and abandoned surface mines across Virginia’s coalfield region. Too often, disturbances of this nature go unmitigated under existing enforcement mechanisms, but they could and should be addressed by the Stream Protection Rule.

As the OSMRE crafts the final version of the rule, carefully considering the best available science and the concerns of community members, it would behoove us all — especially OSMRE staff — to remember that this is not a matter of abstract policy. Nor is it about politics. It is about the health and well-being of Appalachian communities and ecology. It is about our water and our future.

Toward that end, here are some of the comments submitted by impacted community members to the OSMRE, expressing the need for a strong, strict and enforceable Stream Protection Rule.

Polluted water below a surface mine in Kentucky

Polluted water below a surface mine in Kentucky

“I am proud to be a Coal Miner’s daughter. It’s true. Coal put the food on my table. It also put the poison in my water. You don’t understand just how important your water is until it is gone. In Martin County, the water is loaded with heavy metals and other toxins from coal sludge. After the sludge spill in 2000, we learned chemistry by testing the water, biology by watching the effects on living creatures, and political action while trying to make our voices heard. The biggest lesson we learned is that our government was there to protect dollars, not citizens. I support the strongest possible Stream Protection Rule. The Office of Surface Mining should regulate mining and the disposal of mining waste with a heavy hand. We have learned from decades of experience that our state agencies cannot be trusted to properly enforce the regulations.
— Jonita Horn, Inez, Ky.

Carol Judy

Good healthy forests and watersheds are required for my livelihood as well as the livelihoods of some of the young people in my community who I have mentored as a root-digger and as a non-timber forest products worker. We are sustaining ourselves while living with our natural world, rather than destroying it for short-term gain. Water is where life begins. The Stream Protection Rule should be a way of helping waters be healthy for drinking, watering gardens, fishing, or simply having the ability to play in the water with family and friends.
Carol Judy, Clearfork, Tenn.

I have watched the creek that flows past my grandmother’s home in Floyd County, Ky., become ruined by the strip mining above it. I used to catch crawdads in that creek, but now it smells and looks noxious. There is no life in the water and the terrible odor permeates the entire hollow. Citizens of the coalfields deserve the best possible Stream Protection Rule that the OSM can provide. A strong SPR would greatly improve and protect the quality of life and bodily health of all humans living downstream.
— David Wasilko, Kingston, Tenn.

There’s already been far too much damage done to our streams by the coal mining industry, and without strictly enforced regulation, we can only anticipate more destruction. We need water. We may like coal, and some people are friends of coal, but we need water. These are some of our nation’s headwaters and their pollution goes all the way to the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico. This is truly a national issue and a national problem.
— Laura Miller, Wise Va.

My life has been impacted by a general lack of responsibility on the part of coal companies. I have seen the utter destruction and desolation of ecosystems, both terrestrial and aquatic. As a young person and a biology student, I hope to have a thriving future in my community. Protecting our most valuable resource, our water, is critical to this goal in my own life, as well as to the overall health and wellbeing of my community. — DJ Coker, Duff, Tenn.

Southwest Virginia is increasingly and now very rapidly realizing that it cannot depend on coal for its economic future. We’ve got to find a diverse number of economic alternatives. One of those alternatives is recreation. In order for our waterways to be this economic resource, they must be protected against the irreversible impacts of mountaintop removal coal mining, valley fills and other associated impacts of the mining industry. — David Rouse, Wise, Va.

My husband and I are lifelong residents of Mingo County, W.Va. Both of our fathers were coal miners, and my husband followed in their footsteps. In the 70’s, the coal company started strip mining above our home. It was very destructive to the community. The water was contaminated and finally went dry. The coal companies need to monitor their impacts to the water more closely. These companies that come out and do water sampling for the mines are not truthful. Please ensure with clear wording in the Stream Protection Rule that citizens are permitted to monitor mining impacts to streams, and that citizens are granted access to coal company and land company properties as needed to do this monitoring. — Donna Branham, Lenore, W.Va.

Clean water is vital for life. The streams in the coal counties of Virginia have been devastated by the strip-mines, which has impacted human health. We have some of the highest rates of cancer in the state. We rely on our government to safeguard the waters in our country, therefore we need a strong Stream Protection Rule that is enforced.— Diana Withen, Wise, Va.

