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A Balancing Act

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Bill Gadino instructs Jonathan Vicente Candelario on vine pulling at his winery near Washington. Photo: Luke Christopher, Rappahannock News.

This story is part of a series of special reports titled “Work in Progress,” with support from Foothills Forum and Rappahannock News looking at the dynamics of changing agricultural economies. The story was originally published by Rappahannock News.

As Rappahannock ages and farmers struggle, where does business — particularly tourism — fit into the economic mix?

Rappahannock County is the kind of place that makes dreams seem possible.

Bill Gadino knows this. It was almost 30 years ago that he bought a rolling patch of 15 acres between Washington and Sperryville, secluded behind the county’s elementary school, yet not far from the tourist thruway of Route 211.

Within a year, he was planting grapes, and soon was selling them to the Gray Ghost Vineyards down the highway. In 2003, he and his wife, Aleta, took the leap and moved here. A year later, they started making their own wine. The year after that, Gadino Cellars opened for business.

The dream was coming into focus.

It wasn’t easy, but in time, as many as 150 people were showing up at the winery on a good weekend.

Lately, the future seems less clear. Weekend crowds have shrunk to more like 60 or 70 people, he said. The boom in Virginia wineries and cideries — there are more than 260 — has not been good for the ones in Rappahannock. Now, there’s much more competition between here and Washington, D.C., and local wineries are feeling the pinch.

Bill Gadino and Tracy Miller tend to the tasting room bar at Gadino Cellars.
Photo: Luke Christopher, Rappahannock News.

“We’ve built a beautiful place here, but this is draining for us, expense-wise,” said Sudha Patel, owner of Narmada Winery in Amissville. “You worry how long can you keep it up.”

Bill Gadino shared a recent, troubling conversation with a mother and daughter who had stopped by. He mentioned to the mother that he hadn’t seen her for a while.

“And she said, ‘You’re just too far for me to come out to.’ I asked her where she was coming from,” he recalled. “And she said, ‘Oh, I live in Gainesville.’ That’s the mentality of people.”

When tourists do make the drive here, he added, they often expect to pay less for their wine than they would closer to D.C. And so, business has taken a hit, as has Bill and Aleta’s plan of one day turning the winery over to their daughter, Stephanie and son-in-law, Derek Pross, who worked there. The younger couple has moved to North Carolina.

“She told me, ‘It’s not going to grow, Dad. It’s going down, it’s not going up.’”

Old in, young out

The Gadino story is a familiar one. Someone falls in love with the rapturous beauty of the Rappahannock countryside and concludes that it’s hard to imagine a more fulfilling place to live and start a business.

But economic, demographic and technological realities have a way of complicating matters. Most new business owners — particularly those in any way reliant on tourists — know things can go dead during the winter when lodges and campgrounds in Shenandoah National Park are closed, but they often don’t realize how dead. And, there just aren’t enough people living here full-time to help ease the pain much. At 27.9 people per square mile, Rappahannock ranks 122nd among Virginia’s 132 cities and counties in population density.

Craig Batchelor, Sperryville entrepreneur. Photo: Luke Christopher, Rappahannock News.

They also learn how hard it can be to find and hold on to workers, especially with so many young locals moving away to what they see as better opportunities elsewhere. Then there’s the challenge of doing business in a community where reliable cellphone and broadband service can be a roll of the dice.

Craig Batchelor has been wrestling with these issues for two years, ever since he and his wife, Caitlin, and his brother Clay, bought the Sperryville complex now containing Thornton River Grille restaurant, the Corner Store, Rappahannock Pizza Kitchen (RPK) and the Francis Bar. With just under 50 people working for him, he’s now one of the top 10 employers in the county. Many of his employees live outside Rappahannock, which means a commute that costs them time and money, and can also lead to staffing headaches during bad weather.

He sees firsthand how hard it is for young people to find a niche here. And that makes him worry about the county’s future.

“When I stay awake and worry about things at night, it’s that aging of the community,” he said. “It’s a slow, definite trend over the next 10 or 15 years.”

Batchelor said he’s met a lot of millennials who have grown up in Rappahannock. Some leave and come back. Most don’t.

