Posts Tagged ‘Coal’

POWER+ Plan deserves a warmer welcome

Thursday, April 16th, 2015 - posted by Adam
The Clinch River Farmers Market

The Clinch River Farmers Market

While we here in Appalachia are working overtime to reinvent our economy with the fall of King Coal, you would think that our representatives in D.C. would be eager to pass measures that send much-needed and well-deserved federal aid to help our hard hit coal counties.

But most of the region’s congressmen and senators are staying silent, and those who are going on the record definitely are not stepping up to the plate.

When the POWER+ Plan was announced in February as part of the 2016 budget proposed by the Obama administration, Sen. Mitch McConnell labeled it as “cold comfort.” And Rep. Hal Rogers of Eastern Kentucky responded with a reluctant pledge to “bear it in mind” during upcoming budget deliberations.

POWER+ directs billions of dollars to Appalachia to help communities whose economies have been left hanging as the bottom drops out of the domestic coal market. Here’s a breakdown of where the money would go:

  • $25 million to the Appalachian Regional Commission for programs that support developing advanced manufacturing, energy efficiency, local food systems, tourism development, and health care.
  • $20 million to retrain workers who have been impacted by closures of coal mines or coal-burning power plants.
  • $6 million to the federal Economic Development Administration (EDA) to coordinate and advance the federal government’s regional innovation efforts. EDA disburses grants to assist economically distressed communities by fostering an environment conducive to job creation and economic growth;
  • $5 million to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Brownfields and Land Revitalization program, specifically to increase funding for communities impacted by power plant closures;
  • $12 million in grants and $85 million in loans to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development program directed towards rural communities that have been impacted by coal’s decline (that’s most of Appalachia, by the way).
  • $1 billion over the next five years to the Abandoned Mine Lands program to clean up old, nasty coal mine sites with a focus on redeveloping the land for beneficial post-mine use.
  • $2 billion in tax credits for a technology known as “carbon capture.”

Wait a minute! $2 billion for carbon capture technology? That’s what I said, and just like my list here, it’s at the bottom of the fact sheet released by the White House.

Needless to say, Appalachian Voices and our allies aren’t happy about this last provision, but perhaps it’s needed in order to get the rest of POWER+ through Congress. Given all of the other impressive allocations to worthwhile causes, it might be worth focusing on promoting what’s good and ignoring the bad. Besides, the silver lining is that the plan has pretty tough requirements for power plants to qualify for the tax credits. Given the fact that this technology is still in its infancy (and might stay there forever), it’s uncertain if any of these credits will actually be deployed.

We’ve been talking about the need for a federal investment package like this in Appalachia for years, and it’s never been as critical as it is now. But our leaders have been slow to step up and support this forward-thinking plan.

Appalachian Voices is working with our regional allies right now to deploy a strategy that lifts up POWER+ as an economic jumpstart for the region and pressures our elected officials to stand up for the measure as the 2016 budget moves through Congress.

Live in Virginia? You can help by asking Senators Warner and Kaine to support POWER+.

State Legislative Updates

Monday, April 13th, 2015 - posted by Dac Collins

While lawmakers in Washington, D.C., might get most of the spotlight, the legislators in state capitols across the region are busy making — and blocking — laws that affect Appalachia’s land, air, water and people. Here’s the latest updates from state legislatures around the region.

Kentucky

Session convened Jan. 6, adjourned March 24

Perhaps the most publicized and contentious environmental law to pass during the Bluegrass State’s 30-day legislative session was an update to existing oil and gas drilling rules that addresses some of the challenges posed by fracking.

A new energy law creates an Environmental Regulation Task Force to review how electricity reliability in the state is affected by federal environmental regulations. The task force, which environmental groups say is skewed toward industry, will produce a report by December 2015.

Gov. Beshear also signed a bill that helps local governments finance water and energy efficiency projects. A committee hearing on the Clean Energy Opportunity Act, which would require Kentucky utilities to meet a certain portion of electricity demand through energy efficiency and renewables, was cancelled due to a March snowstorm, but a hearing during the legislative interim is expected.

It will be more difficult for timber companies designated as “bad actors” to operate in the state without paying civil penalties and remediating logging sites under another new law. And new rules regarding how local governments can handle stray horses and cattle provide guidelines for identifying owners and for gelding, or sterilizing, male animals if an owner is not found. — By Molly Moore

North Carolina

Session convened Jan. 14, adjourns early July

Since the legislative session began in January, the rules regulating oil and gas drilling in North Carolina went into effect and the state’s long-standing moratorium on fracking was lifted. A bipartisan bill introduced to “disapprove” the rules was left to expire in March.

