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>> Sign the petition to stop the Atlantic Coast Pipeline today! <<
It’s no secret: oil and gas pipelines have captured the nation’s attention, not to mention the new administration’s. Standing Rock’s resistance to the Dakota Access pipeline continues to put water protection, indigenous rights and environmental justice at the fore of any pipeline discussion. And not so long ago, the Keystone XL pipeline came to symbolize the United States’ willingness to lead (or not) on climate action. Now the Trump administration hopes to revive both.
The Trump administration also hopes to push through the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, which would transport fracked gas 600 miles from the Marcellus Shale in northern West Virginia through Virginia and into North Carolina. A list of the administration’s top 50 infrastructure priorities leaked in January includes the Atlantic Coast Pipeline at number 20. The document reports the pipeline’s permitting process as “done,” despite the fact that comment periods for some federal and state permits are currently open and no permits have been issued. How’s that for alternative facts?
Pipelines not needed
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), the agency with primary authority for permitting interstate gas pipelines, was generally viewed as pipeline-friendly even prior to the Trump era. The agency allows a 14 percent rate of return on investments in pipeline capital, and its environmental reviews typically fall short in analyzing both the need for additional pipelines and the projected climate impacts of new projects (in addition to many other deficiencies).
However, former FERC Chairman Norman Bay offered a surprising call for reform of the agency’s pipeline certificate process when he stepped away at the beginning of February (see the last six pages of this FERC order). Bay criticized the method FERC uses to determine whether or not there is a need for a pipeline. He pointed out that FERC usually looks to precedent agreements between pipeline owners and gas shippers as evidence of need. But this method is flawed.
According to Bay, “focusing on precedent agreements may not take into account a variety of other considerations, including … whether the precedent agreements are largely signed by affiliates.”
In other words, a company applying to build a new pipeline says, “Look, we have subscribers lined up to buy gas from the pipeline, so there must be a need for it.” But a closer examination reveals that the buyer and the seller are both affiliates of the same parent corporation.
This echoes a concern highlighted in a report from the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis published in April 2016. That report found that “in situations in which a pipeline developer contracts with an affiliate company to ship gas through a new pipeline, this is strong evidence that it is doing so because of the financial advantage to the parent company from building the pipeline, but not necessarily that there is a need for the pipeline.”
This report studied the risks of building both the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and the Mountain Valley Pipeline, a 300-mile gas pipeline that would also cut through the Appalachian regions of West Virginia and Virginia. It pointed out that for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, five of the six companies contracted to buy gas are affiliates of the companies building the pipeline. Energy behemoths Dominion Resources and Duke Energy have a combined 85 percent ownership stake in the pipeline, and their subsidiary companies have subscribed to 86 percent of the gas shipped. For the Mountain Valley Pipeline, all six of the buyers are affiliates of the companies building the pipeline.
Another report, published in September 2016 by Synapse Energy Economics, Inc., studied conservative estimates of future gas demand in Virginia and the Carolinas. It concluded that, even under scenarios where gas use for electricity production is high, existing pipelines have more than enough capacity to provide energy to the region. That is, we can keep the lights on and businesses thriving without ever building the Atlantic Coast and Mountain Valley pipelines.
Climate impacts of gas pipelines
In addition to the needs analysis, Bay also called on FERC to reform its evaluation of climate impacts. In its draft environmental review of the Mountain Valley Pipeline, FERC refused to consider that the pipeline would spur more gas production, enabling more methane leakage along the entire supply chain. Without quantifying them, FERC compared downstream smokestack emissions to global greenhouse gas emissions and concluded that the pipeline’s emissions would merely be a drop in the bucket.
In its draft environmental review for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, FERC did attempt a rough calculation of downstream emissions but again refused to analyze upstream effects or methane leakage. FERC’s review stated that emissions from burning the Atlantic Coast Pipeline’s gas would be roughly 29 million metric tons (MMt) per year.
A new briefing published by Oil Change International puts a comparable number on emissions from gas combustion for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, estimating 31 MMt annually. But when you add increased gas production and methane leakage along the supply chain, total emissions more than double, reaching nearly 68 MMt per year. The organization also published a briefing for the Mountain Valley Pipeline, estimating total life-cycle emissions at nearly 90 MMt annually.
