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Rural Drivers Can Save the Most From Clean Vehicles

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Photo: Shutterstock/Standret

This post was written in collaboration with Maria Cecilia Pinto de Moura

The transition to clean vehicle technologies such as electric vehicles will benefit consumers everywhere, promising lower operating and maintenance costs, along with less pollution and a cleaner environment.

But the drivers with the greatest economic potential to gain by purchasing an electric vehicle are the residents of small towns and rural counties. Drivers living outside of urban areas often have farther to travel to work, shop, and visit a doctor. They have to repair their vehicles more frequently, they produce more carbon emissions per capita, and they spend more money on gasoline. As a result, rural drivers have the greatest potential to save money by making the switch to an electric vehicle.

Overall, rural residents have the potential to save up to twice as much as urban residents by making the switch from a conventional sedan to an electric vehicle. In addition, rural residents who drive pickup trucks and SUVs have the potential to dramatically cut their fuel costs and emissions through programs to encourage efficiency and electrification.

Rural drivers’ potential to save money and cut emissions

Using data from the 2017 National Highway Traffic Survey, we created a model that approximates what vehicles are being driven, and for how many miles, in every county in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic region. This data allows us to approximate the average cost and emission savings from an electric vehicle in each county. We also mapped out some of the differences in vehicle miles traveled that form the basis of these calculations (see below, our full methodology is here).

Annual average fuel savings, miles driven and emissions reduction for a typical driver in 12 states and the District of Columbia

Overall, we find that in our most rural counties, the average driver will save $870 per year and cut carbon dioxide emissions by more than 3 metric tons per year by choosing an electric vehicle over a conventional sedan. That is almost twice the average emissions reduction from an EV in our most urban counties.

Bringing clean vehicle technologies to rural areas will not only benefit rural drivers, but it will also improve whole rural economies. Nearly all the money that we spend on gasoline and diesel fuel ultimately leaves our towns and our region, for other parts of the world. As electric vehicles replace the internal combustion engine on our roads, there will be more money in consumers’ pockets – which means more jobs, and more local development for our small towns.

Obstacles to rural electrification

Unfortunately, although rural residents have the greatest potential to save from purchasing an electric vehicle, currently EV sales are concentrated in urban areas and inner suburbs. As of 2017, people in urban areas and inner suburbs report that they are about three times more likely to own a plug-in vehicle compared to people in rural areas.

Rural drivers share many of the same challenges in selecting an electric vehicle as urban and suburban drivers: not many consumers are aware of how easy it is to make the switch to an electric vehicle, and the charging infrastructure is inadequate. These concerns are particularly acute for rural drivers, who on average need to travel greater distances between charging stations and destinations. Rural drivers do have one major advantage over urban drivers: they are much more likely to have access to offstreet parking, which should make installation of a home charging station easier.

In addition, rural drivers may have additional concerns about electric vehicle technology, such as the ability of electric vehicles to provide adequate performance in cold weather climates (hint: EVs are great in cold or inclement weather) or to provide enough range to deal with rural driving distances. Some of these concerns are being addressed through improvements in technology: at 200+ miles, cars like the Chevy Bolt and Tesla Model 3 can serve the daily driving needs of residents of all areas. But even as the technology improves, cultural assumptions about what kind of vehicle is appropriate in what kind of area may remain.

As more electric vehicle models come to market, and vehicle costs continue to drop, rural drivers will have increasing choices in vehicle types from SUVs to pick-up trucks. But an EV may not work for every rural household today. Fortunately, automakers compelled by vehicle efficiency standards have been bringing more efficiency gasoline and diesel cars and trucks to market. Upgrading to a newer, more fuel efficient vehicle is another strategy available for every household today.

