Coal Tattoo

Clinton and coal: Giving the industry its soundbite

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Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and Democratic speaks at the Ohio Democratic Party Legacy Dinner at the Greater Columbus Convention Center in Columbus, Ohio, Sunday, March 13, 2016. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and Democratic speaks at the Ohio Democratic Party Legacy Dinner at the Greater Columbus Convention Center in Columbus, Ohio, Sunday, March 13, 2016. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

Well, it’s pretty clear that the coal industry got a potentially valuable soundbite last evening from Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. Secretary Clinton was asked to “make the case to poor whites who vote Republican why they should vote for you and your economic policies” and in offering one example, Secretary Clinton explained:

I’m the only candidate which has a policy about how to bring economic opportunity using clean, renewable energy as the key, into coal country. Because we’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business. And we’re going to make it clear that we don’t want to forget those people.

Those people labored in those mines for generations, losing their health, often losing their lives to turn on our lights and power our factories. Now we’ve got to move away from coal and all of the other fossil fuels. But I don’t want to move away from the people who did the best they could to produce the energy that we relied on.

As my friend Jim Bruggers at the Courier-Journal in Louisville points out, part of Secretary Clinton’s comment — “…We’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business” — sounds a lot like then-candidate Barack Obama’s remark in 2008 about how he would “bankrupt the coal industry“. Of course, the industry and its Republican friends have continued for years to take now-President Obama’s comments out of context. As I wrote during the 2008 campaign:

During a Jan. 17 interview with the Chronicle’s editorial board, an editorial writer noted that Obama co-sponsored a bill to encourage turning coal into liquid fuel for vehicles, an approach energy experts warn would likely create more greenhouse emissions than traditional gasoline. The editorial writer asked Obama how he squared his support for coal with the need to do something about climate change.

Obama responded that the country needs to “figure out how we can use coal without emitting greenhouse gases and carbon,” and that he believes a “cap-and-trade” emissions program is the best way to do that.

Such a program would put an overall ceiling on greenhouse gas emissions. Companies would need “allowances” from regulators for every ton of carbon dioxide their facilities pump into the atmosphere. Companies could reduce their emissions to meet the caps. Or they could buy or trade for “allowances” to keep using older facilities.

“That would create a market in which whatever technologies are out there being presented, whatever power plants are being built, they would have to meet the rigors of that market, and the ratcheted down caps that are imposed every year,” Obama told Chronicle editors. “So if somebody wants to build a coal power plant, they can, it’s just that it would bankrupt them because they’re going to be charged a huge sum for all that greenhouse gas that’s being emitted.”

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Head in the snow: Why W.Va. doesn’t move forward

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Utility trucks head west bound on I64 crossing the St. Albans/Nitro bridge, in St. Albans, W.V., Saturday, Jan. 23, 2016. (Tom Hindman /Charleston Gazette-Mail via AP) MANDATORY CREDIT

Utility trucks head west bound on I64 crossing the St. Albans/Nitro bridge, in St. Albans, W.V., Saturday, Jan. 23, 2016. Photo by Tom Hindman.

When we last left the West Virginia Legislature, this was the sad report from The Associated Press:

phillips_rupertAs the snowstorm approached, a West Virginia delegate handed out sunscreen to his colleagues in an attempt to ridicule global warming.

Democratic Delegate Rupie Phillips passed around the bottles of sunscreen Thursday.

The lawmaker from coal-producing Logan County told his colleagues on the House floor, “I worry about you. You’ve got global warming going on. It’s not cold outside. It’s in your mind.”

Phillips said he was going to get everyone a pair of Maui Jim sunglasses, but they are “a little expensive.”

Seriously?

It’s hard to know where to start with this kind of silly stuff. Do we engage with it, and show the science that indicates, just for example that big blizzards in winter don’t disprove global warming and that climate change can actually make East Coast blizzards worse? Or do we ignore it, and hope it goes away?

The Beckley paper decided to take it on, with a very strong editorial that explained how we ignore science at our own risk:

It is clear Delegate Phillips is ignoring facts. Even the kids know that coal, which leaves a heavy carbon footprint in its wake, is a major contributor to global warming. Coal is a fossil fuel just like natural gas. When it is burned, it releases carbon dioxide into the environment. There, it helps trap heat and moisture in our little dome of life. It’s called the greenhouse effect — a pretty simple concept to grasp for anyone paying attention. And so, it gets hotter here on Earth and we get more extreme weather events. Even the oceans are warming up. It is undeniable. It is science. It has been researched. It is a fact. It is the truth.

But forget all of that. Forget the mountains of research. Forget all of the climate scientists around the world who have poured their intellectual curiosity into their work. According to Phillips, one winter weekend storm was all the evidence we needed.

 

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Industry seeks to stall black lung protections

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blacklungminer2

The latest news on the black lung issue is this:

Coal companies are asking an appeals court to block implementation of the second phase of the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration plan for addressing coal miners’ exposure to respirable dust, the cause of black lung disease.

Parties such as Murray Energy Corp., the National Mining Association, Walter Energy Inc. and the Alabama Coal Association are seeking to block implementation of the remainder of the rule ahead of its Feb. 1 rollout date. The rule was unveiled in April 2014 and aims to lower occurrence of black lung, a disease that has been a contributing factor in the death of 76,000 coal miners since 1968.

As that report, from SNL Financial’s Taylor Kuykendall, continues:

The industry argues the rule was unlawfully promulgated without the participation of the National Institute for Occupation Safety and Health. Already, the filing states, the rule has imposed substantial burdens and costs in the form of re-engineering mines, purchasing expensive equipment, training and hiring personnel and new government certifications.

“These costs have hit a coal industry substantially weakened financially even compared to the already-weakened state it was in when the dust rule was promulgated in 2014,” the filing states.

