Posts Tagged ‘Environment’

Virginia General Assembly compromises on solar

Thursday, February 11th, 2016 - posted by hannah

Bills Headed to Special Subcommittee this Summer

Legislation being considered by the Virginia General Assembly would make a big difference for residents who want to go solar but can’t currently afford the upfront cost.

Legislation being considered by the Virginia General Assembly would make a big difference for residents who want to go solar but can’t currently afford the upfront cost.

While football fans were pumping up for the Big Game last weekend, supporters of clean power in Virginia were gearing up for a different showdown as key committees in the General Assembly prepared to take up important clean energy legislation.

Usually, these committees simply take a straight vote to pass or kill each measure. This week, however, several bills met with a different fate that we could not have predicted, and it could actually mean real progress for the solar solutions we want to see.

Where’s the controversy over freedom of clean energy choice?

A great group of bills were before the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee and the House Special Energy Subcommittee this past Monday and Tuesday. If passed, they would make a big difference for residents who want to go solar but can’t afford the upfront cost or do not have a roof or yard well-suited for an array of their own, or for a school or church that needs a no-upfront-cost option.

HB 618 and HB 1285 would allow community-scale solar installations to which customers could opt to subscribe; HB 1286 would clarify that it’s legal in Virginia for a company to sell a customer renewable energy from a system on the customer’s property; SB 140 would remove the punitive monthly fees called “standby charges” for accounts with solar arrays under 20 kilowatts, while increasing the allowable size of a residential solar array that can be connected to the grid.

Proponents of these measures point to the vast difference between the solar power installed in North Carolina and Virginia to date — our neighbors to the south have so far outpaced us 30 times over. It’s reasonable to expect that by adopting policies modeled on those states that have accelerated solar power, we can catch up and become more attractive to businesses that demand clean energy. It’s a point that Governor McAuliffe made in his State of the Commonwealth speech, which may turn out to be a motivating factor for legislators to begin getting serious about prioritizing solar development through innovative means.

Going into this week’s docket of energy bills, the leadership of the Commerce and Labor Committee must have found themselves between the devil and the deep blue sea: that is, between utilities’ preference for the status quo and reticence to embrace distributed clean energy, and fired-up constituents and renewable energy businesses calling for movement on bills that can grow jobs and enhance customer options. Advocates even planned a Clean Energy Lobby Day around the House subcommittee, so seats in the room were filled with representatives from energy efficiency and renewable energy firms and organizations from across the commonwealth.

Can’t table them, can’t pass them — they’ll tackle them this summer

So presented with these bills, in a committee room packed with interested parties, rather than table them (“table” being the customary polite term for unceremoniously kill), committee chairmen Terry Kilgore and Frank Wagner announced they are both forming a new special committee to consider these bills during the coming year. The committees then carried all the bills they did not “have sufficient time” to hear this week to 2017 with a letter directing the bills to these committees will meet in the summer — that is, almost every bill relating to clean energy financing, connecting to the grid, community scale, or in fact how efficiency programs are evaluated.

We do not yet know the membership of these committees; they will be selected from among the legislators who serve on the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee and House Energy Subcommittee and who contact the respective committee chair asking to be placed on the panel. We are aware that Dominion and Appalachian Power will bring their formidable influence to this committee. But we can take it as an indicator of the strength of our rationale for making these vital changes to our energy policy and of the progress of our movement that these bills weren’t tabled (killed) in committee.

Credit goes to everyone who took action in the past year: each constituent who met with their legislators, called their offices, sent an email. Every consumer that spoke out against standby charges, policies that block solar, programs that inflate the cost of solar and let utilities extract value from environmentally conscious customers had a hand in this outcome.

We’ll keep in touch about opportunities to inform the members of these special committees on our issues. For now, Governor McAuliffe has the authority to guide Virginia’s energy policy away from deeper dependence on gas-fired power plants and toward a renewable energy-centered future so take a moment to sign our petition to Governor McAuliffe.

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Action needed: Va. General Assembly considers pipeline policy fixes

Thursday, February 4th, 2016 - posted by hannah
Virginians expressed their opposition to proposed natural gas pipelines in front of the Capitol Building in January.

Virginians expressed their opposition to proposed natural gas pipelines in front of the Capitol Building in January.

Late last month, we learned that the U.S. Forest Service rejected the Atlantic Coast Pipeline’s proposed route. This development significantly checks the lickety-split pace of the project.

If that renews your desire to take action, there are opportunities channel that feeling into these important legislative fights in the General Assembly.

Lobby days in Richmond displayed pipeline opposition — now, committees coming up

As the chorus of Virginians voicing opposition to fracked gas pipelines in our region grows and becomes more diverse, we took our movement to the General Assembly for a major day of action to educate legislators about our agenda to safeguard land and water. On Tuesday, Jan. 19, participants from across Virginia came to Richmond and held dozens of meetings with state delegates and senators. Addressing attendees the morning of the event, State Senator John Edwards made it clear that he stands with Virginians who are concerned about the risks of the dirty pipeline proposals.

