Posts Tagged ‘West Virginia’

No need for more fracked-gas pipelines

Thursday, April 28th, 2016 - posted by guestbloggers

Special to the Front Porch: Our guest today is Cathy Kunkel, an energy analyst with the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, and lead author of a new report on the overbuilding of natural gas pipelines in the mid-Atlantic. Kunkel has undergraduate and master’s degrees in physics, was a senior research associate at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, and has testified before regulatory bodies.

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We’ve published a report today that concludes that two natural gas pipelines proposed for construction from West Virginia into Virginia and North Carolina are indicative of a rush toward industry overbuilding.

The study, “Risks Associated With Natural Gas Pipeline Expansion Across Appalachia,” examines the proposed Mountain Valley Pipeline, which would traverse West Virginia into eastern Virginia, and the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline, which would cross Virginia and branch deeply into North Carolina. The pipelines combined would run for more than 800 miles and together would cost roughly $9 billion.

There’s a widespread assumption that such pipelines would only be proposed if they were necessary. This assumption is not supported by the facts.

We found that the dynamics of the pipeline business tend toward overbuilding, toward building excess pipeline capacity. Major pipeline companies are competing with each other to build out the best, most well-connected pipeline networks. And utility companies are entering the pipeline space because much of the risk of overbuilding can be pushed off onto captive ratepayers. And natural gas production companies are entering the pipeline business because their core business — drilling — is underperforming and they are looking for ways to boost revenue and investment value. These kinds of financial considerations on the part of individual companies do not add up to socially rational, prudent long-term planning.

pipeline capacityThe pipeline business is able to attract more capital than is needed—because of the high rates of return that pipeline companies typically earn. Pipeline rates are regulated by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). FERC allows higher rates of return for pipeline companies than it does for electric transmission companies or than state utility commissions typically allow for state-regulated utilities. For example, by policy FERC allows a 14 percent rate of return, while regulated utilities at state public service commissions typically are only allowed in the 10 percent range.

The tendency towards overbuilding is widely understood in the industry -— executives and analysts talk openly about it -— and FERC’s regulatory process currently misses this dynamic. There is no regional planning process for natural gas pipeline infrastructure in the way that there is for electric transmission lines, for example. FERC looks at pipelines on a project-by-project basis. The agency considers a line necessary if the project developer is able to enter into contracts for the majority of the capacity of the project. What we’ve found in the Atlantic Coast and Mountain Valley Pipeline cases is that the project developers and the shippers who are entering into contracts with the pipeline are subsidiaries of the same company. So the fact that a pipeline developer is signing a contract with an affiliate is strong evidence that there is financial advantage to the parent company from building the pipeline, but not necessarily that there is an independently established basis for the pipeline need. The private assumptions of individual pipeline developers are not adequately checked against broader standards of the public interest.

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The Atlantic Coast Pipeline is a good example of this. If it is approved it appears that two separate pipelines will serve the same power plant -– an example of too much pipeline capacity. The Atlantic Coast project is a joint venture with Duke, Dominion, Piedmont Natural Gas and AGL Resources having ownership interests and are the developers. The main shippers on the project are subsidiaries of Duke and Dominion — those two companies have contracted for 68 percent of the capacity on the pipeline. Consumers will bear the risk of higher rates if project assumptions do not materialize. The cost of building the pipeline, including the profit for the developers, will be passed through to the shippers of the pipeline who will be able to recover it from their ratepayers through rates established by state public service commissions.

Put another way, the regulatory structure gives Duke and Dominion an incentive to prioritize building their own pipeline rather than using that of another company. If the demand for the capacity along the Atlantic Coast pipeline does not materialize, ratepayers will still be on the hook to pay for that capacity.

It appears that the need for the Atlantic Coast pipeline has been overstated. In its application to FERC, Atlantic Coast asserts that one use of the gas from the pipeline will be for Dominion’s new Brunswick and Greensville natural gas plants. But in its applications to the State Corporation Commission to build those power plants, Dominion asserted that the plants will be fueled from the Transco line. In the case of the Brunswick plant, a spur from the Transco line to the plant has already been built. Without better coordination and planning it appears that two pipelines are being built to supply one power plant. The Atlantic Coast pipeline is a relatively low risk venture for Duke and Dominion, the main project developers. Most of the risk for the project is borne by those utility customers in Virginia and North Carolina.

The Mountain Valley Pipeline has a different risk profile. The Mountain Valley pipeline is a supplier-driven pipeline. The majority-owner of the project is an affiliate of EQT, one of the largest Appalachian shale gas drillers, and the entity that has contracted to ship the largest volume of gas on the pipeline is EQT. We found that the biggest risks of this project stem from the financial weakness of EQT. EQT is not doing badly relative to other Appalachian shale drillers, but the entire sector is in turmoil because of sustained low natural gas prices, which are widely expected to remain low into 2017. EQT’s credit ratings are one notch above junk, and its stock has fallen 26 percent since January 2014. Bankruptcies are widely expected in the natural gas drilling sector this year, and banks are expected to cut back on lending. EQT has diversified into the pipeline business presumably because of the traditionally stable and higher returns to be found in this sector.

Communities along the pipeline route also bear risks that stem from EQT’s financial weakness. EQT does not appear to be a stable, long-term partner for these communities. EQT’s weakened financial position suggests it will adopt only a limited commitment to communities or perhaps be forced to sell its ownership interests to a new company that is not part of current deliberations

To sum up, our study finds that natural gas pipeline infrastructure out of the Marcellus and Utica regions will become overbuilt within the next several years, an outcome recognized by many in the industry itself.

The economic and financial factors that incentivize companies to invest in the development of new natural gas pipelines will not produce a socially rational outcome. Without a coordinated approach to natural gas pipeline planning, as exists for many other types of infrastructure, the FERC cannot make an honest determination of the need for these pipelines. Ratepayers and communities will shoulder much of the costs and risks of the Atlantic Coast and Mountain Valley pipelines, investments of nearly $9 billion that are poised for approval without adequate scrutiny.

