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Energy Wars

Scientists Call for Drastic Drop in Emissions. U.S. Appears to Have Gone the Other Way.



A report by a private research company found that U.S. emissions, which amount to one-sixth of the planet’s, didn’t fall in 2018 but instead skyrocketed. The 3.4 percent jump for 2018, projected by the firm, would be second-largest surge in greenhouse gas emissions from the U.S. since Bill Clinton was president.

The signals are blaring: Dramatic changes to our climate are well upon us. These changes — we know thanks to a steady drumbeat of alarming official reports over the past 12 months — could cripple the U.S. economy, threaten to make vast stretches of our coastlines uninhabitable, make basic food supplies scarce and push millions of the planet’s poorest people into cities and across borders as they flee environmental perils.

All is not yet lost, we are told, but the demands of the moment are great. The resounding consensus of scientists, economists and analysts tells us that the solution lies in an unprecedented global effort to immediately and drastically drop carbon emissions levels. That drop is possible, but it will need to happen so fast that it will demand extraordinary commitment, resolve, innovation and, yes, sacrifice. The time we’ve got to work with, according to the United Nations, is a tad more than 10 years.

And so it stings particularly badly to learn from a new report released last week by the Rhodium Group, a private research company, that U.S. emissions — which amount to one-sixth of the planet’s — didn’t drop in 2018 but instead skyrocketed. The 3.4 percent jump in CO2 for 2018, projected by the Rhodium Group, would be second-largest surge in greenhouse gas emissions from the United States since 1996, when Bill Clinton was president.

The report notes that Americans consumed significantly more electricity in 2018 than in years past, and that demand for trucking (think shipping) and jet fuel (lots more people flew) also grew substantially. More alarming are the large jumps in U.S. emissions from industry and from buildings — which the report’s authors note are largely “ignored in clean energy and climate policymaking.” Heating and cooking-related emissions from old, often-inefficient buildings jumped 10 percent, in part due to a growing population and despite a warmer-than-average winter. As manufacturing was buoyed by the strong economy, the emissions the sector produced jumped by nearly 6 percent. The Rhodium Group forecasts those emissions will continue to grow.

Until now, it had seemed we were making modest, if insufficient, progress, largely, many experts declared, as coal-fired power plants were phased out and replaced with natural gas, which burns cleaner out of the smokestack. For two decades, U.S. emissions had been steadily dropping, chipping off more than 1 percent annually in most years since peaking in 2007. But the pace of the decline had been slowing and now threatens to put emissions reduction goals set by the Paris accord — to cut emissions to at least 26 percent less than 2005 levels by 2025 — out of reach.

There are plenty of reasons the Rhodium Group report’s conclusions aren’t particularly surprising. The rate of growth it describes dovetails with what the U.S. Energy Information Administration predicted late last year: a roughly 3 percent rise in CO2 from U.S. sources. As far back as 2015, a flurry of academic research raised questions about whether the drop in U.S. emissions was indeed due to successful efforts to curb them or instead reflected the 2008-09 recession. At least one prominent study concluded that U.S. efforts to reduce emissions resulted mostly from economic decline, not other efforts. Even the increasing emissions from U.S. industries — the metric most cited from this week’s Rhodium Group research — may prove to be a red herring: Economists and climate scientists have long argued that global trade merely outsourced U.S. emissions.

In the meantime, some climate deniers — including some in the Trump administration — have seized on earlier reports of dropping emissions to argue that aggressive U.S. emissions controls aren’t necessary. “The economy is booming, energy production is surging, and we are reducing greenhouse gas emissions from major industrial sources,” acting EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler wrote last October. “Federal regulations are not necessary to drive CO2 reductions.” That thinking was offered as partial justification for everything from the reversal of the Clean Power Plan to phase out coal-generated electricity to the relaxation of fuel economy standards for cars.

Last week’s emissions forecast is a reminder that, as John McArthur, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution recently wrote, “Every new unit of economic gain is still cranking out a corresponding unit of environmental pain.” That may be unlikely to change soon, and the “urgent” challenge for 2019, he writes, is to find palatable approaches to drastic emissions reductions that still allow for the kind of sustained economic growth the nation has been enjoying. Until or unless the economy can be decoupled from the emissions associated with driving it, the fastest way to curb CO2 is to produce — and buy and consume — less.

Correction, Jan. 11, 2019: This story originally misstated the jump in emissions in the industrial sector. The actual year-over-year increase in industrial emissions was 5.7 percent, not more than 300 percent (which refers to the increase in the rate of change for the sector).

This article was originally published by ProPublica.

Energy Wars

Kentucky Project’s Demise Linked to International Fallout From Journalist’s Murder



An image from an EnerBlu promotional video. Courtesy of EnerBlu.

