Posts Tagged ‘Politics’

McAuliffe can pave the way for a cleaner future for Virginia

Thursday, April 10th, 2014 - posted by cat

{ Editor’s Note }This post ran as an op-ed in the Richmond Times-Dispatch on Tuesday, April 8 — the first day of the annual Environment Virginia Symposium, an environmental conference that brings together regulators, business people and entrepreneurs, elected officials, and citizen groups like Appalachian Voices.

In his keynote speech at the symposium, Gov. Terry McAuliffe said he plans to diversify Virginia’s economy by boosting the clean energy sector, which would not only create jobs but also address climate change: “I believe humans contribute to climate change. I think it’s pretty much settled. I think the impacts are felt today.”

In his keynote address at the Environment Virginia Symposium, Gov. Terry McAuliffe said he plans to diversify Virginia’s economy by boosting the clean energy sector.

In his keynote address at the Environment Virginia Symposium, Gov. Terry McAuliffe said he plans to diversify Virginia’s economy by boosting the clean energy sector.

In almost every campaign speech, Terry McAuliffe told the story of how he started a driveway-paving business in his neighborhood when he was 14 to earn money to help pay for his college education. Now Virginia’s 47th governor, McAuliffe is clearly proud of the moral: Work hard, invest in your future and you’ll go far.

As Gov. McAuliffe begins to apply these values to his gubernatorial agenda, there’s no better place to start than by paving the way for a stronger, more equitable economy for all Virginians by investing in a 21st-century clean-energy sector for the commonwealth.

Wind and solar power and energy efficiency have not only proven to be cost-effective, they can provide long-term jobs throughout the state, stabilize energy costs for families and businesses and strengthen Virginia’s economy. As a first step, McAuliffe should require that all state-owned buildings in Virginia derive at least 20 percent of their power from renewable energy sources, and direct his agencies to become 20 percent more energy efficient.

McAuliffe has numerous other options at his disposal to put forth a clear vision for clean energy and take concrete steps to fortify the clean-energy business sector here in Virginia.

Energy efficiency:

Increasing investments in energy efficiency programs could create nearly 10,000 jobs and save Virginians over $2.2 billion annually on their electric bills by 2025.* But Virginia is far from realizing this opportunity; in fact, we rank 36th nationally for energy efficiency.

Seven years ago, the General Assembly set a voluntary goal to cut energy use by a modest 10 percent by 2022 (from 2006 levels). The state’s two largest electric utilities, Dominion Virginia Power and Appalachian Power, are on track to meet just one-half and one-quarter of that goal, respectively. McAuliffe should press the utilities to invest in more ambitious energy-efficiency programs to benefit the economy, the public and the environment. He should also adopt improved statewide building code standards that could increase efficiency of new home construction by as much as 27 percent.

Solar power:

The solar industry is booming across the country — except in Virginia. Last year, the industry added 14,000 new jobs, while fossil fuel companies cut nearly 4,000 workers. North Carolina has installed enough solar to power more than 25,000 homes and is ranked third for solar installed in 2013 — much of which powers data centers. Virginia trails far behind, with not even enough solar to power 1,000 homes.

Virginia could catch up, or even surpass our neighbors. McAuliffe can jumpstart solar projects by discouraging penalties imposed by utilities on homeowners and businesses who install solar panels, and by supporting policies that allow all Virginians to easily finance solar installations on their homes and businesses.

Wind power:

Virginia has some of the strongest potential for offshore wind energy in the country and holds the first federal license in the mid-Atlantic region, with the potential to produce enough electricity to power 700,000 homes. Dominion holds the lease, but is currently planning to develop just a fraction of that potential, enough to power roughly 4,200 homes, by 2028. McAuliffe should urge Dominion to fully develop this resource, which could create 10,000 additional new jobs over the next 20 years.

Diversifying Southwest Virginia’s economy:

McAuliffe should take immediate and significant action to expand and diversify economic opportunities in Southwest Virginia, especially in communities where coal is mined. Investments in clean energy, tourism, education and manufacturing will help secure a stronger economic future for families that have unfairly suffered poisoned drinking water and streams, soot and dust in the air, severe health problems and other impacts of mountaintop-removal coal mining.

McAuliffe can lead Virginia toward a stronger, healthier, economically just future by championing positive clean-energy policies like these. Our organizations stand ready to work with the governor, his staff and administration to help make that happen.
As a boy, Terry McAuliffe aimed high when he started his first business to invest in his future. He should do the same now for Virginia.