You can read the industry court filing here, and there’s another media report on the issue out in the Herald-Leader:

The coal industry is seeking to forestall new standards aimed at cutting miners’ exposure to breathable dust that can cause deadly black lung disease.

Feb. 1 is the start date for the second phase of the rule. It would require miners to wear continuous personal monitors to check their exposure to dust, and companies would have to do more frequent sampling to check for compliance with dust limits.

Court won’t block Clean Power Plan

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Climate Rules Arkansas

Here’s the news from The Wall Street Journal:

A federal court denied a request by more than a dozen states on Wednesday to temporarily block the Obama administration’s carbon regulations while they mount a full legal challenge to the rules.

The decision is an early victory for the Environmental Protection Agency, which completed the rules last month calling for carbon emissions from power plants to be cut 32% by 2030 from 2005 levels. The regulations are the cornerstone of President Barack Obama’s climate plan, and Wednesday’s ruling is an early legal salvo in what is expected to be a yearslong court battle over Mr. Obama’s climate agenda.

West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey has been leading the legal fight against the EPA rule. You can read the court’s brief decision here.

Paul Nyden: Coal reporting, making W.Va. better

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NydenThere’s a story I like to tell — I’m frankly not sure if it’s true — that more than a few years back a top West Virginia political leader called over to the agency that we now call the Department of Environmental Protection. This politician, an elected official, wanted the agency’s director to issue a coal-mining permit that was being held up over concerns about the damage that might be done.

As the story goes, the agency director assured the elected official that the permit would be issued that day. But, the agency director said, “I’m going to have to put a note in our files that we issued it on your orders. You know the files I mean … the ones that Nyden looks at all the time.” The elected official, without even debating the issue, said, “Just forget it,” and hung up.

That in a nutshell is what Dr. Paul Nyden has meant to West Virginia. I’ve often told people that the greatest single piece of journalism in West Virginia history is “Who Owns West Virginia,” the remarkable project produced in 1974 by Tom Miller, then of the Huntington paper. But for my money, no one reporter’s career has lived up to former Gazette publisher Ned Chilton’s mandate for “sustained outrage” more than Dr. Nyden’s has.

As many readers probably know, we’ve been going through a difficult process here at Charleston Newspapers, as we combined the newsrooms of The Charleston Gazette and the Charleston Daily Mail into one newsroom for the new Charleston Gazette-Mail. This morning’s paper included the news that, as a part of that process, Paul is retiring.

Obviously, this is a huge loss — for the Gazette-Mail, for West Virginia, for me and others who have been mentored by Paul, and for anyone who values context and history as part of the coverage of the nation’s coal industry. But I don’t want to write about my friend here as if he’s dead or something. He’s very much full of life — and I look forward to him continuing to contribute to the public discussion about West Virginia’s past, present and future. Hopefully he’ll keep writing book reviews about foreign policy, so I won’t have to read those books myself. And there’s a project or two I have in mind I hope he and I will work on together. Maybe Paul will have more time to take in baseball games.

This is as good a time as any, though, to stop and think about Paul’s journalism, and remember his contributions and see what the rest of us can learn from them, both about how to do journalism and about what West Virginians might try to do to help move the state forward as the coal industry Paul has covered for so many years continues to decline.

For one thing, Paul’s coverage of the lax permitting and enforcement practices of the old state Department of Energy set the standard for how a local journalist can and should hold a government agency accountable. When I had been at the Gazette barely a month, I was actually assigned to write up a story documenting how the Gazette, through Nyden’s reporting, was really doing DOE’s job for it:

Division of Energy attorney George V. Piper likes to joke that Paul Nyden is the agency’s best investigator. To others, the situation isn’t very funny. 

So far this year, the Gazette’s investigative reporter has uncovered more than $1 million in outstanding environmental fines and fees owed to the DOE or the federal Office of Surface Mining by coal companies. Since 1989, Nyden has revealed nearly $2 million in unpaid fines and fees …  Perry D. McDaniel, a Charleston lawyer and president of the West Virginia Environmental Council, said, “”It’s a shame The Charleston Gazette has to fund the job that the coal industry should be doing and that is proper review of permit applications, especially with regard to reviewing files for violations and the proper follow-up for the imposition of civil penalties.”

My personal favorite, though, was always a piece from 1990 headlined, “Flashing blue lights reflect a boiling feud within DOE.”

William “Bolts” Willis wants to install flashing blue lights, a siren and a state police radio in a Division of Energy vehicle for his own use. Energy Commissioner Larry George has not approved the request. Willis apparently wants the lights and siren in case he has to drive to a mine disaster.

Flashing blue lights reflect a larger feud boiling up rapidly.

George and Willis, who is George’s administrative assistant, have been attacking each other privately for more than a week.

George believes Willis is trying to torpedo his recent administrative reforms. Willis apparently sees those reforms as a threat to his own turf within the agency.

Willis said Tuesday that he has no problems with George. “We have been friends too long to let anything like this happen,” he said. Willis failed to return several telephone calls on Thursday and Friday.

Behind the scenes, Willis has been lining up support for more than a week from the governor’s office. He has been calling his political allies in the United Mine Workers.

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Clinton campaign looks to future on coal policy

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FILE - In this Thursday, Aug. 6, 2015, file photo, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton listens to a home care worker during a roundtable discussion in Los Angeles. Calling for a “new college compact,” Hillary Rodham Clinton on Monday, Aug. 10, will unveil a $350 billion plan aimed at making college more affordable and reducing the crushing burden of student debt. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong, File)

In this Thursday, Aug. 6, 2015, file photo, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton listens to a home care worker during a roundtable discussion in Los Angeles.  (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong, File)

Over the weekend, Reuters picked up on a story that we covered her late last month on Coal Tattoo, regarding Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s position on coal-mining issues. Their story started out:

In her 2008 bid for the White House, Hillary Clinton cast herself as a blue-collar Democrat who was unabashedly pro-coal, a stance that helped her beat opponent Barack Obama easily in primaries in states that produced or were reliant on coal.

