Posts Tagged ‘Economy’

Sizing up APCo’s plan, through customers’ eyes

Wednesday, November 25th, 2015 - posted by hannah
Customers of Appalachian Power Company gather in Roanoke to learn about the company's resource plan and the benefits of expanding clean energy's role going forward.

Customers of Appalachian Power Company gather in Roanoke to learn about the company’s resource plan and the benefits of expanding clean energy’s role going forward.

Dozens of energy customers gathered in Roanoke on Tuesday evening for one reason: the electricity system in this country is undergoing some exciting changes, yet utilities’ choices can still hold Virginia back from rapid progress toward a diverse energy mix.

Residents are showing they want to learn more and get involved in these critical decisions.

Utilities in Virginia must submit plans, called Integrated Resource Plans, discussing their intended approaches to meeting customer demand. State regulators require these plans at intervals, providing a window for customers to engage with their electricity provider. The State Corporation Commission is currently considering Appalachian Power Company’s latest plan, which is set to be heard in an official proceeding before a regulatory panel on Tuesday, Dec. 8.

This newest plan is notable in many ways. The company acknowledges that market changes have made renewable energy economically advantageous. Meanwhile, federal standards on carbon pollution are in a final form, another factor that can drive change. But here are a few points that illustrate how APCo’s plan stands to impede Virginia from harnessing its full renewable energy potential at the scale that would most benefit for customers and the economy.

The Effect of the Clean Power Plan

The CEO of APCo parent company American Electric Power, Nick Akins, recently stated that “The Clean Power Plan is no doubt a catalyst for the investments … to support not only the movement of the customers but also reducing the environmental footprint.”

Though rather non-specific, this comment is encouraging and reflects a recognition of the beneficial nature of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s actions.

The flexibility, even leniency, that characterizes the Clean Power Power offers protection against legal challenges but is also a potential shortcoming when it comes to achieving long-term pollution reductions while states go about complying with the standard. Sophisticated computer modeling can help utilities determine cost-effective ways of meeting targets. At this point, APCo has only modeled the consequences of a carbon tax. The review process for its current resource plan is an opportunity for regulators to ask the company to show different possible approaches for reducing carbon emissions enough to meet new standards. If they do, it could present ways to meet the standards that will economically benefit customers, like greater reliance on bill-shrinking energy efficiency programs to meet demand.

Capping the Amount of Solar APCo Develops

The headlines over the summer when APCo released its resource plan were striking: “Appalachian turns toward sun and wind for future energy.” It sounded like a major shift was taking place. And there was a perceptible change in tone in the plan itself: “In the recent past, development of [renewable] resources has been driven primarily as the result of renewable portfolio requirements. That is not universally true now as advancements in both solar [photovoltaic] and wind turbine manufacturing have reduced both installed and ongoing costs.”

But how big a shift is APCo really proposing, how fast would it happen? After several weeks of analysis, we can say this much: the shift could be bigger, but APCo is imposing some strict, arbitrary limits on the solar projects and energy efficiency programs it’s pursuing.

Coal is decreasing in APCo’s resource mix, as one plant goes out of service and other is converted to natural gas, which seems as though it would make room for increased use of a popular, proven technologies like solar. But APCo’s preferred plan includes 835 megawatts of new natural gas-fired power, which detracts from renewable energy investments. A new gas-fired power plant would lock us into decades of dependence on a fossil fuel with potentially more volatile price swings and an environmentally degrading life-cycle that includes fracking and transmission by pipeline.

Why does APCo propose to stop at 510 MW of solar between now and 2029, when the fuel source is free and the resource is cost-effective? It appears these limits are without reason or rhyme, so regulators will likely ask APCo to explain where its numbers come from and demonstrate why is preferred plan is the best deal for customers.

An Energy Efficiency Economy under APCo’s Plan?

Energy efficiency programs seek to capture energy that otherwise gets wasted, capitalizing on home auditing technology and expertise, modern appliance and HVAC design, and other strategies to make sure customers enjoy the same amount of comfort and convenience while using less energy. Utilities including Duke Energy and Georgia Power are reducing demand through from efficiency programs, in the neighborhood of 1 percent energy saved every year,, avoiding the need for some costlier new peak or baseline generation additions — like natural gas fired plants. The question is: does APCo approach energy efficiency in a way that values these benefits as lasting and quantifiable?

APCo’s plan only expects a 1 percent improvement in energy efficiency over the next 15 years. As with the company’s solar modeling, it’s our sense that APCo is artificially limiting efficiency as a resource in its plans. The company also cites customer “acceptance and saturation” as a factor that stands to determine program cost and potentially the total impact on energy use. We know from listening to customers that people are eager to better control their energy use, and efficiency programs are a popular, basic service. When several new programs become available Jan. 1, 2016, we look forward to seeing them promoted and Appalachian Voices will do its part to get the word out about how residents can shrink their bills.

APCo does provide much-needed weatherization programs for its low-income customers that are managed by providers in the service area, which can provide work in good, often career-length jobs. But program offerings that are not income-qualified remain limited, and in order to reach Virginia’s voluntary goal of 10 percent energy efficiency by 2020, a non-binding target endorsed by General Assembly and Governor McAuliffe, APCo must design and get approval for much more robust programs.