Cat McCue, communications director with Appalachian Voices, on behalf of Appalachian Voices, Chesapeake Climate Action Network, Sierra Club of Virginia, Southern Environmental Law Center and Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards. Contact her at

* Information for this article was drawn largely from an August 2013 report, “Changing Course: A Clean Energy Investment Plan for Dominion Virginia Power, by the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis and Optimal Energy.

Court Strikes Down Bush-era Water Rule for Coal Mines

Tuesday, April 8th, 2014 - posted by Kelsey Boyajian

By Molly Moore

In February, a U.S. district court struck down the 2008 Stream Buffer Zone Rule, which loosened stream protections near mountaintop removal mining sites, declaring it violated the Endangered Species Act.

Senior Judge Barbara Rothstein wrote that the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement wrongfully proceeded with the environmentally harmful rule even when faced with clear evidence that mining operations near streams endanger sensitive wildlife and water resources.

Rothstein’s decision restores the 1983 Reagan administration rule which had established a more environmentally sound buffer zone around waterways to prevent debris and rubble from coal mining operations from burying streams. The 2008 version signed by President George Bush overwrote the 1983 rule and minimized those protections.

The National Mining Association, which intervened in the case, has not announced whether they will appeal Rothstein’s decision.

The decision will likely not have much immediate impact in Kentucky, Virginia or West Virginia, as the 2008 rule was not enforced in states that manage their own surface mining oversight.

A bill passed by the House of Representatives in March, H.R. 2824, would override the recent court decision and require that all states enforce the 2008 rule. It would also stop the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement from issuing an updated rule called the Stream Protection Rule, which the agency says will reflect updated science and technology and could be a “more protective regulatory strategy.”

The bill is unlikely to be considered in the Senate, and White House officials are prepared to recommend a presidential veto, stating that the proposed legislation “does not adequately address the community, environmental, and health impacts of strip mining.”

2014 Races to Watch

Tuesday, April 8th, 2014 - posted by Kelsey Boyajian

By Brian Sewell and Thom Kay

The November 2014 elections are months away, but the figurative starting gun has been fired and the horse-race coverage has begun. To both parties this midterm may seem especially significant. Halfway through President Obama’s second term, some Republicans believe their party is poised to take over the Senate.

Democrats currently have a 55-45 majority, but the party’s incumbents are under fire for standing by President Obama through the most turbulent period of his presidency. Meanwhile, several sitting Republicans will have to make it past a primary challenge by far-right candidates. In the Republican-controlled House of Representatives (234-198), the Democratic party’s highest hope is to keep their caucus intact, picking up seats where they can.

As the midterms approach, here are eight regional races worth keeping an eye on — for their careful (and clumsy) campaign strategies, the millions spent on attack ads, and their implications for Appalachia’s congressional delegation.

U.S. Senate – Kentucky


Mitch McConnell was first elected as a U.S. Senator 30 years ago and is currently the minority leader, the highest position for a Republican in the Democratic-controlled Senate. Considering that Mitt Romney won in Kentucky in 2012 by a staggering 23 percent, it would seem the only possible threat to McConnell’s re-election would be in the Republican primary from a field of challengers that includes businessman Matt Bevin.

But his real opposition comes from Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes. Grimes won her bid to become Kentucky’s Secretary of State by a huge margin in 2012. Now, however, she faces the difficult task of separating herself from Democratic congressional leadership and the White House.

A recent poll by the Louisville Courier-Journal had Grimes leading McConnell, who, according to the same poll, is slightly less popular than President Obama in the boldly red Bluegrass State.

U.S. Senate – North Carolina


In one of the most contested and costly Senate races in the country, a field of challengers are keeping first-term Sen. Kay Hagan and the national Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee on their toes.

In the lead-up to the May 6 primary, the two GOP frontrunners — Thom Tillis, an influential state legislator, and Tea Party conservative Dr. Greg Brannon — have mostly been busy criticizing each other rather than Hagan.

That role has so far fallen to outside groups such as Americans for Prosperity and others supported by the billionaire Koch brothers, who have already spent more than $8 million on anti-Hagan ads. A spokesperson for Hagan called the Koch-backed efforts a “baseless smear campaign” from a group that “doesn’t speak for North Carolinians.”

North Carolina may be the epicenter for the GOP’s efforts to take control of the Senate, but some progressives are also sour on Hagan’s record due to her prominent support of the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline. An Elon University poll released on March 3 found that just one-third of registered voters in North Carolina approve of Hagan’s job performance.

U.S. Senate – Tennessee


Sen. Lamar Alexander’s seat is solidly Republican — even Democratic strategists say the second-term senator is more likely to be defeated in the Aug. 7 primary challenge than be unseated by a Democrat such as challenger Terry Adams, who recently declared his candidacy.

