Posts Tagged ‘Virginia’

Residents in Mountain Valley path pipe up at hearing

Thursday, May 7th, 2015 - posted by hannah
The James River Spinymussel crew of Craig County outside the first of two public hearings on the proposed Mountain Valley Pipeline.

The James River Spinymussel crew of Craig County outside the first of two public hearings on the proposed Mountain Valley Pipeline. Siltation from tree clearing and pipeline construction could further threaten the endangered species. Click to enlarge.

Turnout was tremendous at the first of two hearings this week in Virginia, where federal energy regulators are taking public comments on the proposed Mountain Valley Pipeline.

Residents of Giles, Craig, Montgomery, Roanoke and Franklin counties and nearby areas told their stories and highlighted their environmental concerns on Tuesday night in Elliston in an effort to make sure the impact study process on the project is thorough.

Most commenters shared common themes: that the companies proposing the Mountain Valley Pipeline would not be able to carry out their vision for the 330-mile natural gas pipeline without egregiously damaging the area’s ecological treasures, and that the project is not in local residents’ interest and should not be allowed to proceed.

Citizens voiced a wide range of environmental concerns, many of which relate to issues unaffected by the potential rerouting of the pipeline. Among the risks that can only be prevented in a no-build scenario include:

  • Creek and river siltation from the tree clearing and installation process that threatens populations of James River spinymussel in Craig County. This species was also hard-hit by the Dan River coal ash spill in 2014. A precedent exists for protecting these areas from development based on the potential negative outcome for threatened creatures; in the ‘90s a high-voltage transmission project was undone in part due to the anticipated adverse impact on freshwater mussels.
  • Unique caves in the area, including Pig Hole Cave and Tawney’s Cave, have been used for years by cave diving explorers for recreation and have provided research opportunities for Virginia Tech students. While building is not normally allowed over their mapped passages, the proposed pipeline route lies directly over Pig Hole Cave and would make it inaccessible during construction and possibly permanently unsafe. New species of cave-adapted arthropods and other rare specialized lifeforms have only recently been found to exist there.
  • Numerous area homeowners also spoke about the proximity of their homes to the “centerline” or middle of the up-to-40-yard-wide swath proposed for each of the various possible alternative pipeline routes. Homes, wells, gardens, trees and creeks are all in the path of proposed routes. In the event of a pipeline rupture, if the combustible gas the pipeline would carry were to ignite or explode, some neighborhoods would have no road outlet. Local leaders spoke about those fears, adding that the increase in housing in Montgomery County in the past 20 years makes it difficult to avoid these kind of direct impacts by rerouting.

Several speakers described the sense of looming danger generated by the pipeline proposal, and articulated their feelings about the project in memorable ways: as a tentacle of a symbolic Kraken representing the fossil fuel industry seeking greater profits at the expense of communities; as a wrong-headed distraction from the right of residents’ to their own property; and as a destructive force that perpetuates the exploitation of Appalachian counties threatening what is among the nation’s most valued, biodiverse and scenic environments

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has only scheduled hearings for Virginia in Elliston and Chatham this week. Organizers and local leaders are currently petitioning for an extended comment period beyond the current deadline of June 16.

Click here to submit your comment about the Mountain Valley Pipeline to federal regulators.

UPDATE: FERC will also hold public hearings in Weston, W.Va., on May 12 and Summersville, W.Va., on May 13. Learn more here.

Appalachian communities at growing risk from mountaintop removal

Tuesday, April 28th, 2015 - posted by brian
Click through to explore the Communities at Risk tool on iLoveMountains.org

Click through to explore the Communities at Risk tool on iLoveMountains.org

Announcing a new tool to end the destruction of Appalachian mountains and streams

Coal is in the news a lot these days. The market forces and much-needed environmental and health protections cornering the dirty fuel are topics of endless interest as America’s energy landscape shifts toward cleaner sources. And yes, all signs point to coal’s continued decline.

In many ways though, the forces chipping away at coal’s historic dominance are overshadowing another big story — one that Appalachian citizens still need the public and policymakers to hear — about just how much the human and environmental costs of mountaintop removal coal mining persist in Central Appalachia.