The Northeast needs a rural electrification strategy

Increasing growth of EV sales in rural areas will require states of the Northeast region to take a more proactive approach towards electrification in rural areas. We need a targeted strategy to reduce the barriers to adopt electric vehicles in our outer suburbs and rural areas. Such a strategy should include:

  • Increased incentives for rural & low- and moderate-income drivers. Overcoming the high purchase price of the vehicles is critical to achieving mainstream penetration of electric vehicles. Northeast states should consider adding additional incentives to make electric vehicles affordable for rural drivers. These incentives should include not only additional upfront rebates to reduce the purchase price of the car, but also financing assistance to help people with insufficient credit to purchase a new car. By targeting rural drivers, we can use incentive money most effectively to achieve our goals for emission reduction and cost savings.
  • Vehicle retirement programs to take the most inefficient trucks off the road. Many rural drivers are stuck driving some of the dirtiest, most inefficient vehicles on the road. A 10 year old Ford F-150 gets as little as 14 mpg, for example. A rural driver who trades an old F-150 to a new model can save up to $1,000 per year. Programs such as California’s Enhanced Fleet Modernization Program have helped retire some of these low-emission vehicles and in the process saved money for drivers of all kinds of vehicles.
  • Build rural charging infrastructure. Addressing rural range anxiety will require increased investment in rural charging stations. Utilities should target rural areas for support, both for public charging and for support in constructing home charging stations.
  • Support grassroots education outreach and marketing efforts. Bulk purchasing programs such as the Drive Green program run by Green Energy Consumers Alliance can reduce costs and help consumers address the complex decisions necessary to purchase an electric vehicle. Utility programs such as Green Mountain Power’s electric vehicle program can negotiate good deals from the auto industry and help their customers make the switch to electric vehicles. These programs should be encouraged to target rural communities and drivers.

As states in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic consider new regional strategies to address transportation emissions, it will be critical for states to identify new strategies to help rural residents cut emissions and save money on transportation. One piece of a rural transportation strategy should be to enhance infrastructure that provides an alternative to driving an automobile, through expanded regional public transportation that give them easy access to urban centers, pedestrian and biking infrastructure that create vibrant communities in small towns. We should also consider how to best use innovative new transportation models facilitated by technology, such as vanpools, flexible bus routes, and ride hailing and sharing services to expand clean mobility to rural residents.

At the same time, we know that realistically driving a personal vehicle will remain an important part of the transportation system for rural communities. We need to provide rural residents with the cleanest vehicles that fit their needs. We encourage states to meet the challenges facing rural drivers with bold investments that can save money for consumers and reduce pollution for everybody.

This article was originally published by the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Appalachia

Profiting Off Prisoners: State Inmates Mean Big Bucks for Local Jails

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County jails make money from holding prisoners under state jurisdiction. Photo: Thinkstock

Rural jails in Kentucky are increasingly relying on income derived from payments for holding state prisoners in county facilities, according to a new report by a think tank that advocates for criminal justice reform.

To address overcrowding, states make payments to counties to hold convicted prisoners and pretrial detainees. States save money, and counties get an extra influx of cash.

In rural Kentucky, the report’s authors warn,  the dynamic speaks to a perception that incarceration is a tool for economic development. The reliance on income from state prisoners is particularly stark in cash-strapped counties suffering from a decline in another major form of revenue, the coal excise tax.

“Kentucky is one of only a handful of states that relies so heavily on local jails to hold people who have been sentenced to prison,” said Jasmine Heiss, outreach director at the Vera Institute of Justice, which authored the report. “This has deepened political and social alignment around prison,” she said. “In the coal fields, the political and social alignment has the additional context of the decline of the coal industry and needing to turn to another industry or source of revenue.”

Unsustainable Growth

Kentucky has the ninth highest rate of incarceration in the nation. As of February, 2019, Kentucky had more than 23,000 people under state prison jurisdiction but only 11,700 prison beds available, the report said. The state’s solution to overcrowding is to pay “per diem” fees to county jails to house excess inmates. The state pays eligible county jails $31.34 per inmate per day for food and medical expenses, roughly half of what the state spends to house per inmate in a state prison.