Citizen lobbyists covered issues including the landowners’ right to deny pipeline companies permission to enter their land to conduct invasive surveys (SB 614 and HB 1118) and the importance of requiring rigorous site-specific sediment and erosion control plans to protect streams and ensuring unrestricted public access to such plans (SB 726). Now these bills have been scheduled for upcoming committee meetings, so here are directions on informing your legislators:

SB 726 in Agriculture, Conservation and Natural Resources Committee on Feb. 4

SB 726 would fix a serious problem with how Virginia limits erosion and sediment pollution from utility company construction projects, including pipelines. The status quo system would allow the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and the Mountain Valley Pipeline to avoid proper regulation through a loophole. Area legislators in the relevant committee include senators Emmett Hanger and Mark Obenshain.

Tell your senator the current system is wrong — and here are some reasons why: it allows utility companies to avoid proper government agency oversight; it exempts utility companies from requirements that apply to all other construction projects; it excludes the public and local governments from involvement; and it greatly increases the threat of damage to the environment and property due to the extensive and complicated nature of these projects.

Virginia State Senator John Edwards speaks with citizens about pipeline legislation.

Virginia State Senator John Edwards speaks with citizens about pipeline legislation.

Urge your legislator to restore proper government oversight of these developments and revoke the free pass that companies now have to pollute Virginia waterways. Use the blue tab at the top of the General Assembly’s website to look up who represents you and find contact information for his or her office.

If you can make it, we encourage you to attend the committee at the General Assembly in Senate Room B on Thursday afternoon starting at or around 2 p.m. to impress the importance of these decisions upon our legislators in person.

Help Win Repeal of the “Survey Without Permission” Statute — Bills Up Soon in Commerce Committee

On Feb. 8 and 9, respectively, committees will take up SB 614 and HB 1118 related to companies’ ability to survey without landowner permission. You can contact your legislation in support of these measures by going to the General Assembly’s website and clicking the blue bar up top to find out who represents you and how to email or call their offices.

As background, HB 1118 and SB 614 are House and Senate versions of a bill to repeal VA 56-49.01, which allows Dominion to force surveys on unwilling property owners. That means that under Virginia law there is really no legal way for property owners to unequivocally demonstrate opposition to a gas pipelines, no matter the size, going through their property.

Be sure to contact your legislators before committees deal with these bills so that your comments will be most effective: the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee will discuss SB 614 Monday, Feb. 8, starting at approximately 2 p.m. The House Subcommittee on Energy will discuss HB 1118 on Tuesday, Feb. 9, starting at approximately 4 p.m. Again, feel free to attend, and contact hannah [at] appvoices [dot] org if you have questions about how to participate in these committees’ decisions.

What else does recent news tell us about these risky pipelines?

The U.S. Forest Service (USFS) letter to the Atlantic Coast Pipeline (that is, Dominion Resources) states that alternative routes cannot cut through “highly sensitive resources … of such irreplaceable character that minimization and compensation measures may not be adequate or appropriate and should be avoided.” The pipeline company has not, in the USFS’s view, demonstrated “why the project cannot reasonably be accommodated off National Forest Service (NFS) lands.”

If Dominion tries to stick with the original route, it will have to say why it thinks the pipeline has to be built on USFS lands. The company could propose a new route, impacting a different set of landowners and their properties, or it may have to go back to the drawing board with a new application. -We hope Dominion will turn in an entirely different direction, as this project, like the other pipelines proposed in Virginia, is unneeded, hazardous and misguided.

Communities in our region have been on the receiving end of the fracking boom. A major build-out of this kind of infrastructure will only worsen the impacts of fracking in those communities while locking us into decades of dependence on dirty energy. At the same time it defers our collective chance to harness the cleanest, most-sustainable energy sources — which happen to be a great deal for customers too.

Our work seems to be provoking a reaction. Dominion recently went into high-gear in its public relations. Spokesman Jim Norvelle said last week that gas-fired power plants are widely viewed as essential to meeting the goals of the Clean Power plan. To anyone who understands the economic opportunity presented by the EPA’s carbon pollution standards, or for those who have been reading recent reports describing the benefits of prioritizing renewable solar power, wind power and energy efficiency in Virginia, that probably sounds ludicrous. Whatever the polluters say or do next, and whenever there’s a chance to take action, we’ll be keeping you in the loop.

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Do bankrupt coal company executives really deserve bonuses?

Tuesday, January 26th, 2016 - posted by brian

Debt-ridden companies are slashing worker benefits, struggling to clean up pollution — and handing out bonuses.

Why would a bankruptcy judge approve a bonus plan for a bankrupt coal company that was “written almost entirely by the executives who hope to exact almost $12 million of profit from it?” Photo of West Virginia Gov. Early Ray Tomblin and Alpha CEO Kevin Crutchfield via Flickr

Why would a bankruptcy judge approve a bonus plan for a bankrupt coal company that was “written almost entirely by the executives who hope to exact almost $12 million of profit from it?” Photo of West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and Alpha CEO Kevin Crutchfield via Flickr.

Before we explore that question, I’ll admit, the immoral logic of corporate compensation used to justify gigantic executive bonuses has always mystified me. I’m not highly educated on the matter, nor am I impartial.

Sure, I’d be willing to entertain an answer in the affirmative. But in the case of Alpha Natural Resources, which is swimming in debt and trying to navigate its way out of bankruptcy, it really seems resources could be better spent elsewhere. Paying taxes, for example. Communities in Appalachia could put millions of dollars owed by Alpha to good use.

But, no, they want their bonuses. So let’s hear them out.

Back in December, lawyers for Alpha asked the U.S. bankruptcy court to approve an “Incentive Plan for Certain Key Insider Employees,” a fancy way of saying $12 million for 15 top executives. Their argument is pretty simple — bankruptcy stinks and high-level employees may decide to cut their losses. The obvious solution: make it seem like they’re not losing — at all costs.