To put that in perspective, emissions from the Atlantic Coast Pipeline would be the rough equivalent of adding 20 coal-fired power plants to the grid or putting 14 million more cars on the road. Emissions from the Mountain Valley Pipeline would be like adding 26 coal-fired power plants or putting 19 million more cars on the road.
While Norman Bay defended FERC’s existing climate analysis methods from a legal perspective, he also argued for change. He stated that “in the interests of good government” the agency should analyze downstream impacts and perform lifecycle analysis of greenhouse gas emissions — not just from pipelines — but from the entire Marcellus and Utica gas production region.
Other environmental impacts
Besides bludgeoning our atmosphere with huge amounts of new greenhouse gas pollution, the Atlantic Coast and Mountain Valley pipelines would, of course, threaten thousands of groundwater sources, surface streams and wetlands. Constructing the pipelines would force the permanent removal of trees along their routes, fragmenting habitats and spoiling views from the Appalachian Trail. The projects would threaten human health and safety, especially near powerful compressor stations used to pump gas along the line. They would disproportionately impact lower-income communities, communities of color and Native American communities, threatening important historic and cultural resources.
What can you do?
Unfortunately, Bay did not follow his own advice and revise the way FERC analyzes pipeline need or climate impacts while he led the agency. But here’s how you can do your part:
Mountain Valley Pipeline:
Atlantic Coast Pipeline:
Of the many actions taken by the Trump administration in recent days, one that is skating by with little notice is an attempt to kill the Stream Protection Rule.
This country has a very real problem with water. In Flint, Mich., many still rely on bottled water as toxic lead pipes have contaminated their municipal water. One of the resources we are most blessed with here in Appalachia is fresh drinking water of the highest quality. We should be taking every possible measure that we can to protect it.
Enacted last year, the Stream Protection Rule is a modest, common sense safeguard to ensure the quality of our streams that are impacted by mountaintop removal mining operations. In Southwest Virginia and across Appalachia, it is common practice for mining companies to bury streams under tons of mining waste.
Streams are also frequently contaminated by heavy metals, and other pollutants discharged from surface mines. The Stream Protection Rule compels mining companies to monitor the water quality of streams they are operating near — waters that many others use for recreation or draw drinking water from — and to address any issues caused by mining.
The Trump administration and congressional Republicans have made it clear that they intend to attack many of the rules and laws that seek to protect the air and water of the United States. Now members of the majority party wish to kill this rule with little debate, using an obscure law known as the Congressional Review Act. We cannot allow that to happen.
As an Appalachian raised in Bristol, with family roots across Southwest Virginia and northeast Tennessee, I urge Senators Warner and Kaine to defend the Stream Protection Rule against attacks. Clean water is an incredibly precious and vital resource — one that so many do not enjoy. We must take every effort to protect our water. We must reject any effort to kill the Stream Protection Rule.
Originally from Bath County, Virginia, Matt received his B.A. in geography from Virginia Tech with a concentration in Geographic Information Systems and environmental resources. After working in the GIS field for five years, he spent two years in the master’s program at Appalachian State University, focusing on hydrology. Matt returned to Virginia to work for the Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards in Wise County, leading the group’s water program and helping develop litigation strategies against coal companies. He joined Appalachian Voices in 2017, and is based in our Norton office. Matt is a hiker and square dance caller, and loves spending time on the rivers of Central Appalachia
matt.hepler [at] appvoices.org
Our first Highlander fellow, Terran joins the Appalachian Voices team in our Norton office. She is working in collaboration with Southern Appalachian Mountains Stewards (SAMS) and Livelihoods Knowledge Exchange Network (LiKEN) on a land study project, a continuation of Who Owns Appalachia, a project in the late 1970’s on land ownership in the Appalachian region. A native of Wise County, Virginia, she attended Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, where she studied sociology. Prior to the fellowship, Terran worked in mental health for five years as an advocate and direct support specialist. She is currently studying to become a Master Herbalist and is also a writer/producer for Spaceman Productions.
swvalandstudy [at] gmail.com
A native Virginia who hails from Bristol, Lydia received her B.S. in Sustainable Development from Appalachian State University. She has worked on local food and sustainable agriculture initiatives with Appalachian Sustainable Development in Abingdon, where she also served on the Sustain Abingdon Commission and helped organize a number of events for the city, including a residential solarize program. At Appalachian Voices, Lydia works on solar development in the Southwest Virginia coalfields as an Americorps VISTA member. She feels deeply connected to her roots in Appalachia and enjoys learning and working on all things connected to its past and future.