That mountaintop removal is an extremely dirty and dangerous way to mine coal has never been better understood. The overwhelming body of evidence is built on a foundation of the countless personal stories found in communities near mines and bolstered by dozens of studies investigating disproportionate health problems in coal-producing counties compared to elsewhere in Appalachia. More recently, advocates have employed technological tools to visualize complex data and add another dimension to arguments against the practice.

Appalachian Voices is committed to both creating a forum for those personal stories and sharing the most up-to-date data available about the ongoing risks mountaintop removal poses to our region’s communities and environment. Today, we’re excited to share a web tool we developed to reveal how mining continues to close in on nearby communities and send a resounding message to President Obama that ending mountaintop removal is a must if we hope to foster economic and environmental health in Appalachia.

Explore Appalachian Communities at Risk from Mountaintop Removal on iLoveMountains.org

A view of the Communities at Risk mapping tool. Click to enlarge.

A view of the Communities at Risk mapping tool. Click to enlarge.

The centerpiece of “Communities at Risk from Mountaintop Removal” is an interactive mapping tool on iLoveMountains.org that allows anyone to explore mountaintop removal’s expansion over the past 30 years.

Created using Google Earth Engine, U.S. Geological Survey data, publicly available satellite imagery, and mapping data and consultation from the nonprofit SkyTruth, the tool gives users greater perspective into the decades-long scourge surface mining has had on the Appalachian landscape and generations of families that live in the region.

The Communities at Risk tool also concentrates on impacts at the community level, where the powerful personal stories that first brought mountaintop removal to the forefront of the nation’s consciousness and agenda for environmental change are found.

Fifty communities spread across Kentucky, Virginia and West Virginia are identified by the tool as being the most at risk. By clicking on a community icon on the map, you can see the number of acres classified as active mining within a 1-mile radius of a particular place over time. In some communities, the number has fallen. In others, it has grown dramatically in recent years even as regional coal production has plummeted.

Inman, Va., resident Ben Hooper discusses the long-lasting impacts of mountaintop removal on his community. Click to open video.

Inman, Va., resident Ben Hooper discusses the long-lasting impacts of mountaintop removal on his community. Click to open video.

In the coming months, we’ll take a closer look at a handful of these communities, sharing local perspectives on how the proximity of mountaintop removal has affected local livelihoods. Our first “featured community” is Inman, Va., a small town in Wise County, where residents have successfully battled back a proposed mountaintop removal mine while experiencing the devastating impacts of another that began operating in the early 2000s. You’ll also see stories about featured communities on AppalachianVoices.org and in upcoming issues of The Appalachian Voice newspaper.

Learn about Inman, Va., from local residents Matt Hepler and Ben Hooper

If you want a fuller picture of the data we used to create the mapping tool, check out the companion white paper, which describes the background, methods, results and implications of our initial research.

Over time, we’ll work with impacted citizens in communities near active and proposed mines to expand the use of the tool and update our maps with current, high-resolution satellite imagery we’ll obtain through a partnership with Google’s Skybox for Good project.

Read our white paper for an in-depth look at the ways mountaintop removal continues to put Appalachian communities at risk.

The constant flow of news describing something close to the death of the Appalachian coal industry could leave outside observers with the impression that the problems of mountaintop removal have been resolved by the industry’s impending collapse. That impression, however, is at odds with the personal experience of many Appalachian citizens, the visible impacts of mining in communities across the region and the data that comprises Communities at Risk.

Visit CommunitiesAtRisk.org to explore the mapping tool, learn more about the 50 most at-risk communities and tell President Obama that more must be done to protect Appalachian communities.