According to Alpha’s court filing, bonuses will go to executives “who are vital to the [the company’s] successful restructuring and the maximization of value for the benefit of all parties in interest.” OK, I can sort of see how this becomes logical for a company in bankruptcy.

Alpha has been struggling for years, though, and these bonuses actually exceed the payouts executives received in years past, even as the company barreled toward bankruptcy. The last time Alpha recorded a profit was in 2011. In the past five years, the company’s stock fell from $65 a share to around 35 cents.

Over the same period, it laid off 4,000 employees and shut down dozens of mines, mostly affecting communities in Central Appalachia where the company operates. Just yesterday, Alpha announced plans to close 10 mining complexes and lay off 886 coal miners and other personnel in southern West Virginia.

But in 2015, the year that Alpha declared bankruptcy with billions of dollars in debt, the maximum bonus pool for top staff was $8.4 million, according to the Casper Star-Tribune. If only Alpha’s balance sheet looked like its executives’ bank accounts.

It’s becoming difficult to give Alpha the benefit of the doubt. We don’t even know the names and positions of these supposedly high-performers keeping the company on course. And it looks like we never will.

Alpha’s lawyers argued that disclosing the executives’ identities, salaries and bonuses “may facilitate the hiring” of those executives away from Alpha “by competing businesses and, therefore, increase the likelihood that the Debtors will lose the valuable services of the [executives].”

Now it’s too hard to fake. Witnessing the irresponsibility and one-sidedness of the major coal bankruptcies in Appalachia and their aftershocks goes to show who has a voice and whose voices the system values.

Click to read the U.S. Trustee's scathing objection to Alpha's bonus plan.

Click to read the U.S. Trustee’s scathing objection to Alpha’s bonus plan.

Last year, Patriot Coal — while in its second bankruptcy — hatched a plan to pay a portion of its legal fees with millions of dollars earmarked for workers’ health care. There is growing concern nationwide that bankrupt coal companies, a group that now includes Arch Coal, won’t be able to afford to clean up their mines. And right now, Alpha is trying to revoke medical and life insurance benefits from retired miners and their spouses to save around $3 million a year.

The U.S. Trustee, a watchdog division of the U.S. Department of Justice, summarized the vast disconnect between what is right and what Alpha wants in its objection to the bonuses:

Alpha seeks this relief while at the same time incurring more than $1.3 Billion in losses for 2015. Alpha seeks this relief while at the same time seeking to cut off the health and life insurance benefits to some 1,200 rank-and-file retirees because it claims it desperately needs to save $3 Million a year. Alpha seeks this relief after demonstrating to this Court that it is so hopelessly insolvent that its shareholders have no chance of seeing any return on their investments into the companies.

Makes sense so far. Go on …

According to Alpha, these executives need these bonuses as an incentive to do the very jobs they were hired to do, that they are already highly compensated for with generous salaries, and which their fiduciary duties already compel them to do. Such bonuses cannot be justified under the facts and circumstances of this case.

Another common argument is based purely on the merits of the bonuses. How can it be possible that the same handsomely compensated executives who took home bonuses while steering Alpha into bankruptcy get sizable bonuses to help Alpha exit bankruptcy? Well, as lawyers for the United Mine Workers of America argue in their objection, the bonus plan was “written almost entirely by the executives who hope to exact almost $12 million of profit from it.”

Until recently, I never thought of “bankruptcy” and “bonanza” as being synonymous. Maybe rather than being mystified I’m just mad, and I can’t claim anything close to the level of outrage or broken trust thousands of Appalachian families can. But, like U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Kevin Huennekens said last week as he OKed Alpha’s bonus plan, “Cash is king.”

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Our hope for the year ahead

Friday, January 22nd, 2016 - posted by tom

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

With your support, Appalachian Voices is working hard to make 2016 a watershed year for the health of Appalachia’s communities, environment and economy.

With your support, Appalachian Voices is working hard to make 2016 a watershed year for the health of Appalachia’s communities, environment and economy.

Appalachian Voices is beginning 2016 stronger than ever and positioned to advance a positive future for the region we all love. Standing with citizens from across Appalachia and from all walks of life, we are hard at work and have high hopes for the year ahead.

Since we launched our economic diversification program and opened an office in Southwest Virginia early last year, the conversation about how to hasten a just economic transition in Appalachia has only grown. A forward-thinking plan to expand funding for economic development initiatives is on the table. But for those initiatives to succeed, both political parties must make supporting investments to strengthen Appalachia’s economy a priority.

Beyond advocating for federal investment in workforce training, infrastructure and land restoration, Appalachian Voices is enlisting experts to develop plans for clean energy and other economic development opportunities in the coal-bearing region, including utilization of abandoned mine sites. By adding technical and policy resources where they are they needed most, we’ll further efforts to build the pillars of a healthier, more resilient regional economy.

Of course, the foundation for that renewed economy must be a healthy environment. And without science-based environmental protections that are fully enforced, we fear the movement to diversify the region’s economy will fall short. This year, the last of Obama’s presidency, is our best chance to see a long-awaited rule finalized to protect Appalachian streams from mining waste.

As we push for an effective Stream Protection Rule, we will remain focused on holding polluters accountable. Pursuing the same strategies that led to our landmark victory over Frasure Creek Mining in Kentucky late last year, we’ll sue coal companies that violate clean water laws, and we’ll put grassroots pressure on regulators to step up enforcement of existing protections.