Va. leaders urge Gov. McAuliffe to reject Dominion’s climate-polluting plan

Thursday, January 28th, 2016 - posted by brian
This week, a wide array of Virginia leaders released a letter asking Gov. McAuliffe to reject efforts by Dominion Power that would increase carbon pollution in the Commonwealth. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

This week, a wide array of Virginia leaders released a letter asking Gov. McAuliffe to reject efforts by Dominion Power that would increase carbon pollution in the Commonwealth. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Here’s the latest news from Appalachian Voices’ Press Room:

Earlier this week, a wide array of Virginia civic, health, faith, and environmental leaders released a letter asking Governor Terry McAuliffe to reject all efforts by Dominion Virginia Power to push for implementation of historic federal clean power rules in a way that would increase carbon pollution in the Commonwealth.

Leaders representing 50 organizations, including Appalachian Voices, reminded McAuliffe that only he, as governor, is authorized to make the final decision on how to implement the Environmental Protection Agency’s “Clean Power Plan” in Virginia. It is therefore his explicit responsibility to reduce carbon emissions while strengthening Virginia’s economy and helping improve public health. Anything less will support more pollution, which is “fundamentally contrary” to existing U.S. policy and the interests of Virginia residents, the groups write.

Tell Governor McAuliffe: Create a Bold Clean Power Plan for Virginia

“I cannot remember such a diverse range of groups weighing in on a pollution issue in Virginia before,” said Tram Nguyen, co-executive director of the group New Virginia Majority. “This letter calls for action on what we hope will be the governor’s greatest legacy. The governor can adopt a plan that will strengthen our economy while protecting people’s health now and for generations to come.”

The letter states that Virginia should reduce its total carbon pollution from power plants at least 30 percent by 2030, by applying the same standards to both existing and new power plants, and increasing our use of energy efficiency and renewable energy.

But Virginia utilities, led by Dominion CEO Tom Farrell, want a plan that would apply the federal rule only to old, existing power plants – not new fossil fuel power plants. This would allow Dominion to increase carbon pollution for decades more.

Read our full press release here.

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Do bankrupt coal company executives really deserve bonuses?

Tuesday, January 26th, 2016 - posted by brian

Debt-ridden companies are slashing worker benefits, struggling to clean up pollution — and handing out bonuses.

Why would a bankruptcy judge approve a bonus plan for a bankrupt coal company that was “written almost entirely by the executives who hope to exact almost $12 million of profit from it?” Photo of West Virginia Gov. Early Ray Tomblin and Alpha CEO Kevin Crutchfield via Flickr

Why would a bankruptcy judge approve a bonus plan for a bankrupt coal company that was “written almost entirely by the executives who hope to exact almost $12 million of profit from it?” Photo of West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and Alpha CEO Kevin Crutchfield via Flickr.

Before we explore that question, I’ll admit, the immoral logic of corporate compensation used to justify gigantic executive bonuses has always mystified me. I’m not highly educated on the matter, nor am I impartial.

Sure, I’d be willing to entertain an answer in the affirmative. But in the case of Alpha Natural Resources, which is swimming in debt and trying to navigate its way out of bankruptcy, it really seems resources could be better spent elsewhere. Paying taxes, for example. Communities in Appalachia could put millions of dollars owed by Alpha to good use.

But, no, they want their bonuses. So let’s hear them out.

Back in December, lawyers for Alpha asked the U.S. bankruptcy court to approve an “Incentive Plan for Certain Key Insider Employees,” a fancy way of saying $12 million for 15 top executives. Their argument is pretty simple — bankruptcy stinks and high-level employees may decide to cut their losses. The obvious solution: make it seem like they’re not losing — at all costs.

According to Alpha’s court filing, bonuses will go to executives “who are vital to the [the company’s] successful restructuring and the maximization of value for the benefit of all parties in interest.” OK, I can sort of see how this becomes logical for a company in bankruptcy.

Alpha has been struggling for years, though, and these bonuses actually exceed the payouts executives received in years past, even as the company barreled toward bankruptcy. The last time Alpha recorded a profit was in 2011. In the past five years, the company’s stock fell from $65 a share to around 35 cents.

Over the same period, it laid off 4,000 employees and shut down dozens of mines, mostly affecting communities in Central Appalachia where the company operates. Just yesterday, Alpha announced plans to close 10 mining complexes and lay off 886 coal miners and other personnel in southern West Virginia.

