Posts Tagged ‘Environment’

Peabody Energy joins coal bankruptcy club

Thursday, April 14th, 2016 - posted by brian
While the company no longer operates in Central Appalachia, the story of Peabody Energy’s fall is similar to those of major Appalachian producers. Photo via Flickr licensed under Creative Commons.

While the company no longer operates in Central Appalachia, the story of Peabody Energy’s downfall is similar to those of major Appalachian producers. Photo via Flickr licensed under Creative Commons.

This week, the world’s largest private-sector coal company filed for bankruptcy and pretty much no one was surprised.

Citing an “unprecedented industry downturn,” St. Louis-based Peabody Energy joined the ranks of Arch Coal, Alpha Natural Resources, Patriot Coal, Walter Energy and dozens of other U.S. coal companies forced to seek bankruptcy protections since 2012.

But Peabody’s production, the depth of its debt and the scale of its liabilities set the bankrupt coal behemoth apart.

The company operates the North Antelope Rochelle mine in Wyoming, the largest coal mine in the country. Last year, that mine alone accounted for 109 million tons of the nearly 900 million tons of coal produced in the U.S.

In order to eventually clean up its mines, Peabody is on the hook for more than $2 billion, but more than half of that amount is secured with “self-bonds,” basically a coal industry IOU conveniently co-signed by the taxpayer. It’s estimated that the company has amassed around $6 billion in debt.

While Peabody no longer operates in Central Appalachia, the story of its downfall is similar to those of major Appalachian producers Alpha Natural Resources and Arch Coal. Like those companies, Peabody bet big on overseas demand and took on billions in debt in 2011 when it acquired the Australian producer Macarthur Coal. (Stop me if you’ve heard this one.)

Rather than surging as predicted, demand for steelmaking metallurgical coal plunged. According to a February study by the economic analysis firm Rhodium Group, 93 percent of the decline in the industry’s revenue between 2011 and 2014 was due to a drop in the consumption and cost of metallurgical coal. That hit, combined with competition from natural gas and clean energy at home, eventually became too much to bear.

Central Appalachia also has a lot of first-hand experience with what happens next, especially after Alpha’s and Arch’s bankruptcy proceedings. In recent months, those companies have worked to dodge environmental cleanup liabilities and their obligations to workers past and present. Yet, somewhere, both Alpha and Arch found millions of dollars in bonuses to reward executives. For what? Not jumping ship, essentially.

Based on its past actions, I’m not sure we should expect any different from Peabody. After all, the coal company thought to be “too big to fail” may have gotten there partly by creating companies to fail. Look at what happened to Patriot Coal, a twice-bankrupt company created in 2007 from unionized, Peabody-owned mines in West Virginia and Kentucky and saddled with pension and health care obligations to more than 8,000 retired miners.

In fact, Appalachian citizens may be the least surprised that Peabody has joined the coal industry’s bankruptcy club.

“Here in Kentucky, we’ve known the coal industry has been leaving for 30 years,” said Carl Shoupe, a retired third generation coal miner and member of Kentuckians For The Commonwealth. So Shoupe and others across the region are staying focused on the future.

“Mr. Peabody’s coal train might have hauled away our coal — and the profits along with it — but we Kentuckians are still right here, fighting every day for a bright future and demanding our elected leaders do their job to help us transition to a new economy while keeping our promises to the coal miners who powered this country.”

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Another step toward clean water in Southwest Virginia

Thursday, April 14th, 2016 - posted by Erin
Photo by Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards

Photo by Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards

Appalachian Voices, Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards (SAMS) and the Sierra Club recently lodged a settlement addressing several sources of water pollution in Southwest Virginia. The settlement must still be approved by the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia. If approved, several sources of the toxic pollutant selenium in Wise County, Va., will be cleaned up and the city of Norton, Va., will be one big step closer to cleaning up an abandoned coal-loading facility.