Among all states, Kentucky houses the second highest percentage of state inmates in county jails, at 49 percent.

According to the report, the number of people held in local jails for the state increased by 39 percent between 2000 and 2018. West Virginia falls seventh, at 18 percent. Ohio does not hold state inmates in county jails.

Jack Norton, one of the report’s co-authors, said that despite policies aimed at reducing Kentucky’s prison population, incarceration continues to grow at an “alarming” rate. “If the incarceration rates continue to rise in Kentucky at the same rate is has since 2000, every person in the state would be behind bars in 113 years,” Norton said.

Despite the mathematical impossibility of continued growth, the report said many county officials, particularly in rural counties, consider increasing jail capacity a solution to budget woes.

Knox County, in southeast Kentucky, has plans to build a new 350-bed jail. The report notes the current Knox County jail has space for 36 inmates but regularly holds 100 people.

“The state prison system is pushing people down to the county jail level, which is incentivizing counties in Kentucky to build bigger jails in order to take advantage of the per diem payments that the state DOC gives to county jails,” Norton said.

Coal Cuts

Harlan County, in eastern Kentucky, has seen its population decrease, but its incarcerated population has risen by 1,500 percent since 1978. A lot of that increase, the report says, is from prisoners sentenced in the state system. A Harlan County official told the Vera Institute nearly two-thirds of the county jail budget, or $1.8 million, comes from state payments for housing inmates.

Judah Schept, Norton’s co-author and a professor at Eastern Kentucky University, said the per diem payments for holding state inmates were particularly important in the state’s eastern coal fields, where budgets once boosted by coal severance taxes were flagging.

“The money that the state pays for locking up state prisoners in local jails has supplanted the role of coal as a revenue source for county budgets,” the report said.

Coal production began to decline decades ago, but around 2011, cheap natural gas caused a steep decline in coal production in eastern Kentucky. The decline in coal production meant drastic cuts to many local budgets, which have long relied on the tax on mined coal that the state distributes to mining counties.

Harlan County, a traditional coal county, saw its severance tax payments drop from $3.2 million in 2011 to $850,000 in 2016, according to the report.

Depending on Growth

The report’s authors urged county officials to be wary of relying too heavily on payments for housing state prisoners. If the state’s criminal justice policies change and the prison population begins to decline, county jails could be left footing the bill for unnecessarily large jails, even as the loss of per-diem revenue causes further hardship to local budgets.

“Rather than pursue policies that would address [over-incarceration] in some way, that would reduce the number of people behind bars,” said Heiss, “this quiet jail expansion around the state enables this limiting of the political and moral imagination around over-incarceration. The only solution that is being pursued is to provide more and more beds.”

As the federal government and states across the country pass legislation aimed at reducing prison populations, Kentucky’s incarceration rate has continued to rise. Legislation has been introduced in Frankfort that could reduce the number of people jailed before trial, potentially reducing the the state’s reliance on counties for bed space. Previous versions of the bill have been introduced but not passed.

This article was originally published by Ohio Valley ReSource.

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Appalachia

Plastics: The New Coal in Appalachia?

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Gas processing plants like this MarkWest plant in Butler County, Pennsylvania, separate natural gas liquids from natural gas. Photo: James Bruggers

With the natural gas fracking boom, plastics production is spreading in the Ohio River Valley. But at what cost to health and climate?

MONACA, Pennsylvania — Along the banks of the Ohio River here, thousands of workers are assembling the region’s first ethane cracker plant. It’s a conspicuous symbol of a petrochemical and plastics future looming across the Appalachian region.

More than 70 construction cranes tower over hundreds of acres where zinc was smelted for nearly a century. In a year or two, Shell Polymers, part of the global energy company Royal Dutch Shell, plans to turn what’s called “wet gas” into plastic pellets that can be used to make a myriad of products, from bottles to car parts.

