Appalachia’s Political Landscape

By Brian Sewell



Gov. Steve Beshear did not mention coal much in his Jan. 7 State of the Commonwealth speech, but he did put the spotlight on S.O.A.R, an initiative to provide economic assistance to eastern Kentucky counties suffering from coal’s downturn. Coal mining communities could also receive an economic boon from a bill in the state House to allocate 100 percent of severance taxes collected from mining back to those communities; currently 50 percent goes to the state. Several bills have been introduced that would restrict the use of eminent domain to in-state oil and gas producers, just months after citizens petitioned Gov. Beshear to oppose the practice for the proposed Bluegrass Pipeline in northern Kentucky. And for the fourth consecutive year, Rep. Mary Lou Marzian reintroduced a bill that would require utilities to meet a portion of demand with energy efficiency and renewable energy over time.

North Carolina:

One year into his first term as governor, Republican Pat McCrory continues to call for North Carolina to “get off the sidelines” and become an energy producer. Although the legislative session does not begin until May, speculation has begun about more reforms related to environmental rules and energy development. Another push to repeal the state’s renewable portfolio standard is expected, and more cuts to the Department of Environment and Natural Resources are also ahead. Meanwhile, the N.C. Mining and Energy Commission faces an Oct. 1 deadline to propose recommended rules for hydraulic fracturing in the state, but regardless of the commission’s suggestions, state lawmakers can approve their own regulations.


For the seventh year in a row, a broad coalition of environmental, public health and faith-based groups will rally to support Tennessee’s Scenic Vistas Protection Act, a bill that would ban surface mining techniques such as mountaintop removal on peaks above 2,000 feet in elevation. In the 2013 session, the Senate Committee on Energy, Agriculture and Natural Resources deferred the bill without discussion. In an editorial announcing its opposition to mountaintop removal, the Knoxville News-Sentinel wrote that, “An objective, dispassionate review of the economic and environmental issues surrounding the bill should lead to only one conclusion — it is time for the bill to become law.” Rep. Gloria Johnson and Sen. Lowe Finney, lead sponsors of last year’s bill, reintroduced the legislation.


New Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe has brought a renewed sense of optimism to progressives in the commonwealth, but the state legislature remains largely unchanged. Several bills this session aim to stifle the McAuliffe administration’s regulatory power. One bill would require any oil or gas drilling permit on state-owned lands to allow fracking, and another would fast-track Appalachian Power’s plans to build a natural gas plant by declaring it to be in the public interest. At the same time, several other new bills would support clean energy, including one that would require utilities to adopt on-bill financing programs for energy efficiency retrofits. Another would require Dominion Virginia Power to meet a portion of its target with renewable energy produced in Virginia — a reform advocacy groups have pushed since 2007.

West Virginia:

On Jan. 8, in his State of the State address, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin touted the economic prospects of natural gas and finding new markets for coal, and promised to never back down from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency because of its misguided policies on coal. But, Tomblin said, “there are other types of investments we often take for granted,” mentioning schools, water and sewage infrastructure and broadband internet. To support those investments, the Friends of the Future Fund are again pushing for the establishment of a permanent natural resource trust fund by the state.

The day after the governor’s speech, however, the chemical spill that left 300,000 West Virginians without water was discovered, quickly realigning the legislature’s priorities. Within days, the state Senate passed a bill to require regular inspection of chemical storage facilities and to require public water systems to develop emergency plans to respond to water contamination. A bill to provide low-interest state loans of up to $15,000 to businesses affected by the water crisis is also being considered.


House Budget Bill a Loss for the Environment, a Win for Coal

A $1.1 trillion budget bill unveiled by Rep. Hal Rogers (R-KY) and swiftly approved by Congress and signed by President Obama contains a host of anti-environmental riders aimed at crippling the Obama administration’s plans to address coal and climate change.

Among other provisions favorable to the coal industry, the law prevents the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers from changing the definition of “fill material” under the Clean Water Act, allowing companies using mountaintop removal coal mining to continue dumping waste in rivers and streams. According to the EPA, “valley fills” associated with mountaintop removal mines have covered an estimated 2,000 miles of Appalachian streams.

The Army Corps has not announced plans to rewrite the rule, but Rogers claims “the EPA and the Corps have been crafting a rule behind closed doors” that would essentially ban new mining projects under the Clean Water Act. According to Rogers, the pro-mountaintop removal provisions were added to help the coal industry.

The budget also includes $46 million for the Army Corps to speed up its permitting process for valley fills associated with mountaintop removal, and requires the Army Corps and EPA to provide monthly reports to Congress on permitting and projects under review.

Washington Responds to W.Va. Chemical Spill

The disaster that left 300,000 West Virginians without safe water led to a rare collaboration between three politically divided Democrats. Senators Barbara Boxer (D-CA), Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) and Joe Manchin (D-WV) introduced the Chemical Safety and Drinking Water Protection Act at the end of January.

Similar to legislation introduced in West Virginia, the bill would require states to regularly inspect aboveground chemical storage facilities like the one owned by Freedom Industries where the Charleston, W.Va., spill originated. The bill would also require industries to develop state-approved emergency response plans.

State Department Issues Keystone XL Report

An assessment released by the U.S. State Department on Jan. 31 concludes that President Obama’s ultimate decision to approve or deny construction of the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline is unlikely to affect the rate of extraction of the carbon-heavy fossil fuel in Alberta, Canada. In a speech last year, Obama said the pipeline will get his OK only if it does not “significantly exacerbate” the problem of carbon pollution. If constructed the pipeline would carry 830,000 barrels of tar sands from Canada to Texas refineries daily.

Duke’s Energy Savings in the Carolinas

Environmental groups including the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy are commending Duke Energy Carolinas’ new “shared-savings” program launched January 1 as a successor to the company’s Save-a-Watt program.

While the previous program rewarded Duke for investing in energy efficiency measures, the new “shared-savings” method stipulates that Duke’s compensation be tied to customer savings.

Wind Power Becomes Increasingly Reliable

A report by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory found that in addition to supporting the electric grid, wind power is increasingly dependable as a primary power source and can be economically feasible as new technologies reduce intermittency.

Wind energy is one of the fastest-growing sources of electric generation nationwide and was recently credited with preventing blackouts in Texas and the Midwest during the polar vortex.


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