The first law passed this session clarifies technical issues with the Coal Ash Management Act passed last September and removes a previous legal requirement that the state develop rules to limit air pollution from fracking operations. A three-judge panel ruled in favor of Governor McCrory, who claims that the Coal Ash Management Commission is unconstitutional because there are more legislative appointments than executive. The ruling means that progress cleaning up coal ash throughout the state will stall. It also affects the commission that wrote the fracking rules, which could impact the validity of the drilling regulations.

The bipartisan Energy Freedom Bill, which would open up the state to third-party sales for solar projects, was introduced in March. The bill is supported by environmental groups, large businesses and the military, but strongly opposed by Duke Energy, which currently has a monopoly on the state’s power production.

Though polls show that North Carolinians overwhelmingly support renewable energy options, Gov. McCrory continues to push for opening the coast to offshore oil drilling, which is a possibility now that President Obama is allowing states to pursue offshore drilling in the Atlantic. — By Sarah Kellogg

Tennessee

Session convened Jan. 13, adjourns late April

At the end of March, a bill to transfer oversight of surface mining in Tennessee from federal to state regulators had passed through a state Senate committee and state House subcommittee. The Primacy and Reclamation Act of Tennessee would end the federal Office of Surface Mining’s 31-year term as the regulatory agency charged with ensuring that coal mining operations in the state abide by surface mining and mined-land reclamation laws. That responsibility would pass to the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation. In 1984, the federal agency assumed oversight of surface mining in Tennessee due to the state’s poor enforcement of environmental laws.

The Tennessee Mining Association says a return to state regulation will lead to faster approval of mining permits. Opponents of the bill argue that fees levied on coal companies to pay for the costs of administering the regulatory program would be insufficient, and leave the state bearing an added cost.

A bill to provide a general permit for noncommercial gold mining appears idle for the year; opponents were concerned the bill could damage water quality and trout populations in the Cherokee National Forest. And a bill to help finance renewable energy and energy efficiency was moving through legislative committees at press time. — By Molly Moore

Virginia

Session convened Jan. 14, adjourned Feb. 27

In the 2015 legislative session, Virginia electric utilities lobbied for what they described as a partial rate freeze, though consumer advocates said that average electric bills could still increase and the legislation would make it more difficult for regulators to catch utility over-earnings or require refunds. But amendments on the same bill declared solar energy development and energy efficiency programs as in the public interest, and the legislation passed.

Another bill would have joined Virginia into a regional network of states limiting greenhouse gas emissions. Through pollution allowance auctions, this initiative would raise funds for efforts such as coastal adaptation to sea level rise and renewable energy workforce training. The bill did not receive a vote, but this concept will likely be reintroduced next year.

Two new laws that passed will increase the size of nonresidential solar installations that can sell power back to the grid and encourage renewable energy and energy efficiency for multi-family and commercial buildings.

Meanwhile, Gov. McAuliffe reiterated his strong support for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, one of three proposed pipelines that would, if built, carry fracked gas across ecologically sensitive areas. A bipartisan bill would have prevented interstate companies from entering and surveying private property without the written consent of the owner, but that legislation failed to pass, as did an attempt to make public service corporations using eminent domain subject to the Freedom of Information Act. — By Hannah Wiegard

West Virginia

Session convened Jan. 14, adjourned March 14

Governor Earl Ray Tomblin received criticism from mine-safety and environmental groups for signing the Coal Jobs Safety Act, a law that United Mine Workers of America President Cecil Roberts said “marks the first time in West Virginia history that our state has officially reduced safety standards for coal miners.” The legislation also prevents citizens from suing coal companies for violating Clean Water Act standards if those standards were not specified in the state mine permit, along with several other industry-supported changes to environmental rules.

The state also lowered the number of aboveground chemical storage tanks that need to comply with safety regulations by roughly 75 percent — the storage tank rules passed in the wake of the 2014 Elk River chemical spill. The legislature did agree to strengthen water quality standards for a 72-mile stretch of the Kanawha River so that it can be used as a backup drinking water source for the now-notorious Elk River intake.

A bill that would have allowed “forced pooling” for horizontal oil and gas wells narrowly failed. Forced pooling, which is currently allowed for vertical wells in the state, requires all mineral owners to lease their land for drilling if a certain percentage of other mineral owners in an drilling tract agree.