lydia [at] appvoices.org
Meredith, or “Mayzie,” grew up in the intentional community known as The Farm outside Nashville, Tenn. The community works to help insure that all people have access to clean water, sanitation, nutrition and livelihood, a philosophy at the core of her life’s work. Mayzie received a nursing certificate from Caldwell Community College and is also a certified community herbalist. She co-owned an eco-friendly fair trade store in Boone, N.C. More recently, she worked with the non-profit, Go Conscious Earth, in the Democratic Republic of Congo to document and facilitate the installation of five clean water wells that now serve 10,000 people. Mayzie lives on a portion of 165 acres she helped preserve along the Blue Ridge Parkway, where she has raised her three daughters, Lydia, Rory and Charly.]]>
As expected, the Senate has confirmed former Oklahoma attorney general and walking conflict of interest Scott Pruitt to be the next administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
If President Trump still plans to cripple the EPA, as he repeatedly promised during his campaign, the man to lead that effort begins work on Monday. Pruitt will be tasked with making the EPA great again by dismantling climate programs and slashing funding for things like the enforcement of the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act.
The 52 senators, led by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who voted “yea” have much to answer for. Today, threats to clean water and air put millions of Americans at risk. We’re also running out of time act decisively on climate change. Putting a climate denier in charge of the federal agency in charge of climate policy is like pouring gasoline on a burning house.
The vote came down along party lines, except for Senators Joe Manchin and Heidi Heitkamp, both of whom are Democrats from coal-producing states. Not coincidentally, both senators also attended President Trump’s signing of a bill to overturn the Stream Protection Rule yesterday. Maine Sen. Susan Collins was the only Republican to break from her party.
Pruitt disqualified himself from effectively leading the agency long before being nominated by then President-elect Trump. During his seven-year stint as attorney general, Pruitt sued the EPA no less than 14 times. Siding with industry in every case, his goal seems to have been sinking as many federal rules as possible — ozone limits, limits on power plant emissions of mercury and carbon dioxide, clean water protections, scenic protections for national parks, to name a few.
Following his nomination, Pruitt caught flak describing himself as “a leading advocate against the EPA’s activist agenda” on his LinkedIn profile. As of today, a few hours after the confirmation vote, that proud proclamation is still on his page. I checked.
And, really, why would he feel the need to downplay his opposition to the EPA’s mission? He’s received ringing endorsements from members of Congress including the majority leader. “Pruitt is just the candidate we need at the helm of the EPA,” Sen. McConnell said today.
Republican senators heaped praise on Pruitt during his confirmation hearing for his attempts to hamstring the EPA and for being a good baseball player — a quality some Democrats on the Senate Environment & Public Works Committee turned on him in calling out his losing record in lawsuits against the EPA.
This also isn’t Pruitt’s first time in the national spotlight. He was the subject of a 2014 investigation that exposed his secretive ties to the oil and gas industry. The investigation famously revealed that, while attorney general, Pruitt took a letter drafted by lawyers for Devon Energy accusing the EPA of overstating the problem of air pollution from natural gas drilling in Oklahoma, changed a few words, slapped it on official letterhead and sent it to the EPA with his signature. “Outstanding!” a Devon Energy lobbyist replied.
The controversy du jour — because every day it’s something new — relates to emails and other documents detailing communications between Pruitt’s office and the oil and gas industry. The day before Pruitt’s confirmation vote, an Oklahoma court ruled in favor of the Center for Media and Democracy and ordered the release of as much as 3,000 emails that would presumably be of interest to senators weighing Pruitt’s confirmation.
In response to this development, Democrats pushed to delay the vote. Nevertheless, Sen. McConnell persisted. When asked why he did not extend debate and wait for the emails to be released, McConnell responded, “Because I choose not to.”
The fact that, unlike the president, Pruitt acknowledges that the decline of coal is not a result of the EPA’s “heavy hand” is of little consolation. He is a staunch proponent of deregulation and consolidation. Now that Congress has signed off on his nominee, Trump will waste no time. The president plans to pay a visit to EPA headquarters next week and sign a package of executive orders that a source told The Hill could “suck the air out of the room.”