That may be why Tennessee State Rep. Joe Carr decided to enter the race last August. “[Alexander] is popular, but there is a disconnect with his popularity to the way he has voted,” Carr said upon announcing his candidacy. The race in Tennessee provides a look at how opposition aimed at moderate Republicans from the party’s far-right wing has been increasing. Last year, a letter from the Tennessee Tea Party urged Alexander, a former governor and two-term presidential candidate, to “retire with dignity.”

In his response, Alexander said he would rather stick around, because “Washington needs more, not fewer, conservatives who know how to govern.”

A recent poll conducted by Middle Tennessee State University found that 47 percent of self-identified Republicans favored Alexander in the primary. Just 7 percent favored Carr and 4 percent wanted “someone else.”

U.S. Senate – Virginia


Democrats considered Sen. Mark Warner’s seat safe until Ed Gillespie, a former chairman of the Republican National Committee, entered the race. Warner, a rumored presidential contender, has been in the Senate since 2009. Gillespie has so far focused his campaign on health care and the economy. He has never held elective office, but nevertheless has the credentials and the fundraising experience from decades of advising GOP politicians to represent a serious challenge to Warner. A poll conducted by Quinnipiac University at the end of March, however, found Warner with a 15-point advantage over Gillespie.

U.S. Senate – West Virginia


Between the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections, West Virginia saw a monumental swing toward the Republican Party. Of the 3,410 counties in the United States, Boone County, W.Va., saw the largest pro-Republican swing, approximately 42 percent. Suddenly, five-term senator and incumbent Jay Rockefeller, a Democrat, seemed vulnerable. In November 2012, U.S. Representative Shelley Moore Capito announced she would run for Rockefeller’s seat. Two months later, Rockefeller announced he would not seek re-election. As of the end of March, Capito had a double-digit lead over the Democratic candidate, West Virginia Secretary of State Natalie Tennant. If she replaces Rockefeller, Capito will be the first Republican elected to represent West Virginia in the Senate since 1956. Either would be the state’s first female senator.

U.S. House – Kentucky’s 3rd District


Louisville, Ky., native Rep. John Yarmuth joined Congress in 2007 after defeating Republican incumbent Anne Northup. In September 2013, Yarmuth joined the powerful House Committee on Energy and Commerce, putting him in the middle of debates concerning environmental and energy policy.

This year, Yarmuth faces a challenge from Dr. Michael MacFarlane, a Louisville-based physician critical of the Obama administration’s health care initiative. MacFarlane is popular for his financial support of state and federal Republican candidates, but he must overcome his party’s losing record from the last three elections to bring Kentucky’s 3rd district back into Republican control.

U.S House – Virginia’s 10th District


When Rep. Frank Wolf announced he would not be running for an 18th term late last year, attention from both parties shifted to northern Virginia’s 10th District. A wide field of Republicans, including Virginia State Delegate Barbara Comstock, are vying for a primary win come April, while Democrats plan to nominate a candidate from their party’s pool — which includes Fairfax County Supervisor John Foust — ahead of the primary, to bolster their chances of winning the long Republican-held seat.

According to the Rothenberg Political Report, after Virginia’s redistricting in 2012, the 10th district is competitive but remains slightly Republican.

U.S. House – West Virginia’s 3rd District


Rep. Nick Rahall, a Democrat, has won 19 straight congressional elections, and while his margin of victory has shrunk in the past few races, he still managed to win somewhat comfortably in 2010 and 2012.

This year, however, may be different. Republicans have gradually made headway in southern West Virginia, where voters have strongly rejected President Obama. Republican strategists and outside groups have made Rahall a top target, dumping millions into attack ads attempting to tie Rahall to Democratic leadership and President Obama. State Sen. Evan Jenkins, formerly a Democrat, is the runaway favorite for the Republican nomination.

Attempts at Legislation, Regulation Follow Water Threats

Tuesday, April 8th, 2014 - posted by Kelsey Boyajian

By Molly Moore

Almost as soon as West Virginia American Water Company ordered 300,000 residents to avoid contact with their tap water, the question arose: why was crude MCHM, a chemical now known to be highly toxic, so poorly understood and regulated?

The lack of a clear answer brought national attention to the fact that few of the tens of thousands of chemicals used in commerce today are regulated. Of the more than 60,000 chemicals that were grandfathered in when the Toxic Substances Control Act was passed in 1976, only 200 have been tested for safety.

Even before a Freedom Industries chemical tank leaked into the Elk River, efforts to upgrade the 35-year-old chemical safety law were underway. But while industry and environmental groups both claim to agree on the need for reform, opinions are split on the best way to move forward.