New Map Tracks Growing Threat of Mountaintop Removal

Tuesday, April 28th, 2015 - posted by cat

Contacts:
Matt Wasson, Program Director, 828-262-1500, matt@appvoices.org
Erin Savage, Central Appalachian Campaign Coordinator, 828-262-1500, erin@appvoices.org
Cat McCue, Communications Director, 434-293-6373, cat@appvoices.org

A new interactive map released today shows that mountaintop removal coal mining has been expanding closer to communities in Central Appalachia in recent years, posing increasing threats to human health and the environment even as coal production in the region has declined dramatically. The mapping tool, developed by the nonprofit organization Appalachian Voices, is the first-ever, time-lapse view of the proximity of mountaintop removal mines to communities.

The organization identified 50 Appalachian communities that are most at risk from destructive mining based on the proximity of mining to those communities and the rate at which mining activity has been increasing. Krypton, Ky., Bishop, W.Va., and Roaring Fork, Va. are the top three communities at risk, while the top three counties with the highest number of communities at risk are Pike County, Ky. (seven), Wise County, Va. (six), and Boone County, W.Va. (five).

>> View the interactive map
>> Download the white paper, with tables and methodology

Based on the map, and working with impacted citizens in the coal-bearing region, Appalachian Voices can now identify mining “hot spots” and access on-demand, up-to-date, high-resolution satellite images through a unique partnership with Google Inc.’s Skybox For Good initiative.

The “Communities At Risk” web feature is part of the organization’s ongoing campaign urging President Obama to end mountaintop removal mining before he leaves office. “Contrary to what the coal industry and its allies in Congress claim, federal action to end this atrocity is not a ‘war on coal,’ but rather is at the heart of securing the region’s future,” says Erin Savage, Appalachian Voices Central Appalachian Campaign Coordinator.

Other key findings include:

  • Communities where mountaintop removal mine encroachment is increasing suffer higher rates of poverty and are losing population more than twice as fast as nearby rural communities with no mining in the immediate vicinity;
  • Southwest Virginia had a disproportionate concentration of at-risk communities on the list (20%), but accounted for only 8% of Central Appalachia’s surface mine coal production in 2014; and
  • West Virginia, where 60% of all Central Appalachian surface mine coal production occurred in 11 counties in 2014, accounted for nearly half of the 50 at-risk communities.

Appalachian Voices developed the map and identified the 50 communities most at risk using Google Earth Engine, U.S. Geological Survey data, publicly available satellite imagery, mining permit databases, and mapping data and consultation from Skytruth. Much of the expanding surface mining is for metallurgical coal used to make steel, as opposed to thermal coal used in power plants. Metallurgical coal is usually exported overseas, says Matt Wasson, Appalachian Voices Program Director who developed the methodology for the web tool.

“The human suffering and environmental destruction from mountaintop removal mining won’t just disappear as America’s aging power plants retire,” he says. “It’s incumbent on the Obama administration to help revive this region that has powered the nation’s economic ascendancy for generations, starting with ending mountaintop removal mining.”

For the campaign launch, Appalachian Voices focused on one of the 50 communities—Inman, Va., which ranks #22 on the list. The 3,000-acre Looney Ridge mountaintop removal mine has loomed over Inman for more than a decade. The area’s population has declined 9% from 1990 to 2010, while surrounding Wise County grew by 2.4%, and the state grew 14.7%. The poverty rate in the Inman area jumped from 17.3% in 2000 to almost 28% in 2013.

“Strip mining was controversial in the ‘70s here, but it was in no way as destructive as taking the entire top off of mountains,” says Ben Hooper, a long-time resident of Inman. “There’s no way you can take the entire top off the mountain and not destroy a lot of things. There was safe water to drink at one point off one of the mountains—but there’s no safe water now.”

>> Watch the video with Ben Hooper; contact Cat McCue to arrange an interview with him.

The mapping tool was developed by Appalachian Voices for iLoveMountains.org on behalf of The Alliance for Appalachia.

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Appalachian Voices is an award-winning nonprofit organization that is cultivating a citizen movement across Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee and Kentucky to shift our region from harmful, polluting energy practices — like mountaintop removal coal mining and fracking — to cleaner, more just and sustainable energy sources. Through community organizing, innovative communications tools and advocacy at the highest levels of power, we bring people together to protect our beloved mountains and rivers, our forests and farmland and our children’s future. Join the movement today at AppalachianVoices.org.