Of course, not all is lost. Hundreds of current EPA staff took a moral stand in speaking out against Pruitt, while nearly 800 former agency staff signed onto a letter to McConnell stating that Pruitt’s record suggests he does not “share the vision or agree with the underlying principles of our environmental statutes.” In an interview today, Gina McCarthy, who became Obama’s EPA administrator in 2013, emphasized that most EPA employees are “smart, dedicated, hard-working, mission-driven public servants.”
We should keep in mind who the real protectors are as Pruitt takes his position atop the agency tasked with safeguarding our air and water.]]>
President Trump is scheduled to sign a resolution today repealing the Stream Protection Rule. The loss of the rule has far-reaching consequences, especially for Central Appalachian streams and communities. A main goal of the rule was to limit the dumping of waste into rivers and streams during mountaintop removal coal mining, a destructive method of surface mining that has devastated water resources in Central Appalachia for decades.
Demand for coal has declined steeply in the United States for nearly a decade — long before the Stream Protection Rule was issued — largely due to competition from natural gas and, more recently, from renewable energy sources. Metallurgical coal prices are also sinking, after a short-lived price spike late last year. Central Appalachian mines have been especially hard hit. Easily and cheaply accessible coal seams are running out after more than 100 years of mining in the region.
“For these reasons, repealing the rule will have extremely little, if any, impact on reviving the coal industry, despite what the president or congressional allies say. By the same token, mountaintop removal mining is still happening in Central Appalachia. This rule would have helped protect water quality and public health in the region,” said Central Appalachian Program Manager Erin Savage.
>> Read Erin’s blog post for more background. <<
As coal demand declines, coal-impacted communities are shifting their focus to the development of new economic opportunities. But many members of Congress are not following their constituents’ lead, and instead continue to prioritize corporate coal interests over the needs of the communities they represent.
The bill to repeal the rule was introduced by Representative Bill Johnson (R-OH). A similar resolution was introduced by Senators Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV), both of whom are from states that have had difficulty enforcing already-inadequate mining regulations. Kentucky has a long history of failing to identify or adequately punish Clean Water Act violations by surface mining companies. And in West Virginia, a three-year investigation by the U.S. Department of the Interior recently found the state Department of Environmental Protection had failed to enforce many state mining rules, including those that impact water quality and mine reclamation.
“If Central Appalachian legislators really had the best interests of their constituents at heart, they would not have attacked this moderate rule,” Savage said. “Instead of doing the bidding of coal industry lobbyists, they should be working to protect the health and well-being of Appalachian communities that depend on clean water.”
Multiple studies have established connections between mountaintop removal and negative health impacts for nearby communities. While the Stream Protection Rule did not focus directly on human health impacts, community health would likely have benefited from associated reductions in water pollution and dust under the new rule.
“For all my life, the coal economy has ruled this region and its people,” said Ron Short of Duffield, Va. “Now we are facing the demise of the coal industry, and we must save the valuable natural resources that we have left if we are ever to develop cultural tourism and eco-tourism as important parts of a new economy that works for everyone.”]]>
Editors’ Note: Earlier this month, Congress voted to repeal the Stream Protection Rule using a rarely invoked law called the Congressional Review Act. Appalachian Voices’ members and friends rushed to urge lawmakers to defend the rule, which would improve protections for water and public health from mountaintop removal coal mining. Unfortunately, we were unsuccessful. But the rule was not our only means of defending Central Appalachian streams. We will continue to hold coal companies, state agencies and the federal government accountable to the laws that protect our natural heritage. We’re thankful to have allies who are willing to share their stories and help us in the fight for clean water. Here is what one of them had to say leading up to the Stream Protection Rule vote.
I was born and raised in the coalfields of Southwest Virginia. My father was a coal miner, and without his efforts to send me to school, I would have been a coal miner also. For all my life, the coal economy has ruled this region and its people. Now we are facing the demise of the coal industry, and we must save the valuable natural resources that we have left if we are ever to develop cultural tourism and eco-tourism as important parts of a new economy that works for everyone.
When I was small, one company dumped coal waste into the Pound River and I saw the deadly effects that followed: thousands of dead fish, mink, muskrats, frogs, birds and water so polluted with metals and minerals that for the first time in my life I could not swim in the river. I was 10 years old and it took the river 50 years to heal itself. My father was 90 years old before we could go fishing in the Pound River together again. Sadly, pollution from mining operations is still contaminating our waterways today.