Two Asian companies could also announce any day that they plan to invest as much as $6 billion in a similar plant in Ohio. There’s a third plastics plant proposed for West Virginia.

With little notice nationally, a new petrochemical and plastics manufacturing hub may be taking shape along 300 miles of the upper reaches of the Ohio River, from outside Pittsburgh southwest to Ohio, West Virginia and Kentucky. It would be fueled by a natural gas boom brought on by more than a decade of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, a drilling process that has already dramatically altered the nation’s energy landscape—and helped cripple coal.

But there’s a climate price to be paid. Planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions from the Shell plant alone would more or less wipe out all the reductions in carbon dioxide that Pittsburgh, just 25 miles away, is planning to achieve by 2030. Drilling for natural gas leaks methane, a potent climate pollutant; and oil consumption for petrochemicals and plastics may account for half the global growth in petroleum demand between now and 2050.

Map: Ethane Cracker Plants on the Ohio River

Despite the climate and environmental risks, state and business leaders and the Trump administration are promoting plastics and petrochemical development as the next big thing, more than three decades after the region’s steel industry collapsed and as Appalachian coal mining slumps.

“We have been digging our way out of a very deep hole for decades,” said Jack Manning, president and executive director of the Beaver County Chamber of Commerce.

“When Shell came along with a $6-to-$7 billion investment … we were in the right spot at the right time,” he said.

Everyone wants jobs and economic growth, said Cat Lodge, who works with communities in the Ohio River Valley affected by the shale gas industry for the Environmental Integrity Project, a national environmental group. But not everyone wants them to be based on another form of polluting, fossil fuels, she said.

“While the rest of the world is dealing with global warming, Pennsylvania and Ohio and West Virginia are embracing developing plastics, and that just appalls me,” Lodge says. “It’s just not something I see as the future and unfortunately that seems to be the push to make that the future. And that’s upsetting.”

Lodge and her husband moved from Pittsburgh to the countryside 18 years ago in search of fresh air and open land. They have a small farm in a corner of rural western Pennsylvania, where winding roads trace the contours of Appalachian hills and a stark transition fueled by a shale gas boom is underway.

“We still love it, but little by little, and quickly over the last several years, we have become totally surrounded by the oil and gas industry,” she said.

Rising Demand, but Also Pushback on Plastics

The natural gas that’s pulled from deep underground in the Utica and Marcellus shale formations has done more than outcompete coal for electricity generation.

Drilling companies have also extracted a lot of natural gas liquids, particularly ethane, also called wet gas. It’s used to produce ethylene, which then gets turned into plastics, providing an additional revenue stream for the oil and gas industry. It’s the industry’s latest play, and it comes at a time when industry analysts and the federal government say the demand for plastics is skyrocketing.

Illustration: Plastics: From the Gas Plant to Your Home

“These materials are hooked into just about every part of the economy, from housing to electronics to packaging,” said Dave Witte, a senior vice president at IHS Markit, a global data and information service. “Today, the world needs six of these plants to be built every year to keep up with demand growth.”

IHS Markit calls the Appalachian or upper Ohio River region “the Shale Crescent.” Last year, it reported that the region’s gas supplies could support as many as five large cracker plants, like the one Shell is building. The plants “crack” ethane molecules to make ethylene and polyethylene resin pellets and would be in close proximity to a number of manufacturers that use those products to make everything from paints to plastic bags.

Chart: 3 States' Natural Gas Boom

IHS does see some headwinds, including an international backlash against plastics. It published a report last summer that found that worldwide pressure to reduce plastic use and increase recycling was one of the biggest potential disruptors for the plastics industry and was “putting future plastics resin demand and billions of dollars of industry investments at risk.”

The oil and gas industry might find themselves with stranded assets, needing to abandon Ohio River valley communities, said Lisa Graves-Marcucci, a Pennsylvania-based organizer for the Environmental Integrity Project.