The Case

In 2014, SAMS, the Sierra Club and Appalachian Voices, represented by Appalachian Mountain Advocates, filed a legal action against Penn Virginia for violations of the Clean Water Act. In response to our allegations, Penn Virginia filed claims against A&G Coal Corp., a Jim Justice-owned company, claiming the company was responsible for at least some the pollution. A&G operates a mine neighboring the Penn Virginia land identified in the case.

The violations included unlawful discharge of the toxic pollutant selenium into several tributaries of Callahan Creek. The violations were discovered by SAMS through a review of records submitted by A&G Coal to state regulators in Virginia. The reports showed discharges of selenium and sulfate. Both pollutants are harmful to aquatic life. Selenium can be particularly harmful, resulting in fish deformities and reproductive failure.

A two-headed trout deformed from exposure to selenium

The Settlement

If approved, the settlement will resolve this case and results in several important water quality improvements in Southwest Virginia. Under the settlement terms, A&G Coal will treat three seeps currently discharging selenium into the Kelly Branch tributary of Callahan Creek. The settlement also requires the companies to provide $35,000 for the initial cleanup assessment of a nearby abandoned coal processing site in Norton known as Tipple Hill. Once the site has been restored, it could be included in the Norton Guest River Walk project. The Tipple Hill project is supported by the City of Norton, the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy, the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality and the Upper Tennessee River Roundtable.

Moving Forward

This settlement offers our organizations a unique opportunity to resolve pollution from both an active mine and from legacy mining on land owned by a large landholding company. Large swaths of land in Southwest Virginia are owned by companies like Penn Virginia that lease land to timber, coal and gas companies for resource extraction. These landholding companies often escape liability when problems arise from the activities on the land.

Several mechanisms exist for addressing water pollution and other problems associated with coal mining. On active mines, including those undergoing reclamation, the coal company is responsible for monitoring conditions and addressing problems that arise. The state oversees this monitoring to make sure the law is enforced, but a lot of problems still occur.

Problems arising from mines that were closed prior to passage of the Surface Mine Control and Reclamation Act (SMCRA) are eligible for federal Abandoned Mine Land (AML) funding. There is a fairly large amount of money available through the AML reclamation fund, but not enough to cover every problem left over from these pre-SMCRA mines. Mines permitted after the passage of SMCRA include bonds to cover the cost of reclamation should the company fall into bankruptcy. Unfortunately, in many instances, bonding has proved insufficient for proper reclamation, especially as many coal companies go bankrupt in close succession.

In many cases, it is difficult to determine exactly how water pollution arose. Many areas around Central Appalachia have been mined underground, surface mined prior to SMCRA, and surface mined after SMCRA. Add gas well drilling to that mix, and it becomes very difficult to pinpoint the individual companies responsible. Many people, including all of us at Appalachian Voices, primarily want to see water problems cleaned up, regardless of who’s responsible. But with limited resources for cleanup, identifying liability can be a critical part of addressing the sources of water pollution.

Moving forward, we’re going to have to identify multiple resources – funding, expertise, and local knowledge – to help us restore Central Appalachia.

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What happened on Pine Creek?

Tuesday, April 12th, 2016 - posted by tarence

Another example of the costs that communities near coal mines pay in ecological, economic and human health.

With support from local residents, the Appalachian Water Watch is responding to coal pollution events like the recent spill along Pine Creek in Letcher County, Ky.

With support from local residents, the Appalachian Water Watch is responding to coal pollution events like the recent spill along Pine Creek in Letcher County, Ky. Photos by Tarence Ray

A lot of folks have had questions about the recent mine blowout on Pine Creek, in Letcher County, Ky. So we’ve put together an explainer that runs through the facts, the science and the regulatory protocols behind spills like this.

Where is Pine Creek?

Pine Creek is a small creek that flows off Pine Mountain and into the North Fork of the Kentucky River. The point where Pine Creek and the Kentucky River meet is roughly five miles upstream of the municipal drinking water intake that serves Whitesburg, Ky., and the surrounding county.

So what happened?