Two bills intended to expand the scope of agricultural cooperatives and make it easier for growers to sell at farmer’s markets also passed. — By Molly Moore

WV Coal Lab Penalty Upheld

Wednesday, April 8th, 2015 - posted by Dac Collins

The West Virginia Environmental Quality Board upheld a decision by the state Department of Environmental Protection to revoke the certification of Appalachian Laboratories Inc., where employees routinely conspired to violate the federal Clean Water Act.

The Beckley-based water-testing lab had previously appealed the revocation of its state certificate to conduct water testing services for coal companies and other industrial customers, arguing the actions of one employee should not disrupt its entire business. But during the Feb. 25 sentencing hearing of lab employee John Shelton — who will spend 21 months in prison for falsifying water samples — a U.S. judge said, “essentially everyone at the company… participated in some way in this conspiracy.”

Apologies for the Dan River spill, guilt for coal ash crimes

Thursday, February 26th, 2015 - posted by brian
Facing federal criminal charges stemming from the Dan River spill and pollution at other sites across North Carolina, Duke will pay for its coal ash crimes.

Facing federal criminal charges stemming from the Dan River spill and pollution at other sites across North Carolina, Duke will pay for its coal ash crimes.

Duke Energy likes to use a tagline that goes something like “For more than 100 years we’ve been providing customers with reliable, affordable electricity at the flip of a switch.”

It’s boilerplate, but it works. So I doubt the company will amend that punchy bit of self-praise to include “and we were recently found criminally negligent for polluting North Carolina rivers with coal ash.”

Even so, a year after the Dan River spill, Duke seems to understand that coal ash pollution has its own chapter in the company’s corporate story. Now, Duke will pay for its crimes.

The bombshell news came in two pieces around the same time last Friday; the U.S. Department of Justice announced the charges and Duke announced it struck a deal with prosecutors. A few days before the big reveal, Duke told shareholders in an earnings report that it set aside $100 million to resolve the federal investigation that began after the Dan River spill.

The company faces nine misdemeanor charges for violating the federal Clean Water Act at multiple coal ash sites across the state. On Friday, the U.S. Attorney’s Offices for the Western, Middle and Eastern Districts of North Carolina each filed charges in their respective federal courts, related to violations that occurred at coal ash ponds owned by Duke in their respective districts.

According to DOJ, Duke was criminally negligent in discharging coal ash and coal ash wastewater from storage ponds its Dan River, Asheville, Lee, and Riverbend plants into North Carolina rivers. Violations related to equipment upkeep were found at the Cape Fear Steam Station, where Duke was cited by the state for illegally pumping 61 million gallons of toxic water from a coal ash pit into the Cape Fear River last year.

The DOJ’s press release makes clear that the filing of charges is not a finding of guilt, and most prominent news outlets left any indication that Duke is guilty of its coal ash crimes out of their coverage. We decided to use the word “guilty” in our press release largely because a proposed plea agreement including millions in fines had been reached.

Read one of the three criminal "bills of information" detailing charges against Duke Energy (PDF).

Read one of the three criminal “bills of information” detailing charges against Duke Energy (PDF).

Also, in a consent to transfer the plea and sentencing proceedings to the Eastern District court, an attorney for Duke wrote: “… the Defendants wish to plead guilty to the offenses charged.”

Of course, Duke steered clear from the words “guilty” or “plea” in its own announcement. But, as the Southern Environmental Law Center’s Frank Holleman told the Charlotte Observer, “When anyone pays $100 million to resolve a grand jury investigation, that indicates something serious happened.”

There’s still a lot of specifics we don’t know about the agreement between prosecutors and Duke. Prosecutors say they won’t comment until after court proceedings where the agreement must be approved by a federal judge.

It’s important to note, though, that this is a plea bargain to resolve a criminal investigation, not a settlement to avoid a civil trial. The proposed agreement includes $68.2 million in fines and restitution and $34 million for community service and mitigation. The fines cannot be passed on to customers, meaning Duke’s shareholders will take the hit.

Importantly, the agreement would also put Duke on probation for five years, during which a court-appointed monitor would ensure compliance with provisions related to training, audits and reporting. According to Duke, the full agreement will be made public if it is accepted by the court.

“We are sorry for the Dan River spill, and remain grateful to our friends and neighbors for your support,” Duke CEO Lynn Good said in a statement. “We are committed to moving forward in a safe and responsible way.”