The Stream Protection Rule — the product of nearly a decade of community engagement and scientific and economic studies — is designed to preserve this life-giving resource. Unfortunately, Donald Trump and Republicans in Congress have vowed to kill the Stream Protection Rule using an obscure procedure known as a Congressional Review Act as part of the mad rush to rip the last of the coal out of the ground at any cost.
Water truly is life! We have more pristine and biologically valuable waters than most places in the world, and we need to protect them for our health, our economic future and our grandchildren. Senators Kaine and Warner, you are our only allies in Washington. Please do not let your colleagues kill the Stream Protection Rule. Killing this rule would produce a short-term political gain for their ilk, but it could create a future that we in Southwest Virginia may never be able to recover from.
View or download the print PDF
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.]]>
By Lou Murrey
Gerlene and Ronald Wilmoth of Tazewell, Tenn., had always paid their electric bill on time.
That is, until August of 2015 when Ronald suffered a stroke at the age of 55 that left him unable to use much of the right side of his body and unable to return to his job as a truck driver. Gerlene had to quit her job cleaning homes to take care of her husband. With both of them unable to work, the couple’s monthly income was reduced to just $400 a month to cover all of their expenses.
Their home is drafty and in desperate need of repairs to the roof and foundation, which has led to high electric bills and uncomfortable living conditions. It turns out that $400 a month doesn’t stretch far for residents trying to pay for everyday living expenses on top of medical bills and high utility bills.
Residents in East Tennessee, like in many places across Appalachia, spend a significant portion of their income on energy bills. When federal funding for utility payment assistance and weatherization can’t meet the need, it falls on a small number of local service agencies and churches to fill the gap. Many of these service agencies and churches already struggle to help everyone in their communities who needs it, but with threats to federal funding, they may face an even greater demand. Relief could take the form of energy efficiency programs through the Tennessee Valley Authority and local power companies.
For the first few months following Ronald’s stroke, he and Gerlene received aid from the few service agencies who provide utility bill payment assistance around Claiborne County. First Baptist Church of New Tazewell was able to pay one month. Manna House, a Christian charity that offers one-time bill relief, was able to pay $25 the next, and the Claiborne County Office on Aging was then able to pay for three months’ worth of bills. The Wilmoths also received the maximum available $450 from the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program known as LIHEAP, but that only covered two months’ worth of electric bills.
Then came July of 2016, when temperatures in Claiborne County consistently hovered in the low nineties. The heat was relentless, and it got especially bad for Gerlene and Ronald when the heat pump responsible for their air conditioning broke down and temperatures in their home reached 95 degrees, sending Ronald to the hospital for heat exhaustion.
As if the stress of Ronald’s hospitalization wasn’t enough, right as they reached the last little bit of their LIHEAP money, July’s electric bill arrived. Gerlene felt like she’d been socked in the gut. It was the highest one yet, at $225, and not knowing where she was going to turn for help, she started to feel a little panicky. She began making phone calls to just about everyone who had helped her before in the hope that they might be able to help again. This time she had no luck.
“I was totally freaking out,” says Gerlene. “I called so many people, and they wouldn’t have the resources to be able to help, so they would refer me to someone else, and they wouldn’t have the resources either.”
Having seemingly exhausted all of her resources, it felt like there was nowhere to turn for Gerlene. She remembers the terrifying feeling of helplessness.
“I was almost in disbelief,” she says, recalling her reaction at the time. “Like, how are we gonna pay it? They are gonna cut it off. With him being sick in July is when he had the heat exhaustion, and with that and the power bill being so high, how can we pay this? They are going to turn our power off, and we are going to smother in here.”
Of course, churches and service agencies intend to help as many people as possible. But, according to Terry Ramsey at the Claiborne County East Tennessee Human Resource Agency office, they are struggling to keep up with the demand. ETHRA is a regional agency that serves 12 counties, and Ramsey says, “we try to help as many people we can. We go above and beyond.”
The U.S. Department of Energy defines energy burden as the “ratio of energy expenditures to household income.” According to a 2016 study by the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy’s study “Lifting the High Energy Burden in America’s Largest Cities: How Energy Efficiency Can Improve Low Income and Underserved Communities,” the energy burden for low-income households is nearly three times higher than that of higher income households.
According to economist Roger Colton, an affordable energy burden for any household in the United States should not exceed 6 percent of a household’s gross income. Colton concluded in his 2015 study of the Home Energy Affordability Gap that low-income families were paying far more than that, depending on where they were in the country.