“Those who have stayed have tried to eke it out,” he said, “but that often means having a lot of different jobs. That may be fine when you’re 20 or 21, but when you’re 27, it kinda gets old, especially if you want to start a family. If you want to get more stability, that can be hard here.”

So can finding a place to live that’s within the means of younger workers. That’s why Debbie Donehey, owner of Griffin Tavern in Flint Hill, offers employees a reduced rate at a few rental properties she and her husband, Jim, own in the county.

The staff at Flint Hill’s Griffin Tavern celebrate the departure of an employee. From left to right: Jim Donehey, Raegan Miller, Debbie Donehey, Andy Camp, Taylor Leotta and Eric Ralls.
Photo: Luke Christopher, Rappahannock News.

“People can’t work at the Tavern and afford to pay $1,000 a month rent,” she said.

Future expenses

Like Batchelor, Donehey, who describes Rappahannock as “my little part of heaven,” sees the community moving into a period of transition. As its residents get older, they will likely need more services, particularly when it comes to emergency care.

“It will be very difficult to do everything the county will need to do without more income of some sort,” she said.

Where that comes from is the question that hangs over the community’s future like a thundercloud. Currently, about 84 percent of the county’s local revenue comes through property taxes. Donehey appreciates how the idea of relying more on commerce to generate revenue can stir up waves of anxiety.

She’s had personal experience with rural transformation, having grown up near Doswell, Va., a tiny hamlet in Hanover County until King’s Dominion arrived in the 1970s. At first, it seemed a blessing — “As a kid, I thought ‘Oh, we’re getting a Burger King,’” she remembers — but the place was forever changed.

Yet, Donehey, a former chair of the Virginia Restaurant, Lodging & Travel Association, believes efforts to attract more tourists to Rappahannock can help the county financially without ruining the idyllic feel of a place without stoplights.

“It’s very difficult to prove to people who are opposed to promoting tourism that it’s going to add value to your community,” she said. “But I really believe there is value there.

“I would hope there’s a big future for agritourism here if we can figure out what it is. We have some darn savvy people in this county. And, they care about it and want it to stay this way. But they also understand we have expenses.”

Not money well spent?

While tourism is generally acknowledged as a financial opportunity — including in the county’s comprehensive plan — there’s hardly consensus over how big an opportunity and how much money and effort should be expended in trying to boost it.

Tourism’s direct contribution to the county’s budget is still quite small. Revenue from the local tax on meals (4 percent) and lodging (2 percent) has risen from just under $100,000 in 2000 to more than $260,000 for the current fiscal year, but that remains just slightly more than 1.5 percent of total revenue from local sources. (Any meals or lodging tax revenue generated by the Inn at Little Washington and other restaurants and B&Bs in Washington goes to the town only).

Another source of tax revenue is the state sales tax, currently at 5.3 percent. One percent of that revenue — now about $515,000 a year — comes back to Rappahannock. Not only is that only 3.5 percent of total revenue from local sources, but it’s based on all sales, not just those to tourists.

Just under $50,000 has been allocated in the FY 2018 county budget to promote Rappahannock — about 0.2 percent of the total budget or about $7 per county resident. That includes a payment of $9,000 to Sandra Maskas, who, Friday through Sunday, welcomes and advises tourists who stop by the Rappahannock County Visitor Center on Route 211.

But Rappahannock is one of a handful of counties in Virginia without even a part-time tourism director. The last person to fill that role, Laura Overstreet, retired in 2012 and was never replaced.

Board of Supervisors vice chair Chris Parrish remains convinced that it’s not money well spent. He believes that paying someone to develop a tourism strategy and coordinate events and promotion would not be a fruitful investment. In fact, he’s not sure the county benefits that much from having a visitor center.

“If you took that away, I don’t think you’d see a marked difference in tourism,” he said. “Tourism will spread by itself by word of mouth. People come out here and they enjoy themselves and they go back home and talk about it.

“When it comes to tourism,” he added, “you have to be a little careful of what you wish for. I’ve been to places that have been ruined by tourism. You know, the traffic, the attitude of the people.”

Connecting the dots

Others, though, argue that tourism doesn’t have to be a destructive force, that in a place like Rappahannock it’s more about piecing together a marketable mosaic of what it already has to offer — from wineries and B&Bs to events as varied as the Farm Tour and the “Yeaster” party at Pen Druid Brewery in Sperryville.

