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The Struggle to Stay

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Some call it the Rappahannock Hustle, and the many who do it need no further description.

It’s the way to make ends meet by stitching various small jobs, formal and informal, into a livelihood. It helps prop up the local economy. But it also hews tightly to two challenges facing Rappahannock County’s younger population: stable, well-paid work and affordable housing.

Addressing those challenges matters more as the overall population ages and as other rural counties compete to draw in people who bring new ideas and vibrancy.

After years of population loss, rural areas added around 33,000 residents nationwide between 2016 and 2017, the first time since 2010, according to an analysis of census estimates by the USDA’s Economic Research Service.

Quality of life is the No. 1 factor pulling people toward more rural, low-density counties, says Ben Winchester, a researcher at the University of Minnesota Extension who studies what he calls “brain gain.”

“That includes things like recreational opportunities, less traffic, less congestion,” Winchester says.

Those things and more are what draw people to Rappahannock — home to rolling hills, starry night skies and a slower pace of life seldom found so close to a bustling metropolis. All ages and political persuasions here harbor a love of the natural environment.

Gaining access to it means facing certain challenges, and if you are young those hurdles can be higher.

Artist Kat Habib, 33, moved to the county in 2013 and has picked up work doing everything from painting houses to making coffee to bartending to property management.

Twenty-four year-old Tessa Crews has worked as a shop attendant and served at wedding parties. She now works as an innkeeper at the Inn at Mount Vernon Farm, does part-time design work for an Australian publishing company and picks up babysitting shifts.

“It’s incredibly hard to make a living,” says Habib. “And it’s beautiful to be here and it’s good to be here, but the cost of living is very high.”

The Hustle is typically associated with urban communities, the grind of which many who move here are escaping, but local housing’s high cost and limited stock, paired with that paucity of reliable, steady work, make it a necessity.

A shortage of full-time jobs that pay a living wage, with benefits — particularly for college graduates — impacts all age groups in Rappahannock, not just those under 40 like Habib. Piecemeal work and part-time gigs — frequently as part of the underground economy — are more readily available. Folks cobbling these work opportunities together are often younger and single.

The rural economy has become more diversified, said Winchester, who studied rural communities in Minnesota and Nebraska. He found evidence there of people holding a diverse array of jobs and more self-employment. Those characteristics have echoes here in Rappahannock.

“You have to be more creative when you live out here,” says Sperryville Realtor Cheri Woodard, herself a long-time entrepreneur. “You have to think about what you can do, what skills you’re bringing, what can you offer to people.”

Tessa Crews, 24, traveled the world after leaving Rappahannock and decided to bring some of her experience home. She’s piecing together jobs as an inn keeper, digital marketer, babysitter, server, shop attendant and herbalist-in-training.
Photo: Sara Schonhardt, Rappahannock News

That’s true for Crews, who grew up in Rappahannock and officially moved back late last year. She’d been gone long enough, she says, to realize what was special about the county.

Like others, she discovered that knitting together an income in the Hustle economy relies on word of mouth.

“If you look online it doesn’t exist, but as soon as you start talking to people, that’s how it happens,” Crews says.

Forming that local connection isn’t always easy or immediate, but the advantage often goes to those like Crews who grew up here or have some connection to the county.

A numbers game

Job availability is one thing; willing workers is another. Help Wanted signs hang in windows around the county, but small business owners say they struggle to find employees.

“I cannot find young people that want to do the work that we do,” says Adam Kerr, 39, the founder and president of Rappahannock Landscape & Nursery. That’s not unique to Rappahannock. But part of it here is also a numbers game. “There’s not a lot of young people,” he says.

Kerr pays his employees well and offers them some retirement benefits.

But finding a way to pay Rappahannock rents often over $1,000 a month is tough on a $10-an-hour salary, which is more common.

“There’s work here if you want to work,” says Habib. “The question is, can you rely on it from week to week, and that’s tricky.”

Cara Cutro grew up seeing her parents leave the county to make their livings, so when she decided to come back after six years away, she just knew she’d find a way.

“Part of what’s allowed me to survive here, aside from feeling very strongly that this was my home, was working multiple jobs, having multiple hats,” she says.