In East Tennessee, households earning 50 percent below the federal poverty line spend around 30 percent of their income on utilities, according to data from Colton’s firm. Gerlene and Ronald’s energy burden was around 50 percent of their household income.
The ACEEE study found that high energy burdens are primarily caused by inefficiencies in the home such as lack of insulation, leaky roofs, inefficient appliances and improper air sealing. But this is exacerbated by a person’s economic situation, high fixed utility rates and insufficient or inaccessible weatherization and bill assistance programs.
Lack of home weatherization is definitely a major factor in causing the Wilmoths’ high energy burden. “Where we don’t have the insulation and weatherization it’s too hot in the summer months and too cold in the winter months,” Gerlene says.
“My feet stay cold more than anything where the air comes up through the floor,” she says, reasoning that there can’t be much insulation under the house. In their bedroom there is a grapefruit-sized hole in the floor. She knows there are multiple roof leaks around their home because when it rains, water runs down the walls. Pointing to the kitchen, Gerlene continues, “when it rains, water blows in from the vent above the stove, and water comes in behind the stove.”
The Wilmoths have replaced all the their incandescent lightbulbs with more efficient compact fluorescents, but the major air leaks in the couple’s home resulting from improper sealing around doors and windows, a leaky roof and poor insulation are likely the greatest contributors to their high electric bill.
Where the Wilmoths live, the federal Weatherization Assistance Program is provided by ETHRA. Gerlene and Ronald are on the waiting list for ETHRA’s Weatherization Assistance Program, but the waiting list for Claiborne County alone is around 280 homes. As of November 2016, 2,709 families were on the waiting list for all 12 counties that ETHRA serves.
Steve Bandy, operations director of housing and energy services at ETHRA, reports that despite the long waiting list, the agency only has funding to complete 41 homes in the 2016-2017 budget year. At that rate it would take approximately 66 years to weatherize all the homes — if no new homes were added to the list.
Part of the reason for the low number of homes being weatherized in East Tennessee is not enough funding.
“More funding would be great, if it was available, you’d be able to help more families,” says Lisa Condrey, ETHRA’s finance director of housing and energy services. “Because 41 families this year is not a whole lot. We serve 12 counties, so in some counties we are only able to serve two or three families.”
The funding ship may have sailed, though. Since 1976, funding for the Weatherization Assistance Program has been provided by the U.S. Department of Energy and has helped over 7 million families in the United States reduce their energy burden through energy efficiency upgrades to their home. On Jan. 19, the political news website The Hill reported that a blueprint of the Trump Administration’s proposed 2017-2018 budget included massive cuts to a number of government agencies, including the U.S. Department of Energy. With the new administration threatening to gut the Department of Energy, the future of the Weatherization Assistance Program is uncertain.
Weatherization improvements such as sealing leaky air ducts, adding insulation and replacing inefficient heating and cooling systems can provide a long-term fix for a high energy burden since they take care of the home inefficiencies that cause high utility bills in the first place.
For people like Gerlene who need help immediately, there is LIHEAP. Funding for LIHEAP comes from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and in Tennessee it is administered by the Tennessee Housing Development Agency through human resource agencies like ETHRA.
LIHEAP is the nation’s largest source of federal funding for utility bill assistance, and it is available to low-income households once in a 12-month period. Kathy Hicks, LIHEAP coordinator for ETHRA, says they receive around 5,500 applications each year from residents in the 12 counties they serve and are able to provide assistance to all of those clients.
The nonpartisan Congressional Research Service found that only about 22 percent of people eligible for LIHEAP nationwide apply. Local nonprofit organizations, churches and service agencies are left to fill in the gap, meeting the demand the best they can with the limited resources they have.
In rural areas like Claiborne County, there are only so many places to turn for energy bill payment assistance. In addition, areas served by rural electric cooperatives generally have higher energy burdens due in part to aging homes, higher electricity rates and lower average incomes, according to Rory McIlmoil, energy savings program manager at Appalachian Voices, the publisher of this newspaper.
This means a smaller number of agencies have a large gap to fill. Last year, First Baptist Church in New Tazewell, Tenn., received around 200 calls from people asking for bill assistance.
