Sustained Outrage

MVP MapWest Virginians who are following pipeline proposal issues might be interested in the latest news out of Kentucky, from WFPL:

The Kentucky Court of Appeals on Friday upheld a lower court’s decision that a natural gas liquids pipeline would not have the right of eminent domain in the commonwealth. The unanimous decision means that only utilities regulated by the Public Service Commission can invoke eminent domain in Kentucky.

Back in March, some residents who are concerned about the Mountain Valley Pipeline filed lawsuits in state court to stop developers of that project from surveying their property without permission. Those cases have been kicked into federal court, and the pipeline developer has also sued residents.

And now, lawyers for the residents are requesting that U.S. District Judge Irene Berger ask the state Supreme Court to provide its guidance on a key legal issue in the case:

Whether, under West Virginia Code § 54-1-1 et seq., a proposed natural gas pipeline is “for public use,” as that term is used in W. Va. Code § 54-1-2(a)(3), when consumers of natural gas in West Virginia will not be served with gas from that pipeline, under reasonable and proper regulations, along the entire line traversed, and for reasonable fixed rates.

Which way should W.Va. go on clean vehicles?

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Alternative fuel vehicles have been getting an unusual amount of attention in West Virginia lately.  Last month, the Gazette and other media gave a lot of attention to this story:

The Interstate 79 corridor will be dotted with four compressed natural gas filling stations by 2014, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin announced during a news conference Thursday.

The announcement took place near the Spring Street Foodland, the site of the planned Charleston station.

IGS Energy-CNG Services will build the four stations. The other three sites are near Jane Lew, Bridgeport and just across the Pennsylvania state line at Mount Morris.

State Sen. Brooks McCabe, D-Kanawha, said that although IGS is an Ohio company, it chose to build the stations in West Virginia because state lawmakers were ready with legislation to make natural gas feasible.

T.J. Meadows, West Virginia business manager for IGS Energy-CNG Services, and a West Virginia native, said the stations in Charleston and Bridgeport should be open and operating by fall.

A few weeks later, West Virginia Public Broadcasting promoted natural gas vehicles with this story:

With technology for natural gas powered vehicles on the horizon, many consumers are sure to be excited about the possibility of lowered fueling costs and reduced emissions. However, there are a few bumps in the road in making these vehicles available for a mass market.

With fueling costs of natural gas vehicles roughly one-third of traditional unleaded gasoline fueled vehicles, motorists are sure to embrace the new technology. Chesapeake Energy spokesperson Phil Pfister explains how these vehicles have fared in other states.

“Right now in Oklahoma, motorists that are fueling up are fueling up for 99 cents a gallon equivalent, versus—we’re paying about $3.50 for gasoline here in West Virginia. In Louisiana motorists are fueling up for about $1.49 a gallon equivalent. So, there is a lot of cost benefit. Additionally, it produces a lot cleaner exhaust stream; less CO2, less carbon monoxide, less particulate matter.”

And today, the local media is giving pretty good play to this report from The Associated Press:

It’s not often that environmental organizations and the coal industry come down on the same side of a policy debate. But that’s happening in West Virginia, where both groups have concerns about Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s proposal to eliminate a state tax incentive for plug-in electric cars and other alternative-fuel vehicles.

The tax credit covers 35 percent of the cost of an alternative-fuel vehicle, up to $7,500 for cars and $25,000 for large trucks. The credit would remain in place for vehicles that run on natural gas, propane and butane, but would be phased out in 2017, rather than 2021 as scheduled.

And since last July, members of a task force appointed by Gov. Tomblin (a task force made up mostly of natural gas industry officials or advocates) have been working on plans for how the state could convert more of its fleet of vehicles to natural gas. The media have treated this all as a no-brainer, writing things like this without any attribution:

The benefits of natural gas as a fuel are clear: It’s cleaner, abundant and costs about half as much as gasoline.

It’s no wonder that a variety of local officials are strongly backing natural gas vehicles. They’re all eager to do whatever they can to help West Virginia cash in on what they believe is a bonanza of economic development related to natural gas drilling in the state’s Marcellus Shale region. What’s been less in evidence, though, is much discussion about whether the state’s current direction on vehicle fuels is one that experts on energy policy and climate change is one that makes sense.

