Archive for the ‘Appalachia’s Political Landscape’ Category

Budget Blowback

Thursday, April 13th, 2017 - posted by interns

White House Blueprint takes aim at the environment and assistance to low-income Americans

By Brian Sewell

Front page news

Many regional news outlets focused on how proposed budget cuts could affect Appalachia. Photo courtesy Charleston Gazette-Mail


On March 15, President Donald Trump took the stage at a rally in Nashville, Tenn. Befitting the campaign-style event, he opened with familiar, crowd-tested applause lines.

“It’s patriotic Americans like you who make this country run, and run well,” the president told his supporters. “All you want is a government that shows you the same loyalty in return.”

The next morning, the White House would unveil the blueprint of its proposed 2018 budget, giving Americans a first look at the administration’s priorities in fiscal form. At the rally that evening, in between pledges to build a border wall and save the coal industry, Trump promised that his budget would “shrink the bloated federal bureaucracy.”

When the document was released, its vision of America and the role of the federal government was hardly recognizable. The “America First” budget — as it has been coined by the White House — would offset a $54 billion boost to the military and national security by cutting the same amount from domestic, non-defense spending. Nearly 20 agencies and dozens of programs would be axed altogether.

Responses flooded in from politicians and advocacy groups of every stripe. Some criticized the administration’s disregard for public support of the arts and sciences, including medical research. Other reactions focused on the irony that Trump wants to eliminate programs that benefit Americans in the areas that helped him win the White House. The budget would wipe out decades-old anti-poverty programs and newer efforts to create jobs in communities that are struggling economically, like many in Appalachia and the Rust Belt.

On the day after the blueprint’s rollout, the front page of West Virginia’s largest newspaper, the Charleston Gazette-Mail, led with the headline “Trump’s budget slams West Virginia.” The Roanoke Times ran an editorial titled “Trump backhands Appalachia” that reflected on the region’s support for the president and mused, “Trump has an odd way of returning the favor.”

Although Congress controls federal spending, the White House’s so-called “skinny budget” is the clearest picture congressional lawmakers have yet of the president’s priorities. It could have been something positive for Trump to stump on. But a few days after the Nashville event, when the president held an almost identical rally in Louisville, Ky., he decided not to mention it.

Appalachia Loses Out

Some of the blueprint’s uncompromising cuts to programs in rural areas raised the question: where did these ideas even come from? In February, the Heritage Foundation, a think tank with close ties to the Trump administration, put forward its own wish list for the federal budget. Both the official blueprint and Heritage’s “Blueprint for Balance” prescribe many of the same cuts and provide similar justifications for them.

“Heritage was the number one source,” Stephen Moore, a Heritage Foundation economist who advised the Trump campaign, told The Washington Post. “That was partly because there wasn’t a lot of time. They decided ‘we will get rid of this, and get rid of that.’”

One puzzling cut in the White House blueprint that can’t be traced back to any of Trump’s numerous promises is the elimination of the Appalachian Regional Commission, an economic development agency that invests in workforce training and infrastructure needs like broadband. The Heritage blueprint also calls for doing away with it. While the White House does not explain why the commission is on the chopping block, the Heritage Foundation describes it as “duplicative carve out” that “diverts federal funding to projects of questionable merit.”

Members of Congress were quick to defend the commission and its accomplishments. Rep. Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) called the proposed cuts “draconian, careless and counterproductive.”

“Today, nearly everyone in the region has access to clean water and sewer, the workforce is diversifying, educational opportunities are improving and rural technology is finally advancing to 21st-century standards,” Rogers said in a statement. “But there is more work to be done in these communities.”

Since October 2015 alone, the Appalachian Regional Commission has invested more than $175 million in 662 projects throughout the region. Around $75 million of that has supported initiatives to diversify local economies that have long relied on coal mining and now hope to attract new industries.

The Coalfield Development Corporation in West Virginia received a grant to scale up its workforce development model and expand to other counties. The group Friends of Southwest Virginia is using commission funds to create community access points along the New River that will enhance the region’s ecotourism industry. Those projects and hundreds of others are projected to create or retain thousands of jobs and leverage nearly $142 million in private dollars into the region’s economy.

Around the same time, coal production in eastern Kentucky fell to a level not seen since the Great Depression, Appalachian states shed thousands of coal mining jobs and the nation’s three largest coal companies fell into bankruptcy, largely due to the growth of natural gas and the falling demand for coal globally.

Trump won 400 out of the 420 counties in which the Appalachian Regional Commission operates partly on the promise that he’ll “bring the coal industry back 100 percent,” which policymakers and energy experts accept is an impossibility. The president’s congressional counterparts are ready for him to expand on his message to Appalachia.

“It’s true that the president won his election in rural country,” Rep. Rogers told Reuters. “I would really like to see him climb aboard [the Appalachian Regional Commission] vehicle as a way to help us help ourselves.”

Climate and Energy in the Crosshairs

Even many expected cuts are deeper than anticipated. It comes as no surprise that a candidate who called the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency “a disgrace” would target the agency’s resources in addition to rolling back environmental rules. But the blueprint calls for gutting EPA funding by nearly one-third and eliminating approximately 3,200 positions, making it the hardest hit of any federal agency.

EPA initiatives ranging from the Chesapeake Bay restoration program to the Clean Power Plan would be zeroed out. Funding for the enforcement of federal environmental laws like the Clean Water Act and Clean Air Act would be reduced with the unrealistic expectation that states would pick up the slack.