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Power of Cooperation: Co-ops put solar on rooftops

Tuesday, April 19th, 2016 - posted by molly

By Dan Radmacher

Augusta Solar Co-op member and homeowner Keith Shank stands with a representative of the solar installation company in front of his new solar array. Photo courtesy VA SUN

Augusta Solar Co-op member and homeowner Keith Shank stands with a representative of the solar installation company in front of his new solar array. Photo courtesy VA SUN

When Joy Loving decided to add solar power to her Rockingham County, Va., home in the spring of 2012, she did it the hard way. She taught herself what she could, then found an installer through a Google search. A full six months later, she turned on her system. Since then, she’s been working to make the process a lot easier — and cheaper — for others.

“My decision wasn’t driven by economics,” Loving says. “I’m 70 years old, and without state tax incentives or any kind of discount, my payback period for this system will be very long. I might live long enough to reap the economic benefits. I might not. But my primary motivation was about reducing my carbon footprint.”

When she first began looking into solar, Loving thought there might be some sort of program through her electric utility, or state policies that would help. Instead, she found obstacles. Unlike some other states, Virginia mostly forbids power purchase agreements, a solar financing model in which companies own the solar arrays they install on homes and charge homeowners for the power they use.

The state also limits the size of systems residents can build on their homes and caps the power generated by all Virginia residential arrays combined to no more than one percent of all power generated in the state. It also allows utilities to charge minimum monthly fees to solar users — even if the resident generates more power for the grid than they use.

Joy Loving’s solar installation in Rockingham County, Va. Photo courtesy of Joy Loving

Joy Loving’s solar installation in Rockingham County, Va. Photo courtesy of Joy Loving

Loving says all the obstacles to solar put in place by the state and politically powerful utilities irritated her. “It got my back up,” she says. “The freedom to choose my energy source was very important to me. I believe that I need to be a good steward of God’s creation, and this is one thing I can do positively to be a good steward.”

Even after her own system was installed, Loving kept reading and learning. “There was just nothing like the thrill of not having an electric bill,” she says. “I kind of got obsessive about it, checking the system and the power meter and watching what the system could do. After six or seven months, I thought ‘this is something that other people should know about.’”

She reached out to local/regional environmental group Climate Action of the Valley in Harrisonburg, Va. Leaders there ended up connecting with Virginia Solar United Neighborhoods, also known as VA SUN, which is a branch of the Community Power Network in Washington, D.C.

VA SUN helps solar co-op groups — usually collections of neighbors — by providing the experience and expertise it takes to get organized, research installers, issue a request for proposals, evaluate and negotiate with installers, and then see the process all the way through the installation and hookups.

Ben Delman, communications manager for Community Power Network, says the various state SUN groups in Appalachia — DC SUN, VA SUN, WV SUN and MD SUN — have helped around 1,000 people go solar across the region, with about a third of those in Virginia. According to Delman, when individuals organize into co-ops, they gain expertise and save money by negotiating bulk purchases.

Co-ops Accepting New Members

  • Richmond, Va.: Deadline April 30; For information, contact VA Sun Program Director Aaron Sutch,
  • Tucker, Randolph and Upshur counties, W.Va.: No deadline yet
  • Monroe County, W.Va.: No deadline yet. For information on WV co-ops, contact WV Sun Program Director Karan Ireland,

In addition to helping co-ops, Community Power Network has also supported groups that use the “Solarize” model, in which the installer is pre-selected rather than picked based on competitive bids.

After discussions with VA SUN, the Harrisonburg-based Climate Action of the Valley decided to sponsor a co-op in Harrisonburg and Rockbridge County. They asked Loving to lead it.

“Unfortunately, I didn’t know about co-ops when I installed [my system],” she says. “All the co-ops exploding around the state are like seeds — making people more aware and more informed about solar.”

According to Delman, the co-op experience generally works like this: “We start work with one or two local organizations — some sort of community group that can guide the process and begin recruiting co-op members.” The group holds a number of informational meetings during the recruitment phase. “We take them through understanding solar energy, the different ways to finance and help them understand the co-op process,” he says.

“In some ways, it’s the same as doing any home construction project,” Delman continues, “But how great would it be if you’re adding a deck or renovating a bathroom to be able to go through that with a group of people all doing the same thing?”

A critical mass of people interested in installing solar is necessary to move forward to the next step of actually reaching out to contractors. “Once a group gets to about 25 or 30 members, we work with them to issue a [request for proposal] to installers,” Delman says. Co-op members make the final decision. “We help group members review the bids, but it’s up to the selection committee to choose.”

Carl Droms, a member of Climate Action of the Valley, was a member of the Harrisonburg co-op’s selection committee. At that stage, there were 70 or 80 interested households, and about a dozen co-op members on the selection committee. “We all had different ideas about what was important and how to weigh the factors,” he says. “The price per watt — which included everything: panels, wiring, inverters, the electrical work, installation — was important, but there were other factors. Could the installer handle this number of installations and get things done in a reasonable time? Would they use local labor? What kind of guarantee did they offer? How much work had they done in the past?”
“In the end, we were pretty well agreed,” Droms says. “Everybody felt we made the right decision.”

Residents attend an info session for the Massanutten Regional Solar Co-op. Photo courtesy VA SUN

Residents attend an info session for the Massanutten Regional Solar Co-op. Photo courtesy VA SUN

The discount for a co-op member over an individual trying to buy their own solar power system is generally around 20 percent, Delman says. “It’s a good deal for the installers, as well,” he says. “To have a base of interested customers who are educated about solar is really good.”
Once an installer is selected, individuals in the co-op get a site inspection and, eventually, a contract for a system tailored to their individual needs at the agreed-to price. Co-op members aren’t obligated to buy unless they sign that contract.

Droms is very happy with the system he and his partner installed on their home. “Our total bill for the last year has been about $130 — and that includes a $9.50 a month fee just to stay connected to the grid,” he says. “We were really pleased with the co-op. If we had to negotiate everything ourselves, it would have been a lot more complicated.”