On Friday, March 18, an auger mine company, Hardshell Tipples, was mining at the head of Pine Creek when they inadvertently drilled into an old underground mine. Water had stored up in the mine over time, slowly increasing in acidity and iron content creating what is called “acid mine drainage.” This water rushed out into a sediment pond when the mine was breached by the auger drill, and the pond overflowed into the creek.

What is acid mine drainage?

Acid mine drainage occurs when water flows over or leaches through minerals and materials with high sulfur content. Many times, as in the case at Pine Creek, the minerals exposed to water contain iron pyrite, also known as “fool’s gold.” The result is orange-colored water, which stains rocks and river beds. Acid mine drainage also very likely contains other metals, such as manganese. (The polluted water/mine drainage that spilled into Pine Creek contained manganese, and we’ll get to those test results momentarily). As is indicated by its name, acid mine drainage is also highly acidic — so don’t touch it.

But if all these things are found in nature, isn’t this simply a natural occurrence?

All of the ingredients for making acid mine drainage are naturally occurring, that much is correct. But what is not natural is the excavation of these minerals and their exposure to air and water. Ask yourself: is there anything natural about a stream that is unable to support wildlife?

In the case of Pine Creek, water had stored up in the old underground mine over time, slowly gaining acidity and various metals. These mountains are porous; therefore water got into the mine in the first place through years and years of rain. When the iron pyrite in the mine was exposed to oxygen in the water (you know, the “O” in H2O), it created a highly acidic substance that was harmful for aquatic life. When the mine was breached, this highly acidic substance got into the creek, and was indeed very harmful to aquatic life.

A dead turtle on the banks of Pine Creek after the spill.

A dead turtle on the banks of Pine Creek after the spill.

Got it. So back to what happened. What happened?

Our Appalachian Water Watch team was contacted by a concerned citizen who lives on Pine Creek, and we were able to document the spill as it occurred in real-time. Photos of dead fish and turtles were posted and shared by hundreds of people on Facebook and Twitter. We also spoke to residents on the creek who had been trying to catch minnows that morning. Instead, they had a net full of dead fish.

Officials at the Kentucky Department of Environmental Protection initially denied that the spill was responsible for killing wildlife. However, due to public pressure from social media and citizens filing complaints, state officials reversed their findings and determined that over 700 fish were killed as a result of the spill.

The state eventually issued four violations against Hardshell Tipples, and compelled the company to commit to a fish-restocking plan for Pine Creek — a huge victory for clean water advocates and a sign that the state is aware of the public’s concern about how state agencies respond to spills like this.

Was this preventable?

Samples taken on the day after the spill show massive amounts of iron and manganese in the water. State documents obtained by Appalachian Voices and the Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center show that Hardshell Tipples had been issued multiple violations in the past for discharging high amounts of iron from its permit. However, these violations were considerably lower than the most recent Pine Creek spill, and the pictures show it.

It’s established fact that Hardshell Tipples has been reckless in the past with what it choose to discharge off of the permit. But state documents reveal that the company was also issued a citation in 2002 for failing to submit comprehensive underground mine maps to the state. It might be impossible to determine whether this documented negligence had anything to do with the recent mine blowout; however, it’s safe to say that the company has been a consistently careless operator in a watershed that is both ecologically and aesthetically important to eastern Kentucky.

The mine blowout on Pine Creek was clearly preventable. However, this is not to imply that all incidents of acid mine drainage are preventable. The majority of acid mine drainage problems in Letcher County, for example, are from mining that occurred decades ago, and persist to this day. These legacy problems will likely exist for many more decades, unless action is taken by state and federal government agencies.

The main point is that the Pine Creek spill is yet another example of the costs that communities near coal mines have to pay for in terms of ecological, economic and human health.

What do I do if this happens to my creek?

In this case, the quick response of nearby citizens and our team pushed the state to action and prevented the mine waste from affecting Letcher County’s municipal water system. However, in other instances, communities may not be aware of the problem for days, or they may be unable to contact their proper state agencies — especially if the problem begins on a weekend.

In any case, there are several things you can do to get the state to respond:

1. Take photos. Put your photos on social media, and make sure you tag the respective state or federal agencies in your post. Pictures of dead wildlife are especially useful, as they paint a more comprehensive portrait of the affected stream.