For a year Duke has been saying sorry to its customers and communities along the Dan River — basically demanding that it be held to a higher standard. So even though the company is no longer in crisis mode, it’s still watching its back as it tries to repair its reputation and move beyond the spill.

The problem of coal ash pollution in North Carolina is far from resolved. According to Duke’s own assessment, 200 seeps at its power plants leak nearly 3 million gallons of polluted water into streams and rivers every year. Just yesterday, Duke was cited for contaminating groundwater at its Asheville Plant.

In addition to investigating Duke Energy, federal prosecutors subpoenaed current and former employees of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources and the North Carolina Utilities Commission, which used to regulate coal ash ponds. But none of the charges against Duke allege any improper, or illegal, dealings between the company and state regulators.

Without clarification from the U.S. Attorney’s office, it’s unclear whether the grand jury has finished its work, only finding Duke in the wrong, or if an investigation into actions of DENR is ongoing.

“While prosecutors aren’t legally obliged to explain charges they don’t file, in this case the public needs more substantial disclosures,” the Fayetteville Observer wrote in an editorial. “The Justice Department needs to let us know whether a cloud of suspicion remains over DENR.”

Subscribe to the Front Porch Blog to receive regular updates. 

Déjà vu in Kentucky clean water cases

Monday, February 23rd, 2015 - posted by eric

frasure_creek

Appalachian Voices and our partners have filed a motion to intervene in a case between the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet and Frasure Creek Mining to ensure clean water laws are being enforced in Kentucky.

Late last year we filed a 60-day Notice of Intent to Sue against Frasure Creek after we uncovered thousands of false water monitoring reports the company turned into the state.

The Kentucky cabinet was unaware of these false submissions and responded by filing an administrative complaint against Frasure Creek covering all of the false data we found, a common tactic for state agencies to prevent citizen involvement in this type of case. Now, we are filing a motion to become parties to the cabinet’s enforcement action.

To anyone following our lawsuits against Frasure Creek, these recent developments will sound familiar. This isn’t the first time we’ve caught the company turning in false water monitoring reports. Frasure Creek was one of three Kentucky coal companies we filed legal actions against in 2010 and 2011 for submitting falsified pollution reports that were concealing water quality violations.

In all of those cases the cabinet stepped in with slap-on-the-wrist settlements, compelling us to intervene in cases where we had brought the violations to light. The only difference in this case is that Frasure Creek and the cabinet have yet to reach a settlement, so we haven’t seen how lax the enforcement will be this time around.

Both of the cabinet’s previous settlements with Frasure Creek were thrown out by Franklin Circuit Court Judge Phillip Shepherd last December. In a scathing opinion, Shepherd stated that when “one company so systematically subverts the requirements of law, it not only jeopardizes environmental protection on the affected permits, it creates a regulatory climate in which the Cabinet sends the message that cheating pays.”

Judge Shepherd’s rulings are being appealed by the cabinet (think about that, the state agency, not Frasure Creek, is asking for an appeal). But we are hoping that this time around the cabinet will take us seriously, and won’t reach a weak settlement or resort to legal run-arounds to prevent citizen involvement. After all aren’t our state agencies supposed to be accountable to the people, not to the corporations they are supposed to regulate?

Appalachian Voices is joined in these efforts by Kentuckians For The Commonwealth, Kentucky Riverkeeper, the Sierra Club and the Waterkeeper Alliance. The citizens’ groups are represented by Mary Cromer of Appalachian Citizens Law Center, attorney Lauren Waterworth, and the Pace Law School Environmental Litigation Clinic.

Read past posts about our clean water lawsuits in Kentucky. Subscribe to the Front Porch Blog to receive regular updates.

Virginia lawmakers act on energy bills

Monday, February 23rd, 2015 - posted by hannah
There has been no shortage of activity on energy policy during Virginia’s 2015 legislative session.

There has been no shortage of activity on energy policy during Virginia’s 2015 legislative session.

As the Virginia General Assembly enters the final days of its 2015 session, we can look back on five intense weeks.

Among the many issues our lawmakers labored over, a few were explosive enough to consistently make headlines. Energy policy was one of those issues thanks largely to electric utilities’ efforts to capitalize on worries about upcoming federal rules on carbon pollution.

Here’s a recap of the drama, along with a few important policies that received less fanfare.