Patti Brennan, owner of De’Danann Glassworks.
Photo: Luke Christopher, Rappahannock News.

“What you hear from B&B owners a lot is their guests always ask, ‘What am I going to do out here?’” said artist Patti Brennan, owner of De’Danann Glassworks. “There’s actually a lot to do, but it has to be presented in an organized way. No owner of a B&B is going to know all the things going on out here.”

Brennan, who thinks relying on word-of-mouth promotion is “short-sighted,” has done her part to get local artists, wineries and restaurants more exposure by getting them connected to the Virginia Artisan Trail Network, a statewide organization that maps out regional experiences for tourists by linking together artisans and hospitality businesses.

She contends that the county needs a staff person to connect the dots and cultivate collaboration among businesses, with the goal of getting tourists to associate Rappahannock with experiences other than pretty views. And, she believes that tourism doesn’t have to have a big footprint.

“Yes, our landscape is the Rappahannock brand,” said Brennan, who has lived in the county since 1981. “But we also do have a concentration of very talented people. None of what they’ve brought out here has done damage. Things really haven’t changed that much.”

Carl Henrickson, who with his wife, Donna, opened the Little Washington Winery off Route 211 in 2011, agrees that people need to be given a reason beyond beautiful scenery to drive out here. “At first, we sat here like everyone else in Rappahannock, waiting for people to show up. We put a sign up and we thought ‘We’re done with marketing.’”

But there were long stretches on weekend mornings and early afternoons when visitors were scarce. So, in 2012, they came up with the idea of a Wine Bootcamp — two-hour classes of 20 people wanting to learn wine basics. Carl Henrickson estimates that since then, based on their email database of Bootcamp graduates, close to 10,000 have attended. Also, he said, they spend about $20,000 a year to promote it.

He maintains that the time has come for the county to do a better job of projecting a more wide-ranging Rappahannock experience to the outside world. “What we’re missing is that branding that says we have a product, and this is that product.”

Not just for tourists

Not long ago, Theresa Wood, in her capacity as president of Businesses of Rappahannock (BOR), was at a conference in Richmond with tourism directors representing counties around Virginia. More than once, she said, when a person heard she was from Rappahannock, they would tell her, “Oh, I love Rappahannock. It’s so beautiful there on the water.”

The confusion with the river that flows into Chesapeake Bay is good for a laugh, but that lack of awareness is also probably reassuring to those in the community who believe the less outsiders know about Rappahannock, the better.

Theresa Wood, Businesses of Rappahannock president and Kattle 1 Beef owner
Photo: Luke Christopher, Rappahannock News.

Wood gets that. She knows how many of the 188 businesses that are BOR members were started by people who chose to give it a go in Rappahannock because it isn’t like other places. But she also believes that boosting local business doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing proposition.

“The vision we have is that the very thing Rappahannock has to offer — its natural beauty — we don’t want to change any of that,” said Wood, an owner of Kattle 1 Beef. “We’re not looking to put a hotel on 211.”

But there is value, she said, in exploring how other rural communities are adapting to uncertain futures, and what kind of businesses they see as having the most potential to sustain, rather than change them.

“My concern is that if we haven’t planned for making a bridge between agriculture and tourism, then we could be in trouble,” Wood said.

To that end, Wood has been encouraging BOR companies to tap into the considerable promotional muscle and grant opportunities of the Virginia Tourism Corporation, the driving force behind the state’s tourism industry, which generated an estimated $25 billion in revenue last year.

Theresa Wood and Kurt Ahlman, co-proprietors of Kattle 1 Beef, take a break from tending to their Black Angus cows.
Photo: Luke Christopher, Rappahannock News.

The BOR board has also held workshops to help members get up to speed in using Facebook and other marketing skills and doing smartphone photography to keep up with competitors in bigger markets with better broadband.

But those things take up time, something owners rarely can spare when they’re running very small businesses like those so common in Rappahannock — by far, the largest number of companies here have four employees or fewer.

Wood has made a point of trying to raise the profile of local companies. For the first time, BOR is working closely with The Inn at Little Washington to incorporate more county businesses into the big “InnStock” 40th anniversary celebration in September.

Black Angus cows of Kattle 1 Beef grazing in a pasture.
Photo: Luke Christopher, Rappahannock News.