According to an analysis by the North Carolina Sierra Club, federal dollars pay for almost half of the state’s multi-million responsibilities under the Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act and Safe Drinking Water Act. If North Carolina or any other state lost those funds, it would likely weaken programs that, in some cases, have also been cut by state budget-makers.

The EPA’s work to research and respond to climate change is also targeted, as is the climate-related work of other agencies including the U.S. Department of Energy, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and NASA. When asked about the reason for those cuts during a White House press briefing, Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney said “we consider that to be a waste of your money.”

In another ironic twist related to the coal industry and its future, the White House wants to cut the Energy Department’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy and the Office of Fossil Energy, which researches carbon capture technologies — the closest America has to anything resembling “clean coal.”

A week after the budget was announced, 35 Senate Democrats wrote a letter to their colleagues calling the Trump administration’s pledge to protect clean air and water “meaningless,” considering the proposed cuts to the EPA.

“There is already bipartisan agreement that President Trump’s harmful budget will be a nonstarter in Congress,” Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), who added his name to the letter, said in a statement.

“Dead on Arrival”

In a time of historic political polarization, the unpopularity of ideas in the blueprint transcends the partisan divide. Weeks before all the details were known, as rumors swirled about massive cuts to foreign aid and diplomacy, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) described the White House’s budget as “dead on arrival.”

According to a March poll by Quinnipiac University, most Americans would be fine with that — for any number of reasons. Sixty-seven percent of respondents oppose cuts to federal climate research and environmental programs. Nearly three-quarters of those polled are “somewhat concerned” or “very concerned” about climate change and 59 percent say the United States should do more to address it.

“When it comes to cutting Public TV, the arts, after school programs and scientific research to improve the environment, it’s a stern ‘hands off’ from voters,” said Tim Malloy, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Poll, in a release announcing the results.

The White House will send its full 2018 budget to Congress later this spring. In the meantime, Congress must address federal spending for the rest of this year before the current resolution to continue funding the government expires on April 28. But, when it comes to Trump’s brazen approach, the White House’s budget office Director Mick Mulvaney says “folks who voted for the president are getting exactly what they voted for.”

Uncompromising Cuts

The Appalachian region would take a hit if cuts to numerous national programs that benefit rural or low-income Americans were to go into effect. The following are just a few of the agencies and programs not mentioned in this article that would be eliminated:
Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which supports nearly 1,500 locally owned public radio and television stations nationwide.
— The Corporation for National and Community Service, which funds AmeriCorps and other national service initiatives.
Legal Services Corporation, which provides legal aid to low-income Americans.
— The Energy Department’s State Energy Program, which assists states in improving energy efficiency and expanding renewable energy.
— The Energy Department’s Weatherization Assistance Program, which makes grants to state and local governments to provide home weatherization services to those in need.
— The Department of Health and Human Services’s Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, which helps families afford their energy bills and minor energy-related home repairs.
— The Department of Treasury’s Community Development Financial Institutions Fund grants, which leverages private capital by investing in economic development in communities where it’s most needed.

Environmental Votetracker — April/May 2017

Thursday, April 13th, 2017 - posted by molly
Appalachian legislators

Click to enlarge

Environmental Protections Targeted

Friday, February 10th, 2017 - posted by interns

By Molly Moore

The Trump administration and 115th Congress quickly began rolling back pro-environment policies. By press time Feb. 2, two weeks into the Trump presidency, executive orders and actions in Congress were already changing the ground rules for environmental protections.

Trump signed 19 presidential directives in his first 10 days, according to USA Today, including an order that requires two regulations be repealed for every new regulation an agency issues.

President Trump also issued orders to revive the Keystone XL Pipeline, fast-track approval of the Dakota Access Pipeline, and expedite environmental review and approval for high-priority infrastructure projects. The proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline is ranked No. 20 on Trump’s list.

In an interview with the Guardian, EPA transition leader and climate change denier Myron Ebell described the president’s plans to review or withdraw climate change education material and reconsider automobile fuel efficiency standards.

He also referenced the president’s campaign statement to abolish or “leave a little bit” of the environmental agency. “It is a goal he has and sometimes it takes a long time to achieve goals,” Ebell told the Guardian. “You can’t abolish the EPA by waving a magic wand.”

Many of Trump’s cabinet nominees were criticized by conservation organizations — perhaps none more than Scott Pruitt, who was nominated to lead the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. As Oklahoma’s attorney general, Pruitt sued the EPA 14 times, opposing federal ozone and mercury limits among other programs. During his confirmation hearing, he did not say whether he would recuse himself from involvement in those cases and he voiced doubts about the scientific consensus that human activity is causing climate change. William K. Reilly, a Republican who once headed the EPA, said Pruitt “cannot effectively lead the agency.”

Other cabinet nominees skeptical of climate science include Rick Perry, Trump’s pick for energy secretary, and Jeff Sessions, the nominee for attorney general. Ryan Zinke, nominated to lead the Dept. of the Interior, acknowledged that climate change is real but hedged on the role that humans play and expressed favor for continued fossil fuel development on public lands.

Wilbur Ross, a billionaire investor with ties to Appalachia, was nominated for secretary of commerce. He was president of International Coal Group during the 2006 Sago Mine disaster, which killed 12 workers, and during the time that roughly 14,000 Clean Water Act violations occurred at the company.

At press time, the full Senate had not voted on confirmation for these men, but Rex Tillerson, who served as CEO of Exxon-Mobil until his nomination, was confirmed as secretary of state.

