Posts Tagged ‘appalachia’

Get out the sunscreen: Solar is coming to Southwest Virginia

Tuesday, March 28th, 2017 - posted by Adam

Screen Shot 2017-03-24 at 11.56.11 AM

The Southwest Virginia Solar Fair on May 9 in Wise, Va., will be a celebration of the upcoming solar development in Southwest Virginia and brings an emerging and exciting effort full circle. In May 2016, the Southwest Virginia Economic Forum hosted by the University of Virginia’s College at Wise asked how we can diversify the region’s economy to meet the demands and challenges of the 21st century.

During plenary sessions and in the hallways there were a series of conversations among citizens and area leaders that raised questions around how solar energy could be developed locally in a strategic way to create jobs, spur and support other economic initiatives, and build and retain wealth in our region.

Those conversations were the seeds of what has become an action team called the Solar Workgroup of Southwest Virginia. Co-convened by Appalachian Voices, UVA-Wise and People Incorporated, and professionally facilitated by Dialogue and Design Associates, the Solar Workgroup has laid out clear objectives and paths to meeting them. Chief among those goals is to directly support high visibility and high impact solar energy installations that will prove to the region that this technology is a viable option for meeting energy demand and spurring economic development, even in the heart of coal country, even in a state that’s not especially solar friendly — yet.

With international companies eyeing Wise County for solar projects, the growing number of stakeholders in the Solar Workgroup — which include many local economic development entities, educational institutions and other nonprofits — agree that the region has the potential to become a solar industry hub. With solar now employing nearly twice as many people in the U.S. as coal, oil and natural gas combined, many in the region think solar development could be the key to revitalizing the economy with high-paying local job opportunities.

Southwest Virginia has long been an energy producing region. For generations, coal was the backbone of our economy and continues to be an important part of our regional identity. As the world changes around us, many leaders are now working to honor our past while looking to a future that will be powered in large part by renewable sources. We can still be an energy-producing region, it’s the medium of that production that will inevitably need to shift toward sources like solar, which promise to be the backbone of the new economy of the 21st century.

That need to honor the past, look toward the future and build public support for a key pillar of our new economy is what the Solar Fair is all about. People will have the opportunity meet SPARC-E, Mountain Empire Community College’s off-the-grid, 5,000-watt, mobile solar system built by students. They will also have a chance to get an up-close and personal view of solar energy systems and see how they work.

The Empty Bottle String Band, a local favorite, will be performing live and amplified by solar power. And for the kids, we’ll also have an inflatable bouncy house powered by solar energy and other free, fun games.

And Appalachian Voices will announce the winners of our solar mini-grants contest for middle and high school students. Two $500 grants will be awarded to teams of students for developing a “Solar in your School” project plan to be implemented this fall.

The Solar Fair is also the launch date of the Solarize Wise residential solarization program, a collaborative effort of the Solar Workgroup, to make it cheaper and easier for homeowners, small businesses and farmers to install solar power in Wise County.

Contact Adam Wells (adam@appvoices.org) or Lydia Graves (lydia@appvoices.org) at 276-679-1691 for more information.

White House budget leaves Appalachia in the dust

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FERC’s pipeline review process is broken

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

Former chairman adds his voice to public demands for greater scrutiny

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

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

Sign the petition to stop the Atlantic Coast Pipeline today!

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

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

Pipelines not needed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Climate impacts of gas pipelines

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

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

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

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

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

Other environmental impacts

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

What can you do?

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

Mountain Valley Pipeline:

Atlantic Coast Pipeline:

Protect natural resources for Southwest Virginia’s future

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

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

Ron Short

Ron Short

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

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

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

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

Ron Short

Fighting for clean water after the Stream Protection Rule

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s what you can do:

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

Defending our vision for Appalachia

Friday, January 20th, 2017 - posted by tom

Photo by Kent Mason

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

Donald Trump has taken the oath of office and assumed the awesome responsibility of serving as our nation’s 45th president.