Our goals demand that we stay deeply involved in action at the state level, where we are combatting the continued threats of fossil fuels. In Virginia, the movement to move beyond dirty energy is opposing proposed multi-billion dollar investments in huge pipelines that would lock the Southeast into an increased dependence on natural gas and exacerbate the impacts of fracking. In North Carolina, residents are coming together to fight the threat of fracking and address the ongoing crisis of coal ash pollution.

Appalachian Voices is committed to these important battles. We’re also increasingly focused on securing investments in energy efficiency and renewable energy by promoting policies and technologies that can reduce harmful pollution and create thousands of jobs. As a result of our efforts, rural electric cooperatives in both North Carolina and Tennessee on are the verge of developing cost-saving energy efficiency programs for their members.

We’re sure to encounter obstacles. Successful renewable energy policies in North Carolina will again face attacks by policymakers. Our electric utilities will tout natural gas and attempt to undermine consumer access to cleaner energy options. The familiar partisan battles over coal and climate change will intensify as election season nears. And states, some more reluctantly than others, will take steps toward compliance with the Clean Power Plan. But we know the landmark climate rule will help states expand clean energy and cut pollution — if only they embrace its potential.

The year is just getting started. But the stage is set for 2016 to be a historic year for clean energy, climate action and efforts to diversify economies that have long depended on the coal industry. With your support, Appalachian Voices is working hard to make 2016 a watershed year for the health of Appalachia’s communities, environment and economy.

Please consider joining to donating to support Appalachian Voices today.

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Coal, Congress and the art of lying

Monday, January 11th, 2016 - posted by tarence
By inflating the importance of some aspects of the coal economy, and outright ignoring others, the NMA has produced a worthless study that's finding an audience in Congress.

By inflating the importance of some aspects of the coal economy, and outright ignoring others, the NMA has produced a worthless study that’s finding an audience in Congress.

It’s amazing how much work goes into stretching the truth. It’s even more amazing when media outlets and political leaders latch onto that “truth” and peddle it without scrutiny.

A recent and relevant example: an economic impact analysis of the Stream Protection Rule, commissioned by the National Mining Association and written by Ramboll Environ, which is a member of the NMA. In short, the analysis predicts that the Stream Protection Rule will all but deal a lethal blow to the American coal industry. It is 82 pages of the kind of overblown, headline-grabbing hysteria found in modern politics, filled with doomsday scenarios, disingenuous methodologies and misinformation.

Doomsday Scenarios

The proposed Stream Protection Rule is intended to protect American streams from the worst environmental impacts of mountaintop removal. It represents an update on science and policy that the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement has not addressed since 1983, the year the original Stream Buffer Zone Rule was added to the 1977 Surface Mine Control and Reclamation Act.

The NMA’s analysis of the Stream Protection Rule is grim: between 50 and 95 percent of the nation’s current coal workers will lose their jobs as a direct result of the rule. Its predictions for Appalachia are even grimmer: 30,000 to 52,000 workers, or 60 to 105 percent of the current Appalachian coal workforce, will be cut. 105 percent, that’s truly unbelievable.

According to Jonathan Halpern, a former economist at the World Bank Group and a current professor of energy and infrastructure economics at Georgetown University, the NMA’s projections are seriously flawed. Halpern points out that the NMA relied on unrealistically high coal projections for the 2020-2040 forecast period that do not take into account how factors such as natural gas production, coal seam access and availability, and national policies such as the Clean Power Plan will impact production. Additionally, the study factored in loss of access to coal reserves that are not currently controlled by coal or landholding corporations to project future “losses” in production and employment. As Halpern points out, “[This] inclusion … exaggerates the size of the economic resource base and the consequent ‘loss’ which the study posits.”

In other words, the NMA forecasted a falsely optimistic future for coal, then compared that future to a grim post-Stream Protection Rule future, and projected a doomsday scenario. There is a litany of other problems with the analysis:

  • It uses out-of-date information about the overall financial health of the coal industry. The figures used for coal production, new permits and number of employed miners only go through 2013.
  • It expands the definition of a coal worker to include 20,000 workers not currently employed by the coal industry. The study posits that these workers – which include the freight rail workforce, contractors to the mining companies, and service providers – are employed as the coal mining workforce base, against which the NMA applied employment and income loss multipliers to estimate overall job losses over 25 years. As Halpern points out, this inclusion greatly magnifies the resulting estimates of job loss.
  • It assumes an immediate implementation of the Stream Protection Rule. This is simply not the case, as the rule has not been finalized and won’t be implemented for at least another five years.

Disingenuous Methodology

Ramboll Environ, the NMA member commissioned to conduct the analysis, chose a curious methodology for estimating the Stream Protection Rule’s impact on future coal production. They sat down with 18 unnamed mining companies and asked them how they thought the Stream Protection Rule would impact their bottom lines. It probably doesn’t have to be pointed out that there is nothing scientific or objective about this approach.

Another serious shortcoming of the report is that it rejects any cost-benefit framework. In other words, this is simply a cost analysis. According to Halpern, we would likely see billions of dollars in benefits in the form of safety and health improvements for communities as a result of the Stream Protection Rule. A 2011 study estimated that the public health burden coal operations put on Appalachian citizens costs around $75 billion every year.”