There’s not much of a downside to working through a co-op, says Cory Chase, a Tucker County, W. Va., resident who helped organize a co-op in his area. “WV SUN offers a lot of technical assistance that really helps. It might be a little more bureaucratic and slower than going on your own, but we’ll be able to help each other out, buy material in bulk and get a competitive bid,” he says.

According to WV SUN Program Director Karan Ireland, her organization has helped co-ops launch in the towns of Morgantown and Wheeling, and in Kanawha, Tucker and Monroe counties. “A co-op is like Solar 101,” she says. “It can be cumbersome if you’re trying to figure out everything by yourself. With the co-op, you work with friends and neighbors to learn about how to go solar.”

Like Loving, Ireland believes co-ops help create solar ambassadors. “As people understand the benefits of solar, they become invested in the policy as well,” she says. “Because they’re already working together, that creates a network of solar advocates.”

And solar advocates are needed, especially in states like Virginia and West Virginia where fossil fuel interests hold so much sway, says Mark Hanson, president of the Renewable Energy and Electric Vehicle Association, a do-it-yourself club in Roanoke, Va., that helps members with solar installations and other renewable energy projects.

“Our legislators don’t push the power companies to do the right thing,” Hanson says. “Power companies just see solar as a way for people not to pay for electricity. When it comes to legislators, the power companies pretty much get their way.”

Joy Loving says the co-op model is serving its purpose. “It has increased awareness of solar and gotten more press coverage,” she says. “People have heard about it. People see the panels going up and they talk. Co-ops will bring more people into the solar fold.”

Service, Music and Community at Appalachian South Folklife Center

Tuesday, April 19th, 2016 - posted by molly

Influential center in southern West Virginia celebrates 50 years

The chapel is used for spiritual gatherings, weddings, meetings and concerts. Photos courtesy Appalachian South Folklife Center

The chapel is used for spiritual gatherings, weddings, meetings and concerts. Photos courtesy Appalachian South Folklife Center

By Peter Slavin

The Appalachian South Folklife Center in southern West Virginia has weathered many storms over the past half century, yet continues to provide help to residents in need, education for youth, and a safe harbor for activists. Despite early denunciations of its founder’s political views, government harassment and a fire, the center has become a gathering point for locals and visitors drawn to the center’s beautiful setting, music and opportunities for service.

Since 1965, the center’s staff and volunteers have worked to improve the lives of Appalachia’s people and to instill in them pride in their heritage, while also giving others an appreciation of the region. The center has focused on educating young people and dispatching volunteers to assist local residents who need home repairs. The center has also opened its doors to people needing a place to meet, from Miners for Democracy and opponents of a high-voltage power line to campaigners against mountaintop removal coal mining.

The center is also known for its music festivals, ranging from the early Mountain Music Festivals that drew thousands to hear both traditional and contemporary folk songs to the more recent CultureFest, an annual event featuring world music. Pete Seeger, Merle Travis and Hazel Dickens as well as local singer-songwriters and garage bands have played on its stage. “Hardly any event doesn’t include music,” says Mary “Meno” Griffith, who first came to the center in 1969. “Even after long meetings about serious issues, someone gets out an instrument and starts singing.” Music, Griffith says, is central to the center’s mission, because it brings people together and “helps us understand our history.”

Still, if music has been the soundtrack of the center’s life, making Appalachians aware of their history and culture and its value has been its central purpose.

The Folklife Center was the creation of Don West, a north Georgia farmer and champion of displaced mountain people, tenant farmers and union workers, and his wife Connie, a portrait painter. A man of many talents, Don was a leading poet in his day, and a respected educator, political activist, labor organizer and minister.

Don West was raised on a North Georgia mountain farm in an area that had flown the Union flag during the Civil War and nonconformity was part of his heritage.

Don West was raised on a North Georgia mountain farm in an area that had flown the Union flag during the Civil War and nonconformity was part of his heritage.

According to “The Cry Was Unity: Communists and African Americans, 1917-1936,” West was “wanted dead or alive” for defending a black man who was on trial for leading a hunger march, and fled Atlanta under a pile of sacks in a car. Because of his civil rights activism, the Ku Klux Klan once burned down his home. In 1932, he cofounded the historic Highlander Folk School in Tennessee — now the Highlander Research and Education Center — a critical training ground for the labor and civil rights movements. Almost forgotten today, Don West attained near-legendary status in the South in the era before the civil rights movement.

The Wests saved enough while teaching for a decade in Baltimore to purchase a 600-acre farm in the beautiful hills north of Princeton, W.Va., so they could build a new folklife center in 1965. Over the years, the United Church of Christ, Quakers and other progressive churches have been the center’s primary financial supporters; many individuals have also donated.

In the beginning, Don West used produce from a big garden on the farm to help feed those at the center, and raised and sold hay. The farm is no more, having been divided among his children at his death in 1992. The center now occupies 63 acres.

In the early years, people in the community who were facing tough times, including striking coal miners, knew they could go to the center for help. “If they needed a meal, there was always food there and always something to do to earn it,” says BobMac MacMillam, who has worked at the center on and off since 1973.

Between 400 and 500 people come to do service work each year for up to 40 families. Photos courtesy Appalachian South Folklife Center

Between 400 and 500 people come to do service work each year for up to 40 families. Photos courtesy Appalachian South Folklife Center

Griffith tells one story about Don West’s influence on someone who became a noted writer. “Jeff Biggers was hitchhiking … just young and figuring what he’s doing in world. Don West picks him up, takes him to the Folklife Center, feeds him, charms him with stories, and becomes a mentor to him. And you hear that story over and over again [from] people who are associated with the Folklife Center.”

From 1968 to 2000, the center sponsored a residential summer camp, bringing in as many as 50 disadvantaged 11- to 16-year-old boys and girls from all over Appalachia. The aim was for the kids to enlarge their horizons, learn about the region’s history and heritage, counter stereotypes they faced, and boost their self-esteem. The kids learned about coal mining, black lung, organizing and unions as well as outside domination of the region and its impact in holding Appalachia back. Many campers came back year after year.