“Do they really care,” she asked, “if they can make money for the first 10 years or 20 years of their operation, but then plastic goes away in the world? What happens to the communities that are left behind?”

She said she is also worried about such a major investment in oil and gas as the world grapples with the effects of climate change.

Visions of an Appalachian Plastics Hub

The idea for a plastics hub in Appalachia got a lift in December with a reportto Congress from the U.S. Department of Energy. It described a proposal for the development of regional underground storage of ethane along or underneath the upper Ohio River.

Storage is needed to help provide a steady and reliable stream of ethane to ethane cracking plants, and it would be important for the development of a regional petrochemical complex in the upper Ohio River valley, the report concluded.

Storage is another growing part of the plastics pipeline as natural gas is turned into natural gas liquids and eventually into plastics. Credit: James Bruggers
Storage is another growing part of the plastics pipeline as natural gas is turned into natural gas liquids and eventually into plastics. Credit: James Bruggers

A West Virginia business, Appalachia Development Group LLC, has proposed developing storage for ethane, possibly in mined salt or limestone cavernsdeep underground. It’s in the second phase of an application process for $1.9 billion in loan guarantees from the Department of Energy for the project, according to the department.

“We have sites of interest in Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia,” said Jamie Altman, a representative of Appalachia Development Group. “We are aggressively pursuing private capital.”

The Energy Department is thinking big, too.

Its report projects ethane production in the Appalachian basin would continue rapid growth through 2025 to a total of 640,000 barrels per day, more than 20 times greater than five years ago. By 2050, the agency said ethane production in the region is projected to reach 950,000 barrels per day.

China Energy signed an agreement with West Virginia in 2017 to potentially invest $84 billion in shale gas development and chemical manufacturing projects in the state. Late in January, West Virginia’s development director, Mike Graney, told state senators that China Energy was looking at three undisclosed “energy and petrochemical” projects. An announcement could be made later this year, he said, though President Donald Trump‘s trade war with China was causing delays.

Other experts see a natural gas industry that’s subject to booms and busts and question whether the region is headed down another unsustainable path, like coal.

“We are less optimistic than the industry that this will really boom out,” said Cathy Kunkel, an energy analyst with Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, an environmental think tank that just published a reportdetailing how the natural gas industry in West Virginia hasn’t lived up to earlier expectations for jobs and tax revenue.

There is a huge amount of international competition for plastic production, she said. “All of the major oil exporting countries in the Middle East are talking about making massive investments in petrochemicals over the next five years or so,” she said. “That contains the risk that you will be exporting into a market that would be oversaturated with products.”

Increasing amounts of plastic waste are ending up in streams and oceans. Credit: Rosemary Calvert via Getty Images
IHS Markit, a global data and information service, published a report last summer that said worldwide pressure to reduce plastic use and increase recycling was one of the biggest potential disruptors for the plastics industry and was “putting future plastics resin demand and billions of dollars of industry investments at risk.” Credit: Rosemary Calvert via Getty Images

The Energy Department report also cited “security and supply diversity” as a benefit of developing a new plastics and petrochemicals hub in Appalachia. The bulk of U.S. plastics and petrochemical plants are currently along the Gulf Coast, where they face supply disruptions caused by hurricanes, it said.

Vivian Stockman, the interim director of the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition based in West Virginia, called that a “hugely ironic” justification for an Appalachian plastics hub, since science is showing that global warming can intensify hurricanes.

Economic Benefits, with Health Concerns

The Shell plant was lured to Beaver County by Pennsylvania officials with some $1.65 billion in tax incentives. It’s scheduled to open “early next decade,” company spokesman Ray Fisher said. This year, as many as 6,000 construction workers will be working on it, and Shell says it plans 600 permanent jobs to run the plant.

It’s in Potter Township, a community with fewer than 700 residents. Rebecca Matsco, who chairs the township commission that gave Shell the local zoning permits, said she sees the plastics plant as an industrial upgrade from a dirty zinc smelter that had stood on the property for about a century, and that Shell cleaned up.