You can also send the photos to us through the Appalachian Water Watch Facebook page. If you don’t use social media, make sure you hang on to the photos, and call us immediately at 1-855-7WATERS.

2. Take notes. Make sure you note the date, time, location and any other characteristics of the affected stream. This includes changes in water color, consistency and/or smell. Don’t touch the water unless you’re taking a sample, in which case you should wear gloves.

3. Take a sample. Contact us and we can likely sample the spill within a few hours. If nothing else, purchase a plastic water bottle from your nearby grocery, empty it out, fill it with the contaminated water, and store it on ice until it can be tested. Be sure to wear latex gloves when you grab a sample. The water is likely highly acidic, and could burn your skin. Also, be careful — don’t risk a broken ankle or worse by wading into a fast moving stream just to get a sample. Pictures and notes are often the best course of action.

From inside Appalachia, a look at WGN’s “Outsiders”

Friday, April 8th, 2016 - posted by guestbloggers

Exclusive to the Front Porch: Award-winning author Ron Rash, known for his distinctly Appalachian voice as a poet, novelist and essayist, offers this reflection on WGN original series, Outsiders, about a clan of Kentucky natives living deep in the hills, and well outside of society.

Photo by Ulf Andersen.

Photo by Ulf Andersen.

So meet the Farrells (get it, feral), who live atop a mountain in southern Appalachia. It is 2016 elsewhere in America, but the Farrell tribe (who number between twenty and two hundred depending on which episode you watch) is living a lifestyle that is a bit retro, say by about two thousand years. They clothe themselves in animal pelts, walk barefoot, and do their internecine “feuding” with clubs.

There is no need to worry about any instances of micro-aggressions in this show. Five minutes into the premiere, we are assured that these mountain folks are nothing but a bunch of incestuous “retard hillbilly animals,” which the next scene confirms. We meet the Farrells at a clan-wide hoedown where everyone is at least a cousin and hell-bent on keeping it that way, openly fornicating when not swilling moonshine or brawling. No stereotype is overlooked: everyone is illiterate except for one heretic who left for some book-larning; Indoor plumbing? Are you kidding, these folks don’t have electricity except for a generator, whose sole purpose appears to be powering a screeching electric guitar. Otherwise, it’s candles and wood stoves. In the first three episodes, we get hexings, attempted matricide, fingers chopped off for violating tribal law, a Viking-like raid of the local Wal-Mart, and language that makes the bad guys in Deliverance sound like Rhodes Scholars. No one plants anything but marijuana and the only hunting is for “furrinurs’ unlucky enough to get these folks riled up. So where does the food come from? I’m expecting a later episode to reveal why Ferrell and cannibal sound so similar.

Assuming reviewers if not TV executives would find such outrageously grotesque depictions disturbing if not reprehensible, I checked their responses to Outsiders. That the show might even be remotely offensive went unmentioned. If anything, three of the four reviewers found the idea that such people existed in Appalachia plausible. Variety praised the show’s ability to depict “a strong sense of place in the wilds of a still-untamed pocket of America.” The Washington Post found it “artfully conceived” although acknowledging parts of the show were ridiculous “{e}ven if rooted in some anthropological research.” The New York Times also found the show cartoonish, though cautioning “Maybe there really are Kentucky hill clans who act like the staff at Medieval Times, but the best efforts of the actors in Outsiders can’t make the Farrells credible.” The L.A. Times gave Outsiders a largely positive review, although noting during a publicity event for the show that a reporter “asked if some of the characters might be werewolves.”

It’s all in good fun, I can imagine the writers and producers saying, and I myself have had some laughs while discussing the show with fellow Appalachians. But I also think of the national outrage when residents of Flint had to drink bottled water for weeks because their own supply was polluted, yet there is no national outrage that in parts of Appalachia the water has been undrinkable for years. Appalachia has always given more to this country than has been given back, especially its natural resources and in times of war, as we’ve recently witnessed, its children. The region is diverse, and many areas are doing well, but for those that are not, might a show focused on “retard hillbilly animals” make it easier for America to ignore the region’s needs? I’m not advocating the show being banned or boycotted. I would even encourage people to watch Outsiders, but with one caveat: if this show were about any other minority group, would you find it nearly as entertaining?