In response to the administration’s actions, anonymous former and current employees at numerous federal agencies such as national parks, NASA and the EPA created alternative Twitter accounts, not funded by taxpayer dollars, to share environmental news.

Public resistance against a move to sell federal lands also saw some success. In January, House Republicans enacted a rule change that encourages transferring federal land to states. But a House bill that would have sold 3.3 million acres of public lands was withdrawn on Feb. 1 after widespread opposition from hunters, anglers and the conservation community.

State Politics Across the Region

Friday, February 10th, 2017 - posted by interns

By Elizabeth E. Payne and Molly Moore

While national political headlines might dominate newsstands and newsfeeds, there is also plenty of action happening in state legislatures across the region. Here’s an overview of some of the energy and environmental topics at hand.

Georgia

Session is expected to run from Jan. 9 through late March or early April.

According to the Georgia Conservancy, an environmental organization, key issues in the 2017 state legislature will include efforts to establish more transparency and environmental protections for any future petroleum pipelines, as well as legislation to protect freshwater sources by enhancing buffer zones.

Conservationists also hope to see passage of the Georgia Outdoor Stewardship Act, which would establish a permanent source of funding for environmental efforts such as establishing buffer zones around military bases and protecting the gopher tortoise, the state’s official reptile.

Kentucky

Session runs from Jan. 3 to March 30

Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin began the year by announcing state budget cuts. According to the Courier-Journal, the Energy and Environment Cabinet’s budget will fall 9.7 percent from 2016 to 2018, and that’s on top of a 16-percent cut from 2012 to 2016.

Meanwhile, Bluegrass State legislators have introduced a suite of anti-environmental bills. Among them, H.B. 37 would exempt unmined coal reserves from state and local property taxation — these taxes support the Kentucky Heritage Land and Conservation Fund.

Other bills would make it more difficult for citizens to challenge environmentally harmful land uses, remove the requirement that any nuclear power facilities have a permanent waste disposal plan and make it more difficult for sewer districts to fund green infrastructure. H.B. 165 would restore a coal incentive tax credit that sunsetted for most facilities in 2009.

But there are also several bills that could benefit the state’s natural resources. H.B. 35 would establish public benefit corporations, where the business is accountable not just to shareholders but also to fulfilling a public-interest mission. And H.B. 61 would enhance the share of coal and mineral severance taxes that go to local governments.

The Kentucky Student Environmental Coalition is advocating for passage of the Energy Opportunity Act, which would lead to increased renewable energy and energy efficiency in the commonwealth.

Maryland

Session runs from Jan. 11 to April 10

Maryland’s Republican governor, Larry Hogan, has outlined a 2017 budget that offers $65 million in environmental investments including workforce training for green jobs, incentives for electric vehicles and efforts to improve water quality in the Chesapeake Bay.

Yet in 2016 the governor vetoed the Clean Energy Jobs Act, a bill that supporters say would have created jobs by requiring that Maryland derive 25 percent of the state’s energy from renewable sources by 2020, instead of the current target of 20 percent by 2022. The Maryland League of Conservation Voters intends to push for a legislative override of the veto in the 2017 session.

North Carolina

Session runs from Jan. 25 through July

At the beginning of 2017, North Carolina welcomed Roy Cooper, the state’s new Democratic governor, and welcomed back its Republican-controlled legislature.

The 2017 legislative session picked up where the December 2016 special session called by then-Governor Pat McCrory left off. In December, legislators limited the power of local election boards and limited the power of the incoming governor. Many of these initiatives are being challenged in court.

Cooper chose Michael Regan to head the state’s Department of Environmental Quality. Regan served at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency under both the Clinton and G.W. Bush administrations and recently worked with a nonprofit environmental advocacy organization.

Due to the restrictions on gubernatorial powers imposed by the special session, Regan’s appointment must now be confirmed by the state Senate.
If passed, two bills filed in the House could help smooth the way for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. H.B. 3 would add a section to the state’s constitution expanding the situations in which government can apply eminent domain to take private property for public use.

H.B. 10 uses this revised definition to extend eminent domain to infrastructure projects including “facilities related to the distribution of natural gas, and pipelines or mains for the transportation of petroleum products, coal, natural gas, limestone or minerals.”

Ohio

Session runs from Jan. 3 to late June or July as needed

In December 2016, Gov. John Kasich, a Republican, vetoed a bill passed by the state’s Republican legislature that would have frozen the state’s renewable energy standards. Gov. Kasich had signed off on the freeze in 2014.

The state’s dominant utilities, American Electric Power and FirstEnergy, are also pushing the legislature to change to the way Ohio regulates utilities, in part to help keep AEP’s fleet of older coal-fired power plants profitable.

Pennsylvania

Session runs from Jan. 3 to June 30

Pennsylvania’s Democratic governor, Tom Wolf, is advocating for a severance tax on natural gas. It’s the third year he’s tried to institute such a tax — earlier efforts were defeated by the legislature’s Republican majority.

Several legislators introduced memos supporting use of the potential new tax revenue for various projects, including pension obligations and low-income utility bill assistance. The state faces a $3 billion budget shortfall, according to the Associated Press.

South Carolina

Session runs from Jan. 10 through June 1

State Sen. Campsen introduced a bill to reauthorize and fund the South Carolina Conservation Bank, a land protection institution that also facilitates public access to these areas. Another of Campsen’s proposals aims to restore certain wetlands.

In the House, Rep. Neal proposed an Environmental Bill of Rights asserting South Carolinians’ rights to clean air and water and allowing local governments to enact environmental protections that are stronger than state standards.