POWER+ Plan deserves a warmer welcome

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

The Clinch River Farmers Market

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“MVP” is not a most valued project

Tuesday, April 14th, 2015 - posted by guestbloggers

{ Editor’s Note } Today’s guest to the Front Porch is Tina Badger, a resident of Elliston, Va. and an intern with Appalachian Voices. With a background ranging from water quality monitoring to feeding the hungry, Tina currently focuses on advocacy work in opposing the proposed Mountain Valley Pipeline.

Tina Badger

Tina Badger

It’s been nearly six months since the companies behind the proposed Mountain Valley Pipeline pre-filed an application with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, and residents are still unsure about the routes, full impact, and process.

Landowners and residents on and near the alternative routes released in February are just now learning of possible impacts of the 300-mile Mountain Valley Pipeline if FERC approves the project, proposed by EQT Corp., NextEra Energy and partners under an entity called “MVP LLC.” The 300-mile pipeline, three-and-a-half feet in diameter, would carry natural gas under high pressure from the Marcellus fracking fields, starting in Wetzel County, W.Va., and ending in Pittsylvania County, Va, where it would tie in with another pipeline.

MVP LLC recently held open houses in Monroe County, W.Va. and Craig County, Va., where residents have quickly organized in opposition to the pipeline, joining a line of opposition all along the proposed route. The boards of supervisors in Giles, Craig, Montgomery, and Roanoke counties have all passed resolutions opposing the project, and Roanoke County created a Pipeline Advisory Committee to review the potential benefits and impacts. In W.Va., the Monroe County Board of Health has voiced its opposition as well.

Rally in Blacksburg against the MVP

Rally in Blacksburg against the MVP

All counties along the proposed route are preparing for FERC’s upcoming scoping meetings. At this time, there is no definitive date for these meetings.

Meanwhile, surveying continues along the proposed route and has started on the alternative routes, in spite of landowner opposition. EQT Corp. has brought a lawsuit against 103 landowners in West Virginia who have denied the company access to survey their land. Recently, a subcontractor on the project caused a small brush fire in Franklin County, Va., after discarding a cigarette, and residents are reporting survey stakes that are clearly marked “MVP” in areas that are not on the published corridor maps.

The latest proposed location for the Swann Compressor station, the only compressor station proposed for Virginia, would put it somewhere in or near the Catawba Valley, possibly in the North Fork Historic District. While there is no good location for a compressor station, an historic district in a pastoral rural valley seems especially inappropriate.

Everyone is encouraged to continue to submit comments to FERC and to join one of the many groups that have formed to oppose the Mountain Valley Pipeline.

Now is the time to be involved. Stay up to speed with us and local organizers and take every opportunity to be heard.

Pipe Dreams: The push to expand natural gas infrastructure

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

By Brian Sewell

The vast network of natural gas pipelines that traverses the United States is a spiderweb of steel — more than 300,000 miles of it — and it’s growing larger every year.

Over the past decade, fracking in Appalachia has unlocked an abundance of low-cost natural gas, transforming America's energy mix and creating the present-day push to expand a regional network of natural gas pipelines and other infrastructure. Courtesy of Terry Wild Stock Photography.

Over the past decade, fracking in Appalachia has unlocked an abundance of low-cost natural gas, transforming America’s energy mix and creating the present-day push to expand a regional network of natural gas pipelines and other infrastructure. Courtesy of Terry Wild Stock Photography.

Over the past decade, natural gas has been the dominant force cutting into coal’s share of America’s electricity mix. Between 2007 and 2013, coal-fired electricity declined from nearly half of nationwide power generation to 39 percent, while natural gas’s share grew from 22 percent to 27 percent. In the first six months of 2014, gas-fired power plants comprised more than half of the 4,350 megawatts of new utility-scale generation. Renewable energy made up the rest.

Nowhere has the pivot toward natural gas been more pronounced than in the eastern United States. Fracking in northern Appalachia has boosted production at a breakneck pace, and electric utilities’ growing preference for gas over coal is reshaping the relationship between energy-producing Appalachian states and their East Coast customers.