Also, this year the BOR has staged four ribbon-cutting ceremonies, to mark the openings of Happy Camper and Stonewall Abbey Wellness in Sperryville, LeFay Cottage at Little Washington and Hazel River Arts and Antiques. It’s a symbolic gesture, but one meant to spotlight the role they play in the community.

“Many of the businesses here don’t just serve tourists,” she said. “They help sustain a way of life.”

Career challenges

That way of life, of course, is why a lot of businesses are started in Rappahannock. Often, it’s more a personal decision than a strategic one, based on the allure of a place rather than conventional market assets, such as easy access to a major highway, a skilled local workforce, a robust supply of potential customers.

So, many struggle, and if they do grow, it’s slowly, which means few opportunities for young workers. Other factors, including the county’s technological shortcomings, also help stifle career options.

Take the booming field of software programming. It’s not really in play here. “Training in coding is huge right now. We could do that here,” said RappU founder Doug Schiffman. “But I just don’t know that the demand is there in the community.

“There are things we could do if we had full-blown cellphone and internet access here that we can’t do now,” he added. “If we had a cellphone network here, Rappahannock would be the perfect place for Uber and Lyft. You have all these people who are underemployed who have vehicles. You have all these older people who need rides everywhere and are able to pay for it. But we have no way of connecting them.”

Currently, the greatest employment potential appears to be in providing services to the demographic group growing most quickly — affluent retirees. That ranges from landscaping their gardens and mowing their fields to providing care when their health starts to slide.

In line with that trend, RappU has focused its vocational training programs on health care, including a popular course to earn certification as a nurse aide. Schiffman said students are being recruited for jobs before they even graduate.

But no company that hires nurse aides is located in Rappahannock, which means course graduates either work for a company in another county, or they work off the books here.

Harold Beebout, Sperryville Volunteer Rescue squad chief, with Doug Schiffman, RappU founder, and Todd Summers, a Sperryville volunteer ambulance driver. Photo: Luke Christopher, Rappahannock News.

That frustrates Schiffman. “My goal is not to train people and have them work in the underground economy,” he said. “But they can often make more money getting paid cash than if they work for a company.

“We want them to be able to get real jobs, get real salaries, with paid benefits, and that allow them to put money toward a retirement account,” he said. “The disappointment continues to be that the employers are not in Rappahannock. There’s nothing I can do about that.”

Breaking down walls

The Corner Store complex at the intersection of Main St. and Sperryville Pike. Photo: Luke Christopher, Rappahannock News.

It’s appropriate that Craig Batchelor’s stake in Rappahannock sits at Sperryville’s main intersection. It’s not an exaggeration to suggest that his four businesses operate at a critical symbolic crossroads of the Rappahannock economy. The newer enterprises — RPK and the Francis Bar — are geared more to tourists and an upscale crowd, while the Corner Store has a long legacy in the community, and still sells basics, such as eggs, milk and paper towels, although at higher than grocery store prices.

Batchelor’s fortunes also are tangled with the county’s growing age imbalance. Yes, older, more affluent people are a big part of his customer base, but there’s that problem of having a healthy enough supply of younger workers to keep them satisfied.

Craig Batchelor, right, at Francis Bar, with front of the house manager Erin Platt and bartender Jenny Mello.
Photo: Luke Christopher, Rappahannock News.

Batchelor, an older millennial, wonders if there will ever be a new wave of people his age who settle here.

“I would love to have more young people here, for a lot of reasons,” he said. “We need a great team of young people who are passionate and interested in locally sourced food, people who share the values of Rappahannock and want to invest their lives here. We need that.”

He also hopes that over time, new businesses will not be viewed as a harbinger of upheaval.

Katelyn Fisher prepares the dough for RPK’s wood-fired pizza oven.
Photo: Luke Christopher, Rappahannock News.

“I would like us to be able to strike a balance between our various demographics, while being honest about it,” Batchelor said. “One of the things I don’t love about our community is the been-here’s/come-here’s thing. I would love to have a business enterprise that is respectful to everybody.

“I would want folks who have been here a long time to know that we’re not only catering to tourists. I really don’t want to be another ‘either-or’ business. I’d like to break down some of those walls. Maybe that’s totally pie in the sky. But you have to try.”