Because of Don West’s politics, some people in the community felt animosity toward the center. For years, the Wests took part in political demonstrations and marches, and sometimes they brought along summer campers, says former executive director David Stanley.
So when the dining and meeting hall, long the heart of the center, burned to the ground in the early 1970s, some believed the fire might have been set. But the cause was never determined, and the hall was soon rebuilt.

Several women in the back-to-the-land movement founded the Learning Day Camp in 1985. The camp continues today and reportedly has a powerful impact on children. Photos by Brandi Massey

Several women in the back-to-the-land movement founded the Learning Day Camp in 1985. The camp continues today and reportedly has a powerful impact on children. Photos by Brandi Massey

Stanley says in the late 1980s two men came to his office and demanded to know where the center got its financing. They said they were from the state, but displayed no badges. He refused to produce his records and told them to leave. A year or two later, he says, Internal Revenue Service agents “took Don West out of his house … at 2-3 in the morning, took him down to Princeton to interrogate him about his finances.”
Stanley calls the incidents government harassment.

Every year 400 to 500 out-of-state high school students come for a week to participate in service work, assisting local communities while learning about Appalachia’s culture and history. In groups of 15 to 20, the students work on home repairs for low-income, elderly and disabled people — painting, building a new porch or deck, replacing rotting bathroom floors and the like.

“You have to prepare yourself for it,” says Briddy Blankenship, a previous executive director. “It’s very humbling to see how some people are living.”

Upcoming Events at the Folklife Center

    Earth Day, April 23, 11 a.m. – 11 p.m. — Music, arts, and activism, including an herb walk, panel on local foods, sustainable building demonstration, yoga, drum circles, live music, open mic and jam session. Free. Call: (304) 466-0626 Visit:

    Culturefest, Sept. 8-11 — World music & arts festival with four stages for music and dance, unusual workshops, children’s activities, roaming dancers acting out stories, and on-site camping. $10/day; $50/weekend. Call: (304) 320-8833 Visit:

  • Want to bring a group on a service trip? Email Laura Lavernia at

The groups only work for five days and don’t do electrical work or plumbing, says Blankenship, “but we can still do a lot to make a difference in someone’s life.”

Not only the homeowners benefit, notes Griffith. The young volunteers — mostly middle class suburban kids — have their eyes opened to how some people have to live, she says, and learn they can “give back for the blessings in their lives.” The kids also make their own meals and sleep in dormitories. In the evening they learn about Appalachian life, from mining history to pottery and square dancing. Some groups have been coming back for 15 years.

The center also offers a unique day camp program for one week each summer for at-risk children ages four to 12. Families pay what they can afford. The campers and their counselors — junior high, high school and college students, virtually all of whom attended the camp as children — go together to classes such as science, math, journaling and yoga taught by certified teachers. The counselors provide powerful role models, says assistant director Sarah Justice.

“Everything we do is hands-on,” Justice says. “Kids leave each day with things they’ve made in arts and crafts.”
“Many kids live way down a dirt road with the closest neighbor maybe being two miles away,” she notes. For them, she says, the chance to socialize with kids their age is special.

Citing the slurs against Appalachians on TV and other media, Justice says the kids’ camp combats the “cultural shame associated with being from Appalachia.” The camp celebrates their West Virginia heritage.

For Griffith, being part of a community of like-minded progressives at the center who put their values into practice through programs like the kids’ camp means a great deal. She has served on the board for 28 years. “It’s like the Folklife Center is my church,” she observes.

But it wasn’t through a program that the center touched local resident Doris Irwin’s life. She first went there to listen to music as a 20-year-old high school dropout who had felt the sting of Appalachian stereotypes growing up. After she started spending time at the center, she came to see her culture and herself differently. Irwin learned “you don’t have to be limited by your past,” and saw that education “was not something out of my reach.”

Several women in the back-to-the-land movement founded the Learning Day Camp in 1985. The camp continues today and reportedly has a powerful impact on children. Photos by Brandi Massey

Several women in the back-to-the-land movement founded the Learning Day Camp in 1985. The camp continues today and reportedly has a powerful impact on children. Photos by Brandi Massey

She wound up going to college, earning two degrees and having a long career as a registered nurse and social worker.

Over the decades, the center has changed, too. In recent years local people have started holding their weddings, celebrations of life, family reunions, church services, and Boy and Girl Scout meetings at the facility, notes Nancy Aldridge, co-director of the Learning Day Camp. Such events, together with the day camp, she says, have given the center “a respectable place” in the community. Irwin’s children also attended the center’s residential camp and are among the many people whom the center has benefitted.

For more information about the Appalachian South Folklife Center, visit

States Consider Cuts to Mine Safety, Coal Taxes

Monday, April 18th, 2016 - posted by molly

By Brian Sewell

In Kentucky, Virginia and West Virginia, high-profile legislation related to mine safety laws and coal taxation policies is showing how far Appalachian lawmakers will go in attempts to sustain the ailing industry.

On April 1, West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin signed into law legislation that rolls back a requirement that coal companies provide private rescue teams in the event of a mine disaster, a measure enacted following the Sago Mine explosion in 2006 that killed 12.

The bill, which would also relax fines for not immediately reporting major incidents like fires or explosions, was passed before the state Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training was able to analyze its potential impact. Nor was the bill’s economic benefit to the industry calculated.

“I don’t know that that created or saved one job,” state Senate Minority Leader Jeff Kessler, a Democrat running for governor who opposed the bill, told the Charleston Gazette-Mail after the Senate vote. “Once again, just because the industry is asking for it, we’re willing to roll over and give it to them.”

The West Virginia Senate passed a bill in March to reduce the state’s coal severance tax from the current rate of 5 percent to 2 percent. Severance tax revenues, which provide critical funds for counties and the state budget, are already in steep decline, contributing to budget cuts and public employee layoffs.

According to the West Virginia Center on Budget & Policy, which opposed the bill, the tax cut would cost the state $159 million and local governments $11.6 million annually while doing little to fight the forces making central Appalachian coal uncompetitive. The bill was shelved by the state House of Delegates.