When battery manufacturer EnerBlu announced it would suspend plans for a new factory in Pikeville, Kentucky, the company used an intriguing phrase. “Unexpected geopolitical factors,” the company said, had soured the deal.  

According to a former executive at the company, those factors tied the rural eastern Kentucky development project to one of the world’s largest companies, the Saudi Arabian royal family and the international uproar resulting from the murder of a prominent journalist. 

Since it announced in 2017 its plan to build a $372 million manufacturing plant and bring as many as 875 jobs to the struggling region, EnerBlu was hailed as a savior for Pike County and eastern Kentucky. Gov. Matt Bevin called the project “truly transformative.”

The project quickly encountered challenges with land quality on the reclaimed surface mine site where it planned to construct a facility, but former EnerBlu CEO Daniel Elliott said he remained committed to building in the region. “We would have been able to work through those issues,” he said in an interview with the Ohio Valley ReSource.

In the end, though, land quality was not the final straw. Instead, a cascade of events beginning a continent away appears to have doomed the project. 

“Geopolitical Factors” 

Daniel J. Elliott began working in renewable energy in 1991, when he joined Ford Motor Company’s electric vehicle program. At another electric vehicle startup, Phoenix Motorcars, Elliott raised millions to support not just the cars themselves, but the technology infrastructure needed to support widespread use of renewable energy in transportation. 

Elliott co-founded EnerBlu in 2015 and stepped down from his role as CEO as the company announced the suspension of its Kentucky plans on Feb. 5. The abruptness of events left Elliott feeling betrayed, he said, although he said he stepped down amicably and supports the new CEO.

Former EnerBlu CEO Daniel J. Elliott speaks to Kentucky lawmakers. Photo: KET

EnerBlu representatives said  that a primary potential investor in the Pikeville project had  withdrawn, leading the company to suspend plans. The company and state development officials declined to identify that investor. But Elliott confirmed the investor was Japanese conglomerate SoftBank Group

One of SoftBank’s numerous operations is an investment fund called the Vision Fund, which was started to support innovative renewable energy and advanced technology projects. 

The Vision Fund’s largest investor, contributing a reported $45 billion, was the Saudi Arabian Public Investment Fund, a government-associated entity chaired by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The Saudis and SoftBank planned to build in Saudi Arabia the world’s largest solar project, a 200-gigawatt array. The project would require a massive amount of energy storage capacity, Elliott said, storage capacity that EnerBlu would provide. 

EnerBlu planned to manufacture batteries that were uniquely suited to support solar arrays in hot climates.

Although no contracts with SoftBank had been signed, EnerBlu accepted from Kentucky a reported $30 million in tax incentives (and a handle of Maker’s Mark) to relocate its headquarters to Lexington in preparation for the opening of the Pike County facility. 

But on Oct. 2, 2018, half a world away, Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi walked into the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, and never walked out. 

Istanbul to Riyadh

A Saudi citizen, Khashoggi, 59, was at the time of his death a legal United States resident and a columnist for the Washington Post. Formerly a confidant and supporter of the Saudi royal family, Khashoggi had entered self-imposed exile when his critique of the Crown Prince made him a target. Khashoggi was visiting the Saudi consulate in Istanbul to get paperwork he needed to for his upcoming marriage to a Turkish citizen.

Journalist Jamal Khashoggi at a Project on Middle East Democracy panel in March, 2018. Photo: April Brady, Project on Middle East Democracy

Bin Salman denied his country was involved in the journalist’s disappearance, but citing mounting evidence, U.S. intelligence officials became convinced that Saudi operatives, likely at the behest of the Crown Prince himself, had executed a grim murder within the consulate’s walls. 

The international community condemned the act. Suddenly partnering with Saudi Arabia took on a darker tone. 

Business leaders faced a decision point when the Saudi government hosted a Future Investment Initiative conference in late October. According to Bloomberg, SoftBank CEO Masayoshi Son skipped the investment summit and the Saudis withdrew their substantial contribution to the bank’s investment fund. 

There would be no massive solar development in Saudi Arabia, and no need for EnerBlu’s batteries to support it. 

Riyadh to New Delhi

According to Elliott, SoftBank tried to continue plans for another large solar array near the company’s offices in New Delhi, India. But that country’s bureaucracy slowed the project to an eventual halt, he said.

“I asked senior SoftBank people, face to face, if [the Khashoggi murder] was going to affect our project, and they said no,” Elliott said. “I think they were trying to make it work, but somewhere along the line, between October and their pulling out, they knew and they didn’t tell us.”

EnerBlu spokesperson Xavier Guerin said there had been no binding agreements between EnerBlu and potential investors, but Elliott said SoftBank pulled funding on Jan. 14, days before final contracts were to have been signed on Jan. 20. 

SoftBank did not respond to a request for comment.