Meanwhile, more and more APCo customers are opting to go solar each year, investing in their energy future and using less energy from the grid. Yet, that trend is also not encouraged in APCo’s plan — rather, the company tacitly subscribes to the existing system of fees, system size limitations, permit waiting periods, and other restrictions.

Plans Are Not “Set in Stone” — Stay Committed to Change

Clean energy investments proposed in APCo’s plan such as solar farms and wind installations aren’t exactly set in stone; they are contingent on approval by the State Corporation Commission, which may depend on whether current federal tax incentives are extended, reduced, or allowed to expire. According to APCo’s plan,decisions about whether or not to proceed will be made later, based on whether there are “suitable opportunities.”

It is critical that APCo customers remain engaged to support energy freedom and diversifying Virginia’s energy mix with renewables during the review of APCo’s energy plan and beyond. So take a moment to send a comment now.

Want to help spread the word? How about taking a picture of yourself holding a handwritten message or captioned with text about APCo’s plan? Try something like:

  • APCo: Don’t CAP Solar in your plan — Re-evaluate clean energy
  • Stop whittling our energy freedom away — Let people go solar
  • ​I urge APCo to expand efficiency programs for affordable bills

Tag us on social media or email your photo to, and thanks for supporting clean energy!

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Crowdsourcing Southwest Virginia’s New Economy

Friday, November 20th, 2015 - posted by Adam
Adam Wells, economic diversification campaign coordinator with Appalachian Voices, at the community forums in  Wise County, October 15, 2015. Click for more pictures

Adam Wells, economic diversification campaign coordinator with Appalachian Voices, at the community forums in Wise County, October 15, 2015. Click for more pictures

This October, more than 130 citizens from across Southwest Virginia’s coalfield counties came together to discuss the region’s economic future. Appalachian Voices, in partnership with Virginia Organizing, hosted eight community forums to gather ideas and input from ordinary citizens about how to move the local economy forward. We called them “Southwest Virginia’s New Economy Forums.”

It was crowdsourcing old-school style — inviting ideas from community members whom you meet face-to-face. And I got to meet all kinds of people: small business owners, coal miners, local government officials, concerned citizens, environmentalists, clergy, students and young parents…people like Brianna Stallard, a recent graduate of UVA Wise who works at a local business that cleans polluted water from coal mines, and Bobby Bloomer, who recently opened a bike rental shop in Big Stone Gap and is tapping into the growing excitement around outdoor recreation and ecotourism in the area.

It was inspiring to see the level of enthusiasm and optimism that people brought with them, and the high hopes they hold for our region’s future.

In a few weeks, Appalachian Voices will publish an outline of all the ideas we heard, and early next year we’ll launch an online, wiki-type crowdsourcing project. The goal is to both broaden the reach of the effort and get more specific details about how to act on those ideas. Ultimately, we’ll synthesize the information into a “Citizens’ Roadmap for a New Economy” to help local governments, planning districts, and others garner federal and state funds for job training, infrastructure development, and other forward-looking economic development activities. The aim is to get more resources to Virginia’s coal counties for economic development.

The eight community forums were formatted as highly participatory events, with small group discussions on specific questions about new opportunities for the region’s economy. At the end of each forum, the small groups shared their ideas with the entire crowd and everyone had a chance to vote on their favorite ideas.

Common themes that surfaced included supporting advanced manufacturing and ecotourism, developing better relationships among local colleges and the surrounding communities, ensuring the area’s youth have a voice in helping shape the region’s future, and further developing the emerging industries of commercial drone and water-cleaning technologies. Forum participants also discussed the need to capitalize on existing broadband infrastructure and extend it to unserved areas.

As an organizer, I was heartened to see so many new faces each night at the forums. The solid turnout and the diversity of the attendees speaks to how urgent the work of economic diversification in Central Appalachia is right now. During the forums, and in the weeks since, people have been pulling me aside and thanking me for the work we’re doing to help our communities move on from the days of the coal mono-economy. It feels great to join with our friends and partners in this broad community effort to move our economy forward.

Publishing the summary of the forums in a few weeks and launching the online crowdsourcing project will keep the momentum going and stimulate more ideas from more people. The final report, or “Citizens’ Roadmap,” won’t just sit on a shelf. We’ll use it as an engagement tool to advocate for the forward thinking ideas that came out of the forums, and use the grassroots power that we’ve built over the process to make sure that the new economy we’re building in Southwest Virginia is one that’s truly good for people and the environment.

White House POWER Initiative grants awarded

Thursday, October 15th, 2015 - posted by brian
The Whitesburg, Ky.-based Appalshop received a POWER Initiative grant to develop an IT workforce certificate program targeted to communities affected by the reduction in coal employment.

The Whitesburg, Ky.-based Appalshop received a POWER Initiative grant to develop an IT workforce certificate program targeted to communities affected by the reduction in coal employment.

Dozens of groups working to increase employment and diversify the economies of historically coal-reliant communities got some good news today.

The White House has announced $14.5 million in grant awards for organizations and local governments across 12 states that are building a better economic future for their communities. A majority of the 36 awards, and most of the grant dollars, are going to plan or implement projects in Central Appalachia.

Appalachian Voices congratulates all the grant recipients, especially our friends and allies among them, on receiving funding for their incredibly deserving and meaningful efforts.