Not everyone who follows policies in this arena is as optimistic about natural gas vehicles as West Virginia political leaders seem to be. For example, the Union of Concerned Scientists makes this recommendation:

Natural gas can play a role in reducing global warming pollution, but using it for transportation fuel does not represent one of the best climate solutions. For example, a natural gas-powered Honda Civic delivers about a 15 percent reduction in global warming pollution compared with a conventional gasoline-powered Civic, but a gasoline-electric Civic hybrid costs less and delivers a 30 percent reduction in emissions.

While it can make sense to use natural gas for vehicles fueled in a central location, such as taxis or delivery vehicles, expanding natural gas use in passenger vehicles would require major investments in new fueling infrastructure that would become obsolete as cleaner technologies come to market. A better use for natural gas in the transportation sector would be as a resource to generate cleaner electricity for plug-in vehicles or hydrogen for fuel cell vehicles.

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There’s a new report out from a coalition of environmental, good-government and deficit hawks that says one way to cut federal spending and help with the deficit is to end certain energy industry subsidies.

The “Green Scissors 2011” report concludes:

Ending a third of a trillion dollars in environmentally harmful subsidies could go a long way toward solving our nation’s budget challenges.

[The report] provides a roadmap to saving up to $380 billion over five years by curbing wasteful spending that harms the environment.  That amounts to a full quarter of the savings the new congressional Super Committee has been charged with obtaining, in half the time.

The report, issued by progressive environmental group Friends of the Earth, deficit hawk Taxpayers for Common Sense, consumer watchdog Public Citizen and free-market think tank The Heartland Institute, propose cutting many fossil fuel, nuclear and alternative energy subsidies. Other targets include massive giveaways of publicly owned timber, poorly conceived road projects and a bevy of questionable Army Corps of Engineers water projects.

Ryan Alexander, president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, said:

These common sense cuts represent the lowest of the low hanging budgetary fruit. Lawmakers across the political spectrum should be scrambling to eliminate these examples of wasteful spending and unnecessary tax breaks that are squandering our precious tax dollars while the nation is staring into a chasm of debt.

Beware the Marcellus Shale gas boom?

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A new report from the West Virginia Center for Budget and Policy offers some cautions about the much-touted boom in oil and gas drilling in our state.

The report, Booms and Busts: The Impact of West Virginia’s Energy Economy, concludes:

In the past, West Virginia counties with a concentration in mining saw their economic performance dramatically decline after an energy development boom. Today, their economies are weaker than the rest of the state, and they are ill-positioned to compete and grow. It is uncertain whether today’s energy boom, led by natural gas extraction, will bring the prosperity to West Virginia that it promises. While the potential revenues from this boom seem to be an attractive source of economic growth for communities, history shows that natural resource booms inevitably lead to busts.

This pattern is likely to repeat itself in counties that focus heavily on the Marcellus Shale development as the main source of economic growth. Indicators suggest that relying on an energy boom is not a definite solution for long-term growth and prosperity. The Marcellus Shale development has the potential to place unprecedented strains on the communities where drilling occurs. Researchers and analysts are just beginning to understand the environmental, health, and infrastructural impact of Marcellus Shale drilling. It remains unclear if natural gas drilling can create sustained economic growth for counties.

While the present and future impact of natural gas drilling remains uncertain, there will certainly be an initial boom in economic activity due to the Marcellus Shale development. However, positive long-term economic growth will come only from a diverse economy with a highly educated workforce. West Virginia can benefit in the long-term by capturing revenue from today’s boom activity and converting it into a permanent source of wealth. This can be done through the creation of a Permanent Mineral Trust Fund financed by severance taxes. Such a fund would be used to promote economic diversification and development, and would help ensure that the wealth generated by the energy boom stays in West Virginia and remains long after the mining resources are gone. The interest income from the permanent fund can be used for economic diversification, such as investments in early child care and higher education, infrastructure projects like high-speed broadband, renewable energy and remediation, and grants to help entrepreneurs and other business owners.