His administration promises to pursue an energy and environmental policy vision in stark contrast to the scientific consensus on climate change, and to the American public’s desire for renewable energy, clean air and water, and healthier, more sustainable communities.

In our view, the new administration’s approach to environmental protection and national energy policy is dangerously shortsighted and could lead to long-lasting harm to communities and our natural heritage — perhaps in Appalachia most of all. We are determined to defend against regulatory rollbacks that compromise Appalachia’s future and to continue building on the progress we’ve made in recent years.

By every indication, Trump is entering the White House motivated to undo President Obama’s environmental legacy without considering the consequences. Appalachian Voices is prepared to take on the serious threats to the safeguards that protect human health, our region’s landscapes, air and water, and the global climate.

We watched closely as Trump’s picks to lead the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Department of the Interior, Department of Energy and Department of State were peppered during their confirmation hearings with pointed questions about their records and qualifications. Few of their answers passed muster or even came close to counterbalancing the pro-fossil fuel, anti-environmental and unscientific rhetoric that was a hallmark of Trump’s campaign.

Our federal agencies play an essential role in enforcing broadly supported environmental laws. How they prioritize things like investments in clean energy or measure the climate impacts of infrastructure projects such as oil and gas pipelines will be more important than ever in the coming years.

What does this new political reality mean for Appalachian Voices’ work? It compels us to continue building and deploying power from the ground up through local initiatives, constituent pressure and citizen lawsuits, and to continue serving as a technical and policy resource to a broad range of allies in Congress and in Appalachian communities.

We will do everything we can to see that the laws protecting our natural heritage are enforced. And we’ll be a key part of the massive resistance that the administration will face when it attempts to roll back these protections.

At the same time, we must not be distracted from promoting our vision for Appalachia’s energy and economic future. Our commitment to this region is the wellspring of our resistance. Lessons from the past and the promise of a better future will continue to give our movement power.

We know you’ll stand with us during this uncertain time as we work to ensure that communities in Appalachia and the Southeast can reap the benefits of the burgeoning clean energy economy and live unburdened by pollution and environmental threats.

Final Stream Protection Rule released

Tuesday, December 20th, 2016 - posted by Erin
The final Stream Protection Rule offers only modest improvements to protections for public waterways, but it is well worth defending from congressional attack. Congress should focus on ways to move Central Appalachia forward.

The final Stream Protection Rule offers only modest improvements to protections for public waterways, but it is well worth defending from congressional attack. Congress should focus on ways to move Central Appalachia forward.

In the waning days of the Obama administration, the U.S. Department of the Interior on Monday released the final Stream Protection Rule, which aims to protect streams from the impacts of surface and longwall mining.

Based on updated science and technology, the rule offers modest improvements for the protection of public waterways. But despite the fact that the rule could have been much stronger, it still faces immense opposition from the coal industry’s supporters in Congress.

The Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement began work on the rule in 2009. At that time, George W. Bush’s 2008 Stream Buffer Zone Rule was in effect after having replaced the original Stream Buffer Zone Rule, written in 1983. The Bush-era rule weakened stream protections and virtually eliminated prohibitions on mining through streams. When it was struck down by a federal court in 2014, the 1983 rule was reinstated.

The new Stream Protection Rule includes several improvements including increased requirements for water monitoring and forest reclamation. But it falls short of preventing mining through streams or stopping mountaintop removal. The rule also includes ample leeway for state interpretation of the requirements, which could easily lead to lax enforcement.

Donald Trump’s pick for Interior Secretary, Montana Rep. Ryan Zinke, is a proponent of coal and could effectively undo the rule through an administrative route. But that could take years. Instead, it is likely that the rule will be thrown out via the Congressional Review Act. The act allows Congress to overturn rules within 60 legislative days of their enactment. The president could veto such a move, but given the change in administration, this seems unlikely. This law not only allows Congress to toss out a rule, it prevents another “substantially similar” rule from being written in the future. The act has only been used successfully once, so it’s unclear what the courts would consider “substantially similar” in regard to a future mining rule from OSMRE or another agency.