You may have seen news about the Obama administration’s POWER+ Plan on this blog, in The Appalachian Voice, or in other regional or national media. The White House describes today’s round of grants as a “down payment” on that plan — a swifter move that recognizes the “immediacy of the economic need in coal country.” Here’s some helpful background from the White House’s announcement:

In the spring of 2015, four federal agencies announced coordinated funding solicitations for grant awards on two parallel tracks to partnerships anchored in communities impacted by the downturn in the coal economy.

The POWER Planning Grants solicitation was released in April by the Department of Commerce’s Economic Development Administration to assist community-based partnerships develop comprehensive economic development strategic plans for their regions.

The POWER Implementation Grants Federal Funding Opportunity was released in May with available funding from the Economic Development Administration, the Department of Labor’s Employment and Training Administration, the Small Business Administration and the Appalachian Regional Commission. The Federal Funding Opportunity made funding available to partnerships in impacted communities to help them: (1) diversify their economies; (2) create jobs in new or existing industries; (3) attract new sources of job-creating investment; and (4) provide a range of workforce services and skills training for high-quality, in-demand jobs.

Based on those goals it should come as no surprise that the bulk of the funding will support projects in Kentucky and West Virginia, the two states most severely impacted by coal’s economic decline. A handful of the awards will help groups in rural areas of East Tennessee and Southwest Virginia that have also seen significant job losses.

We’ll be following some of these projects and look forward to sharing the successes to come. But for now, take a look at the list of POWER grant recipients and you’ll get a sense of the range of exciting projects taking place in Central Appalachia.

Oh, and we’d be remiss not to mention that the POWER Initiative and POWER+ Plan have broad and growing bipartisan support. More than two dozen Central Appalachian localities have passed resolutions that support the POWER+ Plan specifically and call for economic development funding to soften the acute effects of the regional coal industry’s collapse and spur sustainable economic growth.

There are critics, of course, but most of them are either paid by the coal industry or so ideologically driven and wedded to “war on coal” rhetoric that, well, they say things like National Mining Association spokesman Luke Popovich. “These are tantamount to war reparations paid by a government guilty of indiscriminate destruction,” Popovich told E&E News shortly before comparing President Obama to a 15th-century Mongol conquerer.

We’re cautiously optimistic that that kind of astronomical hyperbole is on its way out. Even some of coal’s greatest champions in Congress seem like they’re are coming down to earth. According to U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers (R-KY):

“We know there isn’t a silver bullet to overcome the many challenges we face in the Appalachian region, but with continued collaboration of resources and ingenuity, the future is much brighter for the people who want to live and work here at home.”

Rogers’ words are a reminder that siding with coal should never come before stepping up and doing what’s right for Appalachia’s future.

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Appalachian Millennials and social media in Wyoming County

Wednesday, October 14th, 2015 - posted by guestbloggers

{ Editor’s Note } Donald Welch is a writer and educator currently living in Brooklyn, N.Y., who recently interviewed AmeriCorps members working with the federal Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement in West Virginia. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Day Hikes Near Denver, Grow Anywhere, and elsewhere. He writes about the intersection of environmentalism and technology at The Frontier Blog.

Photographer Brady Darragh and activist Chuck Nelson stand outside the abandoned union hall in Lindytown, W.Va. Lindytown's population, like that of Coalville, was displaced by the mining industry.

Photographer Brady Darragh and activist Chuck Nelson stand outside the abandoned union hall in Lindytown, W.Va. Lindytown’s population, like that of Coalville, was displaced by the mining industry. Photo by Brandon Lavoie.

In Mullens, W.Va., there’s a model town made from Popsicle sticks. While these sorts of projects are a fairly common hobby, this particular display is a replica of Coalville, a town that no longer exists.

The artist who made the model, once a resident of Coalville, constructed it from his memory and old photographs. The display sits in the Mullens Opportunity Center, home to the Rural Appalachian Improvement League, or RAIL, an organization focused on sustainability and creating social change in southern West Virginia. Like so many other towns in the Mountain State, the residents of Coalville left in search of new jobs when the area mine closed.

“Wyoming County and Mullens has a lot of people leaving,” says Nathan Tauger, a 23-year-old AmeriCorps alumni who served with RAIL, later adding that Wyoming County mainly has “older folks left so you get a lot of memories.” Tauger is a West Virginian himself, he hails the Morgantown area and elected to stay and volunteer in his home state. While memories were the motivating force behind the Coalville display, millennials like Tauger are volunteering throughout Appalachia and as they enter the region they bring an enthusiasm for technology and social media.

The millennial disposition — or “technology intuition” as Tauger describes it — helps small non-profits build a media presence in the community and beyond. Tauger says Twitter has helped RAIL “engage with outside stakeholders.”

“We were retweeted by a couple of government organizations, regional media outlets, bigger nonprofits, and universities over this past year,” says Tauger. “That helps us because visiting spring break groups see those tweets when they google us, grant makers see the tweets, potential volunteers and visitors see them. Earl Gohl, co-chair of the [Appalachian Regional Commission], follows us on Twitter.”

One of Tauger’s videos that is regularly tweeted from the RAIL account is of a community health initiative started by Patty Scott, a local pharmacist who donates her time at the Mullens Opportunity Center to run a free line dancing class. This class is an hour-long, once a week and encourages people to think positively about their bodies, have fun and bust a move.