Eight years later, a Reuters review of her recent campaign speeches and policy announcements shows that the great-granddaughter of a Welsh coal miner is now talking about the coal industry in the past tense.

The little-noticed shift in rhetoric speaks volumes about how the United States’ energy landscape has changed since Clinton last campaigned in 2008: oil and gas fracking have exploded and cheap natural gas has taken a huge bite out of coal.

In the intervening years the Obama administration has also proposed aggressive measures to tamp down greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels like coal, while once-powerful coal companies like Arch Coal, which declared bankruptcy last week, have lost their political clout.

The shift by Clinton is not without significant political risk. She will have to walk a fine line in trying to please the progressive activists she needs to win her party’s nomination and working-class “swing” voters whose support will be crucial for the general election in November 2016. Ohio and Pennsylvania, in particular, have a lot of electoral votes, which are key to electing a new president.

Mindful of that, Clinton has been careful to pay tribute to the contribution coal miners have made to the American economy, but she has also made clear that they should be helped to find new jobs, and a new way of life.

Ed Rendell, former Democratic governor of Pennsylvania and Clinton ally, said an economic case for addressing climate change could resonate in his state, where the coal industry employs more than 36,000 directly and indirectly, according to the Pennsylvania Coal Alliance.

“Citizens, coal miners and executives are not dumb and they see the handwriting on the wall. Someone needs to tell them the truth and make it clear,” he said in an interview.

The next sentence seemed familiar:

Clinton’s campaign declined to comment on the shift in her coal message or how she plans to appease both environmentalists and coal workers.

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Coming soon: Final EPA ‘Clean Power Plan

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In this July 15, 2015, file photo, President Barack Obama answers a question during a news conference in the East Room of the White House in Washington. Turkey’s dramatic air campaign against the Islamic State and Kurdish forces has created a bit of a conundrum for Obama, who is leading the fight against one of Turkey’s targets while relying heavily on the other target.  (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais, File)

The New York Times reports today:

The final version of President Obama’s signature climate change policy is expected to extend an earlier timeline for states to significantly cut planet-warming pollution from power plants, according to people familiar with the plan.

If enacted, the climate change plan, the final version of which is expected to be unveiled as early as Monday, could stand as the most significant action ever taken by an American president to curb global warming. But some environmental groups have cautioned that a later deadline for states to comply could make it tougher for the United States to meet Mr. Obama’s climate change pledges on the world stage.

This is just the latest in a series of press reports that try to predict when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is going to issue the final version of its Clean Power Plan and what that EPA plan will say.

One story from U.S. News and World Report, for example, said:

A sweeping federal rule that would curtail carbon emissions from power plants will likely be made even more stringent when it is finalized later this summer, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council, widely regarded as a close ally of the Environmental Protection Agency.

The rule, known as the Clean Power Plan, was unveiled by the EPA in June 2014. The subject of more than 4.3 million public comments, it is the keystone of President Barack Obama’s climate agenda and vigorously opposed by conservatives and industry groups.

“We are very optimistic and confident that it will be stronger, in particular in the areas of renewables and efficiencies,” NRDC President Rhea Suh said during a press briefing Wednesday at the organization’s headquarters in the nation’s capital.

UPDATED: Here’s a new report out today from EnergyWire:

U.S. EPA appears to be leaning toward giving states an extra two years — until 2022 — to start cutting carbon emissions from power plants under a final Clean Power Plan rule expected to be rolled out as early as Monday.

The rule will also provide more time for states to submit final plans, according to a timeline E&E obtained that was posted to EPA’s website.

Moving out the compliance dates could strengthen support from states friendly to the Obama administration’s climate plan and assuage the concerns of some critics. Across the political spectrum, state officials and energy companies have said more time is a concession EPA could grant in a final rule that would make it easier to cut greenhouse gas emissions 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2030 (ClimateWire, July 27).

Another piece from ClimateWire reported:

In countless meetings on the Clean Power Plan with states and energy companies, the most common plea to U.S. EPA has been for more time. More time to work on plans, more time to allow coal plants to retire and more time to move toward final goals.

It’s an easy concession for EPA — one that could go a long way toward ensuring flexibility under the rule without undercutting climate goals, knowledgeable observers say.

In particular, EPA has heard it should relax the rule’s interim goals, which require states to reach an average emissions rate between 2020 and 2029.

It’s a “big problem, and an unnecessary problem, with respect to the real goals of this regulation,” said Ken Colburn, a principal at the Regulatory Assistance Project, which advises state regulators tasked with writing carbon-cutting plans to meet state-specific targets.

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Gov. Tomblin and the Clean Power Plan

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Earl Ray Tomblin

West Virginia Governor Earl Ray Tombin, a Democrat, waves at the conclusion of his inauguration speech on Monday, Jan. 14, 2013, in Charleston, W.Va.  (AP Photo/Randy Snyder)

Late last week, the Washington Post’s Joby Warrick had what certainly appeared to be a pretty interesting story with a Hazard, Kentucky, dateline:

Even after years of talk about a “war on coal,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell startled some of his constituents in March when he urged open rebellion against a White House proposal for cutting pollution from coal-fired power plants.

The Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan is “extremely burdensome and costly,” the Kentucky Republican said in letters advising all 50 states to boycott the rule when it goes into effect this summer.

The call for direct defiance was unusual even for McConnell, who has made a career of battling federal restrictions on coal. Yet more striking is what has happened since: Kentucky’s government and electric utilities have quietly positioned themselves to comply with the rule — something state officials expect to do with relatively little effort.

In this coal-industry bastion, five of the state’s older coal-burning power plants were already scheduled to close or switch to natural gas in the next two years, either because of aging equipment or to save money, state officials say. As a result, Kentucky’s greenhouse-gas emissions are set to plummet 16 percent below where they were in 2012 — within easy reach of the 18 percent reduction goal proposed by the Environmental Protection Agency in a draft of the agency’s controversial carbon-cutting plan.