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Ron Rash is the author of the 2009 PEN/Faulkner Finalist and New YorkTimes bestselling novel Serena, in addition to five other novels, including One Foot in Eden, Saints at the River, The World Made Straight, and Above the Waterfall; five collections of poems; and six collections of stories, among them Burning Bright, which won the 2010 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, Chemistry and Other Stories, which was a finalist for the 2007 PEN/Faulkner Award, and most recently, Something Rich and Strange. Twice the recipient of the O.Henry Prize, he teaches at Western Carolina University. His latest novel The Risen will be out in September from Ecco.

Sleeping giants: TVA and Georgia Power stuck in second gear on energy efficiency

Wednesday, March 30th, 2016 - posted by guestbloggers

Editors’ Note: This piece, by Taylor Allred, is the third entry in a blog series entitled Energy Savings in the Southeast and featured on the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy’s footprints blog. The series will cover the performance of Southeastern utilities’ energy efficiency programs, and highlight how the region can achieve more money-saving and carbon-reducing energy savings. Future posts in this series can be found here.

While even the region’s top achievers have room for improvement, some of the largest utilities in the Southeast are seriously falling behind on energy efficiency. In particular, the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) and Georgia Power are two enormously capable utilities that appear to be stuck in second gear.

Huge Potential, Anemic Growth

TVA

Energy-Savings-Chart-Feb-20162

The nation’s largest public power provider, TVA provides generation and transmission to 154 electric cooperatives and municipal utilities serving more than 9 million people across seven states. In addition, TVA provides power to 59 directly served industrial customers.

TVA started ramping up its energy savings in 2011, following a relatively favorable outcome for energy efficiency in its 2011 integrated resource plan (IRP). Apart from the IRP, the federal utility also signed a 2011 EPA Consent Decree settlement over coal-plant emissions violations that, among other things, called for TVA to spend at least $240 million on energy efficiency. Following up on the IRP, the TVA Board challenged its staff to achieve savings equivalent to the output of a new nuclear plant, and TVA did just that with its EnergyRight Solutions programs, reporting 1,126 MW in avoided capacity additions from fiscal year 2008 through fiscal year 2014.

Not surprisingly, the cost of TVA’s energy savings – about $0.02 per kWh – was far lower than the $0.10 to $0.14 per kWh cost of new nuclear energy reported by Lazard. However, the ultra-low cost energy savings also indicate that they could be doing a lot more. TVA’s net savings rate of 0.25% ranks in the bottom half of major Southeastern utilities.

Georgia Power

Georgia Power is the largest subsidiary of Southern Company, one of the largest power providers in the country. As the only investor-owned electric utility in Georgia, the company serves more than 2.4 million customers, including the Atlanta metro area.

While it has achieved higher savings than TVA, Georgia Power has been on a slow growth trajectory over the past few years, and just under half of its 0.43% 2014 savings came from prescriptive commercial incentives, such as fluorescent lighting retrofits. Commercial lighting is a fairly easy way for utilities to achieve a base level of energy savings at an extremely low cost, but it is critical to also invest fully in the many other opportunities for cost-effective savings.

Non-Residential Savings

Both TVA and Georgia Power derive about three-quarters of their energy savings from non-residential customers, but both utilities are still far from fully capturing their huge non-residential savings potential – for completely opposite reasons having to do with their industrial energy efficiency programs.

On the one hand, Georgia Power has no energy efficiency programs for large industrial customers – industrial interest groups maintain an active stance against developing programs tailored to their members’ needs. But just to the north, TVA’s industrial program is limited not by opposition from industrial interest groups, but by TVA’s budget. Industrial customer interest in the program is so high that TVA has suspended new applications for months at a time when funds have run out. Thankfully, TVA’s programs are currently all funded and operating.