Cutro started working in restaurants and then created a mobile massage business. She diversified her services to include private online coaching and medicinal herbs. In 2016, she opened a physical location in Sperryville, Abracadabra Massage & Wellness, but has continued to pick up landscaping work when needed. She also shares her home with a roommate.

“You have to be determined that you’re going to live here, and you have to make it work,” she says.

That determination often comes with some deeper connection, and people who haven’t grown up here may be less inclined to stick it out.

Aron Weisgerber, 33, built the home he now shares with his wife and two children on land his parents own. He realizes that gives him an advantage — though he still pieces together work in construction, solar panel installation, realty and outdoor education.

Born and raised outside Sperryville, Weisgerber always knew he would come back to Rappahannock. Now a construction worker, solar panel salesman and installer, mountain adventure guide, licensed realtor, he says he rarely gets to enjoy what he loves about the county because he works so much.
Photo: Sara Schonhardt, Rappahannock News

Woodard concedes that real estate is expensive overall. There are homes under $250,000 and some rentals under $1,000, which she says are “very desirable.” But Airbnb is taking up some potential rental spots, and some are tucked away on private property, reserved for friends and family.

“Our inventory here is small,” she says.

Community is key

Another shortfall, say some residents under 40, is the lack of a social scene or a place to meet new people.

“There’s nothing here, aside from going to the bar, and there’s not that many of those either,” says Kerr, who picked up side work in order to build his business.

He has a young son and much of what’s kept him in the county is the support of his family. For a young family to come here and do it on their own, he says, “that is just mind-blowing to me.”

Habib looked at other counties in the region and liked them because they were more affordable and had larger populations of people under 40. She chose Rappahannock, she says, because it felt like the Virginia of her childhood.

What’s kept her here are the outdoors and finding a house that she says really feels like home. More importantly, she’s found a creative, supportive community.

“There’s many of us that are creative and seeking our dreams,” she says. “We’re not the nine to fivers. If we were we wouldn’t be here because we couldn’t survive.”

Others agree; it’s the people that make this place.

Researcher Winchester says he’s found that jobs are less of a priority for people looking to move to a place like Rappahannock.

“Ultimately people would look around, and they looked for a community before they looked for a job,” he said.

But that can lead to underemployment, said Winchester, be it a lack of full-time work or work that deviates from one’s skill set.

Not all doom and gloom

It’s not unusual for high school graduates to leave small towns for college or other opportunities, says Winchester, who cautions towns against “feeling bad about losing their young people.”

“What they should be working on is letting their young people know they have some place to come back to,” he adds.

Habib, who is from Warren County, grew up coming to Rappahannock and loving it. She is a studio potter and makes floral arrangements. She also has a steady part-time job managing a career and college access program at Headwaters, a nonprofit group supporting local public education, that provides about half of her income and allows her to spend more time in her artist studio.

While the Hustle makes life hard, for many younger residents it can allow them the flexibility for creative projects and passions.

Maya Atlas, 28, makes her livelihood here as a lavender farmer, bartender, part-time butter churner and property manager. She says Rappahannock is “the city of ideas.” The challenge is implementing them.
Photo: Sara Schonhardt, Rappahannock News

Maya Atlas, 28, found her path to Rappahannock through her mother, who bought a home and started harvesting lavender. Atlas, who moved out with her partner last September from D.C. to take over the farm, bartends at Francis for a paycheck and helps milk cows and make butter for a neighbor. She has picked up various jobs both out of necessity and a desire to meet people.

Atlas says she brought some of her city pace with her and has since learned to scale back a bit. But the learning curve has “been exponential,” she admits. Like many who just make the leap, she says she was perhaps naively unconcerned with finances.

“We will make it work,” she says. “It’s just a matter of what level of hustle you have to put in.”

Still, a slower pace can frustrate people wanting to see progress made, including better broadband access.

For Erin Antosh, 34, who runs an online consulting business, connecting with clients took a toll. She found herself driving to Warrenton, where she had a small office, and spending less and less time being able to enjoy the things that brought her to Rappahannock — the scenery and outdoor recreation. She moved up to D.C. recently to be better connected.

“Rappahannock has the potential to be a place for young people to live and thrive,” says Crews, who sees her job at the Mount Vernon inn as a way to advocate for what’s special about the county. “But there are serious hurdles that still need to be overcome.”

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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