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Unpacking The Ways Climate Change is Affecting West Virginia

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Photo: Robert Madison, courtesy photo

Last week, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC, the U.N. body that provides objective, scientific reports on climate change issued a grave warning: Humans are running out of time if we are to prevent the worst impacts of global warming.

While the report took a global view, here in the Mountain State, scientists can already document the impacts of climate change. Many parts of the world are bracing for more extremes including and higher temperatures and more severe droughts, while the prognosis in West Virginia is more of a mixed bag.

“West Virginia’s climate has become milder with warmer winters, cooler summers and generally more humid conditions year-round,” said Evan Kutta, the climate sciences program manager for West Virginia University’s Institute of Water Security and Science.

Data show that between 1906 and 2016 maximum temperatures decreased 5.3 percent, while minimum temperatures increased 7.7 percent. Over the last century, precipitation has increased 2.2 percent.

While some aspects of West Virginia’s economy may benefit from the milder winters as a result of a changing climate – including agriculture and some outdoor recreation industries – expected increases in rainfall could pose challenges to human-constructed infrastructure.

“The flooding that happened two summers ago in 2016 was truly severe and that could be something that we see more often,” Kutta said.

West Virginia is one of the most flash-flood prone states in the country, and maybe even the world. The stacked ridgelines of the Appalachian Mountains and deep hollows are really good at shaking moisture out of storms, and channelling it quickly downstream to larger rivers.

He added that more research and planning is needed to tap into the opportunities that could be wrought from climate change as well as challenges.

Agriculture and Forests

When it comes to West Virginia agriculture, climate change has mixed implications.

Unlike in places like California, where climate models predict warmer, drier conditions, in Appalachia, milder conditions could result in a longer growing season that could support a more diverse variety of crops, Kutta said.

However, with more moisture also comes more cloud cover.

“That reduces sunlight available for crop growth,” he said.

In fact, the impacts of a wetter West Virginia are already being observed across the state’s forests. Scientists see changes in the types of tree species putting down roots in West Virginia. Oaks are being replaced by maples, which prefer shadier and wetter conditions.

“Maples are more vulnerable to droughts, but the increasing number of maple trees in the state indicates that droughts are becoming less severe and water resources are becoming more abundant,” he said.

West Virginia’s Role

The IPCC report stresses that to prevent 2.7 degrees of warming, greenhouse gas pollution must drop significantly. Burning coal for electricity, which is the most carbon-intensive source of fuel, would have to decrease from almost 40 percent today to between one and seven percent by 2050.

That could greatly impact West Virginia, which is the second largest producer of coal in the United States and in 2017 sourced 93 percent of its own electricity from coal-fired power plants, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

The state could also play a significant role in mitigating climate change, according to Kutta.

“The ongoing transition away from coal has been difficult, but West Virginia is rich in other natural resources that could represent a boon for the state’s economy,” he said. “The Marcellus and Utica Shale formations represent sources of natural gas, a cleaner fossil fuel that may ease the crucially needed transition to renewable energies.”

Furthermore, the rugged terrain of the Mountain State offers many opportunities for renewable energy.

The ridges of the Allegheny Mountains could be prime wind turbine real estate. Abundant water resources could support hydroelectric generation and Kutta said West Virginia is even rich in geothermal energy.

“It’s actually from all of the wells that have been drilled in the state,” he said. “They’ve found temperatures in excess of 150 degrees Celsius just a couple of kilometers below the surface, which would be suitable for commercial scale energy production if the funds are available.”

Overall, the new IPCC report paints a rather grim picture. The scientists who put it together looked at more than 6,000 published studies and found that over the next two decades the planet is on track to see global temperatures rise nearly 3 degrees above where they were prior to the industrial revolution.

The authors note the impacts of continued warming include food shortages, wildfires, severe droughts. Coral reefs will experience mass die-offs and millions of people living on the coasts will need to relocate.

The report estimates the cost of not preventing global temperatures from rising above 2.7 degrees will cost some $54 trillion in damages.

The authors also note that doesn’t have to be our future, but the world needs to act fast to prevent it from happening. Kutta agrees.