SoftBank’s withdrawal caused EnerBlu “significant financial hardship,” Elliott said, and initiated withdrawals from EnerBlu’s other investors whose commitments depended on SoftBank acting as the primary contributor. 

Those included a New York-based private equity fund and a Qatar-based investment fund, both Elliott and Guerin said. 

Ashok Leyland, an Indian automobile company, and U.S. electricity utilities including American Electric Power were also interested in purchasing EnerBlu’s technology, Elliott said. 

Guerin declined to confirm SoftBank’s involvement, but said the “prominent investor” pulled out because of “a mix of very large business opportunities that fell through” at the same time the political environment for renewable energy shifted in “some emerging economy countries.”

New Delhi to Pikeville 

EnerBlu’s decision to suspend comes as a major blow to Pike County, which has lost thousands of coal jobs. 

Pikeville City Manager Philip Elswick said the city was notified on Jan. 30 that there was a possibility that plans for EnerBlu’s development would be suspended. Elswick told the Lexington Herald-Leader that he regretted the loss to the county. 

Kentucky Cabinet for Economic Development spokesperson Jack Mazurak said, “We’re obviously very disappointed with this setback for EnerBlu. We also hope it’s a temporary setback for a Kentucky company.”

“We are extremely disappointed with this potential investor’s decision and are well aware of the hope that EnerBlu’s project has generated in Pikeville and the eastern Kentucky region,” EnerBlu’s new CEO, John Thomas, said in an interview. “As we move forward as a company to develop a viable and impactful project, we encourage other companies to discover what we found within this region of Appalachia.”

This story was originally published by the Ohio Valley ReSource.

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Energy Wars

Kentucky Coal Mine Belonging to W.Va. Governor Causes Flood Damage, Again



The October flood damage the road near the Thacker house. Photo: Sydney Boles/Ohio Valley ReSource

The rain started around 10:30 p.m. By midnight, the creek in front of Elvis and Laura Thackers’ house had swelled to a mighty flood, uprooting trees, moving boulders and surging right up to the couple’s front steps. The Thackers decided to abandon their home. But when they got into their Jeep, they found the flood had washed the road away, leaving them trapped.

“Water was everywhere,” Laura Thacker remembered. “I said, ‘You don’t know how big it’s going to get.’”

The couple lay awake most of that night, afraid their whole house would be destroyed. That was October 4th, but it’s not the first time the Thackers have faced a situation like this.

Debris left by flood waters on the Thackers’ property. Photo: Sydney Boles/Ohio Valley ReSource

The Thackers live about a quarter-mile downhill from Bevins Branch, a surface mine formerly owned by West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice and now operated by his children. Justice ran for office on his experience as a coal businessman but has faced criticism for unpaid taxesfailure to pay suppliers, and poorly implementing mine safety requirements.

The Thackers were relieved to find their dog, which they feared had been swept away. Photo: Sydney Boles/Ohio Valley ReSource

Despite a history of reclamation violations and complaints by residents, Bevins Branch remains the subject of a years-long dispute between the Justice family and regulatory agencies. Originally scheduled to be completely reclaimed by 2015, Bevins Branch remains unfinished. And according to Kentucky’s Energy and Environment Cabinet, households downhill from the mine site have experienced multiple flooding incidents in the past two years in which the state’s inspectors found the Justice family companies were at fault.

Delayed Again

In the summer of 2014, the Energy and Environment Cabinet began negotiations with the Justice companies to resolve hundreds of outstanding reclamation violations and civil penalties at the companies’ numerous mines in Kentucky. Those negotiations led to an agreed order between the two parties, in which the Justice companies said they would resolve all outstanding issues by Sept. 1, 2015.

By that date, lawyers for the Justice companies were asking for an extension for projects including Bevins Branch. Lawyers for the Justice companies said, “In the fifteen months since the entry of the Agreed Order, the Defendants have performed and completed more reclamation and remedial work than any other mining company in Kentucky. … Amazing work by the Defendants in an economic environment which saw numerous publicly traded mining companies file bankruptcy and go out of business.”

Credit: Alexandra Kanik/Ohio Valley ReSource

A new completion date was set for March 1, 2016.

In a report produced for that deadline, state officials said they had “not observed any measurable progress on highwall reclamation” at Bevins Branch.

Highwall is an industry term for exposed cliffs that result from surface mining, which can put the environment and public safety at risk. Mine operators are responsible for abating highwall and returning the landscape to its approximate original contours.

In the same 2016 report, the state criticized the Justice companies’ analysis of their progress, saying, “It is apparent that the Defendants have essentially completed the easiest reclamation work first, with disregard for the priorities given by the Cabinet.”

On June 3, 2016, a heavy rainfall caused a diversion ditch to flood, sending torrents of water and debris rushing towards the Thackers’ house. That flood caused an estimated $148,000 in damage to the Thackers’ property alone.