Even as coal company executives call on Trump to temper his promises to coal mining communities so as not to falsely elevate expectations, other politicians are also returning to the old “war on coal” rhetoric. Rep. Kevin Cramer (R-ND) called the Stream Protection Rule “the Obama Administration’s last attempt to kill the coal industry,” and Rep. Morgan Griffith (R-VA) vowed to file a Congressional Review Act resolution himself.

While we wish the final rule were stronger, it is well worth defending from congressional attack. We will urge the White House and Congress to focus on ways to move Central Appalachia forward, rather than waste time on counterproductive political fights. A better use of time would be to pass the RECLAIM Act, which would ensure that mine sites are reclaimed and repurposed to provide economic benefit to the region.

Building a healthy economic future in Central Appalachia requires attracting new industries and encouraging community members to stay in the region. Protecting the remaining assets of the region, like clean water and healthy communities, is an integral part of building that new future.

Duke Energy’s empire grows with natural gas

Tuesday, October 4th, 2016 - posted by brian
 The pivot toward gas is especially pronounced in the eastern U.S., with Duke at the forefront of a historic fuel switch.

The pivot toward gas is especially pronounced in the eastern U.S., and Duke Energy is at the forefront of a historic fuel switching trend.

It’s both a sign of the times and a warning of things to come. Duke Energy’s purchase of Piedmont Natural Gas was finalized this week after North Carolina utility regulators signed off on the deal.

Duke executives say the $4.9 billion acquisition will bolster the company’s position in the natural gas sector by tripling its existing base of 525,000 gas customers and expanding its footprint into Tennessee. Their cheerful announcement also casts natural gas in a familiar light — as the clean, climate-friendly fuel of the future.

“This combination provides clear benefits to our customers and the environment as we continue to expand our use of low-cost and clean natural gas and invest in pipelines,” Duke Energy CEO Lynn Good said in a statement.

These days, terms like “clean” and “low-cost” come standard with efforts to tout the environmental and economic benefits of natural gas relative to other energy sources. By now, they should also set off alarm bells.

One of the nation’s largest electric providers, Duke has brought four natural gas-fired power plants online in North Carolina since 2011 to replace shuttered coal-fired capacity. Earlier this year, the company received expedited approval of plans to convert a fifth, its Asheville plant, from coal to gas.

A similar story is playing out in other states where Duke operates. Florida, which ranks third in solar potential but 14th in installed capacity, relies on gas to meet two-thirds of its electricity demand. Duke subsidiary Progress Energy operates several gas-fired facilities in the Sunshine State, including the 1,912-megawatt Hines Energy Complex.

Other large investor-owned utilities aren’t far behind. Florida Power & Light, also among the nation’s largest electric utilities, and Duke are partners in the controversial $3.2 billion Sabal Trail Pipeline, which will stretch nearly 500 miles from Alabama to central Florida.

Duke based its decision to purchase the Charlotte-based Piedmont on sustained market trends that forecast a continued expansion of natural gas’ role in the nation’s energy mix. The pivot toward gas is especially pronounced in the eastern U.S., with Duke at the forefront of a historic fuel switch.

Earlier this year, Duke received expedited approval of plans to convert its Asheville plant from coal to gas, the fifth plant to switch fuels since 2011.

Earlier this year, Duke received expedited approval of plans to convert its Asheville plant from coal to gas, the fifth plant to switch fuels since 2011. Click to enlarge.

And the trend shows no signs of slowing down. Duke’s most recent long-term resource plan proposes constructing three plants that would add nearly 2,500 megawatts of gas-fired generation in the Carolinas. The plan also calls for multiplying installed solar capacity threefold by 2031, but says solar’s “limited ability to meet peak demand conditions” makes more gas generation essential to ensure reliability.

“A thoughtful transition is what we are seeking, not a headlong rush to dependency on any one fuel,” Duke’s director of integrated resource planning, Glen Snider, told the Charlotte Business Journal.