That historic transformation also created the present-day rush to expand the region’s natural gas infrastructure, including pipelines and compressor stations, at a scale and speed proportional to the drilling boom.

Pipeline developers and electric utilities tout natural gas as a “bridge fuel” guiding the way to a future built on renewable energy, and argue that more pipeline capacity is necessary if states are to comply with federal regulations on carbon pollution in the near term.

Under Pressure

RELATED STORIES

But landowners whose property lies along a pipeline route worry about local impacts, while others warn of the long-term consequences — to Appalachian communities, energy consumers and the climate — that could come with a reliance on this fickle fuel.

Parsing the Pipelines

Natural gas has traditionally flowed through pipelines from south to north, bringing the fuel from Gulf states to markets along the East Coast.

Consider the Transcontinental Pipeline. The largest-volume system in the country, the Transco Pipeline has a capacity of 10 billion cubic feet a day, runs more than 10,000 miles through a dozen states, and supplies gas-fired power plants operated by Duke Energy and Dominion Resources, among other electric utilities along its route.

Fracking in northern Appalachia, however, has boosted production to the point that Williams Partners, the operator of the Transco Pipeline system, announced plans in March 2014 to make the system bi-directional. The $2.1 billion Atlantic Sunrise Project would add 1.7 billion cubic feet per day of capacity by expanding existing pipelines in Pennsylvania and modifying compressor stations in mid-Atlantic states, including Virginia and North Carolina, to facilitate the flow of Marcellus gas southward.

A local landowner and a Dominion representative discuss the Atlantic Coast Pipeline's proposed route at a public hearing held in Nelson County by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Photo by Will Solis, willsolisphotography.com.

A local landowner and a Dominion representative discuss the Atlantic Coast Pipeline’s proposed route at a public hearing held in Nelson County by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Photo by Will Solis, willsolisphotography.com.

The decision by Williams Partners is part of a larger trend to reverse pipeline flows in response to shifting supplies. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, 32 percent of pipeline capacity into the Northeast could be bi-directional by 2017. And other energy companies hope to take advantage of Transco’s reach by connecting new pipelines with the expansive system.

The Mountain Valley Pipeline, a joint venture of NextEra Energy and EQT, a fracking company operating in the Appalachian Basin, would originate in Wetzel County, W.Va., and course 330 miles through more than a dozen other counties and the Jefferson National Forest before connecting with a Transco compressor station in Pittsylvania County, Va. In both states, the proposal has caused vehement backlash that has erupted into legal battles.

In March, a group of West Virginia landowners who have resisted efforts by the pipeline’s developers to survey their property filed suit against the companies. Attorneys with the group Appalachian Mountain Advocates, which is representing the landowners, argue that the power of eminent domain can only be exercised in West Virginia if a project has “public use.”

But plans for the Mountain Valley Pipeline do not include any delivery points in West Virginia, where distribution companies could collect gas that would be sold locally. As a result, Derek Teaney of Appalachian Mountain Advocates argued, “not a single West Virginian will have access to, or otherwise use, gas carried by the pipeline.”

The lawsuit follows threats by the pipeline’s developers that “legal action will likely be taken in order to obtain the necessary access” to survey private land along the Mountain Valley Pipeline route. Across Appalachia, stories of citizen resistance are becoming commonplace in communities along a pipeline’s path.

An even larger proposed pipeline would originate in Harrison County, W.Va., not far from the Mountain Valley Pipeline’s beginning, and stretch 550 miles across West Virginia, central Virginia and the North Carolina Piedmont.

Dominion Resources’ $5 billion plan to build the project, known as the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, was selected last year by Duke Energy and Piedmont Natural Gas, which solicited proposals to build a pipeline that provides “geographical diversity” compared to existing pipelines and allows for “future low-cost expansions with minimal environmental impact.” Duke Energy would share ownership of the pipeline and be one of its largest customers, having opened five natural gas-fired power plants in North Carolina since 2011 to replace shuttered coal-fired capacity.