>> First, a measure that shocked newspaper editorial boards, dismayed consumer groups, and stunned many of us who have challenged the utilities’ business-as-usual plans, but passed the legislature easily: under SB 1349, Virginia would see a five-year period when state regulators do not review rates set by Dominion Power and Appalachian Power, likely preventing any refunds of utility over-earnings to customers. The base portion of rates will be fixed, but other charges related to fuel costs can still rise during the period.

Political dynamics and election sensitivities made this legislation especially charged, and ultimately some of our top legislative champions for advancing clean energy stepped in and saw to it that the measure includes a designation for up to 500 megawatts of solar energy to be in the public interest, thereby authorizing state regulators to approve large scale solar farms — of which there are exactly zero in Virginia right now. The champs also added provisions for utilities to pay for low-income home weatherization programs.

Gov. McAuliffe signed the bill into law on Tuesday.

>> Last Wednesday, legislation passed both houses capping Virginia’s coal production and employment tax credits at $7.5 million annually. Appalachian Voices and other advocates have called for comprehensive study of whether such credits have their intended effects, including sustaining coal-related jobs in Southwest Virginia. A study by Downstream Strategies a few years ago suggests they do not. SB 741, which originally extended the tax credits by five years, is expected to come out of conference committee this week extending the credits for only two years while analysis is done by a reform-oriented panel.

>> On to one enormous highlight of the session: several bills containing extreme language against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed Clean Power Plan — aimed at reducing carbon pollution from power plants — never made it out of committee. One was an effort to empower the General Assembly to sue the EPA. Another bill that is still alive directs the state Department of Environmental Quality to consider concerns and take the input of legislators, and requires the General Assembly to express its approval of DEQ’s compliance plan in the form of a resolution.

>> Lastly, a bill based on a central concept of Gov. McAuliffe’s Energy Plan creates a Solar Energy Development Authority for Virginia. In spite of some legislators’ concerns about growing government, the promise of boosting job growth in the solar industry propelled this measure through both houses. A net energy metering expansion bill also still stands a good chance of passing.

With some great concepts like the Virginia Coastal Protection Act unable to find sufficient support in committee to pass this year, the work to pave the way for next year’s legislative efforts lies before us. Citizen contact with delegates and senators can continue year-round, and there are many ways to stay engage.

In addition to calling or writing your elected officials, enrolling in an energy-efficiency program offered by your power company or going solar sends a clear signal to our legislators about Virginia residents’ preferences and expectations on important energy policy issues.

“Clean coal” is on the fritz

Wednesday, February 18th, 2015 - posted by brian

By Brian Sewell

Cost overruns and construction delays are dampening enthusiasm for carbon capture and storage technologies

A rendering of FutureGen 2.0. Earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Energy pulled its funding from the project, which was intended to demonstrate the feasibility of carbon capture and storage technology on a commercial-scale. Credit Department of Energy.

A rendering of FutureGen 2.0. Earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Energy pulled its funding from the project, which was intended to demonstrate the feasibility of carbon capture and storage technology on a commercial-scale. Credit Department of Energy.

As one of the most high-profile and hyped-up projects of its kind, the FutureGen “clean coal” plant in Illinois was supposed make history. Its backers saw in it the key to unlocking an inherently dirty energy source’s promise in a world coming to grips with climate change.

So the announcement earlier this month that the U.S. Department of Energy is backing out of its $1.1 billion funding commitment to the FutureGen project, citing a desire to “protect taxpayer interests,” sent a shockwave through the coal sector and investors, energy analysts and environmentalists all took note.

But the news that “clean coal” technology has taken yet another hit should not come as a surprise. Even with $6 billion in commitments under the Obama administration, carbon capture projects just don’t have the track record needed to pique private investors’ interest.

Every form of carbon capture technology comes with technical and technological drawbacks that translate to enormous costs. A commercial-scale “clean coal” plant using even the most advanced technologies may increase the cost of electricity by up to 80 percent, according to DOE. These challenges make commercial-scale carbon capture projects outcasts when it comes to competitive energy markets, where traditional fossil fuel plants and, increasingly, large-scale and distributed renewable projects represent the most cost-effective power sources.

Convinced that coal will remain one of the nation’s foremost energy sources for decades to come, DOE will put billions more into advancing “clean coal” technology, attempting to overcome its economic pitfalls and keep burning the dirtiest fuel around.

FutureGen’s Downfall

FutureGen 2.0 planned to transport CO2 waste approximately 30 miles  through pipelines before being injected in deep saline formations.