“We can meet it,” Kentucky Energy and Environment Secretary Leonard Peters, speaking at a climate conference, said of the EPA’s mandate.

The nut graph:

The story is the same across much of the country as the EPA prepares to roll out what is arguably the biggest and most controversial environmental regulation of the Obama presidency. Under the Clean Power Plan, states will have to find ways to achieve dramatic cuts in carbon pollution over the next 15 years, with reduction quotas topping 50 percent over 2012 levels for some states. But despite dire warnings and harsh political rhetoric, many states are already on track to meet their targets, even before the EPA formally announces them, interviews and independent studies show.

Later on, though, a problem cropped up when Joby wrote:

Six governors have taken up McConnell’s call to “just say no” to the EPA’s proposal. Five are Republicans — including presidential contenders Bobby Jindal of Louisiana and Scott Walker of Wisconsin — and one, Earl Ray Tomblin of West Virginia, is a Democrat.

The Gazette-Mail’s David Gutman pointed this out, and noted he didn’t recall Gov. Tomblin actually going along — at least publicly — with Sen. McConnell’s plan. So I checked in with the governor’s communications officer, Chris Stadelman. And sure enough, Chris told me in an email message that Gov. Tomblin “has not made a final decision” on Sen. McConnell’s proposal but “will do what’s in the best interest of WV residents.”

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blast_osm1

Really, isn’t anyone — outside of the people who wrote it — fooling themselves if they think they already understand all of the implications of the new “Stream Protection Rule” proposal made public this week by the federal Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement?

Gosh, I mean, the rule itself is 1,238 pages long and the accompanying Environmental Impact Statement is 1,267 pages long.  As I wrote in today’s Gazette story, though, really solid, definitive reactions from industry officials and their political allies were flying out literally as Interior Department officials were making these documents public.

For example, here’s West Virginia’s senior U.S. Senator, Democrat Joe Manchin:

This Administration’s long list of overreaching regulations is absolutely crippling West Virginia families and businesses. This proposed rule would have a devastating impact on our families, jobs and economy, and it fails to strike an appropriate balance between the economy and the environment.

The media isn’t much better. Here’s Hoppy Kercheval over at MetroNews:

Meanwhile, the Interior Department is trying to downplay the economic impact on coal states like West Virginia.

Several years ago a draft of the report leaked, saying the updated stream buffer rule would result in the loss of 7,000 jobs. The outcry was intense, but the Interior Department patched that up by just using a different formula to come up with new numbers… and voila!

Now the agency claims, with no hint of irony, that the rules will preserve “economic opportunities.” Specifically, according to their consultant’s revised calculations, 460 jobs will be lost, but 250 jobs will be created in mine reclamation work.

If we get many more of these Washington “opportunities” we’ll have to turn out the lights.

Here’s the thing, though, if Hoppy had actually read the rule or the EIS, he wouldn’t have used that 460-jobs figure — because it’s not in the report. It was mistakenly given to media during a conference call. I don’t know if Hoppy was on that call or saw the number in another media account, but he sure didn’t look at the actual economic impact numbers in the EIS, or he would have noticed the problem.

To be fair to Hoppy, I doubt any of the reporters who had to cover this story on deadline yesterday finished every single page of both documents. I certainly didn’t. But any reasonable reading of my story will not see the broad, sweeping conclusions he’s already drawing. I specifically noted:

The exact contents of the rule — such as how well it protects streams inside mining permit area “footprints” or toughens the definition of “material damage” to streams that isn’t allowed under the law — were still being digested by all sides Thursday.

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ALPHASIGN2

It may only be a matter of time before Alpha Natural Resources seeks bankruptcy court protection. As the Wall Street Journal reported earlier this week:

Alpha Natural Resources Inc. is in talks to obtain financing for a potential bankruptcy filing early next month as it grapples with a severe downturn in coal prices, according to people familiar with the matter.

The Bristol, Va., coal miner is negotiating the terms of a “debtor in possession” loan with its loan holders and senior bondholders, the people said. The new financing would help see Alpha through bankruptcy should it file for chapter 11 protection in early August, around the time some of its convertible bonds come due, the people said.

The loan could total around $300 million to $400 million, one of the people said. Jointly providing the loan could align the interests of the two creditor classes, potentially smoothing Alpha Natural’s efforts to restructure its debt.

This morning, the Gazette’s Dr. Paul Nyden noted:

The New York Stock Exchange on Thursday stopped the trading of Alpha Natural Resources common stocks because of the company’s dramatically low stock prices.

On Aug. 1, 2008, Alpha’s stock reached the value of $104 per share. At the close of business on Wednesday, the value of Alpha’s stock had dropped to 24 cents a share.

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blankenshiphearingleaving

Over the weekend, The New York Times published an interesting West Virginia Day offering:  A lengthy story about former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship. The story dug deep into the archives of various Blankenship controversies, and understandably made much about the big trial that’s coming up in October.

The story was what folks in the business call “a good read,” and obviously a lot of folks with a keen interest in all things Blankenship and in the pending criminal case (myself included) were posting the link and commenting on it through various social media outlets.

But gosh, the story got the number of counts and the potential sentence that Blankenship faces wrong, with the Times apparently being unaware of the superseding indictment that consolidated the charges into three felony counts and trimmed one year off what what was originally a 31-year maximum sentence.

Frankly, I was a little surprised that the Times did this particular piece, given that many of the same themes — especially how unusual it is in these parts for a coal CEO to be held accountable through a criminal trial — were covered in a previous piece the Times did shortly after the original indictment back in November 2014.

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Appalachian Power: Plants not worth upgrading

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kanawhariverplant

Gazette photo by Lawrence Pierce of the Kanawha River Plant in Glasgow, W.Va.