More than two years later, Bevins Branch remains an active point of contention between the Justice companies and the state.

Denying Responsibility

The Energy and Environment Cabinet issued two violations in response to the October flood. Those violations required the Justice companies to complete on- and off-site cleanup work or risk a daily fine of $1,500. According to cabinet spokesperson John Mura, the company had begun work onsite, but had not helped restore damage downstream.

“We are anxious for the company to complete its work,” Mura said.

Richard Getty, a lawyer for the Justice companies, disputed the state’s finding that Bevins Branch had anything to do with the flooding downhill.

“The recent four-plus-inch rain that occurred in eastern Kentucky, including Bevins Branch, resulted in severe flooding in eastern Kentucky,” Getty said. “If there are problems that are our fault, we will correct them. If there are problems because of the heavy rain and an act of God that’s beyond our control, that’s not our responsibility.”

The term “act of God” carries particular weight in Appalachia, where in 1972 a Logan County, West Virginia, coal-waste dam on Buffalo Creek collapsed, killing 125 people and leaving thousands homeless. Inspectors found Pittston Coal Company, which owned the site, responsible for the disaster. But in legal filings, the coal company called the incident an “act of God” for which they could not be held responsible.

This state inspection image shows a failure of a water diversion ditch on the Bevins Branch mine. Photo: Kentucky EEC inspection documents

Getty added that the Justice family companies purchased Bevins Branch out of bankruptcy and inherited 504 violations from the previous owners. At the time of purchase, Getty said, there had been 40,000 feet of unreclaimed highwall at Bevins Branch. “Today, because of our ongoing efforts to clean these things up over the last several years, there is less than 2,000 remaining feet. I think it’s actually about 1,600 feet,” he said.

Billy Shelton, another Justice attorney, added that the Justice companies had challenged the state for what Shelton believed to be a wrongly issued citation. This comes after a 2017 lawsuit against Kentucky regulators for attempting to collect fines that the Justice companies argued were an overstep by the government into corporate affairs.

The daily penalty of $1,500 is a drop in the bucket compared to the $2.9 million the state says the Justice companies owe in reclamation penalties. Getty added that the Justice companies don’t believe they’re responsible for that amount.

The Justice companies blamed the October flood on an an “extraordinary” rain event. But state inspection records place the blame squarely on the poor reclamation of the mine land.

“Mining activities have adversely impacted the hydrologic balance,” an inspector wrote. By allowing diversion ditches to fill up with sediment and debris, the inspector concluded, the mining company caused an “uncontrolled discharge” of water runoff.

Environmental Impacts

The process of surface mining alters the contours of mountains, disturbs ecosystems and can increase the likelihood of landslides. Kentucky law requires mine operators to restore mountains to their original contour and reseed the land with native plants after mining is complete.

Dustin White, an activist with the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, which opposes mountaintop removal mining, said reclamation rarely goes according to plan. White quoted the Kentucky author and historian Harry M. Caudill, who famously referred to surface mine reclamation as “putting lipstick on a corpse.”

“What we typically find is, most of the topsoil is already destroyed and buried in valley fills, leaving only rocks and clay and dirt on the mine site,” White said.

Court documents show that Kentucky Fuel, the Justice-family entity that operates Bevins Branch, failed to do due diligence in preventing erosion. According to the 2014 agreed order, Kentucky Fuel “exceeded time limits specified in the approved permit application to complete Backfilling and Grading to approximate original contour.”

More recent inspection reports show that similar issues persist.

Getty, the attorney for the Justice companies, says his client has made significant progress in addressing violations that had been inherited from the site’s previous owners. “I believe the Justice companies should be applauded for all of this continuous efforts,” Getty said.

What’s Next

Betty Short is 81 years old. She lives alone in a brown house not far from the Thackers, across the road from the mouth of the hollow. In the 2016 flood, thick mud covered every inch of her property. Short slipped when she left the house in the morning, breaking her collarbone. Short said she got a lawyer, but had seen no money for her injury.

This time, Short was unharmed, and she didn’t think her house had sustained damage. Already she was making the best of the situation. “At least this time I know to stay out of the mud,” she laughed.

Elvis Thacker holds material swept down from the neighboring mine. Photo: Sydney Boles/Ohio Valley ReSource

Still, Short was grateful that neighbors came to check on her the morning after the flood. “You’re really afraid to lay down and go to sleep at night,” she said. “It’s like a nightmare. You never know what’s going to happen next.”

Elvis Thacker said he worried about what might happen, too. He and Laura Thacker had even considering moving so they no longer feel afraid when it rains.

The federal Office of Surface Mining, Reclamation and Enforcement on October 13 issued a violation of its own against Kentucky Fuel: an imminent harm cessation order. OSMRE spokesperson Chris Holmes said that since the cessation order was issued, Kentucky Fuel had moved equipment to Bevins Branch and begun repairing the diversion ditch.