Another House bill, from Rep. Atwater, would allow all regulations to expire after five years unless they meet specific provisions, while a bill from Rep. Pitts would create an industrial hemp agriculture program.

Tennessee

Session runs from Jan. 10 through mid-April

One bill headed for the Senate would amend the tax code for oil and natural gas severance payments in order to provide more resources to impacted communities. If passed, funds could go towards infrastructure, which expands economic opportunities and decreases respiratory ailments caused by dusty roads.

Another Senate bill seeks to expand broadband internet service to underserved rural communities in Tennessee. Gov. Bill Haslam has also proposed a plan to invest $45 million in expanding broadband access over the next three years.

Environmental groups are seeking support for a bill that would expand how families and companies could finance energy upgrades, according to WMOT Radio.
The state’s environmental agency is also planning to privatize portions of Fall Creek Falls State Park.

Virginia

Session runs from Jan. 11 through late February

Parallel bills introduced in the Virginia House and Senate would encourage pumped hydroelectric storage facilities powered by renewable energy in Southwest Virginia. In facilities of this sort, wind or solar energy would pump water from a reservoir at a lower elevation to one at a higher elevation. That water can then be used for hydroelectric power whenever there is need on the energy grid.

Gov. Terry McAuliffe is expected to veto H.B. 2198, which would extend until 2022 tax credits to the coal industry that were set to expire in 2017. S.B. 990 aims to reduce electricity usage in the retail sector.

H.B. 1678 would exempt as “trade secrets” any chemicals and ingredients submitted to the DMME — such as those used in fracking — from requests under the Virginia Freedom of Information Act.

In the Senate, three bills sponsored by Sen. Frank W. Wagner focus on renewable energy. One bill would create community solar pilot projects in Dominion Virginia Power and Appalachian Power territories. Another bill sets parameters for small-scale generators at agricultural businesses that use renewable energy to sell any excess electricity. A third bill would allow wind and solar facilities up to 150 megawatts to benefit from an easier permitting process.

Read more about Virginia state legislation on the Front Porch Blog.

West Virginia

Session runs from Feb. 8 through April 8

West Virginia’s Democratic governor and coal-mine owner Jim Justice appointed Austin Caperton, another man with deep ties to the coal industry, secretary of the state’s Department of Environmental Protection.

On Jan. 27, Caperton fired Wendy Radcliff, the department’s environmental advocate. He also fired the department’s communications director.

“This is troublesome news,” Angie Rosser, executive director of the West Virginia Rivers Coalition, told the Charleston Gazette-Mail. “Radcliff has been the direct line for citizen concerns to help make sure the agency is accountable to the public.”

When the state’s legislature convenes, the West Virginia Mineral Owners Coalition intends to lobby for legislation that would support landowners, such as protecting a landowner’s right to deny access to pipeline surveyors and upholding minimum royalty payments for minerals.

Maintaining water quality standards, promoting energy efficiency upgrades in commercial buildings, and advocating for disclosure of campaign financing are among the legislative priorities of the West Virginia Environmental Council.

Environmental Votetracker — Feb/March 2017

Friday, February 10th, 2017 - posted by molly
Appalachian House and Senate votes on the Stream Protection Rule

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Trump’s Would-Be Coal Comeback Faces Long Odds

Thursday, December 15th, 2016 - posted by molly

By Brian Sewell

Author’s Note, December 19:

In the weeks since this piece was published in the Dec./Jan. issue of The Appalachian Voice, President-elect Trump has chosen climate change deniers, coal and oil executives, and close friends of the fossil fuel industry for top positions in his administration.

For the administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Trump selected Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt. A frequent foe of the agency’s rulemakings and federal court’s interpretation of the Clean Air Act, Pruitt describes himself as having “led the charge” against the EPA’s “activist agenda.” Trump’s Secretary of Commerce-Designate, Wilbur Ross, is a billionaire investor with strong ties to the Central Appalachian coal industry and a history of disregard for regulations that protect miners, communities and the environment. The president-elect’s choice for Energy Secretary, former Texas Governor Rick Perry, will be tasked with leading an agency with budget of $30 billion that Perry once advocated for eliminating altogether—despite famously blanking on the department’s name during a presidential primary debate in 2011.

Beyond the president-elect’s appointments, his transitions team’s actions on energy and the environment are causing serious concern among environmentalists and the scientific community. In early December, Trump’s transition team sent a questionnaire to officials at the U.S. Department of Energy requesting, among other things, a list of individuals involved in international climate negotiations and the programs associated with President Obama’s Climate Action Plan. Agency officials refused to respond to the controversial questionnaire and Trump’s team has since said it “was not authorized.”

With a month until the inauguration, Americans concerned about climate change and other environmental threats have little reason to believe that Trump will moderate his anti-scientific positions. He has instead surrounded himself with individuals that share those views. In response, environmental, economic and social justice advocates have amplified their calls to resist and defend against the regulatory rollbacks that Trump and soon-to-be members of his cabinet support.

— Brian Sewell

———-

Aside from his promises to "save the coal industry," Donald Trump has yet to address the need for investments to stimulate economic activity and job opportunities in Appalachia. Photo by Gage Skidmore, licensed under Creative Commons.

Aside from his promises to “save the coal industry,” Donald Trump has yet to address the need for investments to stimulate economic activity and job opportunities in Appalachia. Photo by Gage Skidmore, licensed under Creative Commons.

Ten days after winning the White House, Donald Trump called Jim Justice, the billionaire coal company owner and governor-elect of West Virginia, and asked him to pass along a message to residents of the Mountain State: “We are going to get those coal miners back to work.”