In the Senate, the most viable piece of legislation is the Chemical Safety Improvement Act, which was introduced last spring by the late Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) and Sen. David Vitter (R-La). The bill represented a compromise for Lautenberg, who for several years had championed more stringent chemical regulations. Also in February, Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.) introduced a related bill — the Chemicals in Commerce Act — in the House. Both bills are supported by the American Chemistry Council, but the reception from public health and environmental organizations has ranged from lukewarm to hostile.

The bills would divide chemicals into high- and low-priority groups, with high-priority substances undergoing further review. If a chemical were deemed low-priority, however, states would lose the ability to regulate it, and it would be extremely difficult for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to assess or restrict the chemical later. Many of the concerns surrounding this system involve how the EPA would decide whether a chemical is high or low priority, and whether the agency could require a chemical manufacturer to provide enough information about a substance to make a sound decision.

In direct response to the West Virginia spill, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) introduced a bill about the storage of hazardous chemicals. Among other provisions, Manchin’s Chemical Safety and Drinking Water Protection Act would set minimum requirements for state inspections of above-ground chemical storage facilities and state-approved emergency response plans, and require that information about chemical storage be shared with drinking water systems in the same watershed.

Just as the chemical safety concerns raised by the West Virginia spill highlighted an enduring threat, Duke Energy’s February coal ash spill into the Dan River in North Carolina highlighted the persistent problems associated with coal ash storage. Following a 2008 dam rupture at a coal ash pond in Harriman, Tenn., which released one billion gallons of the toxic substance into nearby rivers, coal ash became a high-profile environmental issue. In early 2009, the EPA announced a plan to address coal ash and, among other measures, “order cleanup and repairs where needed, and develop new regulations for future safety.”

Five years later, however, there are still no federal regulations governing coal ash storage or the cleanup of contaminated sites, though the agency faces a court-ordered deadline to issue a rule by mid-December. The EPA is considering two proposals — one system would label coal ash as nonhazardous while the other would declare it hazardous and require stricter regulations. A bill that passed the House last summer and is pending in the Senate would negate any EPA regulations and leave oversight up to the states.

The Duke Energy coal ash spill also came just a few months before the EPA faces another court-ordered deadline, this one to address water pollution from coal-fired power plants. By May 22, the agency must update its 30 year-old effluent guideline rule under the Clean Water Act, which could impose the first federal limits on the levels of toxic metals in the wastewater that power plants discharge.

For updates on coal ash regulation, visit Appalachian Voices’ Red, White and Water campaign at, or track chemical safety legislation on the Green Chemistry Law Report at

U.S. Supreme Court Rules on the “Sequel to Citizens United”

Wednesday, April 2nd, 2014 - posted by brian

If you weren’t recently rescued from a deserted island, you’re probably aware of role money plays in polluting our democracy, and the fact that its corrupting influence reaches issues related to energy policy and environmental protection. We even devoted an entire issue of The Appalachian Voice to the subject in 2012.

So anyone passionate about, well, anything really, should take note of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling today on McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, a case that’s being called “the sequel to Citizens United.” Here are some of the best things we read today related to the case. But first, watch this video from last October that correctly predicts the case’s outcome:

Mother Jones has a good overview of the case and how it relates to other campaign finance laws left intact after today’s ruling. From the article:

The court’s five conservative justices all agreed that the so-called aggregate limit on the amount of money a donor can give to candidates, political action committees, and political parties is unconstitutional. In a separate opinion, conservative justice Clarence Thomas went even further, calling on the court to overrule Buckley v. Valeo, the 1976 decision that concluded it was constitutional to limit contributions to candidates.

That piece also includes this strongly worded, and frankly terrifying, quote from the dissenting opinion by the court’s four liberal justices:

“Taken together with Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, today’s decision eviscerates our Nation’s campaign finance laws, leaving a remnant incapable of dealing with the grave problems of democratic legitimacy that those laws were intended to resolve.”

For a brief explanation of what specific limits existed before today’s ruling and why those limits exist in the first place (i.e. preventing the corruption that’s happening anyway) take a look at this piece from The Washington Post written when the Supreme Court decided to hear the case. Also in The Post, Richard Hansen, a professor of law and political science, made the argument last month that blowing up aggregate limits could reduce the role outside money plays and “grease the wheels toward compromise” by strengthening party leadership.

Regardless of having a teensy chance the reduce gridlock, the McCutcheon ruling could rule out any hope for a functioning campaign finance system. ThinkProgress fears a future where donations to Republican or Democratic strongholds could be strategically redistributed to battleground states.