Kentucky Fuel is now accruing $1,500 in state fines every day that it does not complete the required reclamation work. If the work remains incomplete after November fifth, state officials will likely take the company to court — again.

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Energy Wars

“Jobs Alliance,” Funded by Trump Backer, Tries to Block Gas Plants That Would Bring Jobs to West Virginia



Robert E. Murray is the founder and CEO of one of the nation’s largest coal producers. His company funded a legal effort to block natural gas plants that would bring jobs to West Virginia. Photo: Ramin Rahimian, Reuters

Murray Energy, one of the nation’s largest coal producers, is paying for lawyers trying to block natural gas plants that would support a growing industry.

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

Three years ago, a group of residents in West Virginia’s northern panhandle formed a new group, the Ohio Valley Jobs Alliance, and declared themselves a “voice for local jobs.”

A few months later, however, the group’s first major action was aimed not at creating jobs, but at blocking them.

In November 2015, the alliance, known as the OVJA, filed a legal appeal to challenge a key permit for construction of the Moundsville Power project, a natural gas-fired plant in Marshall County.

The move was puzzling. Backers of Moundsville Power said the project would be a significant boost for the area, providing 500 jobs annually during a three-year construction period and 30 permanent jobs once it was operational. Supporters said the project was a way for residents to capture more economic gains from West Virginia’s booming natural gas industry.

The legal action, it turns out, was funded by Murray Energy Corp., one of the nation’s largest coal producers, one of the group’s leaders testified in a deposition in the case. Murray Energy’s founder and CEO is Robert E. Murray, who is among the nation’s best-known advocates for reviving the coal industry and cutting regulations related to it.

The OVJA also is seeking to stop two other natural gas power plants proposed for West Virginia, and Murray Energy has acknowledged paying “certain legal fees” for the group. Like the Moundsville plant, the facilities proposed for Harrison and Brooke counties would provide hundreds of construction jobs for several years and then about 30 permanent positions. All told, the three plants would cost more than $2 billion to build.

Power plants need several kinds of government permits, and the jobs alliance has focused its legal attacks on air-pollution permits issued by the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection and utility “certificates of need” permits handled by the state Public Service Commission.

Testimony in the power plant cases before both agencies doesn’t reveal details about Murray Energy’s funding for the OVJA lawyers, and current financial records for the alliance aren’t publicly available.

In pursuing their cases, the lawyers paid, at least in part, by Murray Energy have relied on the same kinds of government regulations that Robert Murray has railed against. In the Moundsville plant case, those lawyers challenged a permit partly because it allowed an increase in carbon dioxide emissions that cause global warming. Murray has said global warming is a “hoax.”

Construction has not begun on any of the three projects, at least partly, because of litigation-related delays, developers say.

“It’s been very frustrating,” said Drew Dorn, president of Energy Solutions Consortium, the company that was originally behind the Moundsville plant and continues to promote the Harrison and Brooke projects.

OVJA officials and lawyers did not return calls and emails seeking comment. Robert Murray, through a spokesman, declined a request for an interview. The spokesman would not answer questions, pointing to a prepared statement:

“The Ohio Valley Jobs Alliance is a grassroots organization that seeks to preserve coal jobs in the Ohio Valley,” the statement said. “While we certainly support their mission, we have not provided financial support to the organization, other than assisting them with certain legal fees. OVJA members have the welfare of the people in the Ohio Valley as their first priority, as they work to preserve these jobs and family livelihoods. We are pleased to support their efforts.”

The influence of Murray and his company on the coal industry’s future is far-reaching. He is a funder and confidant of President Donald Trump. Trump has pledged to revive the coal industry, and Murray has praised the administration’s efforts. During an August rally in Charleston, the president — typically a supporter of large energy projects — touted coal as superior to natural gas. He played up the risk of terrorist attacks on gas pipelines and extolled the virtues of coal.

“We love clean, beautiful West Virginia coal,” the president told a crowd sprinkled with miners holding “Trump digs coal” signs. “And you know that it’s indestructible stuff in times of war. You can blow up those pipelines.”

But the OVJA’s approach — fighting against an industry competitor of coal — risks stopping developments that could diversify West Virginia’s economy.

The gas plants the OVJA has been fighting would make up for the closure of numerous coal plants across the region that were old, inefficient and unable to comply with modern air pollution limits.

The OVJA is certainly right about one significant point: The gas-fired power plants would employ far fewer workers than a large coal-fired power plant. Appalachian Power’s Mitchell Plant, a coal-fired facility south of Moundsville, has about 270 full-time employees, according to a company spokeswoman, compared to about 30 when the Moundsville plant is operational.