There’s been a fair amount of hand-wringing about the planned closure by American Electric Power’s Appalachian Power subsidiary of the Kanawha River, Philip Sporn and Kammer power plants (see especially Daily Mail stories here and here).  Several years after the company’s decisions were announced, all this consternation led staff over at the state Public Service Commission to ask the PSC to investigate the closures.

Lawyers for Appalachian Power responded initially by pointing out that they have actually already provided the commission with a great deal of information on the matter as part of several previous cases.  That wasn’t good enough for the PSC, and commissioners ordered the power company to provide more details.  Appalachian lawyers did that yesterday, providing this 90-page filing.

Among the more interesting parts of Appalachian’s response:

— Almost all of the operating employees of the Disposition Units have been reassigned or have retired or taken severance.

— Compliance with the MATS Rules would require significant construction work. It might be possible for Disposition Units to meet the requirements of the MATS Rule by constructing Selective Catalytic Reduction (“SCR”) and Flue Gas Desulfurization (“FGD) systems … The installation of SCR and FGD systems would require installation of material handling systems, wastewater treatment systems, Absorber vessels, new ductwork, new stack exhausts, and numerous other systems. APCo has not undertaken any design work for SCR or FGD systems for the Disposition Units because the costs were deemed to be prohibitive, in light of the age and condition of the units.

— Because of the time for the construction of such systems, any Disposition Units at which it was decided to construct these systems could not be returned to service for a minimum of approximately five ( 5 ) years from the date such construction projects were begun.

— The Company has not performed any detailed cost estimates because the order of magnitude of the costs was so tremendous that APCo deemed it imprudent, given the age and condition of the Disposition Units, to have its customers bear such costs, particularly over the comparatively short anticipated lives of any of  the conversion or retrofit projects discussed above.

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Friday roundup, May 29, 2015

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AP10ThingsToSee The Last Breaker

Coal mining crews work near the St. Nicholas Coal Breaker in Mahanoy City, Pa. on Wednesday, April 29, 2015. The old breaker is about 100 miles northwest of Philadelphia in a region that holds nearly all of the nation’s anthracite, a pure grade of coal that spawned the railroads, powered America’s Industrial Revolution and dominated home heating in the East. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

This Associated Press story about the last coal breaker coming down in Pennsylvania got me thinking about the long tradition — both proud and not so proud — of the region’s coal industry, especially as the forecasts continue to show coal’s inevitable decline.  And what do you know, Politico has a piece called, “How coal disrupted the world,” by Barbara Freese, author of the great book, “Coal: A Human History“:

Matthew Boulton was the Steve Jobs of 18th– century England — a visionary entrepreneur with a love of technology and flair for drama.  When asked by King George III what he was working on, Boulton announced he was producing “a commodity which is the desire of kings.”  Namely, “power, your majesty.”

It was a grandiose promise, but he delivered. Boulton’s business partner was James Watt, whose new steam engine would soon drive the Industrial Revolution. It was a breakthrough that gave humanity a way to efficiently convert the concentrated energy of coal into useful mechanical power. And even before its impact was felt, Boulton had perceived that this new engine would be more than a technology – that there is a link between coal and kings, between the physical power a society taps into and the political power it ultimately supports.

The Last Breaker

This undated photo provided by Reading Anthracite on April 29, 2015 shows the St. Nicholas Coal Breaker in Mahanoy City, Pa. In the early 20th century, St. Nicholas opened as the crown jewel of a relatively safer, more modern anthracite industry. The breaker and its twin at Locus Summit operated around the clock to meet the nation’s dwindling but still substantial need for anthracite. (Reading Anthracite via AP)

Coal-fired industrialization would go on to create kings of its own, in industry and in politics. Today, the economic outlook for coal is bleak, in part because of the urgent need to rein in its destabilizing effect on the climate. More than two centuries after Boulton’s promise, coal may finally be exiting the economic stage, making room for a new generation of energy technologies.  

What will be the social and political implications of coal’s fall?  Two of coal’s intrinsic features, its concentrated form and its highly polluting nature, were especially significant in shaping the power dynamics of the coal era.  We are starting to replace coal with technologies that are just the opposite — intrinsically dispersed, and environmentally much cleaner.  If we keep moving in this direction, the consequences will be particularly profound. Coal’s retreat promises to reshape the world again, and as we start to consider what that will mean, we can find clues in the history of coal’s rise. 

The piece continues, with some sharp analysis of the current situation we find ourselves in:

The coal industry blames its current woes  on what it calls President Obama’s “war on coal,” but coal’s problems run much deeper.  Climate change isn’t going away, and as carbon dioxide concentrations and global temperatures keep rising, so too will the pressure to move away from coal, which emits much more carbon per unit of energy than other fuels. Even with our reduced dependence on coal, the nation’s coal plants still emit more carbon than all its cars, trucks and buses combined.  

It’s possible that a Republican in the White House could reverse some of the regulation that is making coal less competitive, but in the long run coal is unlikely to see anything more than a long, managed decline in its national importance.  

So what will be the social and political implications of coal’s decline?  Obviously, it will mean less influence for the coal industry and job losses in mining regions, continuing a decades-long trend in some places as the industry has mechanized. The economic hardship that coal communities face is real.  It can be reduced through planning, diversifying local economies and retraining workers, but there are no easy solutions.  Coal is not the major employer it once was; in Kentucky, for example, less than  1 percent of the state’s workforce is employed by the mines, but that is small consolation to those facing job losses.        

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Jim Justice sued … again

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Jim Justice

In this July 2, 2010 file photo released by The Greenbrier Resort, The Greenbrier Resort owner and chairman Jim Justice attends the gala opening of The Greenbrier Casino Club, in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va.  (AP Photo/Evan Agostini for The Greenbrier Resort, File)

Last evening, The Associated Press picked up on a new lawsuit filed against billionaire coal operator/businessman/gubernatorial candidate Jim Justice:

A lawsuit says two of billionaire Jim Justice’s affiliated companies owe $2 million from a 2013 coal deal.