The Atlantic Coast Pipeline’s route crosses several areas of ecological concern, such as the Monongahela and George Washington national forests, the Appalachian Trail and the Blue Ridge Parkway. To minimize the environmental impacts, Ernie Reed, president of the conservation group Wild Virginia, says companies should prioritize using existing right-of-ways.

“If you want to get more automobiles from Front Royal to Roanoke, you build another lane on the existing interstate,” says Reed. “You don’t build another eight-lane interstate that connects those two areas.” Dominion says it prefers to use existing rights of way where possible, but “oftentimes it is not feasible.”

Reed is a former resident of Nelson County, Va., where, by Dominion’s own admission, the groundswell of grassroots opposition the company has faced is stronger than anywhere else along the pipeline’s proposed route. On March 10, the county’s board of supervisors approved a resolution asking Dominion and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to respect landowners and carefully consider alternative routes.

According to the resolution, “Dominion has taken no action to minimize eminent domain takings in Nelson County by proposing a route using existing rights of way.”

Together, the Mountain Valley and Atlantic Coast pipelines would carry 3.5 billion cubic feet of natural gas a day from fracking operations in Appalachia to power plants, distribution companies and industrial users in the Southeast. Both are planned to begin operations by late 2018.

Regulating the Risk

As public opposition grows, so does frustration with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the agency responsible for regulating electricity markets and other interstate energy commerce.

“I think that our nation is going to have to grapple with our acceptance of gas generation and gas pipelines if we expect to achieve our climate and environmental goals,” FERC chair Cheryl LaFleur told an audience at the National Press Club in January.

Proposed natural gas pipelines would expand the fuel's availability to southeastern electric utilities, but some concerned citizens want developers to better utilize existing pipeline capacity. Map created by Rick Webb for Appalachian Mountain Advocates.

Proposed natural gas pipelines would expand the fuel’s availability to southeastern electric utilities, but some concerned citizens want developers to better utilize existing pipeline capacity. Map created by Rick Webb for Appalachian Mountain Advocates.

Worried about the type of investments being prioritized, a coalition of environmental and citizens group in Appalachia announced this month that they are aligning their efforts to challenge FERC. The groups, including Wild Virginia, Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, FreshWater Accountability Project and Allegheny Defense Project, contend that FERC’s push to increase natural gas infrastructure “incentivizes fracking while stifling the development of renewable energy,” and that the agency is approving pipeline projects without first proving they are in the public interest.

“Part of that determination requires considering effects to the environment and communities, and there clearly are many,” Terry Lodge, an attorney representing FreshWater Accountability Project, said in a joint press statement. If FERC has already determined up front that the public is “just going to have to accept more pipelines,” according to Lodge, “it can’t be trusted to rigorously evaluate those effects.”

A February report by the U.S. Department of Energy emphasized that fully utilizing or rerouting existing interstate pipelines could provide “lower-cost alternatives to building new infrastructure and can accommodate a significant increase in natural gas flows.”

FERC recently completed a series of public hearings on the Atlantic Coast Pipeline in North Carolina and Virginia. Local groups, including Friends of Nelson, asked residents to contact FERC requesting an extension of the public
comment period since, at least at one hearing, fewer than half of the people who signed up to speak were given the chance. Dominion urged FERC to stay the course. Public hearings on the Mountain Valley Pipeline were held in early April.

Once pipelines begin operation, new, sometimes catastrophic, risks emerge.

This past January, the ATEX Express ethane pipeline, used to transport the second-largest chemical component of natural gas, exploded in Brooke County, W.Va., just a year after beginning commercial operation. An explosion along I-77 near Sissonville, W.Va., in December 2012 charred 800 feet of the highway. And in 2008, the Transco pipeline ruptured in Appomattox County, Va., igniting a fireball that melted the siding on homes 400 yards away. In that case, investigators fined Williams Partners $952,000, citing failures by the company to meet monitoring requirements and prevent external corrosion.

The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration maintains that pipelines are “the safest, most environmentally friendly and most efficient and reliable” way to transport natural gas. But, the agency points out, “accidents still happen, sometimes with tragic consequences.”