But Anne Blankenship, executive director of the West Virginia Oil and Natural Gas Association, argued in a recent newspaper commentary that comparisons with coal ignore the broader economic benefits of the gas industry. It was an unusually direct response from one local fossil fuel industry to another.

“This argument fails to consider the hundreds of jobs required once that well is drilled, including: Well servicers, compressor station operators, pipeline inspectors, air permit compliance field specialists, environmental compliance inspectors, maintenance personnel, production technicians, division order analysts, accounting staff, reserve engineers and the list goes on and on,” wrote Blankenship, who is not related to former Massey Energy Co. CEO Don Blankenship.

James Van Nostrand, a West Virginia University law professor who has followed the cases, said Murray Energy’s financial support of the jobs alliance’s legal fight is “very unusual” but is unlikely to save coal from gas in the long run — and will just cost the state major gas investments.

“It’s very unfortunate,” Van Nostrand said. “We’re losing all these economic benefits and being able to diversify our fuel supply.”

Blocking the gas plants might delay the closure of some existing coal plants that are on the margins of profitability “in the very short term,” Van Nostrand said. But “it’s only a matter of time” before efficient new gas plants “finish off” more aging and inefficient coal plants, he said.

To be sure, state environmental groups have a variety of concerns about the growth of the state’s natural gas industry, and a Sierra Club leader spoke against the Harrison County plant at a public hearing, citing growing worry about the release of the powerful greenhouse gas methane all along the gas-production process.

But they have not filed formal appeals of the gas plant permits. They have focused their efforts on stopping two new gas transmission pipelines in the state.

Jim Kotcon, a longtime state Sierra Club leader, said there is more significant public opposition to the pipelines, largely because those projects are using eminent domain to take private property, an issue that resonates even with many conservatives in the state.

“As you may suspect, to have a meaningful chance of opposing fossil fuel plants in West Virginia requires a fairly significant public involvement campaign, and unfortunately, we have a few too many of these projects to take on all of them,” Kotcon said.

Committed to Coal

Robert Murray went to work in the mines when he was 16, to help support his family after a mining accident left his father paralyzed. Later, he studied mining engineering at Ohio State University, then spent many years at North American Coal Corp.

In 1988, he and the company parted ways and he mortgaged “everything he owned” to buy his first coal mine, according to Murray Energy’s website.

Since then, Murray Energy has grown to become the largest producer of underground mined coal in the United States.

Along the way, Murray has clashed with regulators, labor unions, environmentalists and journalists.

In 2007, Murray went on national television to blame the deaths of six miners and three would-be rescuers at his company’s Crandall Canyon Mine in Utah on an earthquake, a conclusion investigators had disputed. He’s also sued journalists and media personalities whose coverage or commentary he hasn’t liked, including HBO host John Oliver, The New York Times, and The Charleston Gazette, which later became part of the Gazette-Mail. (That lawsuit was settled when the newspaper agreed to run a commentary written by Murray.)

A Bloomberg News profile of Murray summed up his position as being that of “America’s pro-coal provocateur-in-chief.”

Over the past five years, as coal’s fortunes declined, Murray doubled down on the industry. In 2013, Murray Energy purchased the major coal holdings of Consol Energy Inc., which was largely exiting the coal business in favor of natural gas. Then, in 2015, Murray Energy bought a controlling interest in Foresight Energy, which has major holdings in the coalfields of Southern Illinois.

An early fundraiser for Sen. Ted Cruz’s presidential campaign during the 2016 Republican primary, Murray backed Trump when it became clear he was going to be the GOP nominee, and Murray Energy contributed $1 million to a Trump super PAC and donated $300,000 to the inauguration.

“I have personally spent time with Mr. Trump, and I know he will surround himself with the very best people to fix the many problems facing our country,” Murray said the day after the 2016 presidential election. “Indeed, Mr. Trump will finally implement a National Energy Policy whereby all energy sources will compete on a level playing field.”

When the OVJA filed its application for nonprofit status with the Internal Revenue Service, it said the alliance “is a grassroots organization and movement whose mission is to promote and protect the good-paying jobs in the Ohio Valley region.” It estimated that the group’s budget would be $10,000 a year in both 2016 and 2017. The IRS applications didn’t require the source of the money to be disclosed, and the OVJA didn’t do so.

The application did not mention coal, or Murray Energy.

But on May 22, 2015, the same day IRS records show that the OVJA officially formed, Murray Energy did what a lot of coal companies were doing at the time. The company announced plans for anticipated layoffs of hundreds of miners.

Along with “excessive” taxes and “the ongoing destruction” of the coal industry by then-President Barack Obama, a Murray Energy news release blamed “the vastly increased use of natural gas in the Ohio Valley to generate electricity.”