Both efforts were backed by the West Virginia Coal Association.

In Kentucky, the severance tax pie is shrinking even faster than in West Virginia. Tax revenue in January 2016 was $8.9 million, compared to $20.5 million during the same month in 2011. Multiple bills have been introduced this session to direct a larger portion of the dwindling coal tax revenue to eastern Kentucky counties most affected by coal’s decline. But bickering over how to divide the total $44 million in severance taxes in the state budget has dimmed the prospect for reform.

Kentucky legislators are also at odds on mine safety. In March, the Senate easily passed measures to eliminate state safety inspections of coal mines — leaving the role to federal inspectors — and end mandatory safety training for mine foremen.

Sen. Robin Webb, a former coal miner, was appalled. “I cannot ever have the blood of my brothers and sisters on my hands as a state policymaker, and I cannot support this measure,” she told her colleagues.

The measure is supported by the administration of first-term Gov. Matt Bevin and the Kentucky Coal Association.

In a recurring battle in Virginia, Gov. Terry McAuliffe vetoed House and Senate versions of a bill to extend state tax credits for the coal industry, which he described as “ineffective at creating or protecting economic activity or jobs.”

Between 1988 and 2015, the coal industry claimed more than $160 million under the Virginia credits. Over the same period, coal jobs in the state fell from 11,000 to less than 3,000.

UPDATE: On April 20, an effort to override Gov. McAuliffe’s veto of a bill to extend Virginia’s coal tax credit narrowly failed in the state Senate. The tax credit will expire on Dec. 31.

Don Blankenship Sentenced and other news briefs

Friday, April 15th, 2016 - posted by molly

Don Blankenship sentenced

Following his conviction in federal court for conspiring to violate mine safety laws, the former CEO of Massey Energy was sentenced in April to one year in prison and a $250,000 fine, the strictest penalties the court was able to impose.

While Blankenship’s lawyers claimed that probation would be punishment enough, Assistant U.S. Attorney Steve Ruby told the judge that “If ever a case cried out for the maximum sentence, this is it.”

The historic sentence was announced a day after the sixth anniversary of the Upper Big Branch mine explosion in West Virginia that killed 29 miners and led to a federal investigation, civil penalties and the criminal convictions of four other Massey officials.

Family members of Upper Big Branch victims welcomed the news, including Judy Jones Peterson, who lost her brother and who described Blankenship’s courtroom apology as “too little, too late.” — Brian Sewell

Read more about the sentencing on our Front Porch Blog.

U.S. using less energy, global carbon emissions hold steady

Total electricity sales decreased last year in the United States, according to the Energy Information Administration. The agency lists energy efficiency, whether through market-driven improvements or government standards, as a significant factor in lessened electricity demand despite growth in the number of households and commercial buildings.

The International Energy Agency announced that for the second year in a row, carbon dioxide emissions from worldwide energy use did not rise with economic growth, but rather stayed relatively flat while the global economy grew. This breaks a relationship that had long been shown to be positively correlated. — Eliza Laubach

Atlantic Ocean spared from oil drilling

The Obama administration released its five-year plan for offshore oil drilling in March, announcing potential leases along the Gulf and Alaskan coasts but not the Atlantic Coast. The Department of Interior had proposed leasing a swath of the Atlantic coast, from Virginia through Georgia.

“When you factor in conflicts with national defense, economic activities such as fishing and tourism, and opposition from many local communities, it simply doesn’t make sense to move forward with any lease sales [in the Atlantic] in the coming five years,” said Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell in a press release. — Eliza Laubach

West Virginia bill shields businesses from citizen suits

Landowner rights groups and environmentalists say legislation passed by the West Virginia Senate would shield the oil and gas industry from “public nuisance” lawsuits filed by citizens due to lost property values or other negative impacts. Although the bill never passed the state House of Delegates, opponents worry that legislation to strip landowners rights and protect industry is likely to reappear during the next legislative session. — Brian Sewell

New research reveals mountaintop removal impacts on landscape

In the region of southern West Virginia where mountaintop removal occurs, the land is 40 percent flatter than it was forty years ago, a Duke University study shows. Published in January in Environmental Science and Technology, the study compared topographic data and assessed how changes in the landscape affect water quality. The scientists found a correlation between the total volume of displaced rock and concentration of pollutants. — Eliza Laubach

Homeowners near mine struggle with blasting damage

Wednesday, April 13th, 2016 - posted by molly

Farming and Fracking

Thursday, February 18th, 2016 - posted by interns

How uncertain property rights affect agriculture in West Virginia

By Dave Walker

Round Right Farm is now a successful family enterprise. But while the Vortigerns are glad they retain their mineral rights, they worry that there might one day be fracking on neighboring land. Photos courtesy Round Right Farm

Round Right Farm is now a successful family enterprise. But while the Vortigerns are glad they retain their mineral rights, they worry that there might one day be fracking on neighboring land. Photos courtesy Round Right Farm

This year will be Steve Vortigern and his wife Sunshine’s tenth year of farming in Preston County, W.Va. On 41 acres, they grow more than 40 different varieties of organic vegetables and raise grass-fed beef for local customers at Round Right Farm.

In the beginning, the Vortigerns were unsure how long they would be able to continue farming. “At that time on our farm, we weren’t really sure how realistic the overall success of our farm was going to be,” he says. The Vortigerns faced many of the same challenges that other beginning farmers face, such as knowing what to grow and how to sell their produce. “It wasn’t until our fourth, fifth, sixth year of farming that we figured a few things out, and we began to see the light at the end of the tunnel,” Steve Vortigern says.

During those first years, they also faced the prospect of natural gas companies constructing hydraulic fracking wells on their neighbors’ properties. Just when they were questioning whether farming would be a viable long-term occupation or not, a group of Preston County landowners formed together to offer their mineral rights to a prospective natural gas company, “hoping to get a better price per acre because they were able to offer several thousand acres instead of forty or one hundred acres,” he says.