But the NMA refused to take into account any benefits that the rule could provide.

“We don’t know what it’s worth exactly in dollars,” Halpern told me. “But we know what it’s worth in human terms. People are just as afraid of getting sick, of their crops and livestock withering, of their fisheries drying up and their surroundings being degraded, as they are of possible loss of coal mining jobs.”

Misinformation

As mentioned above, one of the biggest fallacies in the NMA’s report is its assumption that the Stream Protection Rule will be implemented immediately, rather than gradually. But to add to this, the study — or at least the coal executives who were polled for the study — assumes a 100-foot buffer zone around streams. This absolutely isn’t the case, and it’s the reason so many clean water advocates are disappointed with the draft version of the rule. (Such a policy would have completely prohibited all mining activities within 100 feet of streams.)

Perhaps the biggest — and most perplexing — fabrication in this report is its claim that the Stream Protection Rule will replace the 2008 Stream Buffer Zone Rule. It will not. The Bush-era rule was tossed out by a federal judge in early 2014, so its inclusion casts further doubt on the validity of the report.

What Communities Really Need

By inflating the importance of some aspects of the coal economy, and outright ignoring others, the NMA has produced a study predicated entirely on the fear-inducing prospect of job loss that fails to even consider the potential benefits of environmental protection, of clean water, of lowered risks to health. This fact alone tells us where the NMA’s interests really reside; an organization whose mission is to protect coal mining profits, rather than promote the well-being and empowerment of miners, their families and their communities, can really only claim to be concerned with production loss, rather than job loss. It’s incredible and a little sad that the NMA spent 82 pages trying to convince us that it cares about anything else.

Unfortunately, without a strong policy program to replace lost mining jobs — whether that’s in the form of New Deal-like jobs programs, robust federal funding and grassroots initiatives, or something else entirely — studies like this will continue to impact federal legislation.

For example, this week the House is set to vote on the STREAM Act, which seeks to effectively kill the Stream Protection Rule. Members of Congress who are voting on this piece of legislation will no doubt have seen the headlines, strategically broadcast by the NMA, claiming that the Stream Protection Rule will slash nearly one hundred thousand coal jobs.

Without voices pushing back on this narrative in regional and national media, this disingenuousness has the unfortunate effect of holding back progress for coal miners who may face losing their jobs due to a failing industry, rather than presenting them with tangible solutions.

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Bleak outlook for coal in 2016

Friday, January 8th, 2016 - posted by brian

The new year brings more bad news for a battered industry

It probably comes as no surprise that, after the dismal year coal had in 2015, more hard times for the industry are ahead. Nowhere is the struggle more real than here in Central Appalachia.

The latest look into a window of coal’s burning house comes courtesy of Downstream Strategies. The West Virginia-based environmental consulting firm has been charting Central Appalachian coal’s decline for years and is urging policymakers to plan for a future in which coal is no longer king.

Screenshot from Downstream Strategies "All Of Our Eggs In One Basket?"

Screenshot from Downstream Strategies “All Of Our Eggs In One Basket?”

The group’s new white paper, creatively titled “All Of Our Eggs In One Basket?,” tells the story of Appalachian coal over the past few decades in five simple charts like the one above. It also considers how coal’s decline contributes to the budget deficits wracking West Virginia. In summary:

Future demand for Central Appalachian coal will likely continue to decline—primarily due to the increasing cost of mining thinner, harder-to-access coal seams and competition from cheaper natural gas, renewable energy, and energy efficiency improvements at homes and businesses. Future environmental regulations on coal mines and power plants, such as the federal Clean Power Plan, may further reduce demand for West Virginia coal.

For data related to regional coal production and projections, Downstream Strategies looked to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Just today, that agency shared its own update on coal prices and production in 2015. While the main lesson from the chart above is probably that it’s best to be skeptical when it comes to EIA projections, the severity of the situation in Appalachia becomes even clearer when the region is viewed relative to other domestic coal reserves.

Screen shot from EIA's Today in Energy "Coal production and prices decline in 2015."

Screen shot from EIA’s Today in Energy “Coal production and prices decline in 2015.”

According to the EIA, the amount of coal produced in the Central Appalachian basin in 2015 was 40 percent below its annual average during the period from 2010 to 2014. Wherever coal is still competitive, less and less of it is coming from Central Appalachia.

Anyway, back to the Downstream Strategies report, which wraps up with yet another firm reminder that coal’s steep decline and its consequences are anything but unexpected. As the authors conclude:

For years, we have known that coal production was likely to drop significantly in southern West Virginia, and that coal production will likely continue to decline in the future. Now that these projections are coming true, the state is grappling with fewer jobs, bankrupt companies, and declining severance tax revenues.

Together, these present unprecedented challenges not just for southern West Virginia counties, but also for the state as a whole.

New approaches are needed.

When it comes to coal, the question for regional policymakers now is not so much how to make it better, but what to do when it gets even worse. If we may suggest a resolution for the new year: Don’t wait any longer. Recognize and respond to the realities of today’s energy market and the economic challenges facing the region.

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Coal’s death knell in Kentucky

Monday, January 4th, 2016 - posted by tarence

Industry’s decline produces a political shakeup in the Bluegrass State

With the challenges facing coal in eastern Kentucky, it remains to be seen how the industry will maintain its political power in the state. Photo of Kentucky State Capitol via Wikimedia Commons.