As he vetted candidates for cabinet-level positions, the president-elect made clear that the concern he showed for the coal industry during the campaign continues. Less clear is how exactly he will attempt to revive the struggling sector — or how he will confront the collateral damage to human health, the environment and the climate that could result.

Trump made bold promises throughout a campaign that often put feelings before facts. He has since waffled on a variety of stances, clouding expectations and adding to the speculation about his plans for the country.

Appalachia’s Choice

It’s impossible to fully parse the factors that led to Trump’s win. Having never served in public office or in the military, he was described as less qualified than a “speck of dirt” by Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, who later supported Trump. Other members of Congress claimed that Trump disqualified himself many times over during the course of the campaign.

Cast in a gold-plated veneer of populism, his speeches dredged up enmity toward Hillary Clinton and immigrants, expressed loudly by crowds chanting “lock her up” and “build the wall.” Among other popular targets were President Obama and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which Trump has called “an absolute disgrace” and accused of killing America’s energy companies.

In Appalachia, the electorate’s anxieties — whether stemming from economic, demographic or social change — were often viewed through the lens of coal and manufacturing job losses and economic stagnation. Clinton, already facing an uphill battle in the region, hurt herself even more when she told a town hall audience, “We’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business,” referring to the transition to cleaner energy sources already underway.

The gaffe became a sound bite used to validate Trump’s foreboding about coal’s future should Clinton become president. Inheriting the Republican Party’s mantle of ending a perceived regulatory “war on coal,” Trump assured mining communities of his allegiance to the industry. When the dust settled on the day after the election, Appalachia’s deep red complexion appeared again.

Kentucky was the first state called on election night, and it was quickly called for Trump. In Perry, Pike and Harlan, the state’s top three coal-producing counties, he won an average of more than 80 percent of the votes. Elliott County saw the largest swing toward Republicans in the country — 23 points more than in 2012 — and for the first time in its history voted against the Democratic presidential candidate. West Virginia, Tennessee and North Carolina also went red.

U.S. election map

Click to enlarge.
Central Appalachian coal mining counties have shifted more Republican since 2004. Sources: 2016 election data from Dave Leip’s Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections; 2004-2012 election results from the National Atlas; Mine data from MSHA, Part 50 Address/Employment files, 2004-2016.

Clinton narrowly took Virginia, as Obama did in 2012, but every county in the far southwestern corner of the state voted for Trump by larger margins than they did for Mitt Romney four years ago. Most importantly for the election’s outcome was the fact that Trump’s strident take on energy, manufacturing and international trade resonated beyond the coalfields and throughout the Rust Belt.

After voting for Obama twice, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin all flipped Republican this year. In those four states, Trump won 47 counties that Obama carried in 2012, and he outperformed Mitt Romney in dozens of Appalachian counties by 10 points or greater.

Clinton’s lead in the national popular vote exceeded two million, and the counties she carried represent nearly two-thirds of the country’s economic output — 64 percent compared to Trump’s 36, based on county-level data compiled by the Brookings Institution. But Appalachia’s choice was clear.

Implausible Promises

coal train

Trains loaded with coal for transport. ©iStockphoto/bsauter

Trump has, at various times, vowed to “encourage the use of natural gas” and “save the coal industry,” apparently unaware that competition from cheap gas is the primary driver behind coal’s domestic decline. He claims that rescinding regulations on fossil fuel production and use will allow wealth to “pour into our communities.” But even a casual survey of Appalachia’s history of resource extraction reveals how the region’s wealth has been concentrated by absentee landowners and corporations.

In recent decades, the trend has been toward the industry’s long-term and irreversible decline, and the pain felt in Appalachia has been especially acute. Appalachian states have lost more than 35,000 mining jobs in just five years, a decline of nearly 60 percent since the end of 2011. Over that period, job losses in the region accounted for more than 80 percent of coal job losses nationwide.

But long before the proliferation of fracking and the growing role of natural gas in the nation’s energy mix, the mechanization of underground and surface mining led to lower employment even as coal production climbed.

Underneath all of the rhetoric there is widespread recognition among coal and utility executives, energy analysts and some in mining communities that it is not within Trump’s power to save the industry.

After meeting with Trump in May, Murray Energy CEO Robert Murray described him as “sobered” when told the coal industry cannot bounce back. A vehement critic of the Obama administration’s environmental policies, Murray suggested that Trump moderate his message to avoid creating “expectations that aren’t real.”

Even Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell, one of the primary instigators of the “war on coal” narrative during Obama’s presidency, lowered the bar. “We are going to be presenting to the new president a variety of options that could end this assault,” McConnell said at the University of Louisville a few days after the election. “Whether that immediately brings business back is hard to tell because it’s a private sector activity.”

Still, by rolling back environmental regulations and reducing the federal government’s role in their enforcement, Trump may be able to slow the bleeding — but not without potentially opening new wounds.

Local (And Global) Implications

Environmentalists who have cheered falling carbon emissions and coal consumption worry the Trump administration’s policies could lead to long-term environmental and climate consequences that far outweigh any near-term economic gain. Under his watch, federal agencies are likely to take a more shortsighted approach to evaluating and permitting fossil fuel projects, including mountaintop removal coal mines and interstate oil and gas pipelines.

Trump says his administration will focus on “real environmental challenges, not phony ones.” But in his first 100 days as president he has pledged to lift the moratorium on federal coal leases in western states and rescind regulations including the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Stream Protection Rule and EPA rules limiting methane emissions from oil and gas operations. Trump also promises to kill the EPA’s Clean Power Plan, which instructs states to limit power plant carbon emissions, and withdraw the United States from the 2015 Paris climate agreement, which went into effect in November.