FutureGen 2.0 planned to transport CO2 waste approximately 30 miles through pipelines before being injected in deep saline formations. Click to enlarge.

The idea for FutureGen arose in 2003 under the Bush administration. The plan was for the FutureGen Industrial Alliance, a coalition of mining and energy companies including Alpha Natural Resources and Peabody Energy, to oversee retrofits to an existing coal plant and, in the process, prove the feasibility of burning coal, then capturing and storing the carbon emitted underground.

But the project soon began suffering from the delays, cost overruns and other challenges that will be its legacy. FutureGen was canceled, for the first time, in 2008 before construction could begin.

In 2010, the Obama administration used stimulus money to give FutureGen new life as FutureGen 2.0, a smaller proposed plant that would use a different technology to capture its emissions, but still show how carbon capture could make a more climate-friendly coal plant. For a time, everything seemed to be going in FutureGen’s favor. But then familiar cracks started to appear.

The Illinois Commerce Commission approved a controversial plan in 2012 to require utilities, and therefore their customers, to buy all the electricity generated by the FutureGen plant for 20 years — likely at dramatically over-market rates. The decision may have reassured some private investors, but challenges to the decision by the utilities themselves were headed to the Illinois Supreme Court.

The Sierra Club challenged the air pollution permit granted to FutureGen by the Illinois Pollution Control Board, saying the State of Illinois should hold FutureGen to its promise to build a “near-zero emissions” plant. FutureGen needed to convert a World War II-era boiler at the plant to one compatible with the oxy-combustion technology it planned use to capture its emissions. The Sierra Club argued that allowing FutureGen to convert the boiler would violate the federal Clean Air Act unless it obtained the appropriate permit from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

All of this is to say that the DOE isn’t entirely, or even mostly, responsible for FutureGen’s failure. Unresolved legal battles, environmental and economic concerns all combined to hurt the chances of attracting enough private investment to bring the $1.65 billion project online. It became clear that the project could not be completed by September 2015, the deadline for federal funds to be spent under the 2009 stimulus, so DOE pulled the plug.

According to DOE, approximately $116.5 million of the total award had been invested in the plant since 2010.

The Sierra Club, which has called FutureGen a boondoggle from the very beginning, said the news reflects a national trend toward embracing clean energy.

“This project has gone through a decade of false starts and with today’s announcement, $1 billion in federal funding and hundreds of thousands of dollars in Illinois ratepayer financing can be freed up for investment in clean energy,” Holly Bender, Deputy Director of the Sierra Club Beyond Coal campaign, said in a statement.

Coal industry groups directed their frustrations toward the Obama administration and mostly overlooked the host of other challenges facing FutureGen.

Hal Quinn, president of the National Mining Association, said in a statement that DOE’s decision to end funding for FutureGen “cannot be reconciled with the [Obama] administration’s proposal to require CCS as the only acceptable technology for any new coal-fueled power plant in the U.S.”

Proceed with Caution

A "first-of-its-kind" technologically speaking and the most expensive coal plant of all time, Mississippi Power's Kemper Plant has put ratepayers at risk in search of unproven and far-off returns. Photo from Wikipedia.

A “first-of-its-kind” technologically speaking and the most expensive coal plant of all time, Mississippi Power’s Kemper Plant has put ratepayers at risk in pursuit of unproven and far-off returns. Photo from Wikipedia.

Carbon capture is a must if future U.S. coal plants — if there is such a thing — hope to meet regulations on greenhouse gases being developed under the Clean Air Act.

Analysts say the only way to create a market for carbon capture technology, at least one that would attract significant private capital, is by capping power plant pollution. But groups like the National Mining Association lambast the president and the U.S Environmental Protection Agency for pursuing policies that will limit carbon pollution from power plants and steer investments toward alternative forms of energy, including “clean coal.”

Even with a strong climate policy, some experts doubt commercial-scale “clean coal” projects will be around in time to make a meaningful contribution to reducing carbon pollution. Sean Casten, the president and CEO of Recycled Energy Development, recently drew the comparison between the likelihood of the technology’s success and the existence of unicorns.

“I suppose it’s possible that there will suddenly be a huge pot of capital willing to invest billions of dollars in an unproven technology with long construction times and regulatory-dependent cash flows,” Casten told SNL Energy. “But unicorns are more likely.”