“The Internet community in Wyoming County was probably not very big, but it felt very dense. Information can move quite quickly in Wyoming County,” Tauger recalls of the success of sharing local news and promoting events over social media. But he acknowledges the shortcomings of social networking as well. “It brought something of a false sense of belonging too. Hundreds of Facebook followers do not equal the kind of relationships built in person.” In a region where home broadband is only now becoming readily accessible, interpersonal relationships are still incredibly important for spreading information.

While RAIL’s outreach encourages plenty of groups to visit the Mullens area for volunteering, Tauger worked to engage youth in the community to create opportunities for Wyoming County residents. To that end, Tauger “interviewed leaders of successful mentoring programs, as well as lots of young folks who felt strongly about staying in or leaving Wyoming County.” Tauger went to work scheduling meetings with Volunteer West Virginia, Citizens Conservation Corps WV, WorkForce West Virginia, and Southern West Virginia Community and Technical College in order to coordinate youth initiatives.

RAIL is still building upon the groundwork Tauger laid during his AmeriCorps service and local volunteers continue to be integral to the organization’s community outreach and service projects. However, Tauger says, “Folks blame some of the region’s problems on character flaws, things like a lack of initiative among young people.” But the work of Tauger and other millennials all over Appalachia demands a change in the country’s perception of Appalachian youth.

“The character of young people reflects society’s investment in them,” says Tauger. “A sense of worth comes from how we’re treated and what we see in our communities, on the Internet and in media. To complain about the absence of personal responsibility in today’s youth is to conceal civic responsibility.”

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Reaching for Virginia’s clean power potential

Thursday, October 8th, 2015 - posted by hannah
Virginia has an tremendous opportunity to meet its Clean Power Plan goals by expanding clean energy. But it is critical for Virginians to engage as the state develops its compliance plan.

Virginia has a tremendous opportunity to meet its Clean Power Plan goals by expanding clean energy. But it is critical for Virginians to engage as the state develops its compliance plan.

In a commentary in Capitol Connections magazine out this week, U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia characterizes the job of meeting new climate change pollution reduction goals this way: “In 1962, President Kennedy challenged our nation to go the moon by 1969. If America can get to the moon in 7 years, emitting one-third less air pollution in 15 years is surely within our grasp.”

A major goal of Appalachian Voices’ and our partners’ in recent years has been to set Virginia on the track toward a safe, reliable and affordable energy future, which has meant working hard to shake our state out of the status quo. Virginia has never had a binding state renewable energy standard, and advocates have long stressed the need for both utility-owned and non-utility projects to harness clean power on a large scale.

So where does the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan put Virginia? The rule represents the first requirement for fighting climate change by cutting pollution from power plants. If we use it well, the Clean Power Plan can incentivize energy efficiency programs and drive growth in solar — two ways to ensure a more secure grid and shrink bills for electric customers. But there are possible pitfalls too.

One way in which a national plan aiming for a 32 percent reduction of carbon pollution from power plants helps Virginia is by the signal it sends. It’s a further indication as to the direction the market is going. There’s a wrinkle, however, that has some renewable energy advocates worried, and it’s very relevant in Virginia: the role of new natural gas-fired power plants.

One reason for concern about possible increased gas use in Virginia is that our state’s emissions target is fairly easy to achieve. Though one wouldn’t know it from the histrionics of some politicians who oppose the standards. In a troubling development that threatens to derail Virginia’s compliance process, some state legislators are using dire-sounding warnings about electricity reliability and costs — the same red herring arguments that surfaced last year — to attempt to take away the McAuliffe administration’s authority to implement a state plan. Some insist on General Assembly approval of Virginia’s implementation plan.

The adverse effects if Virginia dramatically increases its use of natural gas are clear: higher demand for a fuel with a lifecycle that’s harmful to communities and dangerous to the environment, from the risks to water from fracking, to the impacts of dirty pipelines, to the methane released during production and transportation. More investments in a fossil fuel source are also bound to diminish the incentive for utilities to incorporate renewable energy projects into their plans. Think of how much solar power Virginia could build for the same price as 8,000 megawatts worth of new natural gas plants.

When it comes to the cost of electricity, a report by Public Citizen shows that the Clean Power Plan can cut Virginians’ electricity bills by between 7.7 and 8.4 percent by 2030, and that greater reductions are possible when well-designed energy efficiency programs are launched — programs that will also boost the economy by creating outsource-proof jobs.

Unfortunately, these affordability conclusions are in spite of and not because of Virginia’s enactment of a so-called “rate freeze” law, which is apparent in two major ways: the “freeze” goes into effect now and expires in 2020, and it turns out that the law creates a rate floor rather than a rate ceiling by blocking increases to base rates but not increases to cover infrastructure costs (which are the exact kind of costs that would ostensibly result from the need to comply with a pollution rule.)

That action is an example of why it will be so critical for Virginians to engage during this upcoming 2016 legislative session. We can press our elected officials to take steps that advance a vision of safe, affordable and reliable energy if we all take the time to participate.

Stay connected and watch for updates as we support the McAuliffe administration’s role in setting Virginia’s compliance plan, and if you have not yet provided a comment to officials about our state’s approach to the Clean Power Plan, do so here or via by the Oct. 13 deadline.

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Thank God for our Kentucky newspapers

Tuesday, October 6th, 2015 - posted by Tarence Ray
Local newspapers in Kentucky have helped expose environmental regulators' lax treatment of industry. But Kentucky's politicians and agencies aren't shy in revealing whose interests they truly serve either. Photo of downtown Whitesburg, Ky.