This article was originally published by Rappahannock News

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House Dems Looking to Restore Obama-era Policies on Public Land Oil & Gas Leases

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Rep. Alan Lowenthal of California chairing an earlier meeting of the House Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources. Photo: Courtesy House Committee on Natural Resources

The Democratically controlled House of Representatives is continuing its push to essentially reverse the Trump administration’s rollback of environmental regulations, this time focusing on a policy that has largely impacted rural and native populations in the U.S.

The House Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources held its third hearing last week on a bill to change the policies that govern leasing for oil and gas development on public lands through a bill to restore community input in the leasing process. H.R 3225, Restoring Community Input and Public Protections in Oil and Gas Leasing Act of 2019, is sponsored by Democratic Rep. Mike Levin of California.

The process of granting leases for development on public lands falls under the purview of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in the federal Department of Interior (DOI). In a January 2018 policy, the BLM shortened the protest period for lease sales from 30 to 10 days, removed the requirement for the public to be involved during the lease nominations, and removed the 30-day review and comment period for environmental reviews. H.R. 3225 would reverse the shortened time periods to previous standards and also increase royalty and rental rates for leases on public lands.

Subcommittee chairman Rep. Alan Lowenthal of California opened Thursday’s hearing by saying that the government’s responsibility to balance access to natural resources on public lands with protective measures to secure it for future generations cannot be accomplished without input from local public and tribal communities. He accused the BLM of instead prioritizing the size and frequency of lease sales in the last couple years.

But the BLM’s Deputy Director of Operations Michael Nedd defended the current policy and reminded the committee nearly half of the generated revenue goes back to the lease host states. Nedd said that in 2018 the federal lands produced over $3 billion in federal revenue and added 2018 was a record year for lease sales revenue.

He was supported by a number of GOP members of the committee who pointed to the National Environmental Policy Act as already providing a space for community input on such leases. The NEPA is administered by the Environmental Protection Agency, requiring the EPA to review and comment on the environmental impact statements of all other federal agencies under the Clean Air Act.  

The 2018 policy changes were also meant to remove redundancy in oversight of these leases and reduce the unnecessary burden on businesses created by the previous presidential administration, according to ranking minority member Paul Gosar. 

Gosar pointed to a number of Obama-era policies he said are the reason the U.S. had seen drastic declines in the number of leases managed by the BLM. According to Gosar, by the end of Obama’s administration, the number was the lowest since 1985. 

The current policy, however, has led to a score of ongoing lawsuits attempting to block the leases, which Lowenthal said were a direct result of excluding tribal and other communities from the consultation process. Among them are proposed lease sales in Nevada’s Ruby Mountain, Chaco Canyon in New Mexico, Bears Ears National Monument in Utah and efforts to hold a lease sale in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska.

And during previous subcommittee hearings, members were presented with evidence that despite increasing revenues, there have been negative impacts to the health of both the people and the environment of the communities experiencing what Gosar called an “energy renaissance.” 

Emily Collins, who testified at a subcommittee meeting earlier this year, represents rural residents in the Pittsburgh and Akron areas through the non-profit Fair Shake Environmental Legal Services. Since 2014, Collins testified, 33 to 42 percent of the cases she’s taken on have involved oil and gas extraction, and 45 individual cases related specifically to water contamination.

Collins said the vast majority of her clients’ environmental problems were caused by a “lack of governmental investigation of the site-specific geological characteristics of the areas being developed and under resourced local jurisdictions.”

Len Necefer, a professor of both American Indian Studies and Public Policy at the  University of Arizona, recalled a long and personal history of health impacts among his Navajo community from unchecked, or under-regulated energy development during his testimony last week. 

The bill was introduced on June 12 and is now on course for a full committee hearing before it can make its way to the House chamber. The date for the full House Natural Resources Committee hearing hasn’t been set yet.

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Trump Administration Replaces Obama-Era Climate Change Rule on Power Plants

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Mt. Storm Power Plant in West Virginia. Photo: Cecilia Mason/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

This article was originally published by the Ohio Valley ReSource.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Wednesday released its long-awaited final replacement for the Obama administration’s signature climate change regulation, which sought to limit greenhouse gas emissions from power plants by one-third by 2025.