Fueling the Future

With a typical lifespan of up to 100 years, natural gas pipelines are by definition long-term investments.

So, what does a more natural gas-reliant future look like? For millions of residents in the Northeast, it may look a lot like today. Around 44 percent of the region’s generation capacity came from natural gas last year, a sharp increase from 15 percent in 2000. During that same period, coal’s share of generation plummeted, but renewables only grew by 1 percent.

Investments in gas-fired generation have unsurprisingly been based on easy access to an abundant supply of natural gas in the nearby Marcellus Shale. But ratepayers have felt the sting of spiking gas prices, particularly during winter months when demand is highest, and a pipeline outage at any time of year would impact thousands of megawatts of generation.

The short-term solution is to push for more pipeline capacity, but that logic quickly becomes problematic and could create the type of energy trap that is the subject of “The Natural Gas Gamble,” a report by the science advocacy organization Union of Concerned Scientists.

While acknowledging the near-term benefits of burning natural gas instead of coal, the report warns that becoming too reliant on natural gas poses complex risks, including persistent price volatility and the problems associated with a changing climate. The analysis suggests the only way to bet on natural gas, and win, is to greatly expand adoption of renewable energy and energy efficiency in the nation’s power supply.

“For its part, natural gas could still play a useful — but more limited — role in the transition to a clean energy system, not as a replacement for coal but rather as an enabler of grid flexibility in support of renewable technologies,” Jeff Deyette, one of the report’s authors, wrote on the group’s blog.

Researchers also point out that betting big on natural gas now could lead to unnecessary investment in pipelines and other expensive, long-lived infrastructure that would become stranded assets as utilities face the inevitable need to shift to truly clean energy sources.

Some see natural gas as the preordained king of America’s energy future. But responsibly balancing a reliance on the so-called “bridge fuel” looks more and more like a tightrope walk, where each step comes with considerable risk.

State Legislative Updates

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

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

Kentucky

Session convened Jan. 6, adjourned March 24

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

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

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

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

North Carolina

Session convened Jan. 14, adjourns early July

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

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

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

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

Tennessee

Session convened Jan. 13, adjourns late April

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

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

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

Virginia

Session convened Jan. 14, adjourned Feb. 27

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

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

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

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

West Virginia

Session convened Jan. 14, adjourned March 14

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

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

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

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

Bustling Streets, Thriving Business: A Shared Vision in Southwest Virginia

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

By Kimber Ray

Residents and community leaders came together in Dungannon, Va., this February for the official launch of a new regional project, Hometowns of the Clinch.

Participating communities, which currently include Dungannon, Tazewell, Richlands, Honaker, Cleveland, Cedar Bluff and St. Paul, will encourage economic development along the Clinch River — one of the most biodiverse river ecosystems in the United States.

Their connection to this unique resource has communities excited about the potential to promote their region as a global destination for outdoor recreation tourism. By sharing a unified marketing message with branding such as brochures, signage, t-shirts and patches, participating communities expand their ability to attract publicity.

The Clinch River Valley Initiative, a collaborative group of local stakeholders formed in 2010, organized Hometowns of the Clinch as part of ongoing efforts to revitalize the historically coal-dependent region. To participate in the project, communities must be actively engaged in the initiative and develop resources to support local tourism and entrepreneurship.

The initiative has already seen a number of successes. Several river outfitter and rental companies have opened to take advantage of the growing number of river access points, new trails and recreation guides have been developed and, with the accompanying growth in tourism, one town recently opened its first hotel in years.

This March, Hometowns of the Clinch Entrepreneurship Week celebrated the continued success of the region’s small businesses. Several towns hosted free workshops and discussions led by experts in business development and marketing, and there was also a river clean-up, jam sessions and a square dance.

Learn more at clinchriverva.com

Yes, Virginia, there was a silver lining to the General Assembly

Thursday, March 19th, 2015 - posted by hannah

1506880_545692232232755_7519825862257630233_nLegislator attitudes toward the level of carbon in our atmosphere and the rate at which corporate polluters are allowed to contribute to it range widely across the Appalachian region and the country. We’ve seen members of Congress deploy all manner of stunts to display their grasp of the issue (and lack thereof), most recently Sen. James Inhofe’s show-and-tell with a snowball.