Round Right Farm is now a successful family enterprise. But while the Vortigerns are glad they retain their mineral rights, they worry that there might one day be fracking on neighboring land. Photos courtesy Round Right Farm

Photo courtesy Round Right Farm

Property ownership in the United States is often described as a bundle of rights. The owner can sell one right, like the right to minerals under the surface, to someone else while still retaining the rights to the surface of the land. When property rights are severed liked this, the property becomes known as a split estate.

“We were very much against the whole idea,” Vortigern says, “However, we were also really afraid that a lot of our neighbors or neighboring farms had already severed their mineral rights.” If hydraulic fracking occurred near their property, he says, it would devastate their way of life. “The land would be devalued. The water would be ruined.”

But at the time, with the future viability of their farm unknown, the couple felt compelled to join their neighbors and recover what they had spent on the land. Luckily, the natural gas company was only interested in land in the western part of Preston County and not the Vortigerns’ farm. In the years since, Steve Vortigern says their farm revenues have outweighed what the natural gas company offered the other landowners in his area. “However, we are still really worried that there will be fracking wells on our neighbors’ properties,” he says.

Divided Rights

The Vortigerns are fortunate in that they retain their mineral rights. Split estates are common in West Virginia, according to Sarah Danly of Vermont Law School and a former intern with West Virginia Food & Farm Coalition. Citing research from the West Virginia Surface Owners’ Rights Organization, Danly writes in her report that split estates occur on an estimated 90 percent of the properties in southern West Virginia, 60 to 80 percent in the northern part of the state, and only 40 percent in the northern panhandle.

These estimates hint at the complexity of split estate ownerships in West Virginia. To understand exactly how much land has been severed from the mineral rights beneath would require examining property records at county courthouses. For a surface owner to locate the original deed where the split estate occurred often takes a great deal of time, and experts with SORO and other groups advise hiring an experienced property attorney.

Fish Hawk Acres in Upshur County, W.Va. Photo courtesy West Virginia Food and Farm Coalition

Fish Hawk Acres in Upshur County, W.Va. Photo courtesy West Virginia Food and Farm Coalition

In West Virginia, severing estates occurred at different points in time, as different minerals like coal, oil and now shale gas became profitable. The coal and oil booms at the end of the 19th century saw a huge spike in the splitting of mineral estates, long before hydraulic fracturing was taking place in the Marcellus shale. According to Dr. Alan Collins of West Virginia University’s Division of Resource Management, landowners may have thought that there was little risk of their property being developed for its mineral resources, and therefore may have been more interested in selling their mineral rights.

“Buying land 15 to 20 years ago, you wouldn’t have thought technology would change to allow us to exploit different resources, like Marcellus Shale and Utica Shale,” Collins says. “[New] technology changed people’s expectations about the surface land and how it can be used.”

Surface Concerns

It is difficult for farming and horizontal gas drilling, or fracking, to coexist in close proximity. The impacts of drilling are severe and the remedies for surface owners or landowners near wells are limited and expensive in West Virginia. Some landowners lease their property to natural gas companies and receive compensation. Others are bound by split estates or activities that occur on their neighbors’ properties.

A wellpad site on a split estate in Doddridge County, W.Va., was built by the drilling company to access the minerals beneath the surface owner’s land.  Photo by Molly Moore

A wellpad site on a split estate in Doddridge County, W.Va., was built by the drilling company to access the minerals beneath the surface owner’s land. Photo by Molly Moore

According to Julie Archer of the Surface Owners’ Rights Organization, when natural gas companies establish wells, “They often need a lot of land and preferably a place that’s flat.” Some shale gas well sites are 15 to 20 acres and industrial equipment stays on the site after the actual drilling is complete. “They can end up taking the best parts of people’s land, the best pastures or hay meadows,” Archer says.

For a farmer to not know whether their property or a neighbor’s property is a split estate makes it difficult to obtain credit or make investments in farm infrastructure. The incentives to continue farming or begin to farm in this unstable property environment disappear, according to Bradley Wilson of West Virginia University’s Food Justice Lab. “It’s an issue around who owns what resource,” Wilson says. “Gas and coal versus the resource of soil for food production. Can those two things coexist without there being an undermining? Gas and coal can create some real uncertainty about the viability of a local food economy.”

Round Right Farm is now a successful family enterprise. But while the Vortigerns are glad they retain their mineral rights, they worry that there might one day be fracking on neighboring land. Photos courtesy Round Right Farm

Photo courtesy Round Right Farm

West Virginia SORO, West Virginia University College of Law, and several farmers’ organizations are collaborating with West Virginia Food & Farm Coalition to create a primer for farmers on split estates. Their guide will address concerns about damaged crops, loss of water quality, difficulty obtaining organic certification, or an inability to place property in a conservation easement due to drilling.

“I think that the biggest issue for farming in our state is access to land and mineral severance,” says Liz Spellman of West Virginia Food & Farm Coalition. “With this primer and work, we want to bring in a bipartisan farmer constituency that will show that there’s a huge voice interested in knowing how property ownership works and how split estates can disenfranchise farmers.”

Focus on the Farm

For Steve Vortigern, education for farmers and consumers is essential to the growth of West Virginia’s local food system. “Over the past ten years, we’ve realized that there aren’t a lot of farms in our area that are financially successful,” Vortigern says. “I think the general perception that there’s no money in farming isn’t true. We’ve proven that it can be a viable occupation.”

Round Right Farm is now a successful family enterprise. But while the Vortigerns are glad they retain their mineral rights, they worry that there might one day be fracking on neighboring land. Photos courtesy Round Right Farm

Photo courtesy Round Right Farm

The expanding local food movement has led to a renewed interest in stewardship for the land in a way that rebuilds the soil and provides healthy livelihoods. Because of this, as communities work with the legislature to foster a vibrant local food system, farmers in Appalachia are beginning to speak more and more about split estates.

“I think farmers are very concerned about their land,” Bradley Wilson with WVU’s Food Justice Lab says. “They love the land. They want to feel secure on their land. We have to take who controls property and land very seriously.”