In this photo made off NHK TV video footage, a Japan Self-Defense Force helicopter dumps water over the No. 3 unit of the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant in Okumamachi, Fukushima Prefecture, Thursday, March 17, 2011. The Japanese caption reads: “No. 3 unit of Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant, Japan Self-Defense Force helicopter began to dump water.” (AP Photo/NHK TV)

A lengthy McClatchy Newspapers story about how Japan’s nuclear plant crisis is affecting energy policy debates here in the United States had an interesting passage quoting West Virginia Sen. Jay Rockefeller:

Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., for instance, noted that while he’s “not a big fan of nuclear power … we don’t make (decisions) out of emotion; we don’t make them because of a catastrophe in another country. So before we make the decision, let’s be thoughtful about it.”

Among the flurry of media reports coming out of the Japanese crisis, a couple of things are especially interesting.

First, there’s a New York Times story that explains:

The warnings were stark and issued repeatedly as far back as 1972: If the cooling systems ever failed at a “Mark 1” nuclear reactor, the primary containment vessel surrounding the reactor would probably burst as the fuel rods inside overheated. Dangerous radiation would spew into the environment.

Now, with one Mark 1 containment vessel damaged at the embattled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant and other vessels there under severe strain, the weaknesses of the design — developed in the 1960s by General Electric — could be contributing to the unfolding catastrophe.

When the ability to cool a reactor is compromised, the containment vessel is the last line of defense. Typically made of steel and concrete, it is designed to prevent — for a time — melting fuel rods from spewing radiation into the environment if cooling efforts completely fail.

In some reactors, known as pressurized water reactors, the system is sealed inside a thick steel-and-cement tomb. Most nuclear reactors around the world are of this type.

But the type of containment vessel and pressure suppression system used in the failing reactors at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi plant is physically less robust, and it has long been thought to be more susceptible to failure in an emergency than competing designs. In the United States, 23 reactors at 16 locations use the Mark 1 design, including the Oyster Creek plant in central New Jersey, the Dresden plant near Chicago and the Monticello plant near Minneapolis.

G.E. began making the Mark 1 boiling-water reactors in the 1960s, marketing them as cheaper and easier to build — in part because they used a comparatively smaller and less expensive containment structure.

American regulators began identifying weaknesses very early on.

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Is the Marcellus boom a good idea?

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West Virginia political leaders and their campaign spinmeisters are furiously promoting the boom in drilling for natural gas in the Marcellus Shale. Folks seem to be eager to count the money that might be generated.

We’re hearing less from most of them about legislation that the state’s environmental protection secretary, Randy Huffman, has said is urgently needed to regulate this drilling.

With that backdrop, there was a fascinating report released last month by the respected Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at Manchester University. The report examines the question of whether the U.K. should advance drilling into shale gas formations. In trying to find answers, U.K. scientists looked at what’s happened so far in the United States in the Marcellus Shale.

Citing concerns about water pollution, public health and — most of all, climate change — the report questions the whole idea that this natural gas boom is a good thing, saying:

…In an energy hungry world, any new fossil fuel resource will only lead to additional carbon emissions. In the case of shale gas there is also a significant risk its use will delay the introduction of renewable energy alternatives.

Professor Kevin Anderson at the Tyndall Centre said:

Consequently, if we are serious in our commitment to avoid dangerous climate change, the only safe place for shale gas remains in the ground.

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Do Clean Air Act regulations hurt the economy?

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Some of you might have missed her testimony, because House Republicans rarely let EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson finish a sentence today before they interrupted to complain about how EPA regulations were hurting the nation’s economy.

But if they had listened to Jackson just a little bit, they might have heard some interesting statistics about the federal Clean Air Act, such as:

In 1990 alone, EPA’s implementation of the Act prevented an estimated 18 million child respiratory illnesses, 850,000 asthma attacks, 674,000 cases of chronic bronchitis, and 205,000 premature deaths.


The mere monetary value of saving Americans from those harms through implementing the Clean Air Act is projected to reach $2 trillion in 2020 alone. Over the period from 1990 through 2020, the monetary value to Americans of the Act’s protection is projected to exceed the cost of that protection by a factor of more than 30 to 1.

That’s just part of what Jackson was trying to tell members of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce during a hearing that focused on efforts to rewrite the Clean Air Act to block EPA from regulating greenhouse gas emissions. She summarized some of the law’s benefits in this letter to the committee’s ranking Democratic member, Rep. Henry Waxman.

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Marcellus Shale drives up gas reserve estimates

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Well site during active drilling to the Marcelllus Shale formation in Upshur County, West Virginia, in 2008. Photo copyright West Virginia Surface Owners Rights Organization.