On the other hand, the Sierra Club says that while the Supreme Court sided with polluters and against the vast majority of Americans, the situation is far from hopeless.

In a recent poll by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner, results showed 91 percent of respondents want elected officials to “reduce the influence of money in political elections.” Grassroots movements are emerging calling for public financing that levels the playing field and lifts up the voices of small donors. More and more Americans are demanding initiatives that pull back the curtain on political spending.

So what’s likely to happen next? The midterm elections are right around the corner, and rumored candidates come the 2016 presidential election are already testing the waters. Last fall, The Sunlight Foundation shared a fascinating look at the 1,000 donors most likely to benefit from McCutcheon and what they’ll probably do:

Our best guess is that parties and leadership committees will converge on these donors, giving roughly 1000 people a unique ability to set and limit the party agendas. Presumably, they will shift their money from super PACs to party committees because giving directly to party and leadership committees affords these donors more opportunities to talk directly to party leaders, and increases their bargaining power within the party structure.

Outraged by the court’s decision and want to get organized? Groups like Public Citizen, Common Cause,, Rootstrikers and Move to Amend are organizing rallies nationwide to speak out about the corrupting role that money plays in our political system. Find an event near you.

Still not satisfied? Head to SCOTUSblog, which covers all things Supreme Court, and comb through its extensive McCutcheon coverage.

Heroes and Hyperbole: U.S. House Passes Pro-Mountaintop Removal Bill

Monday, March 31st, 2014 - posted by thom
Speaking in opposition of H.R. 2824, Rep. John Yarmuth (D-KY) holds a bottle of water from beneath a mountaintop removal mine, and says that ignoring the threats of mountaintop removal to clean water means "risking the health of families in mining communities in Kentucky and throughout Appalachia"

Speaking in opposition of H.R. 2824, Rep. John Yarmuth (D-KY) holds a bottle of water polluted by mining waste, saying that ignoring the threats of mountaintop removal to clean water means “risking the health of families in mining communities in Kentucky and throughout Appalachia”

Last week, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to roll back stream protections in an effort to make it easier to dump waste from mountaintop removal mines into Appalachian streams. Given the makeup of the House right now, this comes as no surprise. But there is a silver lining.

We fought hard against this bill, because the key to preventing it from moving in the Senate and eventually becoming law was to show significant pushback from our anti-mountaintop removal allies in the House.

The bill may have passed, but the 229-192 margin is much narrower than most votes to roll back regulation in the House in recent years. We lost only nine Democrats and were happy to have seven Republicans on our side. And nine members took to the floor (including one during a previous hearing) to oppose the bill, making it clear that a vote for H.R. 2824 was a vote for mountaintop removal coal mining and against the health and well-being of Appalachian communities.

Together with our allies and the pressure from people across the country, we believe we can stop the bill from moving any further. We haven’t won yet, but the significant opposition shown on Capitol Hill last week was a step in the right direction.

The floor debate lasted for well over an hour. Below is a compilation of key quotes from Republicans and Democrats from the hour-long floor debate.

Doc Hastings (R-WA): If we do not stop the administration from implementing its new coal regulation, thousands of Americans will be out of work, and home heating costs for working middle class families will rise.

Let’s pass this legislation to protect American taxpayer dollars, to protect American jobs, and to end this administration’s reckless, wasteful rewrite by putting in place a responsible process that will allow a proper new rule to be written.

Rush Holt (D-NJ): Hospitalizations, hypertension, lung cancer, heart disease, kidney disease, increased flooding. Water with dangerous concentrations of toxic metals? Yes. That is what the science says. And the destruction of forests and streams.

These are the impacts of mountaintop removal mining that Congress should be addressing today. This is what we should be holding hearings on and writing legislation about. We should be making the protection of people and the environment of the Appalachian region our top priority and making the mining companies act responsibly, not just cheaply.

Doug Lamborn (R-CO): The legislation before us today is very simple. It would cripple the Obama administration’s war on coal by ending their unnecessary rewrite and it would require the Office of Surface Mining to implement the 2008 Stream Buffer Zone Rule.

John Yarmuth (D-KY):
It is bad enough that children who live in mining communities color their streams orange when they draw their environment, but it is tragic that the water they drink is denying them the healthy future they deserve.

We are risking the health of families in mining communities in Kentucky and throughout Appalachia by continuing to ignore the toxic orange water that pollutes their drinking supply.

Nick Rahall (D-WV):
It is clear, at least to me, that the effort by the current administration to revise the 2008 rule is aimed at halting a mining practice that is specifically condoned by SMCRA.

