Archive for the ‘Appalachia’s Political Landscape’ Category

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

Click to enlarge

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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RECLAIMing Central Appalachia

Tuesday, April 19th, 2016 - posted by molly

Federal efforts could boost local economies, repair environmental damages

By Molly Moore

A rare bipartisan proposal aims to tackle two pressing issues related to the flailing coal industry — the need for new economic opportunities in central Appalachia and repairing environmental damage from decades of mining.

In March, nine grassroots advocates from Appalachia traveled to Washington, D.C., to meet with congressional representatives and staff from the White House and federal agencies. The week’s events were coordinated by The Alliance For Appalachia, a coalition of 15 environmental and community organizations including Appalachian Voices, the publisher of this newspaper.

The top priority was to inform regional legislators about the RECLAIM Act — a bill that intends to breathe new life into struggling central Appalachian economies while remediating land and water polluted by decades-old abandoned mines.


    The map shows counties that have abandoned mine lands on the federal inventory. Dark red counties have the most reclamation costs; the lightest shade of red has the least. Source: Daily Yonder from the federal Abandoned Mine Land Inventory System. Map courtesy Daily Yonder

Congressional Cooperation

In February of this year, Rep. Hal Rogers, a Republican from eastern Kentucky, introduced the RECLAIM Act with the support of congressmen from both parties — Rep. Morgan Griffith (R-VA), Rep. Don Beyer (D-VA), Rep. Evan Jenkins (R-WV) and Rep. Matt Cartwright (D-PA). The RECLAIM Act would accelerate payments from the existing federal Abandoned Mine Lands fund, dispersing $1 billion over five years to projects that would reclaim former mining sites while boosting local economic development.

Representatives of The Alliance For Appalachia during a March trip to Washington, D.C.[/caption]Jack Kennedy, clerk of Circuit Court for Wise County and Norton, Va., and a former member of the Virginia General Assembly, says that the RECLAIM Act could lead to solar utility projects on abandoned mines and other endeavors.

“The RECLAIM Act passage would provide Appalachian community jobs immediately working to ameliorate brownfield real estate into a productive state for commercial or agricultural or other productive purposes over a period of time,” he wrote in an email.

The bill’s support from legislators like Rogers and Griffith — staunch opponents of environmental regulation, which they allege is responsible for Appalachia’s poor coal market — signals a willingness to cooperate with the administration to provide economic and community development in areas that have depended on the coal industry.

Under the RECLAIM Act, $1 billion from the federal Abandoned Mine Lands fund would be directed to qualifying states and tribes over a five-year period starting in 2017. The AML fund was established in 1977 to restore land and water contaminated by coal mines that were abandoned before the federal surface mining law took effect that year. The AML program is funded by a per-ton fee on coal production, and the money is distributed based on a state or tribe’s current coal production rather than the amount of damaged land and water.

Protect Our Water, Reclaim Our Future

Join The Alliance for Appalachia in Washington, D.C., to speak with legislators and decision-makers June 5-8. For more information, email Alannah@TheAllianceForAppalachia.org.


Presently, the AML fund holds $2.5 billion that is not dedicated toward specific projects, though the interest helps support a pension fund for roughly 100,000 retired union miners. This $2.5 billion was intended as a reserve fund for states to use after 2021, when the AML program is set to expire — the RECLAIM Act would expedite the disbursal of $1 billion from that pot.

According to a July 2015 report by the AML Policy Priorities Group, directing $200 million annually to abandoned mine lands projects for five years would bring national economic benefits of 3,117 jobs and contribute close to $500 million to the United States economy. The researchers, affiliated with Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center and The Alliance for Appalachia, estimated that central Appalachia would see about 35 percent of those benefits. They called for allocating the $1 billion in a way that differs from the RECLAIM Act by also considering economic distress. Such a formula would further boost the benefits for the area.

Even enacting RECLAIM with the current formula could be a powerful catalyst. “By expanding the scope of the AML program to consider economic benefits, Rogers and his colleagues have introduced a forward-thinking solution to one of the biggest challenges facing our region today,” Kennedy wrote in a March op-ed in the Richmond Times-Dispatch. “The fact that the bill continues to gain bipartisan support is noteworthy and speaks to the urgent need for creative approaches to the economic woes of our coal regions.”

Community Support

The premise of the RECLAIM bill is based on one of the components of the president’s POWER-Plus Plan. The plan was first introduced as part of the president’s 2016 budget proposal and was reintroduced for the 2017 budget.

POWER-Plus received a warm welcome from local governments and community groups in the region, many of which were already working to diversify the historically coal-dependent economy. Twenty-eight local governments and organizations passed resolutions supporting the economic revitalization package, including 12 entities in Rogers’ home district.

Representatives of The Alliance For Appalachia during a March trip to Washington, D.C.