“It had become a real environmental burden, and we do feel like Shell has been a real partner in lifting that burden,” Matsco said.

Others, however, see the cracker plant as its own environmental burden—a new source of emissions that cause lung-damaging smog and heat the planet.

People in Pittsburgh were sad to see so much of the steel industry go, but they don’t miss the dirty skies, said Graves-Marcucci, an Allegheny County resident. The economic resurgence that followed was centered around health care, academic institutions and cleaner industries, she said.

Pittsburgh has been brushing off its sooty steel city past and is now pledging to slash its carbon emissions. But the Shell cracker plant alone, just 25 miles away, would emit 2.25 million tons of carbon dioxide a year, effectively wiping out nearly all the gains in carbon reduction that Pittsburgh plans to achieve by 2030, said Grant Ervin, Pittsburgh’s chief resilience officer.

The Shell plant will also emit as much smog-forming pollution as 36,000 cars driving 12,000 miles year; that would equate to about a 25 percent increase in the number of cars in Beaver County, said James Fabisiak, an associate professor and director of the Center for Healthy Environments and Communities at the University of Pittsburgh.

The environmental and health threats will only increase with a plastics hub buildout, and no regulators are looking at those potential cumulative impacts, Graves-Marcucci said.

Two More Communities Could Get Cracker Plants

About 70 miles southeast of the Shell plant, another community waits for news about what could be the region’s second major ethane cracker plant, in Belmont County, Ohio.

PTT Global Chemical, based in Thailand, and its Korean partner, Daelim Industrial Co., Ltd., could announce any day whether they intend to proceed with an ethane cracker plant after getting state permits in late December. That plant would be along a section of the Ohio River in Belmont County where hulking old manufacturing plants and shuttered businesses paint the very picture of the nation’s Rust Belt.

Bellaire, Ohio, is a few miles from another proposed cracker plant. Belmont County officials are waiting to hear whether PTT Global Chemical and its partner are going to invest $6 billion to build the facility. Credit: James Bruggers
Bellaire, Ohio, is a few miles from another proposed cracker plant. Belmont County officials are waiting to hear whether PTT Global Chemical, based in Thailand, and its Korean partner are going to invest $6 billion to build the facility. Credit: James Bruggers

“Do you know what the biggest export is from Belmont County? Our youth,” said Larry Merry, an economic development officer with the Belmont County Port Authority, overlooking the Ohio River bottomlands where the cracker plant would be constructed on the cleared-away site of a former coal-fired power plant.

Merry, who has been working to secure the plastics plant, called the oil and gas industry “a great employer for us that’s provided a lot of investment that’s helped.”

But it’s not fully made up for losses in steel and coal, and this cracker plant “is about jobs and opportunities so people can make the most of their lives,” he said.

He brushed aside any concerns about climate change or too much plastics. “How are we going to live and have products? Until you come up with a solution, don’t expect the world to shut down,” he said.

A spokesman for PTT American said he could not say when an investment decision will be made.

A third potential cracker plant is planned for Wood County, West Virginia, but it has been delayed because of unspecified “challenges” with its parent company, the Department of Energy report said.

“It just blows my mind that there could be three or four cracker plants, or even one,” said Steve White, a western Pennsylvania builder. “That’s some serious investment. It just shows you where everything is headed and how much development is coming.”

White is also a pilot, and he said he has observed from the cabin of a Cessna 3,000 feet aloft the spread of oil wells, pipelines and processing plants across shale drilling zones in Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia, slicing up farms and encroaching on homes, schools and businesses.

“We are just in the way,” he said.

This article was originally published by Inside Climate News.

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Coal Comeback? Coal At New Low After Two Years Under Trump

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It’s been two years since President Donald Trump took office and began rolling back environmental regulations on the coal industry.

At a November rally in Huntington, West Virginia, the president took credit for a coal comeback in front of a cheering crowd.