In Tuesday’s complaint in Beckley federal court, Pennsylvania resident Thomas K. Lampert sued Tams Management, Inc. in Beckley and Southern Coal Corporation, a Delaware company doing business in Roanoke, Virginia.

The lawsuit says the companies didn’t pay $2 million from a March 2013 agreement for equity and membership interests in Newgate Development of Beckley, LLC.

It says Lampert’s trust never received the agreed-upon $4 per ton for the first 500,000 tons of coal mined and sold.

The AP report was short, and didn’t contain these interesting details from the suit:

One such specified act or omission is any failure to comply with the “Purchaser Permit Approval Obligation,” whereby Tams was required to pursue and secure
approval, within ninety (90) days, of the transfer of all applicable permits for the Three Marie Mine located in the Slab Fork District of Raleigh County, West Virginia.

Tams further agreed that “time shall be of the essence” with respect to the Purchaser Permit Approval Obligation, and that any failure to meet the Purchaser Permit Approval Obligation “shall be a material event of default.”

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Coals War

I have to admit that the first thing I thought of when I saw the social media postings about the Politico piece, “Inside the war on coal,” was: Why did a reporter as good as Michael Grunwald fall into the trap of calling something a “war” that simply isn’t a war. But perhaps I just need to accept the fact that the industry PR people who thought up the phrase earned their money and, despite my  best efforts on this blog (see War is war: Why not call coal debate something else?),  nobody else is going to start calling what’s happening to coal something else.

As I read on through this piece, though, there is much that folks in places like the coalfields of West Virginia should read. Mike nails a lot of this, as he very often does:

Coal still helps keep our lights on, generating nearly 40 percent of U.S. power. But it generated more than 50 percent just over a decade ago, and the big question now is how rapidly its decline will continue. Almost every watt of new generating capacity is coming from natural gas, wind or solar … Utilities no longer even bother to propose new coal plants to replace the old ones they retire. Coal industry stocks are tanking, and analysts are predicting a new wave of coal bankruptcies.

This is a big deal, because coal is America’s top source of greenhouse gases, and coal retirements are the main reason U.S. carbon emissions have declined 10 percent in a decade.

But, a significant strength of this piece is that it doesn’t, as much journalism on these topics does today, pretend that far-off global concerns about climate change are the only downside to coal:

Coal is also America’s top source of mercury, sulfur dioxide and other toxic air pollutants, so fewer coal plants also means less asthma and lung disease—not to mention fewer coal-ash spills and coal-mining disasters.

And, he notes something that I’ve written about many times before — that President Obama has not always been nearly as tough on coal as industry mouthpieces would have us all believe. There are also just tons of really interesting details about the Sierra Club’s “Beyond Coal” efforts to shut down power plants around the country. For example:

At a dry hearing in a drab courtroom in Oklahoma City, a methodical Beyond Coal attorney named Kristin Henry, whose bio identifies her as “one of the few environmentalists who would never be caught wearing Birkenstocks,” was pinning down an Oklahoma Gas & Electric executive with a barrage of wouldn’t-you-agrees, isn’t-it-trues, and would-it-be-fair-to-say’s. The power company was out of compliance with a federal air-quality rule called “regional haze,” so it was offering to convert one of its two coal plants into a natural gas plant. Henry knew she couldn’t stop that. But OG&E also wanted to install massive new scrubbers on the other plant so it could keep burning coal for decades to come. Henry was determined to stop that.

 In the 90 minutes Henry spent cross-examining OG&E’s Joseph Rowlett in early March, she didn’t ask a single question about climate or public health. She focused exclusively on OG&E’s request for the largest rate increase in state history, a 15 percent hike to finance the utility’s $700 million compliance plan. Through her deadpan, leading questions, she portrayed OG&E as a company desperate to get its customers to foot the bill to prop up an inefficient plant, pursuing retrofits it would never consider if its own shareholders had to swallow the costs, operating in a dream world where regional haze was coal’s only challenge. At one point, she got Rowlett to admit his calculations assumed there would be no additional coal regulations for the next thirty years, even though the EPA intends to finalize at least four new coal regulations this year alone.

 “Isn’t it true you’re assuming zero over the next 30 years?” Henry asked.

 Rowlett paused a few seconds. “That’s right,” he replied.

 

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Will a new year bring change to West Virginia?

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State of the State

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, delivers his annual State of the State speech on Wednesday, Jan. 14, 2015, in Charleston, W.Va. (AP Photo/Tyler Evert)

It was pretty surprising that Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin couldn’t bring himself to mention the Freedom Industries chemical leak and the resulting water crisis in his State of the State address earlier this week.

No, I wasn’t expecting that Governor Tomblin would suddenly become a public champion for tough environmental enforcement and use his annual speech to caution the Legislature’s new Republican leadership against rushing to gut SB 373’s new safety requirement for chemical tanks and mandates for public drinking water protections by utilities. But you would have thought the governor would at least use the water crisis as an example of how West Virginians pull together in times of trouble sorts of things that are so popular among our state’s political elite.

For the record, I asked Tomblin’s communications director, Chris Stadelman, why the governor left the whole thing out of the State of the State, and here’s what he said:

Gov. Tomblin understands that protecting our state’s water resources is an important issue for residents not only in the Kanawha Valley but throughout West Virginia. Water protection continues to be the focus of a number of efforts, and he will continue to review what improvements we need to make. The Jan. 9, 2014, chemical leak was discussed in depth last week, including the release of an After Action Report by Gov. Tomblin, so the State of the State focused on other issues.