“It’s a problem that is bigger than each individual, so we need to be working together as a group to solve this truly enormous challenge,” he said.

This article was originally published by West Virginia Public Broadcasting

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Large Natural Gas Producer to Pay West Virginia Plaintiffs $53.5 Million to Settle Royalty Dispute

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An EQT Corp. natural gas production facility. Photo: Raymond Thompson, special to ProPublica

This article was produced in partnership with the Charleston Gazette-Mail, which is a member of the ProPublica Local Reporting Network.

As ProPublica’s investigation detailed, EQT Corp. had been accused of deducting a variety of unacceptable charges from natural gas royalty checks. The company says it wants to “turn over a new leaf” in its relationship with the state’s residents.

The second-largest natural gas producer in West Virginia will pay $53.5 million to settle a lawsuit that alleged the company was cheating thousands of state residents and businesses by shorting them on gas royalty payments, according to terms of the deal unsealed in court this week.

Pittsburgh-based EQT Corp. agreed to pay the money to end a federal class-action lawsuit, brought on behalf of about 9,000 people, which alleged that EQT wrongly deducted a variety of unacceptable charges from peoples’ royalty checks.

The deal is the latest in a series of settlements in cases that accused natural gas companies of engaging in such maneuvers to pocket a larger share of the profits from the boom in natural gas production in West Virginia.

This lawsuit was among the royalty cases highlighted last year in a joint examination by the Charleston Gazette-Mail and ProPublica that showed how West Virginia’s natural gas producers avoid paying royalties promised to thousands of residents and businesses. The plaintiffs said EQT was improperly deducting transporting and processing costs from their royalty payments. EQT said its royalty payment calculations were correct and fair.

A trial was scheduled to begin in November but was canceled after the parties reached the tentative settlement. Details of the settlement were unsealed Wednesday.

Under the settlement agreement, EQT Production Co. will pay the $53.5 million into a settlement fund. The company will also stop deducting those post-production costs from royalty payments.

“This was an opportunity to turn over a new leaf in our relationship with our West Virginia leaseholders and this mutually beneficial agreement demonstrates our renewed commitment to the state of West Virginia,” EQT’s CEO, Robert McNally, said in a prepared statement.

EQT is working to earn the trust of West Virginians and community leaders, he said.

Marvin Masters, the lead lawyer for the plaintiffs, called the settlement “encouraging” after six years of litigation. (Masters is among a group of investors who bought the Charleston Gazette-Mail last year.)

Funds will be distributed to people who leased the rights to natural gas beneath their land in West Virginia to EQT between Dec. 8, 2009, and Dec. 31, 2017. EQT will also pay up to $2 million in administrative fees to distribute the settlement.

Settlement payments will be calculated based on such factors as the amount of gas produced and sold from each well, as well as how much was deducted from royalty payments. The number of people who submit claims could also affect settlement payments. Each member of the class that submits a claim will receive a minimum payment of at least $200. The settlement allows lawyers to collect up to one-third of the settlement, or roughly $18 million, subject to approval from the court.

The settlement is pending before U.S. District Judge John Preston Bailey in the Northern District of West Virginia. The judge gave it preliminary approval on Monday, which begins a process for public notice of the terms and a fairness hearing July 11 in Wheeling, West Virginia. Payments would not be made until that process is complete.

The Charleston Gazette-Mail and ProPublica want to tell the story of the changing landscape in West Virginia, and how coal and natural gas are impacting it. West Virginians: Tell us how your community is changing. Call or text us at 347-244-2134, or email us: changingwv@wvgazettemail.com.

Kate Mishkin and Ken Ward Jr. cover the environment, workplace safety and energy, with a focus on coal and natural gas for the Charleston Gazette-Mail. Email Kate at kate.mishkin@wvgazettemail.com and follow her on Twitter at @katemishkin; email Ken at kward@wvgazettemail.com and follow him on Twitter at @kenwardjr.

This article was originally published by ProPublica.