With the challenges facing coal in eastern Kentucky, it remains to be seen how the industry will maintain its political power in the state. Photo of Kentucky State Capitol via Wikimedia Commons.

The final months of 2015 may prove to be a historic moment for Kentucky’s politics and the state’s struggling coal industry.

When Governor Matt Bevin took office at the beginning of December after a surprise victory over Democratic challenger Jack Conway, he took a brazen shot at environmentalists by appointing former coal executive Charles Snavely to oversee the state’s environmental protection cabinet. Snavely was an executive with International Coal Group (ICG), a company that Appalachian Voices, along with allied groups, sued for covering up thousands of water pollution violations in the state.

To make matters worse, state Representative Fitz Steele was appointed this week to chair the House Natural Resources and Environment Committee, after Representative Jim Gooch switched to the Republican party earlier in the week. House Speaker Greg Stumbo greeted the move with this statement: “Rep. Steele has built a strong reputation as a defender of sensible environmental laws and is an excellent choice to lead this committee as we ready for the legislative session.”

Stumbo’s statement is perplexing; back in 2012 Fitz boasted that he “can take [a mountain] down and put it back better than what it is.” If that view of mountaintop removal coal mining is what Stumbo thinks is a “sensible environmental law,” then we really are in trouble.

But it’s not as if Steele is all that different from Jim Gooch, the man he is replacing. For example, here’s Gooch’s statement from Monday on why he left the Democratic Party: “Let my departure from the Democrat Party send a message loud and clear. I stand behind the thousands of Kentuckians who have lost their jobs all across the coalfields.” This is coming from a man who blames impoverished eastern Kentuckians for their water problems, rather than mining companies and coal executives like Charles Snavely.

Gooch’s departure — as well as Bevin’s election win — are hardly surprising if we are to look at West Virginia. In that state, large numbers of Democrats have either left the party or have been voted out, due in part to the industry’s “war on coal” campaign. It has become increasingly clear that this campaign was an incredibly cynical crusade to consolidate political power in an uncertain market environment. The political realignment of West Virginia — and now Kentucky — is proof of that.

As the Bevin administration moves into its first year, and as Central Appalachian coal prices continue to fall, it remains to be seen how the coal industry will maintain political power in the state. However, if recent developments serve any indication, we can almost guarantee that elected leaders in Kentucky will continue using “war on coal” rhetoric to exploit the fears of many, while ignoring the very real issues of clean energy, healthcare access, low wages and environmental catastrophe.

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What to expect for Virginia’s energy policy in 2016

Friday, December 18th, 2015 - posted by hannah
Ahead of the 2016 General Assembly session, Virginians gathered in Richmond to call for greater commitments by their leaders to address climate change and advance renewable energy.

Ahead of the 2016 General Assembly session, Virginians gathered in Richmond to call for greater commitments by their leaders to address climate change and advance renewable energy.

Around this time of year, we usually offer a Virginia legislative preview, looking ahead at the issues that will arise in the upcoming session of the General Assembly. Recent events relate to some of those possible policy changes, thickening the plot and making this session one worth watching and engaging in — especially for customers of Appalachian Power Company.

Legislation Attacks the Clean Power Plan, Again

With the McAuliffe administration in the lead, Virginia is now drafting a plan to comply with its carbon pollution reduction target as set by the federal Clean Power Plan. Many central elements of the state plan remain in question, including whether reductions will be based on the rate of carbon dioxide emissions per unit of energy generated, or on the total mass of emissions, as well as whether Virginia will trade emissions with other states.

On Tuesday in Richmond, an open meeting of an official group of Clean Power Plan stakeholders was held in the Department of Environmental Quality office. While public comment is not taken in these meetings, they are a key opportunity to follow the process and let decision-makers know how important their work is to you, so stay tuned for future meetings.

Even as these policy experts, advocates, and business and utility representatives invest time and energy into constructively discussing Virginia’s carbon-reduction plan, there are those who are focused on stymieing this effort. Recently proposed legislation would require General Assembly approval of our state Clean Power Plan. The bill (HB2) would hold up our progress and could result in the federal government telling Virginia how to meet its carbon-reduction targets, removing the flexibility that many parties believe makes these emissions reductions economically doable.

As the players at the table shape state plans, it is resulting in some interesting shifts in political activity.

AEP Drops ALEC

American Electric Power, the parent company of Virginia’s second-largest utility, Appalachian Power Company, announced last week that it is ending its relationship with the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC. A widely known climate denial front organization, ALEC currently has half a dozen pieces of model legislation opposing the Clean Power Plan that it’s pushing in state legislatures. By way of explaining its termination of membership, an AEP spokesperson said the company is reallocating resources as it focuses on working with states around the Clean Power Plan.

AEP says it supports the federal plan and renewable energy, and has “long been involved in the reduction of greenhouse gases.” Still, reporters pointed out the company’s significant reliance on coal in its generation mix, although projections show its coal use declining in the near future.

So what is subsidiary Appalachian Power (APCo) planning to do to meet demand with clean energy in its Virginia service area?

APCo’s 2015 Long Range Resource Plan

APCo customers that read this blog will be aware that we have followed the company’s release of its latest long-term plan for meeting demand in its service area, and that media have reported on some important ways this plan is distinguished from what we have seen the utility propose in the past.

APCo proposes 510 megawatts of solar and land-based wind development in the coming years. Oddly, the predicted growth in its customers’ self-generated energy from solar arrays is low. APCo offers no assessment of the overall costs and benefits of rooftop solar, nor steps to encourage residents and businesses to go solar.