“Severed mineral rights can undermine the concept of growing local food and undermine sustainable development in West Virginia,” Wilson says. “If you want to retain folks and promote new farmers, you have to promote land. You have to be honest about the barriers to farming in Appalachia and West Virginia.”

Split Estate Resource Guide

How can you find out if you own your mineral rights?
For a West Virginia landowner to learn whether they also own their mineral rights can itself be problematic. According to West Virginia University College of Law Professor Alison Peck, “The only way to know for sure, whether you own your mineral rights, is to go to the courthouse and look at the original deed.” This work may require an attorney, who would be able to draw conclusions and offer advice to landowners.

“I’ve come to realize that despite how common and prevalent mineral severance is in West Virginia, many landowners do not know much about it.” says Peck. “From a lawyer’s perspective, it is startling.”

Would it be possible to buy back mineral rights?

Yes, but it is not common, Peck says. First, a surface owner would need to hire an attorney to discover who owns the mineral estate, which can be expensive. This effort can be frustrated by the further splitting of mineral estates between different corporate entities or between specific minerals. Once an individual determines the mineral estate’s ownership structure, buying back the rights may cost more than some landowners could afford. “I think the corporate entities are probably holding those rights as an investment and may not be interested in selling them back,” says Peck.

Could a surface owner seek compensation from the mineral owner?

In addition to pursuing damages for nuisance or negligence, two state laws allow West Virginia surface owners to seek compensation from companies after drilling operations have ceased. The laws, however, have specific limits, such as only awarding compensation toward lost income, market value of lost crops and lost value of used surface land. The law does not cover the surface owner’s future plans for the site.

Where can surface owners go from here?

“The biggest complaint that we have heard is that the landowner didn’t have any say,” says Julie Archer of West Virginia Surface Owners’ Rights Organization. “One of the things that SORO has advocated for is that individuals should actually know what they’re buying.”

“When SORO first formed, one of the of the things that we pushed for was a Surface Owner’s Bill of Rights, modeled on landowner protection legislation that were passed in Colorado and New Mexico,” Archer says. This proposed legislation would empower surface owners by implementing requirements such as earlier notice of planned drilling activities, a face-to-face meeting between the landowner and mineral owner, an opportunity for pre-drilling mediation, and improved compensation that also reflects the reduced value of land near the drilling activities.

According to Archer, the retroactive nature of West Virginia’s surface owner compensation laws is a “shortcoming,” and noted that a Surface Owner’s Bill of Rights “is primarily designed to give landowners more say before the drilling occurs.”

“The best thing that people can do now is keep a journal and take pictures. You have to have documentation of before, during, and after to have a good case [for compensation].”

Fracked-gas Pipelines Would Threaten Homes and Dreams

Thursday, February 18th, 2016 - posted by interns

A Tale of Two Families

By Cat McCue

Jill Averitt and her dog, Cliff, enjoy a moment outdoors. The Atlantic Coast Pipeline would cut through her land, along the hillside just beyond the swing set. Photo by Cat McCue

Jill Averitt and her dog, Cliff, enjoy a moment outdoors. The Atlantic Coast Pipeline would cut through her land, along the hillside just beyond the swing set. Photo by Cat McCue

At the top of Sinking Creek Mountain in western Virginia, where Craig, Giles and Montgomery Counties meet, sits a 50-acre parcel of land with views in all directions. To Judy and Steve Hodges, who built their dream home here in 2003, it’s heaven.

“We’re from the ‘70s. Leftover hippies, that sort of thing,” says Judy. “We love it here. We have lovely neighbors.”

But to a Pittsburgh-based company, their land is just one of over 1,000 parcels to survey and whose owners have to be dealt with in order to build what would be the largest-diameter natural gas pipeline ever to cross the central Appalachian mountains.

In June 2014, Mountain Valley Pipeline, LLC, announced plans to run a 301-mile line between West Virginia and Virginia to carry gas from the Marcellus and Utica fracking fields. The project would plow a 125-foot-wide construction zone of clear-cutting and excavation across the two states, and require a permanent 50-foot easement.

The pipeline would bisect the Hodges’ land and come so close to their house that an explosion could damage or entirely destroy it. “From everything I’ve heard, this is a new animal we’re dealing with, these 42-inch, high-pressure pipelines,” Judy says. “We don’t want it.”

Same story, different pipeline

To the east, about 110 miles as the crow flies, live Jill and Richard Averitt, who share a similar story to the Hodges. They found property in rural Nelson County in 2005 and built a home where they are raising two children and plan to grow old. The Averitts had done their research to assess the potential for new highways or other public projects that might disturb their idyllic setting.

They didn’t consider pipelines.

In September 2014, the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, LLC, announced plans for a 564-mile line, also 42 inches in diameter, also originating in West Virginia and slicing through Virginia, but continuing into North Carolina. This pipeline would run so close to the Averitts’ home that should it explode, their house would be damaged or destroyed. It would also cross a separate parcel where the couple is planning a resort complex that could employ up to 150 people.

Photos by Jill Averitt

Photo by Jill Averitt

Prayers Not Pipelines

Seeking to demonstrate community solidarity against the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, in fall 2015 Jill Averitt initiated a community art project. White squares of cloth, with colorful, affirming messages written by local residents, line either side of Scenic Route 151 in Nelson County, Va., near the Rockfish Valley Foundation Natural History Center. The display stretches 125 feet on either side of the road — the width of the proposed pipeline.

“Our intention for this is to send out positive messages to the community and the forest. Blessings and protection, if you like. So what is left is not a bunch of ‘No Pipeline’ signs, but prayers going out to the world that this is a protected and sacred place,” she wrote in an email when the project began.

At press time, Averitt was continuing to add new flags with messages from the public.

Photos by Jill Averitt

Photos by Jill Averitt

Since that summer, both families have joined other property owners and climate and clean energy activists (including Appalachian Voices, the publisher of this newspaper) to attend public meetings, research the issue, write letters and make phone calls to company and elected officials, hold rallies and stage press conferences.

“It’s been all-consuming,” Jill says. “It’s been incredibly stressful.”