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As Top Dem on Senate Energy Committee, Manchin Prepares to Tout Region’s Resources

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Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va.Photo: Jesse Wright, West Virginia Public Broadcasting.

The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee will begin holding full hearings this week with a new top Democrat: West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin.

Manchin’s ascension to lead the Senate committee devoted to energy issues drew concern from environmental groups and more left-leaning members of his own party who fear the centrist Democrat may not be a strong climate advocate.

At a recent meeting of West Virginia oil and gas producers, the senator from coal country said he hoped to address climate change in this role, but would also use his newfound post to better promote the Ohio Valley’s energy resources.

Manchin, who said he will have a staff of about 17, will work closely with Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), who chairs the committee.

“The beauty about it is this: Lisa comes from Alaska, I come from West Virginia. Two heavy-lifting states, two heavy-producing states for the energy this country needs,” he told attendees of the West Virginia Independent Oil and Gas Association winter meeting last month in Charleston. “With that being said, we can set an agenda that basically shows them what we’re doing.”

Manchin said he hopes to highlight the energy contributions made by West Virginia and other states in the region from both the coal and growing natural gas industries.

“We haven’t been able to tell our story,” he said. “We’re just not telling it because there’s a strong wind blowing that doesn’t want that to get out. They want to believe there’s something utopian in a perfect world. Well, I’m hoping we get there in our lifetime. I don’t think so. Maybe our children or grandchildren, whatever. But until that happens I want to make sure they understand the ships from Russia are bringing natural gas in to the northeast. I want them to see that picture.”

‘All-In Energy Policy’

Environmental groups have expressed concern about Manchin taking the top spot on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee in large part over fears the coal country Democrat will not be a strong voice for climate action.

In recent years, Democrats on the committee have used their positions to rail against Trump administration efforts to backtrack on climate policies and science.

Manchin has been steadfast in his position that while he believes climate change is real and that the country needs to prepare for its impacts, he will advocate for energy policy that contains a mixture of emissions-free electricity including renewables, but that also includes the use of fossil fuels for the foreseeable future. That is a break from some in the Democratic party who are seeking the immediate phase-out of fossil fuels in order to prevent the worst impacts from climate change.

“I’ve got a far left agenda coming from the people in my caucus, and I tell them basically that we’re looking for an all-in energy policy,” Manchin told the crowd.  

Speaking after the meeting, Manchin also noted both he and Murkowski are pragmatic about the threat of a changing climate.

“We understand energy, we understand climate,” he said. “We understand that we have to live in this wonderful, beautiful world of ours, make it cleaner and better, but use all the energy we have in a much cleaner fashion.”

Manchin declined to provide examples of specific legislative proposals he might champion, but said investing in technology and research would be a top priority.

In preparing to take his post as second in command, Manchin said he had spent some time chatting with Microsoft founder and philanthropist Bill Gates. The billionaire has invested significantly in clean energy, including nuclear power. Manchin characterized Gates as pragmatic about the need to balancing clean energy and fossil fuels, and said he hoped to bring him to the committee.

Storage Hub Major Priority

The lawmaker also stressed his commitment to building more natural gas liquids storage capacity in the Ohio Valley. Specifically, Manchin noted his continued support for the Appalachian Storage and Trading Hub.

Manchin has long been a proponent of the project, now almost a decade in the making. It would be built with a combination of private investment and a $1.9 billion loan guarantee from the Department of Energy, which is being applied for by the project’s developer, the Appalachia Development Group, LLC.

A year ago, the project got approval for the first of two application phases for a $1.9 billion U.S. Department of Energy loan. Last summer, ADG announced it was hiring an outside firm, Parsons Corporation, to help with the second phase and data collection.

“It’s like the field of dreams, build it and they’ll come,” he said of the hub. “I think everything leads from that if people know we have available, dependable and affordable energy there to be accessed for the development that we need for our state, our region and our country, defense of our country, that’s a no-brainer.”

The full committee kicks off hearings this week. On Tuesday, it will hear testimony about the state of the country’s energy and mineral markets. On Thursday, it will hold a hearing on energy innovation in the United States.

This article was originally published by WV Public Broadcasting.

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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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