The Role of Resource Planning

One of the biggest opportunities to increase energy savings is in the treatment of energy efficiency in integrated resource planning. Utilities typically just pick a modest number as an energy efficiency target, and then subtract that figure from their demand forecasts prior to modeling generation resources based on costs.

The problem with that approach is that energy efficiency is actually the least-cost resource available (and clean!), so it’s wasteful not to maximize cost-effective energy efficiency. A better approach is to model energy efficiency as an energy resource on equal footing with generation resources, but very few utilities have tried it.

TVA’s 2015 IRP

With its 2015 IRP, TVA broke new ground by becoming the first Southeastern utility to model energy efficiency as a resource, something SACE had recommended in our 2011 IRP comments. Unfortunately, TVA developed a methodology that inappropriately inflated the cost of energy efficiency and placed unreasonable limits on its ability to compete on a level playing field with other resources. However, TVA has been sharing its experience and could inspire other utilities to model energy efficiency, possibly with better methodologies.

In a year full of changes, it appears that TVA’s fiscal year 2015 net savings have declined to about 0.2% of sales, but new programs could drive growth in the near future. TVA launched a promising new residential audit and retrofit program called eScore in early 2015, and has recently been exploring options for serving lower-income customers, who are generally unable to access TVA’s energy efficiency rebates due to high upfront costs. SACE is engaging on those efforts, and we commend TVA for its interest in providing equitable offerings for lower-income customers.

Georgia Power’s 2016 IRP

Georgia Power filed its 2016 IRP in late January, and unfortunately, it represents more of the same. The company has not modeled energy efficiency as a resource, and its plan provides for only modest growth in energy savings. SACE will testify as an intervenor in the IRP proceeding and recommend ways the company could significantly increase its cost-effective energy savings. One solution we plan to recommend is a tariff-based on-bill financing program that would enable customers to make energy efficiency upgrades with no money down, and achieve immediate bill savings that are greater than the monthly payments.

SACE will continue pushing TVA and Georgia Power to increase their energy savings to catch up with regional leaders such as Entergy Arkansas. We are hopeful that a healthy spirit of competition, as well as Southeastern utilities’ growing experience with energy efficiency, will help to drive significant growth across the region over the next few years.

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Responding to “Appalachia’s Distress”

Tuesday, March 1st, 2016 - posted by brian

We have to address the economic and environmental burdens created by a dependence on coal

The influence of the extractive industries embedded in the region is a constant, and mountaintop removal moves closer to communities — even as coal production declines. Photo by Matt Wasson

The influence of the extractive industries embedded in the region is a constant, and mountaintop removal is moving closer to communities — even as coal production declines. Photo by Matt Wasson

Earlier this month, a letter to the editors of The New York Times by Appalachian Voices Executive Director Tom Cormons appeared on the newspaper’s website.

Tom penned the letter following a piece by the Times editorial board that described a “grossly disfigured landscape” where steep mountain ridgelines that formed over millions of years old stand “flat as mesas … inhospitable to forest restoration.”

After decades of mountaintop removal and large-scale surface mining, these grim descriptions of Central Appalachia are familiar in the media, literature and the daily experience of those that live near mines.

Not only does this devastating practice continue to reduce mountains to rubble, poisoning the air and water, Tom points out:

… mountaintop removal is moving closer to communities as the industry searches out ever-dwindling coal seams, and residents continue to suffer from a multitude of health effects related to mining pollution, not to mention dire economic conditions.

The influence of the extractive industries embedded in the region is a constant. Backers of mountaintop removal believe the debate ends with the reclamation of mines — a superficial “fix” that Ken Hechler, a former congressman and long-time opponent of mountaintop removal, has unsettlingly compared to putting “lipstick on a corpse.” But new research challenges the myth that reclamation can restore mountains, much less ecological health.

Donate now to help us continue to protect Appalachian streams

The Times’ welcome editorial drew attention to this study, by researchers at Duke University, that found mountaintop removal has left large swaths of Central Appalachia 40 percent flatter than they were before mining, leading to staggering changes in erosion patterns and water quality that are, essentially, permanent.