In fact politicians across the country have sought to help polluting industries keep profiting off of dumping unlimited carbon into the atmosphere by fighting the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan. Many Attorneys General—with the exception of Virginia’s Mark Herring—are planning to sue, state assemblies are considering bills to assert authority over state compliance plans or to set less stringent carbon pollution limits.

But there’s reason for hope here in Virginia.

More and more of our state legislators are beginning to accept that diversifying our energy system by investing more in clean sources is beneficial—even if the underlying motivation is to reduce carbon pollution and the standard is set at the federal level. In the General Assembly that ended earlier this month, we largely saw members opting not to support legislation that would have thwarted the EPA’s plan to cut carbon pollution. The bill, which was really just a politically divisive grandstanding bill by ultra-conservatives, failed.

That says a lot about the power of citizen engagement. An element of that legislative success was due to grassroots contact with legislators and their offices, in person, by email, and over the phone, and with a boots-on-the-ground approach by packing committee hearings and being visible and active on Capitol Grounds, repeating the facts and science for lawmakers to hear. And for that effort, we achieved a few more important victories.

Modest gains came our way as we went about tackling solar energy policies. Businesses and nonprofits with solar panels who want to sell some power back to their utility can have up to 1 megawatt versus half that before. The General Assembly established a new Virginia Solar Energy Development Authority to help the industry. The legislature also authorized the state’s largest utility, Dominion Power, to build the state’s first solar farm, up to 400 MW, and to recover costs for the facility from its customers. (However, the bill doesn’t provide for other companies to bid competitively to build a solar farm for Dominion, meaning Dominion’s cost to the customer will likely be higher than it should be.)

In addition, Virginia utilities are also now required to develop more programs to assist customers with saving energy. Ramping up clean energy sources like solar and efficiency is key for Virginia to reduce carbon pollution while growing the economy.

Virginia legislators heard testimony on EPA’s Clean Power Plan in the course of several committee hearings, starting back in November and continuing up to the midpoint of the session. The most comprehensive bill to address greenhouse gas pollution the Coastal Protection Act, was introduced this session, but didn’t make it across the finish line. Still, legislators were responsive to citizens, rejecting legislation that would have wrested power from Gov. McAuliffe’s administration to develop a state plan to comply with the EPA.

Yet, Virginia delegates and senators passed on some measures because they perceived the bills were controversial or did not understand them well enough. Making community solar possible, making third-party power sales for clean energy legal throughout the state, providing better financing for home energy-efficiency improvements, and joining a regional greenhouse gas initiative – these are all measures the General Assembly should approve in 2016

But they need to hear from you. Citizens can start educating legislators about the economic benefits of clean energy policies now.

Virginia Environmental Chief Supporting Weaker Coal Ash Rule

Wednesday, March 18th, 2015 - posted by cat

Contact:
Amy Adams, N.C. Campaign Coordinator, 828-262-1500, amy@appvoices.org
Cat McCue, Communications Director, 434-293-6373, cat@appvoices.org

The following is a statement from Amy Adams in response to testimony today by David Paylor, director of the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, to the House Subcommittee on Environment and the Economy regarding “Improving Coal Combustion Residuals Regulation Act of 2015.” Adams is the lead on Appalachian Voices’ coal ash initiative and is a former supervisor with the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

“In no way is this bill an ‘improvement’ of the new federal rule for coal ash disposal. In fact, it completely strips away health standards and public access to information, leaving citizens in the dark and vulnerable to ongoing health hazards.

“It’s beyond belief that the head of the agency charged with protecting Virginia’s environment and public welfare is up there in D.C. supporting it.

“There are people whose health is already compromised likely due to decades of coal ash pollution, yet David Paylor is supporting this bill that would shelter industry interests from accountability. As a former agency regulator myself, I can tell you this goes completely against the grain of what a public servant should do.”

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