In a news release four days later, announcing the alliance’s formation, Bruce Whipkey, listed as president of the group, cited Murray Energy’s layoff announcement as a reason local residents needed to focus on protecting jobs. Whipkey said the alliance wasn’t against the gas industry, but that it simply opposed tax breaks that local governments were offering to the Moundsville power plant project.

“The Ohio Valley is blessed to have both coal and natural gas reserves,” Whipkey said in the news release. “These two industries can and should work together for the good of everyone in the Ohio Valley.”

Jim Thomas, a retired Wheeling area coal miner and leader of OVJA, has testified that the organization was probably formed before May 2015, but that it wasn’t made “legal” until then.

According to Thomas’ testimony at a 2016 Air Quality Board hearing about the Moundsville plant, Murray Energy’s involvement started sometime after Thomas visited one of the company’s mine offices to arrange for the company to fix a problem with his home’s water supply. Murray Energy had taken over providing Thomas water when it purchased Consol’s mines, which had damaged the original supply, Thomas testified.

“I had a busted water line where they were shipping water up to my house,” he said. “So I went out to talk to [a company official].”

At the time, Thomas was involved in a group called Marshall County Citizens for Better Government, which he and a few of his friends, along with some retired coal miners, started. Its members met at a local diner to talk politics and local affairs, and they made it a habit of attending school board, city council and other government meetings.

“There was probably 10 or 12 of us [who] would go up there and meet and eat breakfast and talk about stuff going on,” Thomas said. The group “discussed different political stuff or what’s wrong with Marshall County, what can we do to make Marshall County better, how can we get people involved in what’s going on?”

Then, Thomas said, he and his friends heard about the proposal for a gas-fired power plant to be built in Moundsville. They had watched one local coal-fired plant close and were concerned that more gas plants would cost the area more high-paying coal jobs, while not providing as many gas industry positions.

“This coal is important to Marshall County,” Thomas said in his testimony. “We’ve got to have it.”

So when Thomas was at the Murray Energy mine office, he met with a company foreman.

“I went in and talked to him and told him what we were trying to do,” Thomas recalled. “I said we’ve got to try to save these jobs. And I gave him my name and phone number.”

Shortly after that, someone from Murray Energy — Thomas doesn’t remember exactly who it was — called him and asked how the company could help the group.

Thomas said that Robert Murray played no role in forming the organization and never attended any of the group’s meetings.

Thomas said he asked his son, Greg, for help with paperwork for the group and with social media.

Greg Thomas is a longtime Republican operative in West Virginia who has been running the U.S. Senate campaign of Don Blankenship. (The state Supreme Court recently ruled that Blankenship could not appear on the ballot as a third-party candidate after he lost in the Republican primary.)

Jim Thomas did not respond to requests for comment for this report.

Greg Thomas said in an email that he has never had an “official role” with the OVJA and has never been paid by the alliance or by Murray Energy.

“My dad taught me to always stand up for what I believe in, and I am proud of him for being so successful with their efforts,” he said.

“Personally, I support any and all West Virginia energy production.”

Lawyers for the OVJA did not respond to requests for comment. The two law firms that represent OVJA also have done work on behalf of Murray Energy in unrelated cases.

Five months after the OVJA was formed, Murray gave a speech in which he encouraged Northern West Virginia business leaders to get involved in the group.

At an economic conference in Wheeling in October 2015, Murray repeated his frequent refrain against the Obama administration, blasting a “regulatory rampage” that he warned was destroying the region’s mining industry. Murray also targeted the natural gas industry and noted that, just a few months earlier, natural gas had — for the first time — surpassed coal in the amount of electricity generated in the United States.

Murray directed his criticism at the gas plant proposed for Moundsville, and he noted that it was only one of several such facilities in the works.

“If this concerns you, or you have a business here, we suggest that you become active in the Ohio Valley Jobs Alliance,” Murray told the crowd of business leaders, according to a copy of his prepared remarks. “We can provide information on it.”

About six weeks later, the OVJA filed its first legal action, an appeal of a state-approved air-pollution permit for the Moundsville gas plant.

OVJA later said it had 400 members. However, the West Virginia Public Service Commission said evidence from a similar case before the Ohio Power Siting Board showed that it had 242 members and that 76 of those were West Virginia residents.

This year, the IRS automatically revoked the the OVJA’s tax-exempt status after the group did not file nonprofit financial forms for three years in a row, according to the IRS website and GuideStar, an organization that monitors nonprofit groups.

“It leaves the IRS and the general public without any basic information about the organization,” said Holly Ivel, GuideStar’s director of data services.

Funding Revealed

In the power plant cases, it hasn’t always been easy to confirm that Murray Energy was funding at least some of the alliance’s legal challenges.

During the Brooke case, a construction union coalition, whose members stand to gain work, wanted records on the challenge filed by the jobs alliance. The Public Service Commission initially refused to force the group to turn over records, saying they weren’t relevant.