“We’ve ended the war on beautiful, clean coal and we’re putting our coal miners back to work,” he said. “That you know better than anybody.”

But federal data about the industry tell a different story.

Mine operators and independent contractors are required to report regular employment information to the Department of Labor’s Mine Safety and Health Administration, or MSHA. Preliminary figures for 2018 show 80,778 people were employed by mine operators and contractors. That’s a record low, and about a thousand fewer than were employed by coal in the last year of the Obama administration.

Graphic: Alexandra Kanik, Ohio Valley Resource

Nationwide, coal plant retirements neared a record high, and overall coal production dropped to the lowest level in nearly 40 years, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, a non-partisan government agency that tracks energy trends.

In the Ohio Valley, things looked much the same. In 2018 two prominent Ohio Valley utilities announced a spate of coal power plant closures, federal data show the region lost 150 industry jobs, and Westmoreland Coal, which has a substantial presence in Ohio, declared bankruptcy.

Graphic: Alexandra Kanik, Ohio Valley Resource

However strong exports of one type of coal continued to support jobs for those who provide metallurgical coal, which is used to make steel. That boosted employment in West Virginia, where the president’s supporters say he is keeping his promise to revive the industry. Elsewhere, others aren’t convinced and are looking for ways to fill the void left by coal’s decline.

Environmental Rollbacks

The Trump administration has leaned heavily on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to try to boost the region’s coal industry. In March, 2017, Trump signed an executive order that kicked off an in-depth review of a series of environmental regulations. Since then, the administration has proposed a series of regulatory rollbacks aimed at helping struggling coal plants and operators.

In August, the EPA proposed a replacement for the Clean Power Plan, an Obama-era regulation that aimed to cut greenhouse gas emissions from power plants by one-third over the coming decades in an effort to stem the effects of climate change.

The Trump EPA has also moved to roll back existing regulations that govern the storage of toxic coal ash. In December, the agency proposed a rule revision that would allow coal plants to emit more carbon dioxide per megawatt-hour of electricity generated by scrapping a requirement that plant operators install expensive technology that reduces emissions. The agency in December also proposed weakening a regulation that limits mercury and other toxic emissions from coal power plants.

The Trump administration last year was also embroiled in an ongoing attempt to bail out struggling coal-fired power plants, which has since stalled.

But many industry analysts believe Trump’s looser environmental rules have not helped the industry.

“So we had some pretty significant regulatory rollbacks in 2018,” said Trevor Houser, a coal analyst at the independent research company Rhodium Group. “And yet, 2018 was a record year in terms of coal plant retirements.” [Story continues below map]

Houser said there is also little indication any utility in the country is planning on building a new coal-fired power plant, even under the current, more relaxed regulatory environment.

Last month, S&P Global Market Intelligence reported Longview Power LLC, which operates one of the newest and most efficient coal-fired power plants in the U.S. just outside of Morgantown, West Virginia, is seeking investment to shift some generation from coal to natural gas and solar. Energy Secretary Rick Perry visited the power plant in the summer of 2017 to tout the benefits of coal in a competitive energy market. 

Across the Ohio Valley, utilities announced more coal power plant closures in 2018. After Ohio-based FirstEnergy Solutions declared bankruptcy, it announced it would close two coal-fired power plants, one in Pennsylvania and one in Ohio. Another of its plants in West Virginia will close by 2022. Another major utility, American Electric Power, announced it was moving up the closure date for some units in its Conesville plant in Ohio to 2019.

A report by the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, an energy think tank, found cost is the biggest force in coal’s decline. Renewables and gas-fired generation continue to provide a cheaper and more flexible alternative.

The Met Demand

With more power plant closing there are fewer places to sell thermal coal, which is burned to make electricity, and that has a major impacts coal producers in the region.

“If you look at the share of where the coal was headed, the domestic utility market for West Virginia coal continues to decline,” said Jason Bostic with the West Virginia Coal Association. “And that’s extremely concerning.”