Prompted to comment, an APCo representative made the interesting point that managing demand by offering customers ways to save energy and reduce their bills is an approach that may cost less than developing energy generation. That sentiment may ring a bell for regular readers of this blog: it’s an argument that Appalachian Voices has been stressing for years. Now we’ll be holding onto that nugget of brilliance and keeping the utility on track to live up to those words.

More energy bills this session: solar purchasing, resilience and the pipeline fight

In September, the State Corporation Commission considered a case about APCo’s proposed program for customers looking to go solar. Schools, churches, nonprofits and other non-residential entities were the most affected by the program, which would provide one way for a customer contract for solar power with a system installed and owned by a third party. Such customers in Dominion Virginia Power’s territory can go solar with no upfront costs, thanks to innovative financing for this type of arrangement.

But under APCo’s program, the utility would act as middleman, paying back lower-than-usual credits to the customer and charging higher-than-normal fees. It all adds up to an uneconomic deal that’s likely to deter use of this option and diminish the ability of customers to realize their energy goals and environmental preferences, while slowing job growth in Virginia’s solar industry.

Businesses and concerned customers are now coming together behind legislation that would remove many of the hurdles that are currently hampering solar development in Virginia. Watch for updates on this bill.

A bill to join Virginia into the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) is again being introduced, with important differences from last year’s version. Notably, through the auction of emissions allowances, the wVirginia Coastal Protection Actwould raise approximately $250 million in the first year of Virginia’s membership, more than $20 million of which would be allocated for economic development in southwest Virginia.

Show your support for this measure and stay tuned for more ways to educate yourself and your legislators about legislative solutions and threats as the General Assembly 2016 approaches.

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Help protect North Carolina’s forest wilderness

Monday, December 14th, 2015 - posted by matt

LostCoveWSA_Forest

In 1964, Congress passed the Wilderness Act, a law that provided protections for some of America’s most precious natural areas. It was passed to ensure that increasing population and mechanization would not degrade or alter the entire landscape, leaving no lands protected in their natural condition.

But today, more than 50 years after the Wilderness Act was signed into law, less than a third of one percent of North Carolina’s land area has been protected as wilderness. To put that number into perspective, if North Carolina were a 1,500 square-foot house, the amount of land we have set aside as wilderness would be smaller than a linen closet.

Right now, the US. Forest Service is revising its plan for the Pisgah and Nantahala National Forests and we need your help to ensure that more of North Carolina’s most beloved natural treasures are protected as wilderness.

Please join us in asking the U.S. Forest Service to recommend Harper Creek and Lost Cove for wilderness designation in the Nantahala-Pisgah National Forest Plan Revision.

ncforests_lostcove

According to the Wilderness Act:

“A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”

There are few places in North Carolina more fitting of that description than Lost Cove and Harper Creek, two roadless areas in the Pisgah National Forest just south of Grandfather Mountain that are among the most popular backcountry recreation destinations near Boone, Blowing Rock, Banner Elk, Morganton, Lenoir and Hickory.

These areas were protected as “Wilderness Study Areas” by Congress in 1984 and have been recommended for wilderness designation by the U.S. Forest Service since 1987.

Unfortunately, timber companies and other extractive industries have long sought to remove protections for Lost Cove and Harper Creek. While we support other recreational uses of our forests, there are ways to do that without the risk of allowing extractive industries access to these areas.

We hope you will join Appalachian Voices, the Friends of Harper Creek and Lost Cove Wilderness and other local groups and businesses in asking the U.S. Forest Service to once again recommend Harper Creek and Lost Cove for wilderness designation in the Nantahala-Pisgah National Forest Plan Revision that is currently underway.

Please take action now.

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An end to Frasure Creek’s water violations in Kentucky — finally

Thursday, December 10th, 2015 - posted by Erin

The Settlement

Late Monday evening, Appalachian Voices finalized a historic settlement in a case against Frasure Creek Mining. The settlement follows a five-year-long legal battle to protect eastern Kentucky’s waterways and bring a coal company notorious for violating environmental laws to justice.

The agreement is notable not only for the large penalty imposed, but also because it effectively bars Frasure Creek from further mining in Kentucky. It also marks a welcome, if uncommon, collaboration between clean water advocates and state regulators. The settlement was crafted through cooperation between the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet, citizens groups — including Appalachian Voices, Kentuckians For The Commonwealth, Kentucky Riverkeeper, the Sierra Club, and Waterkeeper Alliance — and Frasure Creek.
FrasurePondandSign
The settlement includes a total potential penalty of $6 million – the highest environmental fine ever levied against a coal company by the Kentucky cabinet. Frasure Creek will not have to pay the fine, however, as long as it does not mine in the state. Regardless of whether the company hopes to ever mine coal in Kentucky again, the settlement requires Frasure Creek to admit to its violations and immediately pay $500,000. If Frasure Creek fails to pay the $500,000, it will be liable for the full $6 million fine.

During the course of settlement negotiations, Frasure Creek transferred its remaining Kentucky mining permits to Liberty Management. The mines were no longer producing coal, but were in the process of reclamation and still had active Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act and Clean Water Act permits.

If at some later point Frasure Creek or its owners wish to apply for new permits, they must first pay $2.75 million before their mining application will be processed by the state. Essentially, the settlement requires Frasure Creek to either leave the state of Kentucky for good or pay a fine sufficient enough to deter it from returning to its illegal practices.