These, and many other of the incoming administration’s priorities, closely align with those of coal’s proponents in Congress. Where congressional action is needed to weaken environmental rules, President Trump will likely have many allies. His administration can take other steps — including walking away from the Paris deal — largely through executive action. Even before taking office, Trump’s anti-scientific stance on climate change has begun alienating key international partners like China and the European Union.

Based on recent statements, Trump’s grasp on the reality of climate change remains tenuous. When asked by The New York Times in a Nov. 22 meeting if he believes human activity contributes to global warming, he said that it “depends on how much it’s going to cost our companies.” America is sure to continue producing examples of climate leadership, whether in the private sector or at the state level, but there is no indication Trump’s administration will do anything but harm.

“The very thought of a Trump administration overseeing national energy policy will inevitably shift more of the action to the states,” David Victor, a professor at the University of California-San Diego’s School of Global Policy and Strategy, wrote in a post-election essay for Yale Environment 360.

On one hand, that could lead to a greater emphasis on efforts to reduce emissions in states like Virginia, where Gov. Terry McAuliffe has established a working group to recommend carbon-cutting strategies. But it could also embolden politically powerful industries in states where regulators lack the resources or willpower to adequately enforce environmental laws.

An Urgent Task

For all the attention paid to distressed Appalachian communities during the campaign, Trump has yet to address the growing need for targeted federal investments to stimulate economic activity and job opportunities in the region. Yet, when compared to Trump’s promises to save the industry, neither Hillary Clinton’s $30 billion plan for revitalizing coal communities nor existing White House initiatives received much national attention during the campaign. That’s not to say these ideas aren’t catching on in the coalfields.

Last fall, two dozen local governments in Central Appalachia passed unanimous resolutions in support of the Obama administration’s POWER+ Plan, a set of budgetary earmarks and policy proposals to bolster economic diversification in communities that have historically relied on coal. Through the related POWER Initiative, the Appalachian Regional Commission has awarded a total of nearly $47 million to more than 70 economic development projects across nine Appalachian states.

Appalachian lawmakers in the House and Senate have also introduced bipartisan legislation to invest in the region’s economic future. One bill, the RECLAIM Act, would direct $1 billion of existing money from the federal Abandoned Mine Reclamation Fund to clean up polluted post-mine sites and repurpose them for an economically beneficial use.

A September poll conducted by Public Opinion Strategies, a Republican polling firm, found that 89 percent of registered voters in Kentucky, Virginia, West Virginia, Tennessee, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Indiana support the RECLAIM Act. By a two-to-one margin, those polled believe that elected officials should prioritize attracting new employers and transitioning the region’s economy rather than fighting regulations.

If Trump plans to refocus the federal government’s role in response to the frustrations of rural communities that overwhelmingly endorsed him, he will need a clear-eyed approach to the challenges facing the region. “Nobody knows the system better than me,” Trump told the country upon accepting his party’s nomination, “which is why I alone can fix it.” Facing enormous odds, he now has a chance to try.

Voter Turnout in the Mountains

Thursday, August 11th, 2016 - posted by interns

With the White House, Appalachian congressional seats and some governorships up for grabs, votes cast this election cycle will impact the region for years to come. But will mountain voters go to the polls?

By Dan Radmacher

polling place

New voting restrictions for the 2016 election are in place in 17 states, including Georgia, North Carolina, Ohio, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia. Photo by Jesse Wood, courtesy High Country Press

If history is a guide, voter turnout in Appalachia for the November election will be significantly lower than most of the rest of the nation. Lower turnout for presidential elections has been a consistent pattern in Appalachia, dating at least back to the 2004 election, according to scholars.

Turnout in Appalachia for the 2012 election — measured as a percentage of the voting-age population that cast ballots for president — was 55 percent, compared to 60.5 percent in the rest of the nation, according to an analysis by Geoffrey Skelley, associate editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics.

These results echo Appalachian turnout in previous presidential elections.

David Sutton, former director of the Center for Appalachian Studies at Appalachian State University, studied turnout in the 2004 and 2008 presidential elections. In articles for Appalachian Journal, he cited significant turnout differences between counties in Appalachia and counties outside the region.

In 2004, 14 Appalachian counties in Kentucky had turnout at least 10 percentage points below the state average. Eight of the 10 counties with the lowest turnout in Ohio were in Appalachia. In Virginia, turnout in the 9th Congressional District was more than four points lower than the statewide average.

In 2008, West Virginia, the only state entirely within the boundaries of Appalachia, tied Hawaii for the lowest turnout rate at 50.6 percent. Many Kentucky coal counties had turnout below 50 percent.

In a 2012 pre-election blog post, Dustin Cable, then with the University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Research, wrote, “The lowest turnout regions of the country in 2008 were in Appalachia and parts of the South, regions with fewer people with college degrees and higher than average poverty rates.”

While voter turnout rates seem definitively correlated with both income and education, the factors that drive that correlation are complex, says Michael McDonald, associate professor of political science at the University of Florida and creator of the United States Election Project blog.

“It’s very clear that the more educated you are, the higher your turnout,” McDonald says. “The disagreement is about the causation. It could be that more participatory people seek out more information.”

Paul Martin, assistant professor at University of Virginia’s Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy, agrees the causes aren’t clear-cut.