The Trump administration’s Affordable Clean Energy rule, or ACE, tasks states with developing plans that rely on the use of efficiency technologies to reduce carbon emissions at existing power plants.

That stands in contrast to its predecessor, the Clean Power Plan, which was never fully-implemented. The controversial rule, which was challenged in court by 27 states including West Virginia, Ohio, and Kentucky, took a broad approach to reducing emissions throughout the power sector.

At a press conference, EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said the final ACE rule ensures a future for coal-fired power plants.

“ACE will continue our nation’s environmental progress and it will do so legally and with proper respect to our states,” he said. “We are leveling the playing field and encouraging innovation and technology across the sector.”

Many of the Ohio Valley’s Republican lawmakers attended the EPA press conference and expressed gratitude toward the agency for the ACE rule.

“I am so excited about what it will do for West Virginia and our surrounding states,” said Rep. Carol Miller, a Republican representing West Virginia’s third district. “The Affordable Clean Energy rule takes great steps in ensuring that mines will stay open by giving the power back to the states, restoring the rule of law and supporting America’s energy diversity and affordability.”

Bill Bissett, president and CEO of the Huntington Regional Chamber of Commerce told the crowd the ACE rule provides optimism to coal-producing regions.

“It provides the security that we’re going to power West Virginia and power this country with coal and natural gas,” he said.

However, industry analysts and experts have said the replacement regulation has very little chance of bringing the coal industry back across the Ohio Valley. They say the new rule does not change the larger economic trends affecting the power industry. Low natural gas prices and the rapidly falling costs for renewable energy generation are the primary challenges for coal.

ACE Analysis

The rule also does not address the challenges associated with mining thermal coal in the region: it costs more to extract coal in Appalachia, partly because the region’s coal seams have been mined for generations.

A 2018 report by West Virginia University’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research  predicted the recent uptick in West Virginia coal production — about 27 percent since mid-2016 driven largely by exports of metallurgical coal — will level out in the next two years.

In the agency’s own in-depth analysis of the final ACE rule, EPA predicts the amount of coal produced in the U.S. is expected to decrease across the board. In Appalachia, coal mines would produce at least 80 percent less coal in 2035 than they did in 2017.

Some utilities in the region said they do not expect to keep their coal plants running longer because of the ACE rule.

Melissa McHenry, a spokesperson for American Electric Power, which operates in 11 states including Kentucky, Ohio, and West Virginia, said it will be several years before the impact of the ACE rule can be determined. In an email, she said AEP continues to diversify its fuel mix and invest in cleaner forms of energy, including renewables, and the company expects that the proportion of coal in its fuel mix will continue to decline.

“We don’t expect to keep our coal plants running longer due to this rule,” she stated. “The coal plants will run as long as the overall economics make sense. Ultimately, we have to continue to make the case to state utility commissions that continuing to operate these plants is in the best interest of our customers.”

A spokesperson for FirstEnergy Corp.’s Fort Martin and Harrison coal-fired power plants in West Virginia said it is “not making any immediate changes” to operations as a result of the new rule.

Chris Perry, president and CEO of Kentucky Electric Cooperatives was more optimistic about the rule’s impact. In a statement, he said the ACE rule “provides a more flexible path forward, which will minimize the cost to members and preserve the reliability of the electric grid as our co-ops work to promote a healthy environment and vibrant rural communities.”

Legal Challenge

Hours after EPA announced it had finalized the rule, some environmental groups and the New York Attorney General announced they intend to sue the agency for failing to protect both public health and the climate under the Clean Air Act.

David Doniger, a lawyer and senior strategic director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s climate and clean energy program, said in the intervening years since the Clean Power Plan was announced, the energy sector has achieved emissions reductions in line with that rule, despite it never being fully implemented, solely because of market forces.

“The right thing to do would be to strengthen the Clean Power Plan and not kill it,” he said. “The right thing to do would be to take care of coal miners and coal communities in the transition to a clean energy economy. This administration isn’t do either of those things.”

West Virginia Sierra Club Conservation Committee Chair Jim Kotcon said the final ACE rule is a step backward for both the climate and for those who live near the region’s many coal-fired power plants.

“We will have a disproportionate impact of those health risks from this rule change,” he said.