But in 2015, the year that Alpha declared bankruptcy with billions of dollars in debt, the maximum bonus pool for top staff was $8.4 million, according to the Casper Star-Tribune. If only Alpha’s balance sheet looked like its executives’ bank accounts.

It’s becoming difficult to give Alpha the benefit of the doubt. We don’t even know the names and positions of these supposedly high-performers keeping the company on course. And it looks like we never will.

Alpha’s lawyers argued that disclosing the executives’ identities, salaries and bonuses “may facilitate the hiring” of those executives away from Alpha “by competing businesses and, therefore, increase the likelihood that the Debtors will lose the valuable services of the [executives].”

Now it’s too hard to fake. Witnessing the irresponsibility and one-sidedness of the major coal bankruptcies in Appalachia and their aftershocks goes to show who has a voice and whose voices the system values.

Click to read the U.S. Trustee's scathing objection to Alpha's bonus plan.

Click to read the U.S. Trustee’s scathing objection to Alpha’s bonus plan.

Last year, Patriot Coal — while in its second bankruptcy — hatched a plan to pay a portion of its legal fees with millions of dollars earmarked for workers’ health care. There is growing concern nationwide that bankrupt coal companies, a group that now includes Arch Coal, won’t be able to afford to clean up their mines. And right now, Alpha is trying to revoke medical and life insurance benefits from retired miners and their spouses to save around $3 million a year.

The U.S. Trustee, a watchdog division of the U.S. Department of Justice, summarized the vast disconnect between what is right and what Alpha wants in its objection to the bonuses:

Alpha seeks this relief while at the same time incurring more than $1.3 Billion in losses for 2015. Alpha seeks this relief while at the same time seeking to cut off the health and life insurance benefits to some 1,200 rank-and-file retirees because it claims it desperately needs to save $3 Million a year. Alpha seeks this relief after demonstrating to this Court that it is so hopelessly insolvent that its shareholders have no chance of seeing any return on their investments into the companies.

Makes sense so far. Go on …

According to Alpha, these executives need these bonuses as an incentive to do the very jobs they were hired to do, that they are already highly compensated for with generous salaries, and which their fiduciary duties already compel them to do. Such bonuses cannot be justified under the facts and circumstances of this case.

Another common argument is based purely on the merits of the bonuses. How can it be possible that the same handsomely compensated executives who took home bonuses while steering Alpha into bankruptcy get sizable bonuses to help Alpha exit bankruptcy? Well, as lawyers for the United Mine Workers of America argue in their objection, the bonus plan was “written almost entirely by the executives who hope to exact almost $12 million of profit from it.”

Until recently, I never thought of “bankruptcy” and “bonanza” as being synonymous. Maybe rather than being mystified I’m just mad, and I can’t claim anything close to the level of outrage or broken trust thousands of Appalachian families can. But, like U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Kevin Huennekens said last week as he OKed Alpha’s bonus plan, “Cash is king.”

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Our hope for the year ahead

Friday, January 22nd, 2016 - posted by tom

Each month, Appalachian Voices Executive Director Tom Cormons reflects on issues of importance to our supporters and to the region.

With your support, Appalachian Voices is working hard to make 2016 a watershed year for the health of Appalachia’s communities, environment and economy.

With your support, Appalachian Voices is working hard to make 2016 a watershed year for the health of Appalachia’s communities, environment and economy.

Appalachian Voices is beginning 2016 stronger than ever and positioned to advance a positive future for the region we all love. Standing with citizens from across Appalachia and from all walks of life, we are hard at work and have high hopes for the year ahead.

Since we launched our economic diversification program and opened an office in Southwest Virginia early last year, the conversation about how to hasten a just economic transition in Appalachia has only grown. A forward-thinking plan to expand funding for economic development initiatives is on the table. But for those initiatives to succeed, both political parties must make supporting investments to strengthen Appalachia’s economy a priority.

Beyond advocating for federal investment in workforce training, infrastructure and land restoration, Appalachian Voices is enlisting experts to develop plans for clean energy and other economic development opportunities in the coal-bearing region, including utilization of abandoned mine sites. By adding technical and policy resources where they are they needed most, we’ll further efforts to build the pillars of a healthier, more resilient regional economy.

Of course, the foundation for that renewed economy must be a healthy environment. And without science-based environmental protections that are fully enforced, we fear the movement to diversify the region’s economy will fall short. This year, the last of Obama’s presidency, is our best chance to see a long-awaited rule finalized to protect Appalachian streams from mining waste.