Fair enough. Duke often claims credit for diversifying its portfolio ahead of the curve, although North Carolina’s renewable energy standard and tax credits for renewables have played a considerable role. But today, the company’s large stake in the $5 billion proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline threatens to counteract that thoughtful transition. If the 550-mile pipeline is built, Duke’s gas-burning power plants would be among its primary users.

Continuing to invest in massive pipelines designed to last decades could result in stranded assets, costly liabilities created when capital-intensive projects like pipelines or power plants are forced to retire before the end of their economic usefulness. This is especially true if the United States plans to do its part to meet international climate goals.

“We’ve been building gas power plants like crazy for the last 10 years,” Lorne Stockman, the author of a report on gas infrastructure for the group Oil Change International told Utility Dive. “I don’t see anyone really sitting down and saying how many more can we build if we are really going to make this transition.”

Replacing existing gas capacity with renewables may be unlikely in the near-term. But that doesn’t make the long-term planning decisions being made today any less problematic, because they foreshadow an energy future that experts are urging us to avoid.

Making sense of crisis: The West Virginia floods

Wednesday, July 6th, 2016 - posted by guestbloggers

Editor’s note: In this guest post, West Virginia resident and former coordinator of The Alliance for Appalachia Katey Lauer shares her perspective on the aftermath of the floods that devastated several West Virginia counties late last month, and the humanity she has witnessed as communities come together and begin to rebuild. To learn where you can volunteer or donate money and supplies, visit the West Virginia Citizen Action Group’s WV Flood Resources page.

Photos courtesy of Nate May.

Photos courtesy of Nate May.

“… My heart is moved by all I cannot save:
So much has been destroyed.
I have to cast my lot with those who, age after age, perversely, with no extraordinary power, reconstitute the world.”

— Adrienne Rich

This might be an article where I tell you how devastating the flood has been. Where I tell you that the flood waters are not water at all. That they are sewage and mud and oil. That they are bits of plastic and metal. I might tell you that it’s four days into flood relief and I can’t get the smell out of my nose or off my skin.

And I might explain how I can’t shake the worst of the stories: how I sat with a grandmother who told me how she climbed to the top of a kitchen stool late Thursday night while the debris rose higher and higher around her ankles then knees then waist.

How I heard about a woman alone in her home in a wheelchair, waters rising up to her neck while her dogs piled onto her lap — all of them screaming. How her family heard her from outside but couldn’t get in.

I might tell you about the kind young man in the town where 17 people died. How he pointed out the mountain where he fled with his mother just after showing me the water line on the carport outside, well above our heads.

But the floods aren’t just about that.

Because this might also be an article about strength through hardship. About that phrase I see on fast food boards and church bulletins: “West Virginia Strong.” And I could tell you how my guess is that that sign is about the families on 5th Street in Rainelle, about the cheerleaders serving up soup beans and cornbread in the Kroger parking lot to anyone who’s hungry, about the volunteers sorting a pile of clothing 20 feet high in an Elkview gym, about the women running the volunteer check point in Clendenin. I could tell you about everyday heroes, but the floods aren’t just about that either.

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Because this article could be about issues: About our failing infrastructure. About climate change. About poverty. About how working-class, rural America is so unseen by the rest of our nation. I could say that.

But then there’s also the way that strangers come together in these moments of crisis. How I hauled heavy, putrid carpet with a dear old friend and a man I’d never met. How I piled water-logged drywall on a pile of building refuse with a man from Florida. How a woman stopped us on the street to give us a warm meal — a woman whose name I didn’t know and who I’d never see again.

Then I could tell you about the ugly parts, about people fighting in sadness in the streets. About that wits-end sort of withdrawal on the face of an older woman. I could say how I wonder where these tons of waste will be shipped and guess that it’s other poor communities that will deal with this new burden. I could tell you about the national guardsman, eyeing me for too long in a shirt tight with the damp.

But the thing that feels closest to the truth is that there is not one story here. In times of crisis, we can look for saviors and goodwill, we look for peeks at what’s best in the human spirit. We can look for a way to make sense of it — to give it a purpose. We can look for the revelation. If you have been touched by this crisis, my guess is you might well have found some of that. But you have likely also found more. I know I have. If these floods have taught me anything, it’s that crisis is not tidy. It is more threads than fabric.