“There is a cyclical process where, by the virtue of the fact that politicians aren’t putting issues on the table that appeal to lower-income voters, it becomes hard to convince them that their vote matters,” Martin says. “At the same time, the only way to get politicians to pay attention to you is to have high turnout.”

When parties and politicians make an effort to boost turnout in an area, it boosts voter participation, according to Martin. “But they also focus on the people they think will come out. Parties are strategic and don’t want to throw away limited resources on folks who are unlikely to vote.”

Campaigns use data to decide who to contact, Martin says. “It’s one of those awful chicken-and-egg situations. If parties acted differently, it might cultivate more participation. Voters might change their minds about what’s in their best interest.”

Voting is a habitual behavior, Martin says. Once someone starts, they are likely to keep voting. Because of that, age is a stronger predictor of voting than income. “People participate because they think they’re wanted,” he says. “If they’ve been neglected or left behind, it becomes difficult to convince folks their voices matter.”

Roy Silver, a professor of sociology at Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College, agrees that Appalachians may not see the value of voting. “Part of it is that people don’t see these politicians and their platforms addressing their basic needs,” he says. “The influence of money in politics also inhibits greater participation. It creates cynicism and reinforces the notion that we have a plutocracy and that the system is rigged.”

Short of convincing parties and candidates that Appalachian areas are worthwhile investments for get-out-the-vote efforts, there are some voting reforms that might help raise turnout rates, McDonald and Silver say. “What you really need is something like election-day registration,” McDonald says. “If you were looking for a reform that would do the most good, automatic registration, with an opt-out for those who don’t want to register, would probably have a lot of effect.”

Voting needs to be more accessible, Silver says. “Our polls in Kentucky are open from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. That inhibits people who work from getting to the polls, particularly for those who work in the mines. Making all the voting places more accessible, making registration more streamlined — these would all help.”

For voter registration and polling place information, visit canivote.org.

Environmental Votetracker — Aug/Sept 2016

Wednesday, August 10th, 2016 - posted by molly
votetracker

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The Path of Most Resistance

Tuesday, June 14th, 2016 - posted by interns

Renewable energy is here to stay. But utility pushback and state policy battles could determine who has access to cleaner power.

By Brian Sewell

Last December, Congress supercharged America’s already-booming solar industry when it extended federal tax credits for commercial and residential projects. The boost is expected to nearly double the total amount of solar installed — and the number of solar jobs — in the United States by 2021.

Citizens are calling on their power companies to increase access to renewable energy in creative ways.  Appalachian Power Company customers attend a grassroots meeting to oppose extra charges and size limits on solar in Virginia. Photo by Hannah Wiegard.

Citizens are calling on their power companies to increase access to renewable energy in creative ways. Appalachian Power Company customers attend a grassroots meeting to oppose extra charges and size limits on solar in Virginia. Photo by Hannah Wiegard

With federal incentives locked-in for the next five years, battles for the future of clean energy are heating up in dozens of states. Across the country, electric utilities are fighting to maintain monopoly control in the face of increasing power generation from distributed resources like rooftop solar or small wind projects that produce electricity near the point of consumption.

In many states, though, clean energy has built a constituency. Where the solar industry is well-established, it supports thousands of jobs and has the backing of a committed customer base that is calling for access to renewable power — for all.

Distributed Disputes

Pick any state on the map and there’s likely a battle related to residential solar already underway. Take West Virginia, where lawmakers approved changes last year to net metering, a policy that allows utility customers with their own solar installations to offset the cost of power they draw from the grid with power they produce.

In March 2015, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin vetoed a bill directing the state Public Service Commission to investigate utilities’ most common argument against net metering: that, as more homeowners go solar and save money, eventually customers without solar will be forced to pay more.

  A solar project designed to test North Carolina’s ban on third-party electricity sales catches some rays on the roof of a Greensboro church. Photo courtesy of NC WARN.


A solar project designed to test North Carolina’s ban on third-party electricity sales catches some rays on the roof of a Greensboro church. Photo courtesy of NC WARN

But groups including The Alliance for Solar Choice and WV SUN claimed the bill’s vague language could lead to fees and even punitive charges on West Virginians that already have solar. Two weeks after vetoing the original bill, Gov. Tomblin signed a revised version into law that also instructs the commission to consider the potential upsides of net metering.

Several state commissions are way ahead of West Virginia’s and have already concluded that the benefits of net metering are both vast and shared. In 2014, the Mississippi Public Services Commission found that net metering promotes energy security and takes pressure off the state’s power plants during periods of high energy demand.

A similar study conducted for the Maine Public Utilities Commission in 2015 valued electricity generated by distributed solar at 33 cents per kilowatt hour, compared to 13 cents per kilowatt hour, the average retail price of electricity in the state. The higher value accounts for benefits to customers with or without solar such as reductions in air and climate pollution.

Overall, a recent analysis by North Carolina State University’s Clean Energy Technology Center found that changes to net metering policies or the valuation of distributed solar were considered or enacted in 46 states last year alone. Many of those stemmed from utility-led efforts to thwart solar that are unlikely to let up.

The American Legislative Exchange Council, an organization of industry groups and state lawmakers that drafts model legislation, has resolved to change state net metering policies. In its 2016 corporate goals, the Edison Electric Institute, an association of investor-owned electric utilities that funds ALEC and helped draft the resolution, calls on power companies to continue pushing back against distributed generation.