As we push for an effective Stream Protection Rule, we will remain focused on holding polluters accountable. Pursuing the same strategies that led to our landmark victory over Frasure Creek Mining in Kentucky late last year, we’ll sue coal companies that violate clean water laws, and we’ll put grassroots pressure on regulators to step up enforcement of existing protections.

Our goals demand that we stay deeply involved in action at the state level, where we are combatting the continued threats of fossil fuels. In Virginia, the movement to move beyond dirty energy is opposing proposed multi-billion dollar investments in huge pipelines that would lock the Southeast into an increased dependence on natural gas and exacerbate the impacts of fracking. In North Carolina, residents are coming together to fight the threat of fracking and address the ongoing crisis of coal ash pollution.

Appalachian Voices is committed to these important battles. We’re also increasingly focused on securing investments in energy efficiency and renewable energy by promoting policies and technologies that can reduce harmful pollution and create thousands of jobs. As a result of our efforts, rural electric cooperatives in both North Carolina and Tennessee on are the verge of developing cost-saving energy efficiency programs for their members.

We’re sure to encounter obstacles. Successful renewable energy policies in North Carolina will again face attacks by policymakers. Our electric utilities will tout natural gas and attempt to undermine consumer access to cleaner energy options. The familiar partisan battles over coal and climate change will intensify as election season nears. And states, some more reluctantly than others, will take steps toward compliance with the Clean Power Plan. But we know the landmark climate rule will help states expand clean energy and cut pollution — if only they embrace its potential.

The year is just getting started. But the stage is set for 2016 to be a historic year for clean energy, climate action and efforts to diversify economies that have long depended on the coal industry. With your support, Appalachian Voices is working hard to make 2016 a watershed year for the health of Appalachia’s communities, environment and economy.

Please consider joining to donating to support Appalachian Voices today.

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The 2016 General Assembly session begins in Virginia

Thursday, January 21st, 2016 - posted by hannah
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Clean energy is a major area for potential policy changes during this year’s General Assembly session. Here is a roundup of energy bills to watch.

Clean energy is a major area for potential policy changes during this year’s General Assembly session.

Governor Terry McAuliffe touched on the subject in his State of the Commonwealth speech last week, pledging to “stimulate economic growth by expanding our use of renewable energy” and touting recent commitments that amount to a 100-fold increase in solar generated in the state.

Still, some of the most exciting measures that legislators are considering face significant challenges. Here is a roundup of energy bills to watch.

Solar Power Solutions

Legislators who are allied with our clean energy agenda admit there are barriers to making meaningful change during this session. In a radio interview last week, Senator Creigh Deeds invoked lyrics from a familiar Talking Heads song to describe the partisan divide: “Same as it ever was.” This sentiment pointedly captures utility companies’ opposition to basic provisions governing customer freedom to select clean energy options and others aimed at reducing wasted energy in Virginia.

Last month, we discussed the vital need to legally clarify that it is legal in Virginia for an electricity customer to enter into an agreement to purchase power from a company than can install a renewable energy generating system on their property. Power Purchase Agreements can encourage arrangements that involve no upfront cost for the customer, present attractive cost-saving opportunities for schools and churches, and avoid more costly forms of generation while relieving grid congestion, among other benefits to the whole customer base. SB 139, SB 140, SB 148, HB 618 and a bill currently being finalized by Delegate Randy Minchew entitled the Renewable Energy Provisions Bill will all be considered as ways to promote solar affordably in Virginia.

Energy Efficiency Policy Reform

Year after year, one roadblock that has kept Virginia from improving energy efficiency is the fact that state regulators evaluate proposed energy efficiency programs using a flawed process. This method practically guarantees that the most thorough demand management measures, such as home and business assessments, will be denied. This results in fewer cost-saving options for customers and perpetuates a system that makes rewards utilities for pursuing more expensive ways to meet demand.

A bill sponsored by Delegate Lee Ware, HB 352, could reform these tests to give robust energy efficiency programs a better chance of being approved by the State Corporation Commission. HB 1053 and SB 395 are companion bills that are intended to address another dimension of this problem: in theory, electric utilities that operate energy efficiency programs are allowed to request recovery of the revenue that they have lost from the energy saved, that is, the energy the utility would have sold to customers. But regulators tend to be apprehensive about approving programs that could result in such future costs to ratepayers, and they can turn down programs based on that consideration. Other states have dealt with this by rewarding utilities a lesser dollar figure for the energy they save by running such programs — this a reform that the McAuliffe administration supports and one that should get traction this year.