Fundamentally, there is no question; this debate is about jobs. It is about good-paying jobs in West Virginia and other areas of the Appalachian region.

Mike Kelly (R-PA):
Listen, what we are doing today just makes sense. We have already run the traps on it. We have already run the tests. We have done all the metrics. Coal is good for America. Coal has always been good for America. Coal has cleaned itself up incredibly and will continue to do so. These are the most responsible people.

Jim Moran (D-VA):
The goal of this bill is to require all States to incorporate a now vacated 2008 rule that was issued in the very last days of the Bush administration and was then struck down by a U.S. Federal court. It was an eleventh-hour regulation that was designed to repeal Reagan-era protections for streams and waterways from the impacts of mountaintop mining by providing a buffer zone for waste disposal. Its vague and permissive language sets an alarmingly low bar when it comes to protecting communities and wildlife habitats near mountaintop mining operations.

Steve Scalise (R-LA):
The President continues to pursue this global warming agenda. It is snowing outside of the Capitol right now as we speak in support of this bill, and they are still talking about global warming and imposing more regulations that are killing–killing–American jobs.

Earl Blumenauer (D-OR):
People can see for themselves the devastation from mountaintop removal and the fact that we have been negligent as a country for years providing adequate protections.

Pro-Mountaintop Removal Bill Headed to House Floor

Thursday, March 20th, 2014 - posted by thom
Another bad bill: Pro-mountaintop removal legislation that would weaken protections for Appalachian streams will be considered on the House floor next week.

Another bad bill: Pro-mountaintop removal legislation that would weaken protections for Appalachian streams will be considered on the House floor next week.

It’s hard to get a good bill all the way through the legislative process to receive a vote on the House floor. Apparently it’s much easier to get a bad bill that far.

We’ve been following H.R. 2824, a bad bill sponsored by Ohio Rep. Bill Johnson, since it was in committee. The bill would force all coal mining states to adopt and enforce the flawed 2008 Stream Buffer Zone rule created under the Bush administration. That’s the same rule that was just vacated by a federal court for violating the Endangered Species Act. Regardless of the obvious flaws in both the Bush rule and the new bill, H.R. 2824 is expected to head to the House floor for a full vote sometime next week.

Contact your representative to help defeat this pro-mountaintop removal bill.

The 2008 Stream Buffer Zone rule is favored by the coal industry and opposed by environmental groups including Appalachian Voices. We are pushing the Obama administration to rewrite the rule to provide the strongest possible protections for Appalachian streams and nearby communities.

In an odd twist of party politics, most Democrats are fighting for the enforcement of a 1983 Reagan-era stream protection rule, which is much stronger rule than the Bush rule, while most Republicans are fighting to get rid of the older, but more effective rule. And Republicans are pushing a bill that would force coal mining states to adopt a federal rule, while Democrats are fighting to protect each state’s right to continue enforcing their own stream protections.

This fight is about mountaintop removal, coal mining pollution and how those threats are regulated. Rep. Johnson and his allies want minimal regulations (though even the bill’s co-sponsors don’t seem to understand that coal pollution is real), and opponents of the bill want to protect the environment and Appalachian communities from mountaintop removal.

There is good news. We’re fighting the bill in the House, trying to stop the bill’s momentum. It’ll likely pass the House, but the margin does matter. If we can dredge up enough opposition, the Senate will be disinclined to touch it. We also have a veto threat from the White House, and those hold a whole lot of weight.

Help us get your House representative to oppose the bill and give us the best chance to defeat it.

There are already members of congress across the country who are on our side. Watch Rep. Alcee Hastings of Florida speak in opposition to H.R. 2824 during a rules hearing on the House floor recently.

Take action to help defeat this anti-environmental bill. Learn more about our work to end mountaintop removal.

Virginia Legislature Ends with Modest Progress on Solar

Monday, March 10th, 2014 - posted by guestbloggers

{ Editor’s Note } Ivy Main is a writer, lawyer, and environmental advocate based in Virginia. In addition to lobbying in the Virginia General Assembly for stronger clean energy policies, she writes the energy policy blog Power for the People VA, where this post was originally published.

According to guest contributor Ivy Main, the past few years have produced glimmers of hope that suggest a shifting mindset among legislators.

According to guest contributor Ivy Main, the past few years have produced glimmers of hope that suggest a shifting mindset among legislators.

Advocates of enlightened energy policy march into session every January bright-eyed and optimistic, only to become mired in the slough of despond. We watch the best bills die, while bills we thought too backward to survive the light of day flourish like an invasive species. Yet even in Virginia, the past few years have produced glimmers of hope that suggest a slowly shifting mindset among legislators.