But when that case came up for a hearing in October 2017, PSC Chairman Michael Albert asked Jim Thomas where the group’s money came from.

Initially, Thomas responded: “We don’t use much money. I had a couple donations and that was it.”

After another back and forth, Thomas responded: “Murray Energy’s paying for the legal work. But Murray Energy does not give me any money.”

In the utility commission cases, Thomas and his group focused largely on questioning tax breaks being awarded to the developers by local governments. The PSC generally rejected those concerns, saying that the deals still called for the plants to pay more money — in the form of leases for public property and payments in lieu of taxes — than if the plants weren’t built at all.

Thomas and his group also questioned whether the Department of Environmental Protection properly limited air pollution, including, in at least one case, greenhouse emissions — despite Murray having said publicly that the global warming “scare is purely political and not based on any science.”

Despite his stated concerns for the environment, Thomas offered confusing answers when asked about his specific objections to the Moundsville plant’s DEP permit during a deposition taken before the 2016 Air Quality Board appeal hearing.

“One of the issues that’s been raised is concern about greenhouse gases that would come out of the stack of the Moundsville Power project. Do you have a concern about greenhouse gases?” power plant lawyer Dave Yaussy asked.

Thomas responded, “Yes.”

Yaussy followed up, “Are you concerned about global warming?”

Thomas responded, “No.”

Air Quality Board members later wrote in an order that they were “somewhat concerned by the OVJA’s apparent lack of knowledge about the contents of its appeal, lack of cognizable purpose related to the environment, and overall express intent to stop the construction of the plant solely to benefit another industry.”

For the most part, Thomas did not focus on the environmental issues, instead saying his main concern was that natural gas was eating into coal’s market share and that coal provided more jobs — and better-paying jobs — than natural gas ever would.

“West Virginia is coal,” Thomas testified.

The Murray Energy-funded challenges are having some impact on the gas plant proposals. Supporters of the Moundsville plant, for example, say the project is on life support because of litigation-related delays.

Lawyers for the OVJA appealed its air-pollution permit to a state circuit court, where the case was pending for 15 months. Kanawha Circuit Judge Joanna Tabit ruled in November 2017, only after then-state commerce secretary Woody Thrasher — whose agency was not a party — wrote an unusual letter warning that investors were increasingly nervous about delays and asking the judge for an “urgent review” of the case. Tabit, who is now seeking a seat on the state Supreme Court, said she ruled quickly on the case after she was told it was a pressing matter.

Later, legislators passed a bill so that any future cases would bypass county courts and go directly to the West Virginia Supreme Court. The OVJA’s action also prompted legislation to require anyone who appeals such a permit to disclose who is paying their lawyers, but that bill did not pass.

In the most recent case, the jobs alliance’s challenge of the air-pollution permit for the Harrison plant, the state board ruled on Aug. 24 that the group “failed to offer sufficient threshold evidence” to support its objections to emissions limits and air-quality modeling for the project.

The Air Quality Board also ruled, contrary to its findings in the Moundsville plant case, that the OVJA did not have legal standing to bring the appeal.

In its decision, the board noted that Jim Thomas testified that he believed four OVJA members live in Harrison County, but that he could only identify the first name — Steven — of one such member, and that this member had not complained to him about any potential health effects of the plant and was not involved in the appeal.

“The OVJA, as an organization, has no demonstrated interest in protecting the health of the citizenry or the environment of Harrison County,” the board ruled.

And the case about the Brooke County plant is headed for the state Supreme Court, where an oral argument over the alliance’s challenge of the PSC approval is scheduled for early October.

Despite West Virginia’s dramatic growth in natural gas production, the state has only three gas-fired power plants, and they are built to run only when there is high demand. Brooke, Harrison and Moundsville would be larger facilities, meant to run during times of normal electricity demand — the first of their kind for West Virginia.

Just before a hearing in late July on his company’s Harrison plant, Dorn issued a blistering news release characterizing the OVJA cases as “frivolous lawsuits” and alleging that Murray Energy “is trying to kill thousands of jobs on these projects.”

Then, in late August, the Affiliated Construction Trades Foundation, a coalition of construction unions that support the gas plants and whose members would build them, purchased half-page newspaper ads across the state to complain that Murray Energy was supporting a “shadowy front group” that is “holding West Virginia jobs hostage!”

Steve White, director of the ACT Foundation, said his group supports the coal industry but believes that, if the gas plants aren’t built in West Virginia, they likely will go to Ohio or Pennsylvania, instead. For White, the issue comes down to this: Many coal jobs have disappeared, and they seem unlikely to return. So why should West Virginia pass up more jobs related to the gas boom?

“We’re terribly frustrated with the delays on these projects and extremely concerned that we may miss out entirely on these opportunities,” White said. “It’s just a lose-lose situation.”

This article was originally published by ProPublica.

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