Law against landowners

For Richard Averitt, the most egregious aspect is the 2004 Virginia law that allows natural gas companies to access private property without the landowner’s permission to conduct surveys, even prior to securing federal approval for a project.

“The law transgresses on private property for profit,” he says. “It’s inconsistent with American beliefs. It’s inconceivable this is allowed.”

The Averitts refused to allow pipeline surveyors on their land, and are now being sued by the company, along with about 150 other landowners in Nelson County alone who also refused access to the surveyors. Some landowners, the Averitts included, are fighting back, hiring attorneys to challenge the law’s constitutionality. The cases were unsuccessful in the lower courts and are now on appeal to the Supreme Court of Virginia, says Ben Luckett with the Appalachian Mountain Advocates, a nonprofit organization representing some of the plaintiffs.

The group also challenged a similar law in West Virginia over the Mountain Valley Pipeline. There, however, the statute requires that such projects are in the “public interest,” and because the pipeline was not providing natural gas to local communities, the landowners won. The company has appealed to the West Virginia Supreme Court.

Unlike the Averitts, the Hodges did allow surveyors on their land; they were told they would be responsible for court costs if they sued and lost. “So we pretty much caved at that point and let them on the land,” Judy says.

Several teams of surveyors arrived on different days. One day, the surveyors packed up and left, telling Judy the land was “unbuildable” due to the steep slope, karst geology and multiple sinkholes.

Yet when Mountain Valley Pipeline filed for its federal permit in October, the proposed route still ran smack through the middle of the Hodges’ land.

Forest Service Denies Atlantic Coast Pipeline Route

In January, the U.S. Forest Service announced it had denied a “special use permit” to Atlantic Coast Pipeline, LLC, to cross 50 miles of the Monongahela National Forest in West Virginia and George Washington National Forest in Virginia. The agency declared that the proposed route failed to protect “highly sensitive resources, including Cheat Mountain salamanders, West Virginia northern flying squirrels, Cow Knob salamanders, and red spruce ecosystem restoration areas.” The decision means the company must find an alternate route that does not impact the areas of ecological concern to the forest agency.

Editor’s note: A new route that cuts through Highland, Bath and Augusta counties was proposed on Feb. 12, 2016. Read the response from environmental groups including Appalachian Voices.

Fracking Wastewater Leads to Ban in West Virginia County

Wednesday, February 17th, 2016 - posted by interns

By Eliza Laubach

In Fayette County, W.Va., residents speaking up against natural gas drilling wastewater spurred a county-wide ban on the use, storage or disposal of any oil or gas waste.

The county pushed to take control of wastewater injection permits following a controversy with the state regarding a wastewater site, owned by Danny Webb Construction, that had been leaking for more than a decade.

Shortly after the ban unanimously passed in January, oil and gas companies operating in the county claimed the ban infringes upon their rights and filed an injunction, effectively halting the ban until a federal court makes a decision. Two days later, Fayette County residents filed a lawsuit asking the company to stop operating the hazardous site.

To the north, in Ritchie County, residents requested that the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection test water near a suspicious well, which confirmed leakage.

Re-route of fracked gas pipeline threatens new areas of Va., West Va.

Friday, February 12th, 2016 - posted by cat

Ben Luckett, Staff Attorney, Appalachian Mountain Advocates, 304-645-0125
Hannah Wiegard, Appalachian Voices,, 804-536-5598
Drew Gallagher, Chesapeake Climate Action Network,
Kirk Bowers, Virginia Chapter of the Sierra Club,

Dominion Energy announced plans today to re-route the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline through Highland, Bath and Augusta counties. The new route comes in response to the United State Forest Service’s decision in January to reject the old route due to the environmental damage it would cause on public lands. (See map here.)

The new route would cut through Fort Lewis and come close to Warm Springs, home of the historic Homestead Resort. It would also still slice a large and permanent clear-cut through the George Washington and Monongahela national forests.

The entire project would run over 550 miles to carry fracked natural gas from West Virginia, through Virginia and North Carolina. It would be larger in diameter than the Keystone XL, and cut large and permanent clear-cut throughout the entire length of the pipeline.

“This new route would still cause dramatic forest fragmentation through some of the most high-quality forest habitat in our region,” said Ben Luckett, Staff Attorney with Appalachian Mountain Advocates.

The new route would impact about 249 new landowners in Randolph and Pocahontas counties in West Virginia, and in Highland, Bath and Augusta counties in Virginia. Appalachian Mountain Advocates has been representing landowners in both states pro bono in their efforts to bar Dominion’s surveyors from their private property. “We’re disappointed Dominion would threaten a whole new set of Virginians and West Virginians when the pipeline is not even necessary to meet our energy needs,” Luckett said.

“Whatever the route, this proposed pipeline would lock us into decades more of dirty fossil fuels and block us from fully shifting to clean energy. Whether you’re in the path of this destructive project or not, we will all be negatively affected, and should take every opportunity to voice our concerns,” said Hannah Wiegard, Virginia Campaign Coordinator for Appalachian Voices.

And at a cost of more than $5 billion, the ACP represents a major investment in an outdated fossil fuel. Many climate scientists believe that natural gas causes even more damage to the climate than coal. Ratepayers would be saddled with paying for the pipeline for decades, rather than investing those same funds in developing affordable clean energy.

Conservation groups remain highly concerned about the impacts of building this or any gas pipeline. The groups have called on the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to conduct a comprehensive review of the entire slate of natural gas projects proposed for the region.

“While we’re pleased Dominion has chosen not to ram this pipeline through sensitive habitat areas, it remains a wrecking ball for our climate. There’s only one sure way that Dominion can help protect a livable future for vulnerable species and all Virginians: by investing in truly clean energy solutions, not a dirty and dangerous pipeline. Reliance on fracked gas wrecks our climate on par with burning coal. When Hampton Roads residents face rapid sea level rise and Richmond ranks among the top asthma capitals in the U.S., we need to invest 100% in solar, wind and energy efficiency solutions, not new fossil fuel infrastructure,” said Drew Gallagher, Field Organizer with the Chesapeake Climate Action Network.