There is, for example, a growing movement in favor of solar energy that is as strong on the Republican right as it is on the Democratic left. They haven’t quite formed a Solar Caucus yet, but you might say we are beginning to see a Solar Consensus.

Last year, after a long battle, this consensus produced a law specifically allowing some third-party-owned solar and wind projects, a critical step for nonprofits to install solar economically. This year, the legislature removed the second major hurdle to these projects, local “machinery and tools” taxes on solar equipment that would have made third-party-owned projects impossible in most Virginia jurisdictions. Assuming the governor signs, SB 418 and HB 1239 take effect January 1, 2015.

In a near rerun of two years ago, Senator Chap Petersen’s SB 222, nullifying homeowner bans on solar, passed the House and Senate. Back then Governor McDonnell surprised us all by vetoing similar legislation, an action not expected from Governor McAuliffe.

This year, too, the legislature voted to establish a grant program to help fund renewable energy projects. Originally conceived as an ambitious, $100 million tax credit, the legislation was quickly scaled back to $10 million and turned into a grant, causing it to run into trouble when money couldn’t be found in the budget to fund it. (Sorry, we spent it all on coal.) So SB 653 won’t take effect until fiscal year 2015-2016, and even for that to happen the bill must be reenacted in 2015. Too many contingencies, you say? Well, yes. But passing the bill at all is a remarkable milestone for this legislature. Let’s appreciate this moment.

Solar advocates also tried for a second year to pass a bill that would require the State Corporation Commission to set up a registration system for Virginia renewable energy certificates. While the bill did not pass, the SCC has agreed to examine whether it can do the job administratively, and if legislation is required, to suggest the necessary language for the 2015 session. Again, it’s a small victory, but it reflects an increasing acceptance of solar energy as an inevitable part of our energy mix.

Okay, sure, the defeats were far more numerous. Reforms to our farcical Renewable Portfolio Standard were whittled down to why-bother status before passage (SB 498 and HB 822). Efforts to ensure that both utilities and regulators take account of the long-term costs of fossil fuels (HB 808) and their climate change impacts (HB 363) never made it out of the House subcommittee. Every effort to expand residents’ access to solar energy by opening up net-metering failed (SB 350, HB 879, HB 906 and SB 350).

One of the net-metering champions, Senator John Edwards, put in a resolution in the final days of the session to organize a study of the value that distributed solar generation provides to utilities and the grid. The bill was introduced on March 3 and scuttled three days later (surely some kind of record), but advocates expect the study to go forward administratively. The study will make use of the Small Solar Working Group that formed last year, facilitated by the Department of Environmental Quality and consisting of solar advocates, utilities, local governments and others.

This value-of-solar issue is at the heart of the national battle over the expansion of distributed solar and the effort by utilities to nip it in the bud to preserve their monopolies. We expect Virginia utilities to continue their push for a very low valuation, one that would justify the barriers currently in place and add new ones like standby charges.

There were other disappointments, too, like the failure of HB 766, a bill that would have allowed localities to form service districts for energy projects, just as they do for things like trash collection, and HB 1001, which would have required electric utilities to offer on-bill financing of energy efficiency improvements.

But as I wrote in my last post, the worst news for consumers this year was the passage of SB 459, a bill allowing Dominion to write off hundreds of millions of dollars it has spent developing plans for a third nuclear reactor at Lake Anna. Last week we spoke with lawyers at the Attorney General’s office about this boondoggle, which they also oppose, and received confirmation that our reading of the bill is correct. In spite of the propaganda coming from Dominion about “no ratepayer impact,” customers of the utility will indeed pay these costs.

Worse, while we know Dominion has spent $570 million so far, the company has not disclosed how much more it intends to spend — and charge us — in the future. The AG’s office told us Dominion has this estimate but won’t disclose it publicly, insisting the figure is confidential. Apparently it is not for the likes of us customers to know such things.

Legislators not only signed us up for this open-ended boondoggle, they specifically rejected an amendment offered by Delegate Ware that would have ensured we got our money back if Dominion doesn’t build the nuclear plant.

Given the lopsided vote tally, the governor is not likely to veto the bill. Knowing this, the AG’s office is recommending amendments that would allow the State Corporation Commission to review the money spent (the bill as written jettisons even that minor consumer protection), but isn’t suggesting a wholesale rewrite.

Looking for a silver lining? There are two. First, Dominion may have pursued this legislation not because it wants to build North Anna 3, but because it intends to abandon the project and figures it might as well get ratepayers to cover the sunk costs while it’s still possible to pretend everything is full speed ahead. That would actually come as a relief; not building a financially uncompetitive nuclear plant on an earthquake fault line is way better than building it.