Fair enough. But when the governor then uses his speech to go on and on about the great benefits he sees to the boom in natural gas drilling and production in the state’s Marcellus Shale — all the while ignoring repeated calls by state-hired experts and outside scientists (see here, here, here and here, just for example) for more protections for citizens in the gas patch — well, that sends a pretty clear message to West Virginians who were hoping Governor Tomblin and other state officials had learned something from what happened back in January 2014.

For folks who live with the Marcellus boom’s negative impacts, it had to be especially hard to take for the governor to tout passage of the 2011 Horizontal Drilling Act as “comprehensive legislation.” Part of the deal when that law was enacted was that certain issues would not be dealt with, but put off for additional study by the DEP. Those studies are done, and they recommend more protections for citizens and the environment, yet Governor Tomblin and the Legislature pretend none of that ever happened.

secretary-randy-huffman-portrait_small2And this from Governor Tomblin in his speech comes less than a week after DEP Secretary Randy Huffman appeared at a citizen group-sponsored event to mark the anniversary of the Freedom leak and promised to work to block industry from removing the statewide “Category A” drinking water protections currently given to all West Virginia rivers and streams:

That’s taking us backward. That’s a policy, a rule change, that we just can’t allow to happen. I hope it never comes up again, and it’s  a discussion that we don’t have to have.

What struck me there was Randy’s use of the plural pronouns … “taking us backward” and especially a rule change that “we can’t just can’t allow to happen.”

There’s plenty that citizen groups and Randy Huffman don’t agree on … mountaintop removal comes to mind. You’re not going to get Randy on board to outlaw that practice, and the DEP’s proposed changes in state water pollution permits for coal mining are certainly something that the industry very much wants, and environmental groups hope to somehow find a way to stop. And DEP is on board with Governor Tomblin’s continued insistence on fighting against efforts to do something about coal’s contributions to global warming.

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Gag order in Blankenship case criticized

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Mine Explosion Congress

We reported in in yesterday’s Gazette about U.S. Magistrate Judge R. Clarke VanDervort refusing a request from longtime Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship to delay his arraignment on the criminal indictment filed against Blankenship last week. But we weren’t able to explain why the judge did so. If you go to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of West Virginia‘s PACER computer page, and try to download the judge’s order, this is what you see:

pacer screen

It’s a bit ironic that PACER stands for “Public Access to Court Electronic Records,”  given that records of the U.S. vs. Blankenship are anything but public. Even the indictment — which was initially posted publicly and distributed via email by U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin’s office, has been removed from public view. Goodwin’s office, apparently worried about violating the judge’s gag order, removed both its press release — a document that merely quoted the indictment and didn’t include any direct quotes from Goodwin — and the indictment from its website. We’ve posted the press release here and the indictment here.

judgebergerIn fact, even U.S. District Judge Irene Berger’s gag order isn’t available to the public through PACER. The clerk’s office in Beckley did finally email copies of it to local media outlets, and we’ve posted it here.  These two sentences — which contain no citations to case law allowing such a gag order — are the only explanation we have of the judge’s action:

The Court observes that the Defendant and the matters which are referenced in the indictment have been the subject of publicity. After careful consideration and in light of the prior publicity, the Court finds it necessary to take precautions to insure that the Government and the Defendant can seat jurors who can be fair and impartial and whose verdict is based only upon evidence presented during trial.

It’s worth noting that neither the government nor Blankenship’s defense team asked for this gag order. The judge did it on her own. And now, she’s taking some criticism for it.

In an editorial that generally praised the government for pursuing this prosecution, the Lexington Herald-Leader said:

The judge’s stated concern is that potential jurors will be biased by pre-trial publicity. But seating an impartial jury can be accomplished without trampling the First Amendment rights of individuals to speak and the media to report the news.

Transparency is especially critical to public trust in the prosecution of Blankenship because of his history of influencing the courts.

Blankenship in 2004 spent $2.5 million on electing a judge to the West Virginia Supreme Court who then cast deciding votes in Blankenship’s favor in a potentially expensive lawsuit, a ruling the U.S. Supreme Court eventually overturned.

Berger should revoke the gag order.

And over at West Virginia MetroNews, Hoppy Kercheval wrote a commentary headlined, “Judge Berger’s gag order in Blankenship case goes too far,” in which he wrote:

Berger is in a tough spot. She’s presiding over a high profile case. Blankenship faces four charges connected with the operation of the Upper Big Branch mine in Raleigh County where 29 miners died in a 2010 explosion.

The disaster, and Blankenship himself, have been the subject of intense public interest, and thus extensive press coverage.  If the case comes to trial it will draw national attention. Still, West Virginia Press Association executive director Don Smith believes the judge overreached.

“We certainly understand Judge Berger’s position and her concerns about seating a jury, but locking down all the information, all the court records… that goes too far,” Smith told me on “Talkline” Tuesday.

Hoppy continued:

More practically speaking, the gag order in the Blankenship case won’t stop pre-trial coverage, but it may distort it, says the First Amendment Center’s Gene Policinski. “It’s going to take the most informed people out of the discussion,” Policinski told me. “You’re condemning the public to less informed, but not less voluminous coverage.”

Trials, and proceedings leading up to them, are public, with some limited exceptions. That’s guaranteed in the Sixth Amendment, and for good reason. The bright light of openness helps preserve and protect public confidence in the judicial system.

Irene Berger is an experienced and respected adjudicator on the federal bench. Her desire to conduct a fair and impartial proceeding in this case is unquestioned. However the judge should have the same level of respect for the press and the public’s ability—and their right—to follow the Blankenship case unfettered.

Coal

There’s an important story coming out of Kentucky this week that will be of interest to anyone who has followed the water sampling scandals here in West Virginia (see here and here) — or anybody who has just wondered why so much of our water pollution enforcement process is based on industry self-reported data. Here’s the press release from Appalachian Voices:

Over the course of 2013 and 2014, Frasure Creek Mining – one of the largest coal mining companies in Kentucky – sent the state false pollution reports containing almost 28,000 violations of federal law, and the Kentucky Energy and the Environment Cabinet failed to detect the falsifications, according to a letter of notification served to the company by four citizen groups. It was the second time the groups have taken legal action against Frasure Creek for similar violations.