Local newspapers in Kentucky have helped expose environmental regulators’ lax treatment of industry. But Kentucky’s politicians and agencies aren’t shy in revealing whose interests they truly serve either. Photo of downtown Whitesburg, Ky.

Earlier this year, former Kentucky state Rep. Keith Hall was convicted of bribing a state mine inspector while the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet looked the other way. It was only after the Lexington Herald-Leader revealed the bribery through an open records request that the FBI began an investigation.

Now, the Louisville Courier-Journal has uncovered a confidentiality agreement between the cabinet and Whitesburg, Ky.-based Childers Oil Company that would have kept secret a proposed lawsuit settlement between the cabinet and the oil company.

As Tom Loftus of the Courier-Journal writes, “The proposed settlement in the case against Childers Oil Co. contained a sweeping confidentiality clause in which cabinet officials agreed to seal the settlement and ‘forever remain silent at all times and places and under all circumstances’ regarding all aspects of the settlement — even the existence of the settlement itself.”

The Courier-Journal, and subsequently the public, only found out about the agreement because a judge was required to reject it since it had not been signed by the cabinet’s lawyer.

The lawsuit stems from a February 2011 incident in which Childers Oil Company, owned by Whitesburg businessman Don Childers, leaked diesel fuel into the North Fork of the Kentucky River. The fuel made it into the city’s water supply, triggering a three-day water advisory. Many residents were not immediately notified of the chemical’s presence in the water supply. Businesses and restaurants were critically impacted by the leak.

As a resident of Whitesburg with a vested interest in seeing my community transition to a sustainable economy independent of the region’s collapsing coal industry, this is especially troubling. This month two restaurants and a moonshine distillery opened their doors in our community. It isn’t hard to see how incidents like the 2011 diesel spill and future water advisories — they occur with frightening regularity here — make it hard for institutions to do business.

But even more importantly is what this says about the agencies that are supposed to be looking out for our health and safety. As my colleague Evan Smith told the Courier-Journal:

“The most important danger that comes from this is not what’s actually in the water, it’s the public perception that you can’t trust what comes out of your pipe and what the government is doing to protect the water. And when you’ve got confidential settlements that look like sweetheart deals, it further erodes the public’s trust in our government’s process and ability for protecting our drinking water.”

This point was driven home at a recent public hearing in Lexington on the proposed Stream Protection Rule. I listened in amazement as state Rep. Jim Gooch decried the rule — which is aimed at cutting down on the amount of mining waste dumped into streams — as pointless and unnecessary because, according to Gooch, “the biggest threat to water quality in eastern Kentucky is straight piping.”

By “straight piping,” Gooch is referring to the act of running a sewage line directly from a house to a creek, rather than a municipal sewage system or septic tank. This is very common in topographically rugged and economically distressed areas like eastern Kentucky.

And Gooch wasn’t the only one blaming Kentuckians for their water quality problems. Multiple politicians at this hearing claimed that the “trash and litter problem” was a greater threat to the region’s streams than industrial pollution.

This isn’t particularly surprising. Misleading rhetoric about the “true threats” to ecological and human health gets peddled every time new regulations threaten the coal industry’s bottom line. What’s truly egregious here is that Jim Gooch is the chair of the House Natural Resources and Environment Committee. His comments display a shocking disconnect from what’s actually going on on the ground in eastern Kentucky.

While it is true that straight piping is a significant threat to water quality in eastern Kentucky, it’s dangerous to assume that phenomena like straight piping and litter, as opposed to diesel spills and mining pollution, are entirely separate issues. Separating them out and assigning them arbitrary prioritization conveniently diverts attention away from the issue at hand. The need to address one problem in no way diminishes the need to address the other.

But these diversion tactics are quite lucrative. A follow-up investigation by the Courier-Journal revealed that Don Childers, a registered Republican, and others affiliated with Childers Oil Co. donated a combined $4,000 to the Kentucky Democratic Party while Gov. Steve Beshear’s administration was negotiating its secret settlement with the company.

Sadly, whether it’s agreeing to secret settlement deals over diesel spills or blaming Kentucky citizens for their water quality problems, these politicians and the agencies they oversee reveal whose interests they truly serve: those of the fossil fuel industry.

The public comment period for the draft Stream Protection Rule ends on Oct. 26. Click here to add your voice.

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Citizen stories counter coal industry deception

Tuesday, September 22nd, 2015 - posted by willie
Citizens sign up to speak at a public hearing on the Stream Protection Rule in Big Stone Gap, Va.

Citizens sign up to speak at a public hearing on the Stream Protection Rule in Big Stone Gap, Va., where clean water advocates argued for stronger protections and coal industry representatives relied on deception to rally against the rule.

In July, the federal Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement released a draft of its Stream Protection Rule, a long-awaited regulation aimed at reducing the impacts of mountaintop removal coal mining.

Along with coalfield community members and allied organizations, Appalachian Voices is asking the agency to close loopholes in the rule that state agencies might exploit, allowing coal companies to continue polluting our streams. We are also pushing for clear language in the final rule that states citizens may enforce water quality standards under the Surface Mining Reclamation and Control Act.

TAKE ACTION: Urge the Office of Surface Mining to strengthen the draft Stream Protection Rule.