Who’s Grandstanding Against the Clean Power Plan this Year?

Three bills introduced this year would impede Virginia’s compliance with federal carbon pollution standards and interfere with our path toward a clean energy future. HB 2, SB 21 and SB 482 all would require the General Assembly’s approval of the compliance plan prepared by the state Department of Environmental Quality. This approach is being advocated by the likes of the industry-friendly American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which recently lost American Electric Power as a member, apparently because of this very issue.

Governor McAuliffe expressed his intention to veto such legislation should both houses approve it, which is good news for the state’s economic and clean energy outlook. Even a consulting firm that Virginia’s utilities often look to has shown that the Clean Power Plan will reduce customer bills and grow clean energy, a sector that created $3.9 billion in revenue in Virginia in 2014.

Ensuring a Strong, Beneficial Clean Power Plan with the Virginia Coastal Protection Act

HB 351-SB 571 is the bipartisan Virginia Alternative Energy and Coastal Protection Act, which would authorize our state to join a carbon trading program with other states, providing more than $250 million in the first year through the auction of emission allowances. These funds would be divided to combat the effects of worsening sea-level rise, support energy efficiency and renewable energy projects, and assist with economic development in Southwest Virginia.

Take a moment to fill your legislators in on the energy issues that matter to you most. Visit the General Assembly’s website and pull down the blue tab from the top of the page to look up who represents you, find email addresses for your state delegate and senator, search bills introduced this session and familiarize yourself with the civic process that determines Virginia’s energy policy. Then buckle up for a fast two-month-long General Assembly session!

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Open for business — APCo’s energy efficiency program

Wednesday, January 20th, 2016 - posted by hannah
APCo's website for customers seeking to make energy efficiency improvements.

APCo’s website for customers seeking to make energy efficiency improvements.

The frigid temperatures that are dominating Virginia drive us to seek warmth and comfort. The rough weather can also serve as a reminder for all of us to make sure our homes have a basic level of energy efficiency, which can shave some real money off of monthly bills.

Just in time for the arrival of the harshest winter chill, Appalachian Power Company has news we can use — the company has introduced a new set of energy saving programs in Virginia that you can opt to participate in.

One would think that utilities would have long ago made saving energy a priority: after all, companies often say they are seeking more ways to get greener while protecting ratepayers from expenses. Well-designed energy efficiency programs can achieve significant reduction in wasted energy and the pollution associated with it. As a recent study shows, this strategy can and should be part of Virginia’s plan to comply with the federal Clean Power Plan in a way that barely affects rates and will reduce bills by using less energy. Moreover, for households facing the tightest budgets, energy saving programs can make a real difference.

If you’re an APCo customer, your menu of energy saving options now includes quick choices like an appliance recycling program for unwanted working refrigerators or freezers, in-store discounts on efficient products, and a markdown on Energy Star manufactured housing. There is also a whole-house assessment called the Home Performance Program, which you can think of as a check-up for your home. Skilled, friendly contractors will perform a clipboard walkthrough over about two hours covering your entire home. Any recommended improvements will be listed for you, and financial incentives will be applied to approved energy saving measures.

These are examples of the kind of services that will in the long run help to bring the housing stock in our region into the 21st century with elements like insulation, HVAC tune up, and eliminating outside air leaks. The involvement of highly trained, professional building auditors helps ensure that residents will be happy with the results and that improvements are scientifically sound and will likely make a building healthier and more comfortable to live in.

Virginia has enormous potential to capitalize on efficiency. We currently rank 31st in efficiency, so we have a ways to go. We’ve often had to fight for the energy saving programs that our utilities now offer. Expanding these programs in the future to a more robust level will take the dedication of many Virginians voicing their support for the most unsung energy source.

Energy efficiency advocates are committed to increasing access to and participation in these programs, which in turn sends a signal to APCo that customers value the programs they are now offering and want the utility to expand from modest plans toward even more ambitious efficiency operations in the future.

So look over the options that APCo is now providing. If you’re interested, don’t delay! Use the utility’s website to apply for a home energy efficiency assessment now.

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