Another notable casualty is Tenaska’s $3.5-billion Taylorsville, Ill., plant, which the Nebraska-based energy developer canceled in 2013. The company cited market conditions that led it to focus on developing natural gas and renewable energy facilities instead. But the fact that Illinois lawmakers would not agree to a 30-year contract to buy electricity from the plant, and pass those high costs on to ratepayers, had something to do with it.

With the Taylorsville plant and FutureGen off the table, the U.S. is left with one utility-scale carbon capture project currently under construction. But Mississippi Power’s Kemper Plant, which received a $270 million grant from DOE, is like the projects before it: more of a cautionary tale than a positive sign for coal’s future.

Cost increases have been like clockwork at Kemper. Initially estimated to cost $2.2 billion, the price to build the plant has ballooned to $6.17 billion since 2009, making it the most expensive coal plant in U.S. history. Southern Company, the parent company of Mississippi Power, announced a $45 million increase this month.

$6 billion and counting: Cost increases at the Kemper Plant have been like clockwork since 2009.

$6 billion and counting: Cost increases at the Kemper Plant have been like clockwork since 2009. Graphic by the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis.

To help pay the bill, the Mississippi Public Utilities Commission approved an 18 percent rate hike on Mississippi Power in March 2013, and the company says it’s likely to seek another increase of at least 4 percent to help pay off $1 billion in bonds that the state legislature is allowing it to issue.

“This is the largest rate increase in the state of Mississippi’s history, and this is the largest transfer of wealth from the people to a corporation in the state of Mississippi’s history,” Public Service Commissioner Brandon Presley told Mississippi Watchdog in 2013.

Presley was the only dissenting vote when the commission approved the rate increase. But now the state’s highest court is on his side. Last week, the Mississippi Supreme Court reversed the rate increase after finding the utilities commission hadn’t ruled on the “prudency” of the Kemper Plant’s growing cost. The court directed Mississippi Power to refund ratepayers about $271 million attributed to the rate increase.

The Kemper plant is slated to open in mid-2016, more than two years behind schedule.

The quest to create a cleaner future for coal increasingly rests on the question of how much we’re willing pay for it.

Obama budget creates opportunities for Appalachian communities

Tuesday, February 3rd, 2015 - posted by brian
The Obama administration's budget includes several proposals that would create economic opportunities in central Appalachian communities struggling to weather coal's decline.

The Obama administration’s budget includes several proposals that would create economic opportunities in central Appalachian communities struggling to weather coal’s decline.

Central Appalachian communities weathering coal’s long decline would see a boost in funding under the White House budget released on Monday.

The Obama administration’s 2016 budget calls for hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funds to be spent cleaning up abandoned strip mines, and to support economic development and workforce training in mining communities facing massive layoffs as coal is increasingly outcompeted in America’s energy mix. More than 13,000 coal jobs have been lost in central Appalachia since 2011.

One of the most significant proposals included in the budget is for an additional $200 million per year over the next five years for the federal Abandoned Mine Lands program to restore dangerous unreclaimed mines. According to the U.S. Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement, which administers the program, additional funds would assist communities most severely impacted by coal “in a manner that facilitates economic revitalization on reclaimed lands and restored waterways.”

The program is funded through a combination of a per-ton tax on coal production and discretionary spending, but has consistently fallen short of its goals. More than $3 billion worth of high-priority sites remain unreclaimed — most of which are in central Appalachia. The Kentucky Division of Abandoned Mine Lands, for instance, lists $445 million worth of unfunded projects. Groups working in the region have called on the administration to reimagine the way funds are distributed through the program by coupling workforce development and environmental restoration.

Other funding increases called for in the president’s budget include $20 million for the Labor Department’s Dislocated Workers program to provide employment services and job training specifically for laid-off coal miners and power plant employees to help them transition to jobs in other fields. The Appalachian Regional Commission would see its $70 million budget grow by roughly one-third, with $25 million in new funding directed to communities “most impacted by coal economic transition” to support a range of economic development initiatives.

The need for job creation and economic diversification in Appalachia could not be clearer. As Congress debates the president’s budget and puts forward its own proposals in the coming months, we hope they will carefully consider ways to build a truly sustainable economy in the region.

A statement from Appalachian Voices Legislative Associate Thom Kay:

There’s a great deal the president must do to help build a robust clean energy economy and ensure that disproportionately impacted areas like Appalachia are not left behind. The Obama administration’s proposed budget shows that the White House understands the need for economic diversification in Appalachia. It shows that the calls of Appalachian communities for new opportunities have been heard.