Representatives of The Alliance For Appalachia during a March trip to Washington, D.C. Photo courtesy The Alliance for Appalachia

Among those were the Benham Town Council and the Benham Power Board, a municipally owned utility. In early 2016, Carl Shoupe, a retired coal miner in Harlan County, Ky., and member of the Benham Power Board, wrote to Rogers and asked the congressman to help secure the funding needed to implement the POWER-Plus Plan. Citing the local declarations of support, he wrote, “As the resolutions say, we believe our transition should be one that ‘celebrates culture; invests in communities; generates good, stable and meaningful jobs; is just and equitable; and protects and restores the land, air and water.’”

Lawmakers incorporated some of the president’s plan in their one-year federal budget for 2016 including a proposal by Rogers to direct $90 million in AML funding to projects with economic potential in Pennsylvania, Kentucky and West Virginia, the three states with the highest remaining costs for cleaning up abandoned mines.

As of early April, the RECLAIM Act — which would go a step further with its $1 billion allocation — had an equal number of Republican and Democratic co-sponsors. As the bill picks up more backers, a number of regional stakeholders are paying attention to how the bill is structured, and how the federal funds would be distributed.

“The Alliance [for Appalachia] is working to ensure that a strong public engagement process is included in RECLAIM,” Economic Transition Coordinator Lyndsay Tarus wrote in an email. “If the intent of the legislation is to boost economic transition, then communities most in need of the funding need their voices heard.”

During their March trip to Washington, D.C., the Alliance representatives also spoke with federal agency staff about the need for reliable oversight of clean water regulations, including a strong Stream Protection Rule to protect waterways from mining damage.

“The Alliance understands that meaningful and sustainable economic transition is just not possible when the basic necessity of clean water isn’t available,” Tarus states.

A POWERful Big Picture

The expedited release of abandoned mine lands dollars is one piece of a broader effort to assist central Appalachia and other communities around the country experiencing economic hardships due to coal’s decline.

In addition to the abandoned mine lands proposal, President Obama’s POWER-Plus Plan would strengthen the healthcare and pension plans for approximately 100,000 retired coal miners and their families. The Miners Protection Act, a bill to enact the pension change, is currently in the Senate. The POWER-Plus Plan also calls for two new tax credits for power plants that use carbon-capture technology.

Another core component of the plan is the proposed Partnerships for Opportunity and Workforce and Economic Revitalization initiative, which would grant $75 million in economic development funding to the region. These funds would provide more support for former coal workers through programs such as the Appalachian Regional Commission and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development program. An additional $5 million to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Brownfields Program would also clean up contaminated lands that have economic potential in formerly coal-dependent communities.

This POWER funding would help these agencies provide workforce training and bolster economic developments such as broadband access to attract new business.

In fall 2015, the Obama administration announced what it called a “down payment” on the plan — nearly $15 million in grants to kick-start some of these initiatives. So far, the grants have been allocated to strengthen Kentucky’s local food supply chain, bring agriculture to reclaimed mines in West Virginia, provide job training in fields such as technology and local food, develop community-specific economic diversification plans, create a substance abuse treatment center, and help new and existing industries capitalize on an expanding broadband network. Read more at right.

Kennedy waxes enthusiastically about the prospect for economic revitalization embodied in the RECLAIM Act and the POWER-Plus Plan. “Restoring Appalachian opportunity is essential,” he states. “We need to be among the first providing multiple 20 to 80 megawatts of small commercial-scale solar utility farms to learn and culturally accept the energy transition underway in our nation and around the globe.”

“Change is hard, but it is the only constant even for us in the more isolated mountains,” he continues. “We must adapt, improvise and overcome multiple challenges.”

As legislators, agency administrators and regional advocates work to pass these various federal economic proposals, one of the challenges for local supporters will be to make sure citizen input and priorities are reflected in the implementation of these programs.

“The key thing is citizen involvement,” says Mary Love, a Kentucky resident and member of The Alliance For Appalachia’s federal strategy team who met with legislators about the RECLAIM Act. “They have to show that they have citizen involvement in deciding what projects to fund. You can bet that we’ll be all over that.”

Grants Power Area Projects

➤ In southeast Kentucky, the POWER Initiative provided funding for the nonprofit media institution Appalshop to work with Southeast Community & Technical College and ten local employers to develop a one-year certificate program in technology. The three-track program would offer classes geared towards web coding, graphic and web design, and network infrastructure and security services. According to Ada Smith, Appalshop’s institutional development director, a formal certificate in technology would provide “a marked signifier to others that this person is interested, available and ready to work.” Smith hopes that courses will begin in fall 2017, and is optimistic that the program could be replicated at other community colleges.

➤ The Southern Appalachian Labor School in Robson, W.Va., received a planning grant to evaluate how both abandoned and reclaimed surface mines in the area might be used to provide economic benefits. “Right now we’re going to try to scope post-mining sites in the county, see what’s available, do a solar site analysis and see if it’s feasible to put in a solar farm,” says Director John David. The team will be looking at issues such as grid connectivity and cost, in addition to considering other projects like orchards and a senior living complex.