As part of its rule-making process, OSM held six public hearings across the nation in order to gather comments from stakeholders and impacted residents. Only two hearings were held in the central Appalachian coalfields; one in Big Stone Gap, Va., and another in Charleston, W.Va.

The hearing in Big Stone Gap provides a glimpse into how the whole series of hearings played out. About 250 people were present at the hearing, which took place on the evening of Sept. 15. At 6 p.m., U.S. Rep. Morgan Griffith of Virginia’s 9th district, the first speaker of the evening, approached the podium. Griffith did not address any details of the Stream Protection Rule in his comments, and he provided no tangible evidence of whether or not it would achieve its intended effect. Instead, Griffith seized the opportunity to spout “war on coal” rhetoric and to accuse the rule’s supporters of caring more about mayflies than human beings.

Concluding his comments after five minutes, Rep. Griffith was on his way out of the building when Wise County resident Jane Branham confronted him and asked him to stay and listen to what his constituents had to say. Griffith declined this invitation and left promptly at 6:11 p.m.

Had Rep. Griffith stayed, he would have heard Mary Darcy from Wise who said:

Despite rules and laws, tons of waste are dumped into these waterways regularly. How does this happen? Do the states not enforce clean water regulations? Do our elected representatives turn their backs on the needs of the people with something as critical as water?

Darcy was not the only speaker to call out state agencies for repeatedly failing to enforce regulations. Diana Withen, a local high school biology teacher, implored the OSM to include clear language allowing for citizen monitoring and enforcement, stating, “We know that government budgets are tight and that regulatory agencies are going to continue to face budget cuts in the future. So allowing concerned citizens to help monitor the water quality in our streams makes sense.”

A reconstructed "stream" below a surface mine in Central Appalachia. The Stream Protection Rule is intended to safeguard streams and people by reining in the ravages of mountaintop removal.

A reconstructed “stream” below a surface mine in Central Appalachia. The Stream Protection Rule is intended to safeguard streams and people by reining in the ravages of mountaintop removal.

Countering the many citizens who spoke up for clean water were the numerous coal industry representatives that railed against the rule. But instead of addressing the rule’s content, they expended a great deal of time and energy accusing the Office of Surface Mining and President Obama of deliberately attacking coal mining for political gain.

Scott Barton, a mine superintendent at Murray Energy’s Harrison County Mine in northern West Virginia, argued that the Obama administration “hides behind the myth of global warming to justify it’s job destroying agenda. Everyone in the coal industry knows this is a lie.”

Other pro-industry, anti-regulatory speakers described the rule as a “weapon of mass destruction,” the “nuclear option” and “the last nail in the crucifixion of the coal industry.” Sadly, preference on the part of the industry and politicians for rhetoric over substance was not unique to the Big Stone Gap hearing. Much more of the same could be heard at each of the five other hearings in Charleston, Denver, Lexington Ky., Pittsburgh and St. Louis.

The public comment period for the draft Stream Protection Rule has been extended in response to industry requests and will now remain open until Oct. 26. Click here to add your voice.

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Peculiar Patriot Coal deal raises questions

Thursday, August 20th, 2015 - posted by Tarence Ray
A train leads up to a Patriot Coal site in Kanawha County, W.Va. Photo by Foo Conner | Jekko.

A train leads up to a Patriot Coal site in Kanawha County, W.Va. Photo by Foo Conner | Jekko.

What would a health care executive-turned-environmentalist want with the dying business of mining coal?

That’s the question some are asking after it was announced this week that Tom Clarke, a Virginia businessman, plans to acquire assets, and assume around $400 million in liabilities, from recently-bankrupt Patriot Coal through one of his companies, ERP Compliant Fuels.

The deal is part of an elaborate and untested business model that will allow ERP — an affiliate of the Virginia Conservation Legacy Fund — to continue mining Patriot permits in West Virginia, bundling this coal with “carbon offsets” accrued from planting trees, and selling these bundled products to electric utilities.

Because trees absorb atmospheric carbon, Clarke believes credits created through reforestation will help states meet carbon emissions targets set forth by the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan. But the plan does not make clear that coal-carbon offsets will count towards states’ emissions targets.

According to The Roanoke Times, Clarke says he’s not in it for the money, but for the earth. But that isn’t clear from the available literature on ERP, which seeks to bring together a coalition of conflicting environmental and capital interests — “coal mining businesses, electric power producers, forestland owners, government, and the scientific community” — in order to reduce global CO2 emissions. In the same literature, Clarke and the ERP/VCLF tout their business partnership with Jim Justice, a notorious scofflaw mine operator who owes nearly $2 million in mine violation fines.

As if these relationships weren’t enough to raise suspicion, ERP/VCLF’s definition of a “carbon offset” is dubious. As The Roanoke Times points out:

It doesn’t matter that Clarke will target coal-fired electrical generating plants in the Ohio River Valley with his pitch, while the designated trees are in Central America and the U.S. South or would be planted in Appalachia. Carbon emissions spread in the atmosphere and the concentration evens out; a party that wants to offset its carbon output can fund tree planting or tree preservation anywhere and benefit the globe, he said.

If there’s no requirement that trees be planted on deforested land in Appalachia, what’s stopping ERP from destroying mountains and externalizing the costs onto Appalachian communities for the social mission of stopping climate change? How does ERP plan to address coal ash and mercury and the many other harmful externalities that are inflicted on communities as coal is mined, processed and burned? How will the company account for the numerous injuries, fatalities, and black lung incidences that result from both underground and surface mining? Coal’s impact goes far beyond CO2 pollution.