In a 30-page notice of intent to sue mailed Friday, the groups document that Frasure Creek duplicated results from one water pollution monitoring report to the next, misleading government officials and the public about the amount of water pollution the company has been discharging from its eastern Kentucky coal mines. In some cases, Frasure Creek changed only the values that would have constituted violations of pollution limits in the company’s discharge permits. With a potential fine of $37,500 per violation, the maximum penalty could be more than $1 billion.

The Courier-Journal in Louisville explained:

This all comes, of course, as Sen. Mitch McConnell has accused the U.S. EPA of a war on coal, and promises his own war on the EPA, and as the EPA denies any war on coal — and, according to journalist Ronnie Ellis, some Kentucky citizens are arguing that it’s the coal companies that are waging the war … a war on the health and environment of Kentucky.

And, the C-J’s Jim Bruggers noted this response from Kentucky officials:

Contrary to inaccurate and inflammatory statements directed at the Cabinet … the agency has been actively monitoring compliance with Frasure Creek and other coal mining operations in Kentucky. Since 2011 the Division of Enforcement has reviewed approximately 179,000 (discharge monitoring reports) involving 78 coal companies and over 2,200 mining permits, assessed civil penalties in excess of $3,697,000, and has entered into 67 enforcement settlements with coal companies in Kentucky. The agency has and continues to proactively review and take appropriate enforcement actions to resolve violations identified during the inspection and review of coal mining operations.

We’ve covered previous discussion of the Kentucky situation here, and there’s a good summary of the background here, but this time, the story also made The New York Times:

In a state where coal-country creeks run red with iron, Frasure Creek Mining has been unusually clean of late: Amid tens of thousands of measurements that it submitted to Kentucky regulators in 2013 and early 2014, fewer than 400 exceeded the state’s limits for water pollution from coal-mine runoff … The disclosure could embarrass the state, not least because environmental activists caught Frasure and two other coal companies in the same scheme in 2010. Then, regulators promised to tighten their scrutiny of pollution reports and the laboratories that conduct pollution tests.

5 more things about the Don Blankenship indictment

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Gazette file photo by Chip Ellis

There’s been a lot written already about the indictment of longtime Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship (see here, here, here and here for Gazette stories), but there are a few things that readers may have overlooked and are worth knowing:

1.  Prosecutors did not charge Blankenship with actually causing the April 5, 2010, explosion that killed 29 miners at Massey’s Upper Big Branch Mine.

Certainly, the 43-page grand jury indictment mentions the mine disaster, and it alleges that Blankenship was personally an “operator” of the mine who took part in a conspiracy to violate key safety standards that four different investigations (see here, here, here and here) said led to the explosion. But U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin and Assistant U.S. Attorney Steve Ruby stopped just short of blaming Blankenship, of alleging that blowing up the mine was one of his crimes.

Doing so avoids any eventual criminal trial turning into a “battle of experts,” and may remove some of the ability of Blankenship’s defense team to trot out his much-promoted theory that the explosion was basically an “act of God,” caused by an unforeseeable inundation of natural gas.  Also, U.S. District Judge Irene Berger has not exactly been impressed thus far with the testimony of U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration witnesses in previous Upper Big Branch cases (see here and here), and in at least one previous coal-mining disaster cases, the MSHA experts on explosions certainly could have done better.

2.  Financial crimes carry much longer maximum sentences than those for violating workplace safety standards.

Most news reports made clear that the total maximum sentence Blankenship would face if convicted on all four counts of the indictment would be 31 years. Of course, that’s the statutory maximum, and if doesn’t take into account federal sentencing guidelines.  But it hasn’t really been made clear that 20 years of that 32-year maximum sentence would come from Count 4 of the indictment, which charges Blankenship with a violation of 15 U.S.C. 78ff. The count alleges that Blankenship made untrue statements to the investing public when Massey defended its corporate safety record after the mine disaster.

Two other counts of the indictment — Count 2 charging Blankenship with conspiracy to defraud MSHA by advance notice of inspections and Count 3 charging him with making false statements to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission — each carry maximum jail sentences of 5 years. The allegation that actually involves unsafe mining practices is Count 1, which alleges a conspiracy to violate federal mine safety standards.  It carries a maximum sentence of 1 year in jail.

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image003

A personnel carrier that once carried miners underground was left crushed and twisted by a 2006 explosion at the Kentucky Darby mine, which left five workers dead. Department of Labor/MSHA

Our friends at NPR News and the Mine Safety and Health News — Howard Berkes and Ellen Smith — have just posted some remarkable new work from a year-long investigation of what happens when coal mine operators never have to actually pay the safety fines that are assessed for violations of federal standards. Here’s how the web version of the NPR story starts:

Jack Blankenship was pinned facedown in the dirt, his neck, shoulder and back throbbing with pain.

He was alone on an errand, in a dark tunnel a mile underground at the Aracoma Alma coal mine in Logan County, W.Va., when a 300-pound slab of rock peeled away from the roof and slammed him to the ground. As his legs grew numb, he managed to free an arm and reach his radio. For two hours, he pressed the panic button that was supposed to bring help quickly.

“I couldn’t hardly breathe,” Blankenship remembered four years later. “I’d black out and come to. I was waiting to die. I’d already had my little talk with God.”

Aracoma Alma and then-owner Massey Energy had a history of serious safety problems, including falling rock. In the two years before Blankenship’s accident, the mine was cited by federal regulators more than 120 times for rock fall violations, according to records from federal regulators. That included inadequate roof support and deficient safety checks for loose rock.

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