➤ The organization Friends of Southwest Virginia received a POWER Initiative grant to advance ongoing tourism, recreation and entrepreneurship projects. Among the endeavors is a new ecological education center near the Clinch River that will serve as both an educational and entrepreneurial hub. Another project will improve riverfront access from the New River to five downtown centers in Giles County. In Wise County, local tourism partners plan to create a visitors center in Norton to provide information about the region’s assets.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the ecological education center supported by Friends of Southwest Virginia would be on the Guest River. Instead, the proposed center would be on the Clinch River near St. Paul. We regret the error.

Environmental Votetracker — April/May 2016

Monday, April 18th, 2016 - posted by molly
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Environmental Votetracker – Feb/March 2016

Thursday, February 18th, 2016 - posted by molly
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How Congress Controls Regional Spending

Wednesday, December 9th, 2015 - posted by Elizabeth E. Payne

Budget Vs. Appropriations

Polluted water flows from a reclaimed surface mine in Kentucky. The congressional appropriations process could affect whether regulators can finalize a new rule designed to protect waterways from some of the damage caused by coal mining. Photo by Matt Wasson

Polluted water flows from a reclaimed surface mine in Kentucky. The congressional appropriations process could affect whether regulators can finalize a new rule designed to protect waterways from some of the damage caused by coal mining. Photo by Matt Wasson

Editor’s Note: Congress passed an omnibus spending bill on Dec. 18. Read Thom Kay’s analysis on our Front Porch Blog.

By Thom Kay

Before leaving Congress, House Speaker John Boehner worked with the Senate and the White House to reach a federal budget deal. While few members of Congress are happy with all of the specifics of that deal, the fact that the country isn’t facing another government shutdown is widely accepted as a good thing.

Passing a budget and passing an appropriations bill, however, are not the same thing. A budget sets a total spending limit and allocates a specific amount to mandatory and discretionary spending. Mandatory spending includes benefits like Social Security, Medicare, and food assistance programs, while discretionary comprises nearly everything else, including spending allocations for the military, education, and federal regulatory agencies like the U.S. Office of Surface Mining, Reclamation, and Enforcement.

The appropriations bill decides how much money is allotted to each individual agency, even down to the separate departments within the agencies. As such, the appropriations bill has enormous implications for agencies like the OSMRE. Congress can cut the agency’s budget by allocating the money to a different agency, and can also include amendments to limit OSMRE’s actions. For instance, Congress will likely give the agency approximately $130 million. But legislators can also add amendments, or “policy riders,” that can tell OSMRE they are not allowed to spend a single dollar on a specific action.

OSMRE is currently working on completing the Stream Protection Rule, which is intended to limit the impacts of surface coal mining on streams. Coal industry advocates in Congress are trying to pass the STREAM Act, H.R. 1644, which would take away the agency’s legal authority to complete the rule. If that tactic fails, however, Congress could instead attach a policy rider to the appropriations bill that would prohibit OSMRE from using their funds to complete the rule.

In other words, the OSMRE could still have the legal authority and the total money necessary to complete the Stream Protection Rule, but Congress can take away their ability to use their funds to complete the rule. The effect, at least in the short term, would be the same as passing a standalone bill like the STREAM Act that blocks the rule.

The appropriations process is meant to allocate money, not act as legislation. However, Congress has frequently used it as a tool to counter actions from the executive branch, especially when Congress and the White House are held by different parties as they are now. Political analysts on both sides of the aisle are expecting to see dozens of anti-environmental amendments offered that would, among other things, prohibit the OSMRE from completing the Stream Protection Rule and prohibit the EPA from enforcing the Clean Power Plan to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from power plants. The chances that such amendments will pass remains unclear.

Aside from telling agencies what they can’t do, legislators also have opportunities to fund new projects like the POWER+ Plan, an economic revitalization package proposed by the Obama administration that is aimed at assisting regions affected by coal’s decline (see page 20 for details). Through this plan, Congress can focus existing funds to projects that would create jobs in Appalachia by reclaiming abandoned mining sites, retraining former miners and coordinating economic transition work throughout the region — all without increasing overall government spending.

Appalachian representatives will have major influence over the final appropriations bill. Congressman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) is the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, and Senator Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is the Senate Majority Leader. The POWER+ Plan would direct money to eastern Kentucky, which Rep. Rogers represents, so both he and Sen. McConnell have an interest in making sure Kentucky gets that money. On the environmental side, the Stream Protection Rule would alter regulation of the coal industry in Kentucky, and, along with the coal industry, Rep. Rogers and Sen. McConnell oppose the new regulations.

As of press time in late November, the future of the appropriations bill was cloudy, and answers about how the final bill will affect the environmental and economic programs in Appalachia are still unknown. While much of the debate happens publicly, real negotiations usually happen behind closed doors. In both instances, the people of Appalachia have an opportunity to speak out and ensure that their voices are reflected.

Appalachia’s Environmental Votetracker – Dec. 2015/Jan. 2016

Wednesday, December 9th, 2015 - posted by molly
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