Second, the bitter pill of this legislation comes with a little chaser of sugar in the form of a second bill, SB 643, that provides the same treatment for the costs of developing an offshore wind farm. So far these costs have been tiny in comparison to what’s been spent on North Anna 3, but putting them into the rate base will lower the cost of building turbines offshore.

Some people have suggested it’s inconsistent to like the wind bill while hating the nuclear bill, but surely it’s only reasonable to fish a pearl out of a dung heap. There are good reasons to distinguish the bills, beyond the dangers of nuclear and the planet-friendly qualities of wind power. Most obvious is that there is real doubt whether the federal government will approve a nuclear plant with the serious siting issues confronting Lake Anna, while it has already approved the site of the offshore wind farm and given Dominion a lease.

Since my last update, a few other bills have seen action. Senator Stuart’s bill to control fracking in the Tidewater area, SB 48, died in the killing fields of House Commerce and Labor. SJ3 and HJ16, Virginia’s first bills to deal with the effects of climate change, had to go to conference on the question of who would be part of the subcommittee studying “recurrent flooding” and how much power they would have. The compromise calls for three senators and five delegates to be part of the 11-member subcommittee. Absurdly, it gives the majority of either the senators or the delegates veto power over any recommendation. Senators Locke, McWaters and Watkins, and Delegates Stolle, Knight and Hester have already been appointed.

Appalachia’s Environmental Vote Tracker: Feb/March 2014 issue

Friday, February 7th, 2014 - posted by meredith

Double-click for a larger view.

The West Virginia Chemical Spill: A Warning for North Carolina

Monday, January 20th, 2014 - posted by amy
The chemical spill in West Virginia should be a wake up call for North Carolinians to demand lawmakers put health and the state's resources ahead of profit-driven industry agendas. Photo by @iwasaround / Flickr

The chemical spill in West Virginia should be a wake up call for North Carolinians to demand lawmakers put health and the state’s resources ahead of profit-driven industry agendas. Photo by @iwasaround / Flickr

There is a lesson in West Virginia’s water crisis for North Carolina policymakers and regulatory agencies akin to the saying that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. If you look at the changes to and by the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources in 2013 and the road ahead, the General Assembly seems resolved to run headlong down a shortsighted path that will lead to the same inevitable consequences.

For years, West Virginia’s lawmakers and environmental regulators have been swayed by coal, chemical and other industries that helped give them influence and power in the first place. Motivated by profit, those industries influence how environmental regulations meant to protect the public are created and enforced. With that influence and a captive audience, they claim that strong environmental protections cost too much and burden the economy.

The North Carolina legislature and the top administrators in DENR are blazing down a similar path toward deregulation trail they call “progress.” But progress for who and toward what? This year, the Regulatory Rules Reform (HB 74) Act, enacted by the General Assembly and overseen through appointed committees, is poised to determine what DENR protections should be re-adopted, which will be changed, and which will expire altogether.

DENR’s regulatory divisions have been underfunded and agency’s staff has been reduced to a skeleton crew but is still expected to perform the monumental job of protecting our environment and public health. Secretary John Skvarla has even publicly mocked environmental groups for being critical of the administration and legislature’s and stated time and again their goal in growing the economy.

Skvarla’s description of DENR as a “customer friendly juggernaut” is actually quite accurate when you realize the “customer” no longer refers to the state’s environment and natural resources, but is now defined as the businesses and industries seeking permits. And since a juggernaut is defined as an “overwhelming, advancing force that crushes or seems to crush everything in its path” then yes, the description in Skvarla’s letter to the editor is accurate. DENR: an unstoppable business-friendly force, willing to crush everything in its path, including its state’s environmental resources and protections enacted to protect citizens right to clean air and water.

Most North Carolinians feel it is the government’s job to ensure safe, clean air and water resources for its citizens. Why do we not see that reflected in lawmakers and regulators’ actions? Maybe it’s because of political donations — in North Carolina, millionaire Art Pope and Duke Energy have used their pocketbooks to influence policy.

The spill in West Virginia should be a wake up call to North Carolinians. Are weaker regulations and fewer environmental protections what we want for our state? Do we want to be in the same position where our industries run roughshod over public health, go largely uninspected and unchecked for decades, and where regulations we do manage to keep fail to provide any meaningful enforceable provisions for accountability?

North Carolinians can change how this story ends. It’s time we demand our lawmakers put citizen’s health and the precious, limited resources of our state ahead of profit-driven industry agendas. As another saying goes, “It doesn’t matter how far you’ve gone down the wrong path, you can always turn around.”