This just in today from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Energy Information Administration:

U.S. natural gas proved reserves, estimated as “wet” gas which includes natural gas plant liquids, increased by 11 percent in 2009 to 284 trillion cubic feet (Tcf), the highest level since 1971, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration’s (EIA) Summary: U.S. Crude Oil, Natural Gas, and Natural Gas Liquids Reserves, 2009, released today. “Shale gas development drove an 11 percent increase in U.S. natural gas proved reserves last year, to their highest level since 1971, demonstrating the growing importance of shale gas in meeting both current and projected energy needs,” said Richard Newell, EIA’s Administrator. “Louisiana, Arkansas, Texas, Oklahoma, and Pennsylvania were the leading states in adding new proved reserves of shale gas during 2009,” he said.

You can read the press release here and the full EIA report here.

NY’s former top environmental official talks fracturing

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Today’s must-read is an interview by ProPublica’s Marie C. Baca with Pete Grannis, who, until he was fired last month, was commissioner of New York State’s Department of Environmental Conservation. While in office, Grannis created the first fracturing chemical disclosure rules in the country.

With some of the northernmost reaches of the Marcellus shale formation located in New York, Grannis has dealt with many of the same issues confronting regulators in West Virginia. (See previous coverage here, here, here, here and here.)

Here are a few questions and answers, but I encourage anyone interested to read the entire interview, which occurred over two sessions.

What was it like to balance two mandates from the state: to protect New York’s environment, and to develop those resources for profit?

Well, there are obviously pressures on both sides. My job as a regulator was to make sure that legal activity took place in a way that didn’t harm the environment. We really committed huge resources to making sure that if this process is to proceed it will be done safely. … We were very clear that we weren’t going to rush ahead and then wonder if we did it right later on.

But in the summer of 2008, the DEC seemed prepared to issue permits for hydraulic fracturing without exploring the possibility of water contamination or having a clear idea of how drillers would treat the wastewater.

That is not true. Right from the beginning we understood that this issue required additional review. We were under no obligation to push for something beyond the generic environmental impact statement, but we felt like it was the right thing to do. Some of the accusations you’re talking about have been extraordinary, but the truth is that the department has a phenomenal track record of regulating drilling, and we’ve set the most stringent standards in the country for hydraulic fracturing.

Was there ever a time when you felt the dual mandates from the state created a conflict for you?

For most of my environmental stakeholders, the people I know and work with, there was near-universal condemnation of the possibility of drilling. I felt tremendous pressure from friends and colleagues to make sure this was done right. On the other hand, the landowners in some of these poor communities across the southern tier saw [drilling] as a salvation. They were sold a bill of goods that their payments were contingent upon drilling activities beginning sooner. They were putting pressure on us, the administration and their local legislators, to move more quickly. But I never thought of it as a real conflict. I knew very clearly what our responsibilities were. I knew there was this divide between the fact that this was a legal activity and the fact that it has considerable disruptive potential. This drilling is an unattractive, disruptive, commercial activity with requirements that need to be met. I was never in any doubt that if we found a path forward it would be in a way that didn’t affect the environment.

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WVDEP, WVDNR react to Chief Logan ruling

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We did a quick blog post yesterday to let readers know about the state Supreme Court’s ruling that paves the way for oil and gas drilling in Chief Logan State Park.

There’s more in today’s Gazette, with a complete news story on this important decision.

But I also wanted to pass on reactions from the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, whose decision to block this drilling was overturned by the Supreme Court, and by the state Division of Natural Resources, whose ability to protect park lands could be hampered by this ruling.

WVDEP spokeswoman Kathy Cosco had this to say yesterday:

The DEP’s argument in this case was that the Secretary has the authority to rely on other agencies environmental statutes when determining the issuance of permits. The court did not speak to that issue in this ruling, so we believe that should a similar case come up in the future the agency can still exercise that authority.

And WVDNR spokesman Hoy Murphy said only this:

We are reviewing the court’s decision to determine what effect it may have on DNR’s statutory duties to protect state parks.

In addition, I asked Tom Susman, a spokesman for Cabot Oil and Gas and the Lawson Heirs, when the drilling is scheduled to begin, and this is what he told me:

They just got the ruling and are reviewing it. There are no timelines at this point.