“We used to provide assistance once every six months but [the demand] was too much. It got to a point that people called every six months, and the church and the team had to come to a decision that we could only do every 12 months, and we only serve people living in Tazewell and New Tazewell,” explains Beverly, the administrative assistant at First Baptist Church, who asked that her last name not be used.
The demand for utility assistance wasn’t always so high. She explains that the church saw an uptick in demand a couple years ago when the local electric cooperative, Powell Valley Electric, ended their WeCare program, a donation-funded program that paid $50 toward the bill of members in need during the winter months. According to Powell Valley Electric, they ended the program when not enough people were donating to the fund.
Where do people like Gerlene go when they’ve exhausted all the resources available to them? Denise West, director of the Claiborne County Office on Aging, says if someone has already been to First Baptist Church and Manna House, then she sends them back to ETHRA to apply for LIHEAP again. She can also help provide assistance to people over the age of 60 through a client-needs grant from the United Way.
“If we have the resource we’ll help them, but what we can’t do is pay people’s bill month after month after month. You can’t keep doing that, there has to be some kind of change made somewhere,” West says. She worked first-hand with Gerlene to see if they could make that change and find her the help she needed. “When you see people in that shape, first of all you’re angry because it takes so long to get help, and secondly you’re more willing to help them because you know they’ve done everything they can to help themselves,” West says.
Advocates in the region agree that there does have to be a change made somewhere. While these programs provide emergency assistance, they don’t address the fact that too many people are living in inefficient homes without the money, ability or programs to fix them.
There are programs in Tennessee aside from the Weatherization Assistance Program that can provide energy efficiency upgrades, but the majority of those are in cities. The Tennessee Valley Authority, which is the federally owned energy generator for most of Tennessee and parts of six other states, funded Extreme Energy Makeover programs in Knoxville, Cleveland and Oak Ridge through a 2011 Clean Air Act violation settlement. Though the funding for these programs will end in September 2017, the Knoxville Extreme Energy Makeover program will have been able to weatherize 1,200 homes.
In an August 2016 meeting between TVA staff and low-income stakeholders in Claiborne County, Gerlene and the other community members in attendance wondered why TVA couldn’t replicate the program in the more rural areas of its territory. TVA staff member Michael Scalf told community members at the meeting that while TVA “would love to see the Extreme Energy Makeover valley-wide,” there are already state programs, churches, and nonprofits already doing energy efficiency upgrades and TVA is more interested in how these entities can work better together to provide much needed services.
Increasingly, inclusive on-bill financing for energy efficiency upgrades is being adopted by rural electric cooperatives across the Southeast. An example of an inclusive model for on-bill financing is Pay As You Save, which is tied to the electric meter and would allow people living in rental and multi-family homes to receive energy efficiency upgrades and pay for them through low-interest monthly payments on their electric bill. The energy upgrades not only benefit people by reducing their energy burden and making their home more comfortable, they also lower costs for the utility.
Roanoke Electric Cooperative in Eastern North Carolina launched an on-bill finance program called Upgrade to $ave in early 2015. According to Roanoke, the first 175 participants received an average of more than $6,000 per home in efficiency improvements, including weatherization and new heating and cooling systems. Those homes are saving nearly $500 a year on their electric bills, even after accounting for repaying the utility for the initial investment. Unfortunately, Roanoke’s program is the only one available in the Southeast, outside of Kentucky.
Before the Wilmoths’ electricity could be cut off, they received Ronald’s first disability payment and were able to pay July’s $225 electric bill. Since he started getting disability the couple has not sought help for their electric bills, but they have not had any weatherization done on their home either. Their electric bill has not gone down — in December their bill was $263.
That is money Gerlene has better uses for. “I need tires for my car and can’t get ‘em because the utilities are too high,” she contends. The Wilmoths still find themselves having to decide between being comfortable in their home and having enough money for food and medical bills. “We usually try to keep the heat at 65 in the winter, but where he’s on the blood thinner he freezes to death so we have to turn it up,” she explains, referring to her husband.
While she is glad Ronald got his disability money, she is frustrated that their food assistance got reduced to just $15 a month as a result. In January, rains flooded the Wilmoths’ bathroom and bedroom, and they learned that Ronald will be needing heart surgery. Gerlene sighs, “You just can’t get ahead.”
Lou Murrey serves as the OSMRE/VISTA Tennessee Outreach Associate with Appalachian Voices. Learn more about Appalachian Voices’ energy efficiency work at appvoices.org/energysavings]]>