The Cases

Though this settlement arose out of a notice of intent to sue sent in 2014, the story begins a half-decade earlier.

In 2010, Appalachian Voices began an investigation into the two largest surface mining coal companies in Kentucky. After reviewing discharge monitoring reports (DMRs) – Clean Water Act compliance reports submitted by coal companies to state agencies – Appalachian Voices determined that Frasure Creek Mining and another company, International Coal Group (ICG), were duplicating reports. We later discovered that the third largest coal company in Kentucky at the time, Nally & Hamilton, was also falsifying data in its DMRs.

This pattern made it clear that ignoring regulations is common in the coal industry. In another case of falsified water pollution reporting, a lab employee of Appalachian Labs in West Virginia pleaded guilty to conspiring to violate the Clean Water Act. The lab conducted sampling at more than 100 mine sites in West Virginia. At least four different water-testing labs were involved in the duplicate data cases in Kentucky.

When we first discovered the duplicate reports at ICG and Frasure Creek, we took steps to file a citizens’ lawsuit against the companies under the Clean Water Act. The Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet filed its own case against the companies in state court, effectively preempting our case. We intervened in the state’s case to ensure diligent enforcement by the state — a right of citizens that was ultimately upheld by the Kentucky Supreme Court.

In 2011, we filed an additional suit against the companies for permit limit violations that arose when both companies began reporting more accurate data. State officials once again preempted our case, but this time the cabinet filed its case in the Kentucky Office of Administrative Hearings. The cabinet and Frasure Creek then entered a slap-on-the-wrist settlement, over our objections and despite our right to intervene in the case. That settlement was thrown out last year on the grounds that it violated our due process rights. The cabinet has appealed that decision.

In 2014, Appalachian Voices again discovered that Frasure Creek was duplicating DMRs, this time with a different water testing laboratory. Once again, the cabinet failed to identify the problem until we filed a notice of intent to sue over the violations. This time, when the cabinet filed a case in its administrative court, we were granted intervention and allowed much more input in the settlement. The result is the historic settlement filed earlier this week.
FrasureGraph
Finally, not only did the cabinet allow meaningful citizen input, it pursued an enforcement action that may actually be strong enough to prevent this problem from happening again, at least with Frasure Creek. Unfortunately, the settlement was entered on the last day of Governor Steve Beshear’s term and the progress we made with the Beshear administration is not guaranteed to continue during Governor Matt Bevin’s time in office.

The Agency

It is too early to determine how friendly the new Bevin administration will be toward coal companies that flout regulations, but there is already reason to be concerned. Former Gov. Beshear appointed Len Peters as Secretary of the Energy and Environment Cabinet. On paper, Peters had many of the right credentials for the position — he is a scientist and an academic with broad experience working for universities, nonprofits and the federal government. Despite these qualifications, under his leadership, the cabinet still routinely allowed coal companies and other industries to violate environmental regulations with minimal consequences.

In contrast, Bevin’s appointment for cabinet secretary, Charles Snavely, spent the past three decades climbing the corporate ladders at several major Central Appalachian coal companies. Last I checked, the Energy and Environment Cabinet includes not just the division of mine permits, but also the divisions of water, air quality, and renewable energy, among others. Apparently running a company in one of the dirtiest industries in the county now qualifies you to protect communities and ecosystems from that industry, in Kentucky at least.

Charles Snavely, Gov. Bevin's appointment for Kentucky Energy & Environment Cabinet Secretary

Charles Snavely, Gov. Bevin’s appointment for Kentucky Energy & Environment Cabinet Secretary

It gets worse. Not all coal companies are equal. While I would argue that no surface mining coal company in Kentucky is particularly good for Kentucky, some are worse than others. Snavely has worked for both Massey Energy and Arch Coal. In September 2010, he was named the executive vice president of mining operations at ICG.

That’s right — when Appalachian Voices and our partners sued ICG for falsifying DMRs, Snavely was a member of the company’s senior management.

According to news reports, at the time, he was responsible for “all ICG mining operations and corporate oversight of safety and compliance performance.” Before this, when Snavely was just a run-of-the-mill vice president at ICG, 12 miners were killed in an explosion at ICG’s Sago Mine in West Virginia. Family members of the victims claimed the mine had violated safety regulations. In 2011, ICG settled a wrongful death suit.

Despite the current decline in the coal market in Central Appalachia, Governor Bevin seems just as beholden to the industry as many politicians who have preceded him. But appointing an industry insider to regulate the industry will not be enough to save it.

The Future

This settlement, and the commitment of groups like Appalachian Voices and our partners to bring polluters to justice, demonstrate to the new administration that citizens will hold the state accountable. But it’s not clear that Governor Bevin is getting the message. During his campaign, Bevin courted the coal industry and criticized the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. In October, at the height of the campaign, Bevin even chastised his opponent for saying coal can be done “cleaner.” If he had any downtime on his inauguration day, we hope Bevin read the news.

Coal is rapidly declining in Central Appalachia. But that does not mean the industry, or its influence, will disappear anytime soon or that enforcement of environmental regulations around mining will become any less important. If anything, the thin economic margins of coal companies operating in Central Appalachia today provide an incentive to break rules intended to prevent negative impacts on water, land and communities. As the region envisions a new economy that is not dominated by coal, oversight of mining’s impact on the region is as important as ever.

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