These are crucial questions to ask as the coal industry in central Appalachia undergoes massive structural changes. If the history of the coal industry in the region has taught us anything, it’s that we should be highly suspect of outside corporate interests looking to exploit the region’s natural resources.

This is just as true today, in an era in which investors and politicians stand to gain substantial material and social capital off of the region’s diversification.

Predictable politics giving way to popular support for POWER+

Tuesday, August 18th, 2015 - posted by brian
Photo of Wise County, Va., by Flickr user biotour 13 licensed under Creative Commons.

The politics surrounding the POWER+ Plan are less important to Appalachian communities than advancing initiatives that will create jobs and alleviate economic hardship. Photo of Wise County, Va., by biotour 13.

UPDATE: As of November 3, a total of 23 Appalachian government entities have passed resolutions to support POWER+.

* * * * *

The recent growth in local support for a plan to boost Appalachia’s economy has been a bright spot in the region during some of the coal industry’s darkest days.

In Kentucky, Virginia and Tennessee, cities and counties with long histories of coal mining are advocating for the POWER+ Plan, a federal budget initiative proposed by the White House to build more diverse economies in the communities hardest hit by the regional coal industry’s decline.

Last week, the Board of Supervisors of Wise County, Va., unanimously approved a resolution supporting the plan, citing the “dramatic economic transition” and job losses the county has experienced. According to the resolution, the county “desires to invest resources to adapt to new economic circumstances” facing the region.

On the same night, the City Council of Benham, in Harlan County, Ky., passed a supporting resolution. Before Benham came the City of Whitesburg, Ky., and Virginia’s Cumberland Plateau Planning District Commission.

The Campbell County Commission became the first locality in Tennessee to support POWER+, unanimously passing a resolution yesterday. Also on Monday, members of the Letcher County Fiscal Court voted unanimously in favor of the plan.

The City Council of Whitesburg, Ky., is among the growing number of localities in central Appalachia that have passed resolutions supporting the POWER+ Plan. Photo by Kentuckians For The Commonwealth.

The City Council of Whitesburg, Ky., is among the growing number of localities in central Appalachia that have passed resolutions supporting the POWER+ Plan. Photo by Kentuckians For The Commonwealth.

It was only a few weeks ago that Norton, Va., became the first locality in the nation to pass a resolution in favor of the plan. More endorsements are expected in the days and weeks ahead.

Appalachian Voices and our allies have been promoting the POWER+ Plan, too. We’re heartened, but not surprised, to hear local perspectives that don’t reflect the tone legislators from Appalachian states often take in D.C.

After listening to residents speak at the Wise County Board of Supervisors meeting about how the plan could benefit their families and share their hopes for Southwest Virginia’s economy, board member Ron Shortt told the audience, “We’re behind you 100 percent on this. We realize how important it is to Southwest Virginia and Wise County.”

The implication could be that, so far, Congress doesn’t realize how important it is for the region.

Since it holds the federal purse strings, Congress must approve funding for elements of the POWER+ Plan. But after months of opportunity to consider the proposal, and some shirking by Appalachian politicians, lawmakers in the House and Senate weakened key provisions of the plan or left them out of the budget altogether.

We recently covered Congress’s muted response in The Appalachian Voice and pointed to how lawmakers are sticking to their political sides:

… rather than receiving the POWER+ Plan with enthusiasm, many Appalachian lawmakers’ comments echoed past criticisms of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and claims of a war on coal.

“The administration has instituted sweeping regulations that have destroyed our economy’s very foundation without considering the real-world impacts, and funding alone won’t fix that,” a spokesperson for Sen. Shelley Moore Capito told the Charleston Gazette-Mail. Earlier this year, Capito introduced legislation to prevent the EPA from regulating carbon pollution.

When asked about the plan, a spokesperson for first-term Rep. Alex Mooney responded to the Gazette-Mail with a simple “No, Representative Mooney does not support the [POWER+] Plan.”

Mooney has introduced a bill to prevent the U.S. Department of the Interior from finalizing the Stream Protection Rule to reduce the impacts of mountaintop removal coal mining. He has called stopping the rule his “top priority.”

Rather than investing in workforce training and reemployment programs or reforming the Abandoned Mine Lands Fund to focus more on economic development, as the POWER+ Plan would, congressional opponents of the president remain primarily concerned with undermining protections for Appalachian streams and fighting limits on carbon emissions — policy goals, sure, but nothing close to an economic development plan for the region.

The counties that stand to benefit most from the plan are some of the poorest in the United States and continue to face layoffs, the impacts of ongoing mining, and pollution from decades-old and poorly reclaimed mine sites.

Lawmakers representing those counties in Congress, including Rep. Hal Rogers, who chairs the House Appropriations Committee, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, are positioned to rally other influential legislators around the plan, but they aren’t.

Some lawmakers have made statements expressing tacit support. But the resolutions make clear that these localities expect their representatives to do more; some call on members of Congress by name to support funding for economic development in the region.

The politics surrounding the POWER+ Plan, and attempts to fit it into a “war on coal” framework, are understandably less important to Appalachian communities than advancing initiatives that will create jobs and alleviate the economic hardships they face.