Nationwide and as well as in the Ohio Valley the amount of coal mined dropped to the lowest level in nearly 40 years. Coal exports, however, were up, driven largely by international demand for metallurgical, or met coal, by Asian countries.

Kudzu grows near a coal preparation plant in eastern Kentucky. Photo: Jeff Young, Ohio Valley Resource.

“There’s the kind of continual disconnect between the poor fate of the thermal coal market and a little bit more resilient met coal market,” Houser said.

To meet higher met coal demand, some mines in West Virginia and Virginia have reopened. Federal data from MSHA show West Virginia mines added a little over 500 jobs in 2018.

Tom McLoughlin trains coal miners in southwestern Virginia, where some met coal mines have ramped up production. He said he’s been busy since Trump took office.

“As soon as Trump got elected It was like somebody taking the finger out of the dam,” he said. “There was all kinds of activity including especially the training, and it’s held up fairly well since.”

But even in West Virginia, where things have looked slightly better for the industry, there were also some high-profile mine closures. A mine in Wyoming County shut its doors in October, putting about 400 miners out of work.

There are a lot of indications that the international demand for met coal, especially by China, is cooling off.

“In 2019 we have some pretty troubling signs about the outlook for the Chinese economy this coming year and that could take the wind out of the sails of the metallurgical coal market pretty quickly,” said Houser with the Rhodium Group.

Temporary Bump?

It’s possible that West Virginia’s bounce in production could be a brief one. Elsewhere around the Ohio Valley coal employment has been stagnant, at best. Ohio mines added just 16 jobs last year, and Kentucky lost almost 400 jobs, according to MSHA data.

Retired Kentucky miner Larry Miller said it’s not surprising the data show the industry has not bounced back. He added that he didn’t have a lot of faith in Trump’s ability to revive the industry in the first place.

“I don’t think it’s sustainable,” he said. “The EPA relaxing of the rules might help some, but I don’t think it’s the main driver for the job loss.”

Miller worked for more than two decades underground and said he made a good living. In his own backyard he said he’s seeing first-hand that coal is often no longer an economic source for electricity. For example, near his slice of western Kentucky a group of utilities is installing an 800-acre solar farm, further evidence, he said, of coal’s declining importance.

“It’s not going to be gone but it’s not going to be the economic engine that it once was,” Miller said. “And I made a good living in coal for a long time and I liked it, so I don’t take pleasure in saying that.”

TVA’s new gas fired facility, with the older coal units in background. Photo: Becca Schimmel, Ohio Valley Resource.

Recently, the EIA adjusted downward its coal forecast. It says coal production is expected to hit a record low in 2019. Appalachia will see its overall coal production drop from 201.5 million tons in 2018 to 170.1 million tons in 2020, according to the EIA forecast.

Limited Retraining

That doesn’t bode well for miners. Houser, with the Rhodium Group, said while the Trump administration doubled down to boost coal, it has not offered any additional aid for job retraining.

“The past few budget proposals from the Trump administration have actually reduced the amount of support for retraining and economic diversification and coal retraining in coal country,” he said.

Clemmy Allen has been retraining coal miners for more than 30 years for the United Mine Workers of America.

Since 2012, the UMWA’s Career Training Centers in Appalachia has relied on a Department of Labor grant, which provides $5000 in tuition assistance and a $20 daily stipend to West Virginia miners who have been laid off or lost their jobs. He said thousands of miners have taken advantage of the program, but acknowledged it’s also limited.

“It’s very, very difficult for for a person just to … just shut down and go into training and not have money to, you know, meet their monthly obligations,” he said.

Allen said in previous years the center had more federal grants to retrain miners in other states, and he says there are thousands of miners who have lost their jobs over the years who have since found work, but would like to be retrained to do something else.

“We never have enough resources, never,” he added.

This article was originally published by Ohio Valley ReSource.

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