What I mean is that crisis does not make us super-human; it makes us more human. The floods that have washed away homes and possessions and loved ones have also washed away pretense. And at the end of the day, here we are, neighbors and strangers, ankle deep in receding waters, doing our best — in our beauty and our faults — to reconstitute the world.

Visit the West Virginia Citizen Action Group’s Flood Resources page to donate and find other ways to support relief efforts.

West Virginia files Clean Water Act suit against Kanawha County mine

Wednesday, June 29th, 2016 - posted by willie
Acid mine drainage collects at the KD #2 mine site shortly after the state halted work at the mine. Photo courtesy the Kanawha Forest Coalition

Acid mine drainage collects at the KD #2 mine site shortly after the state halted work at the mine. Photo courtesy the Kanawha Forest Coalition

The West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection has brought a lawsuit against Florida-based Keystone Industries over a series of Clean Water Act violations at the controversial KD #2 surface mine.

The 413-acre mountaintop removal mine in southern Kanawha County, W.Va., has been met with much opposition by local residents and others concerned about the mine’s impacts on nearby communities and on Kanawha State Forest, which borders the mine.

The suit, filed on March 9 in the Kanawha County Circuit Court, alleges that runoff from the KD #2 mine contains measurements of aluminum, iron, manganese, selenium, total suspended solids and pH that are in violation of the National Pollution Discharge Elimination System permit granted to Keystone Industries under the Clean Water Act. The primary evidence supporting this claim is the company’s own quarterly discharge monitoring reports submitted to the DEP.

The Kanawha Forest Coalition, a grassroots environmental watchdog group comprised of local community members, has conducted water monitoring at the site since shortly after the mine began operating in 2014. Through these efforts, the coalition has identified numerous and persistent regulatory violations, prompting the DEP to issue 40 enforcement actions against the KD #2 mine to date.

“It was shocking to realize that it was through citizen complaints, and not DEP monitoring, that our land was being protected,” said Becky Park, a Kanawha Forest Coalition member from Charleston. “What it boils down to is we are the government. We can’t assume that DEP employees are monitoring permitted mining operations. We have to read the permits, understand the agreements made with mining companies, be willing to use the systems in place to submit complaints, and go to court when the systems fail to stop violators.”

Daile Boulis, who lives in the community of Loudendale immediately adjacent to the KD #2 mine feels similarly.

“From what I understand, this is one of best written permits in the state, and still, there are forty violations in two years? Imagine what the company would be getting away with, without the citizen enforcement and public media exposure? The same thing goes for the DEP,” said Boulis. “The only reason 75-80% of the violations have been enforced and fined is due to pressure from the Kanawha Forest Coalition. When you consider all of the other mines in West Virginia that don’t have a group like Kanawha Forest Coalition working on behalf of the impacted citizens, that’s terrifying! Our lives should not be the cost of doing business in West Virginia.”

By initiating its own suit against Keystone Industries, the DEP has prevented the Kanawha Forest Coalition or other grassroots organizations from filing suit on similar grounds. However, the organization may choose to file as an intervenor in the case, a move that would earn them a seat at the table — but not veto power — in potential future settlement negotiations with Keystone.

Doug Wood, a retired DEP official with 33 years of experience in water resources, is skeptical of his former agency’s motives in bringing this case against Keystone.

“This lawsuit seems to be an attempt to stop advocates from filing their own suits, and an attempt to get a little money to start water pollution treatment when Keystone says, ‘keep the bond, we’re outta here,’” said Wood. “… The DEP seems to be most interested in getting a court settlement so they can say, ‘we solved that problem’ even though the systemic problems that led to this disaster remain unsolved.”

The DEP’s suit against Keystone is expected to go to trial in spring 2017. Meanwhile, the Kanawha Forest Coalition continues to monitor conditions at the mine, regularly testing impacted streams and alerting the DEP of persistent problems.