“We have data that the water quality impacts can last at least 30 years, but the geomorphology impacts might last thousands of years,” according to the study’s lead author, Matthew Ross.

The editorial also makes a brief mention of the Stream Protection Rule, which would go far to reducing the worst impacts of mountaintop removal. Tom wrote his letter in part to stress the importance of this science-based rule and to urge federal regulators to stand firm in the face of industry opposition, and finalize it before President Obama leaves office.

Not doing so could come at a high cost to Appalachia’s environmental and economic future. As Tom’s letter concludes:

… unless the [U.S. Department of the Interior] has the courage to issue a strong rule later this year that reflects the most current science, achieving a prosperous future here will be all but impossible.

Read the Times’ editorial here. Click here for Tom’s letter.

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Virginia’s Clean Power Plan approach unchanged after court’s action

Thursday, February 18th, 2016 - posted by hannah
Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe stated that Virginia will “stay the course” and continue working to reduce carbon pollution after the U.S. Supreme Court hit pause on the Clean Power Plan. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe stated that Virginia will “stay the course” and continue working to reduce carbon pollution after the U.S. Supreme Court hit pause on the Clean Power Plan. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court made a disappointing decision by issuing a “stay” of the Clean Power Plan. But that doesn’t mean what polluters and their allies would have you believe it does – and the opportunity is as great as ever for Virginia to develop a truly bold plan.

The day after the high court’s decision, Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe stated that Virginia will “stay the course” and continue working to reach our goals to cut back on carbon pollution:

“Over the last several months my administration has been working with a diverse group of Virginia stakeholders that includes members of the environmental, business, and energy communities to develop a strong, viable path forward to comply with the Clean Power Plan. As this court case moves forward, we will stay on course and continue to develop the elements for a Virginia plan to reduce carbon emissions and stimulate our clean energy economy.”

For a state like Virginia, which began engaging stakeholders last fall and has a state planning process in full swing, this stay might have been taken as a reason to slow or halt our process by signaling to leaders unfamiliar with the legal foundations of the Clean Power Plan that it might be overturned.

In fact, the Supreme Court has already upheld the EPA’s authority to limit carbon pollution, as Virginia’s leaders know. A solid grounding in existing law — namely the Clean Air Act — increases the likelihood that the Clean Power Plan will survive. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit must now consider briefs and arguments, and has agreed to an expedited timeframe for this work, with arguments expected in early June.

Overwhelming support exists for prioritizing clean energy and efficiency – we can’t stop now!

Virginia is one of many states moving forward with implementation. Smart leaders will continue down that path. With more than two-thirds of Americans supporting the Clean Power Plan, including numerous prominent companies and investors, our country wants action to address carbon pollution and climate change.

There is already an inescapable trend shifting the electricity sector from the pollution-intensive fuels of the past to a safer, cleaner future – with the big caveat that, especially in the Southeast, it is critical to combat investments in gas-fired power, an energy source all-too-widely believed to have a cleaner production and combustion process than it really does.

There’s more that we’re counting on Governor McAuliffe to deliver

Virginia is positioned to implement a long-term plan to cut carbon pollution while simultaneously boosting the economy, creating new jobs and reducing customers’ electricity bills. Despite this, some of Virginia’s biggest polluters are out to rig the plan to benefit their bottomlines by building new fossil fuel infrastructure.

If the polluters get their way, Virginia could actually see a net increase in greenhouse gases under the Clean Power Plan. The ultimate decision lies in the governor’s hands. The question is: will he side with Dominion and choose a plan that increases global warming pollution or create a plan true to the intentions of the Clean Power Plan that charts a healthier future for the commonwealth?


Take action now and call on Governor McAuliffe to remain committed to “staying the course” for a bold Clean Power Plan in Virginia.

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Environmental Votetracker – Feb/March 2016

Thursday, February 18th, 2016 - posted by molly
Click to enlarge

Click to enlarge

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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