Many of the communities now urging members of Congress to back the plan have been underrepresented over the years in their demands for a more diverse economy. They deserved to be heard then like they deserve to be heard now.

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U.S. coal giant Alpha Natural Resources files for bankruptcy

Friday, August 7th, 2015 - posted by jamie
Alpha Natural Resources Twilight surface mine complex in Boone County, West Virginia - Photo by Ami Vitale

Alpha Natural Resources’ Twilight surface mine complex in Boone County, W.Va. Photo by Ami Vitale,

Alpha Natural Resources, one of the largest coal mining companies in the United States and a big player in the Appalachian coal market, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy on Monday of this week, coincidentally on the day President Obama announced his administration’s final Clean Power Plan.

In the announcement, Alpha blamed “an unprecedented period of distress with increased competition from natural gas, an oversupply in the global coal market, historically low prices due to weaker international and domestic economies, and increasing government regulation that has pushed electric utilities to transition away from coal-fired power plants.”

According to the release, the company does not anticipate closing the business down, but will “seek the necessary immediate relief from the Bankruptcy Court that will allow normal business operations to continue uninterrupted while in Chapter 11, with coal being mined, customer commitments honored, and wages and benefits for Alpha’s affiliated employees paid.”

A Bloomberg Business article notes that Alpha, which employs nearly 8,000 workers at more than 50 underground and surface mines and more than 20 coal preparation facilities in Virginia, Kentucky, West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Wyoming, has accumulated $3.3 billion in debt over the past several years.

The Wall Street Journal reports that Alpha has assets of $10.1 billion, liabilities of $7.1 billion, and is “seeking up to $692 million in bankruptcy financing from senior lenders and secured bondholders to fund its operations.”

United Mine Workers of America responded to the news:

“Today’s Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing by Alpha Natural Resources appears to follow the same script as others we’ve seen this year: pay off the big banks and other Wall Street investors at the expense of workers, retirees and their communities … Alpha needs to understand that while we are willing to discuss ways forward that will be of mutual benefit for the company and for our members, we are also prepared to do whatever we need to do to maintain decent jobs with the pension and health care benefits our retirees were promised and have earned.”

Alpha launched a new website to detail the Chapter 11 process, including contact information and FAQs for employees, customers, retirees and other stakeholders.

Is there an echo in here?

The move brings to mind the financial roller coaster of Patriot Coal, the West Virginia-based company that emerged from its first bankruptcy in 2012 only to file again a scant 3 years later in May of this year. Patriot’s initial 2012 “restructuring” plan was extremely controversial as it involved slashing the healthcare benefits of 1,800 union miners and retirees. Patriot initially won court approval for the cut, but, after significant public scrutiny and outrage, settled with the United Mine Workers of America in 2013 for $400 million to cover the benefits.

And now history seems to be repeating itself. According to an AP story that is quoted on Coal Tattoo (yet mysteriously disappeared from national news outlets, including the Washington Post), just a few weeks ago Patriot asked a judge’s permission to “reject the company’s collective bargaining agreement with union miners and change retirees’ health care benefits …” The United Mine Workers of America filed an objection to the proposed plan, which includes $6.4 million in bonuses paid to management employees.

Just this week, the beleaguered company announced the layoff of 1,081 coal miners, most in West Virginia’s Kanawha County.

Patriot Coal is also the first coal company in Appalachia to announce it would phase out the devastating practice of mountaintop removal coal mining.

“Big Coal’s war on itself”

When examining the financial tribulations of big coal mining companies, industry officials are quick to point the finger at what they have dubbed the “war on coal,” claiming that environmental regulations are the primary culprits causing their fiscal misfortunes. But according to a recent article co-authored by independent financial analyst Andrew Stevenson and NRDC’s Dave Hawkins, coal mining’s economic downturn has more to do with bad investment decisions than anything else.

“The biggest cause of Big Coal’s loss of value is that Big 3 management bet big on a global coal boom and lost big when it went bust,” Stevenson and Hawkins write. Their article goes on to detail the five specific reasons Alpha and other coal companies are on the brink of bankruptcy.

“In sum, bad bets at the top of the market, weak met coal prices, cheap natural gas, and lower power demand due to energy efficiency reduced cumulative forecasted coal revenues for the Big 3 by approximately $21 billion over the past four years. This is a big hit for companies as highly leveraged as Alpha Natural, Arch Coal, and Peabody Energy and the reason why these companies are struggling to stay afloat today.”

As industry officials and coal-friendly politicians — including an outspoken Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who notedly said, “I am not going to sit by while the White House takes aim at the lifeblood of our state’s economy” — themselves take aim at the Clean Power Plan, they have yet to acknowledge the most important question on the table: what will happen to residents in Appalachia’s coal country who, because of company bankruptcies, layoffs, revocation of pensions and lack of other job opportunities, remain among the poorest in the nation?

So far, the only offer of assistance to these folks has come from President Obama himself, in the form of the POWER+ Plan to revitalize the region.

“They’ll claim [the Clean Power Plan] is a “war on coal,” to scare up votes — even as they ignore my plan to actually invest in revitalizing coal country, and supporting health care and retirement for coal miners and their families, and retraining those workers for better-paying jobs and healthier jobs,” Obama said on Monday, taking aim at McConnell and his other critics. Communities across America have been losing coal jobs for decades. I want to work with Congress to help them, not to use them as a political football.