Proposals are not actions, however, and the proposed budget may never become law. The good news is that not every action to diversify the Appalachian economy requires changes to the federal budget. We will continue to use every tool available to urge the White House to commit to turning the proposals in this budget into realities, regardless of the actions of Congress.

To protect or prosecute polluters?

Tuesday, January 20th, 2015 - posted by eric
Water flowing from one of the discharge points in eastern Kentucky where Frasure Creek Mining was turning in false water monitoring reports.

Water flowing from one of the discharge points in eastern Kentucky where Frasure Creek Mining was turning in false water monitoring reports.

Last week the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet filed an administrative complaint against Frasure Creek Mining for hundreds of violations of the Clean Water Act at its mines in eastern Kentucky.

The filing comes just days before the end of the 60-day waiting period following an intent to sue letter sent by Appalachian Voices and our partners to Frasure Creek and the cabinet last November. Our notice letter described our discovery that the coal company had falsified pollution records over the course of 2013 and 2014, racking up almost 28,000 violations that state regulators failed to notice.

The cabinet’s filing includes all of the violations identified by Appalachian Voices and our partners. Under the Clean Water Act, the state’s action essentially preempts our ability to pursue a federal lawsuit.

Four years ago, when we first revealed that Frasure Creek had been falsifying records, the cabinet preempted our lawsuit by reaching a settlement with the company without our knowledge or participation. Later we were allowed to intervene in the settlement between the cabinet and Frasure Creek, a right which was upheld by the Kentucky Supreme Court.

Because the cabinet only filed a complaint and not a settlement in the latest case, we do not know how vigorous its enforcement will be. But if past enforcement is any guide, then one could expect it will not be very strong. The cabinet’s earlier enforcement actions against Frasure Creek were so paltry that they were thrown out in a recent court ruling, and were clearly not strong enough to ensure that Frasure Creek was in compliance since the company returned to submitting false water monitoring reports.

We will have to wait and see if the cabinet is going to take its responsibility to protect the people and water of Kentucky from dangerous pollution seriously. In the meantime, Appalachian Voices and our partners will continue to do whatever we can to ensure that Frasure Creek and other polluters are held accountable for their actions.

Appalachian Voices is joined in these efforts by Kentuckians For The Commonwealth, Kentucky Riverkeeper, the Sierra Club and the Waterkeeper Alliance. The citizens’ groups are represented by Mary Cromer of Appalachian Citizens Law Center, attorney Lauren Waterworth, and the Pace Law School Environmental Litigation Clinic.

Well, that was quick

Thursday, January 15th, 2015 - posted by thom
Rep. David Vitter

Sen. David Vitter

The new U.S. Senate couldn’t even make it one week before introducing a horrible bill. The 114th Congress began on January 6, and Sen. David Vitter (R-LA) only managed to restrain himself 24 whole hours before introducing legislation to weaken the Clean Water Act.

Sen. Vitter’s bill, S.54, would limit the Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to veto permits for mountaintop removal valley fills. It is our view that valley fills—in which the dirt and rock from blasting the tops off the mountains are dumped into streams and valleys—should not even exist. We’ve got the science to back that up. But Vitter and other coal industry allies in Congress want the fills to continue to be permitted, and want them regulated exclusively by the Army Corps of Engineers, completely removing the EPA from the process.

These coal industry advocates want the Corps in charge not because they think the agency has the same level of water quality expertise as the EPA, but because the Corps does not have the same expertise, and is therefore more likely to just hand out permits that pollute our water.

The big difference between this Congress and last Congress is that bills like S.54 have a chance at passing the Senate. Vitter’s bill is virtually identical to multiple bills that have been introduced in the past, but they didn’t get committee hearings, and never even came up for votes. This year, they probably will.

Thanks to years of hard work by Appalachian Voices and our coalition partners, we have champions in the Senate who will work to stop these dangerous bills from becoming law. Senate Republicans established a precedent over the past eight years that all bills need 60 votes to pass, and the coal industry will have a very difficult time finding 60 senators to vote for more mountaintop removal mining pollution. But we will have a fight on our hands.

President Obama is also expected to use his veto power to stop the worst bills from becoming law. We hope not to depend on vetoes, but if we can’t stop something bad from passing the Senate, the President is our backstop.

Our greatest hope for the next two years is that the White House takes advantage of its veto power and doesn’t let the threat of coal industry bills to prevent strong actions to stop mountaintop removal. Because there’s a lot left to do, and not a lot of time in which to do it.