He added that if EPA wanted to extend a lifeline to the coal industry, the agency should seriously invest and incentivize the use of carbon capture and sequestration technology.

“But they have not done that, and without that, I don’t believe that the current market trends for coal will get much better,” Kotcon said. “So, we’re not really saving coal-fired power plants. We’re not using this technology. We are impacting the health of our residents, and we are increasing the overall greenhouse gas emissions that would otherwise have been eliminated.”

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As Appalachia Ponders Plastics Growth, Report Warns Of Threat to Climate

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Photo: Courtesy PTTGCA

This article was originally published by the Ohio Valley ReSource.

As a new plastics industry emerges in the Ohio Valley, a report by environmental groups warns that the expansion of plastics threatens the world’s ability to keep climate change at bay.

The report released Wednesday by the Center for International Environmental Law, Environmental Integrity Project, FracTracker Alliance, and others used publicly available emissions data and original research to measure greenhouse gas emissions throughout the entire life cycle of plastics. That includes the extraction of natural gas, used as a feedstock for plastic production, to the incineration of plastic products or their final resting place in the world’s oceans.

“Ninety-nine percent of what goes into plastics is fossil fuels and their climate impacts actually start at the wellhead and the drill pad,” said Carroll Muffett, president of the nonprofit Center for International Environmental Law and one of the authors of the report. “In light of the fact that the build-out of plastics infrastructure is ongoing and accelerating, we wanted to better understand the implications of that massive new build out of plastics infrastructure for the global climate.”

Fossil-Fueled Plastics

The report estimates production and incineration of plastic this year will add more than 850 million metric tons of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, or equal to the pollution of building 189 new coal-fired power plants.

That figure will rise substantially over the next few decades as the demand for single-use plastic continues to grow, the report finds. By 2050, emissions from the entire plastics life cycle could account for as much as 14 percent of the earth’s entire remaining carbon budget.

Plastics manufacturers are investing millions into new petrochemical plants, including in the Ohio Valley, driven by demand and cheap natural gas from the fracking boom.

For example, the report cites Shell’s Monaca ethane cracker plant currently under construction in Beaver County, Pennsylvania. It’s permitted to release up to 2.25 million tons of greenhouse gas pollution annually. Similarly, Thailand-based PTT Global Chemical is seeking permits for a cracker plant in Belmont County, Ohio, across the Ohio River from West Virginia.

A cracker plant converts natural gas constituents into manufacturing products. Graphic: Alexandra Kanik/Ohio Valley ReSource

The plant would be permitted to release the equivalent carbon dioxide emissions of putting about 365,000 cars on the road. Muffett said that sort of increased investment in plastics manufacturing was one of the main reasons the groups decided to highlight the climate implications associated with plastics.

“This petrochemical build-out is a key driver of plastics contribution to climate impacts now and in the future,” he said. “This build-out is going to lead to the production of massive quantities of new plastics. It’s also going to lead to the incineration and disposal of massive amounts of new plastics.”

Industry Response

In a statement, the trade group the American Chemistry Council said the report missed the mark because it failed to take into account that plastics are increasingly replacing heavier, more energy-intensive materials, which can reduce emissions during both the manufacturing process and during transportation.

“Because plastics are strong and lightweight, they help us do more with less,” stated Steve Russell, vice president of the group’s plastics division. “Plastics help us ship more product with less packaging, which means fewer trucks on the road; plastics help make our vehicles lighter and more fuel efficient, so we go further on a gallon of gas; and plastic insulation and sealants help make our homes and buildings significantly more energy efficient by sealing off outdoor temperatures.”

The report also outlined a gap in emissions data for the plastics life cycle, particularly in its infancy, when natural gas is being extracted and transported to refineries and other manufacturing facilities.

“Throughout that process, there are significant emissions, and many of them remain unquantified,” Muffett said. “Even many of the sources of emissions, like compressor stations, or the miles of pipelines involved, official estimates of how many compressor stations there are can vary by an order of magnitude, and that means that there are really fundamental senses in which the data for understanding the scale of this problem just isn’t there. And it needs to be there.”

The report also called for additional research into the impacts of microplastic pollution in the world’s oceans, including more study of the ways in which microplastics may be negatively impacting the ability of oceans to take up carbon emissions.

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