Some utilities that have lobbied to impede distributed solar are also pushing to keep uneconomical power plants online. In March, FirstEnergy and American Electric Power, which have pushed for changes to net metering in West Virginia and other states, won approval from Ohio regulators to raise rates to keep seven aging coal plants and one nuclear plant operating until 2024, despite being uncompetitive in interstate electricity markets. Research by the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis indicates the plan could cost ratepayers more than $4 billion.

Tug-of-War Tests Laws

More than any other state in the Southeast, North Carolina has emerged as a national solar leader, especially when it comes to utility-scale solar farms. Between 2007 and 2015, nearly $6 billion was invested in clean energy development in the state. Last year, North Carolina added 1,134 megawatts of solar capacity, second only to California.

State tax credits for solar projects and a standard requiring utilities to meet a portion of electricity demand with renewables have made the state a model of solar success. But some North Carolina policymakers want to take a different path. Lawmakers let the state’s solar tax credit expire at the end of 2015.

Solar power is one of the fastest growing energy sources in the United States. But due to a patchwork of regulations, the total amount of solar capacity installed varies widely by state and sector. Illustration courtesy of the Smart Electric Power Alliance.

Solar power is one of the fastest growing energy sources in the United States. But due to a patchwork of regulations, the total amount of solar capacity installed varies widely by state and sector. Illustration courtesy of the Smart Electric Power Alliance

After an attempt in the state legislature last year to weaken the state’s Renewable Energy Portfolio Standard, solar advocates are doubling down to communicate the benefits clean energy provides to residents.

“We learned that there is a lot of misinformation surrounding the solar industry and the clean energy industry as a whole,” says Maggie Clark, Interim Director of Government Affairs of the N.C. Sustainable Energy Association. “It is falsely assumed that the [renewable energy standard] is a cost to ratepayers.”

Solar power is one of the fastest growing energy sources in the United States. But due to a patchwork of regulations, the total amount of solar capacity installed varies widely by state and sector. Illustration courtesy of the Smart Electric Power Alliance.

Solar power is one of the fastest growing energy sources in the United States. But due to a patchwork of regulations, the total amount of solar capacity installed varies widely by state and sector. Illustration courtesy of the Smart Electric Power Alliance

According to the North Carolina-based research institute RTI International, energy costs are lower today than they would have been if the state continued to rely entirely on conventional power sources. Researchers estimate investments in renewables and energy efficiency to comply with the renewable standard will generate $651 million in savings for ratepayers between 2008 and 2029.

Even Jim Rogers, who was CEO of Duke Energy in 2007 when the company helped craft the standard, called out the policymakers pushing to weaken it.

“They are not focused on the future,” Rogers said last year during a speech at the Charlotte Business Journal’s Energy Inc. Summit. “They are focused on the past.”

Companies including New Belgium Brewing and Mars, Inc., sent a letter to lawmakers opposing the effort because the renewable standard gave “companies like ours the business case to build and operate in North Carolina.” Apple, Google and Facebook, which have data centers in the state, warned legislators in another letter that freezing the standard would “risk undermining the state’s almost decade-long commitment to renewable power and energy efficiency.”

The renewable standard survived due to a groundswell of public attention and support from a broad range of stakeholders. But now a different fight is pitting companies and communities that want easier access to affordable solar against Duke Energy.

In April, the North Carolina Utilities Commission shot down an experimental solar project set up on a Greensboro church to test the legality of third-party electricity sales. North Carolina is one of only four states in the country with a ban on third-party sales, which allow energy producers other than utilities to compete in the clean energy marketplace. Duke Energy operates in three of those states.

NC WARN, the Durham-based advocacy group behind the test project, appealed the commission’s ruling in May and disputed the idea that North Carolina is a leader on solar when it lacks policies to promote commercial and residential installations.

Standby for Solar

Unlike North Carolina, the solar market in Virginia has sat idle for years. The commonwealth has about the same potential for solar as its southern neighbor, but lacks a mandatory renewable portfolio standard and never enacted state tax credits to bolster clean energy investments.

An April report by the Center for Biological Diversity gave Virginia — among other southeastern states including Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee — an “F” on policies to help residents access solar. That’s harsh but not far off, according to Ivy Main, an environmental lawyer who writes about Virginia energy policy on her blog Power for the People VA.

“We’ve reached an economic tipping point where some residents and businesses find it worth doing,” says Main. ”But we also have standby charges that apply to larger residential systems.”

Another emerging trend is actions by utilities to impose fees on customers with solar that still need the grid as backup. Dominion Virginia Power and Appalachian Power Company have both instituted “standby charges” in Virginia that will cost customers with solar systems larger than 10 kilowatts hundreds of dollars each year.

Since currently only a handful of the utilities’ customers have systems that size, Main argues the extra fees are intended to discourage the residential solar market rather than protect ratepayers. And, like utility arguments against net metering, the charges ignore the benefits of distributed resources.

“[Distributed generation] is being done with private investment, but it is a tremendous public service,” Main says.

As Duke Energy and Dominion restrict access to solar, they’re making the case to utility regulators — and ratepayers — that building the $5 billion Atlantic Coast Pipeline to transport natural gas is a must to maintain reliability and meet growing electricity demand. The two utilities will own a majority stake in the project, but if anticipated demand for natural gas does not materialize, their customers will still be on the hook to pay for the pipeline.

“We’re seeing a clash of visions,” says Main. “It’s going to take a lot of public pressure to expand access to clean energy and make sure we’re not locked into fossil fuels for the next 30 years.”

Environmental Votetracker — June/July 2016

Tuesday, June 14th, 2016 - posted by Elizabeth E. Payne
votetracker_JUN_JULY2016

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