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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Environment

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

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

This article was originally published by the Ohio Valley ReSource.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ACE Analysis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Legal Challenge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Photo: Courtesy PTTGCA

This article was originally published by the Ohio Valley ReSource.

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

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

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

Fossil-Fueled Plastics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Industry Response

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

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

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

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

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

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Rallies, Legal Action, Grassroots Movements – A Year of Debate Over Proposed W.Va. Plant

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A boy protests the Rockwool company with his family on Aug. 2, 2018 in Charles Town, W.Va. Photo: Liz McCormick/WVPB

This summer will mark one year since thousands of residents in Jefferson County, West Virginia, started a movement to rally against a Denmark-based company called Rockwool.

The company’s proposed West Virginia plant would manufacture stone wool insulation across the street from an elementary school. The issue has sparked contention throughout the region. The voices from those against Rockwool have grown louder, but so too have those who do want Rockwool in the state.

Listen to this story.

Mention Rockwool to anyone in Jefferson County, and you’ll likely get a range of responses. If you drive along almost any road in the county, you’ll find sign after sign that read, “Say No To Rockwool” or “Stop Toxic Rockwool.” In fact, along some roads, there are giant signs propped up on trucks and trailers saying that same message. It’s clear, many in the county do not want this plant built.

Pro and Anti-Rockwool Groups Emerge

Since pushback to the proposed Rockwool plant erupted almost a year ago, the community has only grown more divided. Those against the plant have taken their challenges to the courts.

But those in support of the plant have gotten more organized, too.

“I am the secretary of Jefferson County Prosperity. It is ‘prosperity for all of Jefferson County,’” Kearneysville resident Barbara Fuller told West Virginia Public Broadcasting.

Jefferson County Prosperity formed as a result of the strong opposition to Rockwool and is the only pro-Rockwool group in the county, with 50 active members and more than 1,000 likes on Facebook.

“Everybody [in the group] wants [Jefferson County] to be back the way it used to where people weren’t at each other’s throats,” she said. “I mean, I can go into Walmart now, and they’ll know who I am. And you know, I’ll get nasty glares, which is crazy. And it never used to be like that. Jefferson County used to be so warming.”

Fuller first spoke with West Virginia Public Broadcasting at one of Rockwool’s open houses last August.

At that time, she wasn’t totally on board with Rockwool yet. But after doing her own research and going to the company’s open houses, she said she’s now strongly supportive and believes Rockwool will be a good neighbor, safe and stand by their promises.

“They want to give back. They want the people around to be happy. They want their employees to be happy,” she said.

FOIAs, Lawsuits and Election Upset

Denmark-based Rockwool makes stone wool insulation by melting down basalt rock and recycled slag, and then those fibers are spun to create a wool-like material used to insulate buildings, industrial applications or acoustic ceilings.

The company wants to build a 460,000-square-foot plant in Ranson, Jefferson County, and it would employ about 150 people earning wages between $35,000 and $85,000 a year. But it’s two, 21-story smokestacks would tower over a local elementary school.

Some in the county feel as if they were blindsided by state and county officials who invited Rockwool to locate here.

“You weren’t sure if this was scary or not,” Harpers Ferry resident Shaun Amos said. Amos is a board member of the leading Rockwool opposition group called Jefferson County Vision. The not-for-profit group formed out of a Facebook group called “Concerned Citizens Against Rockwool” that has nearly 11,000 members.

“People had questions,” Amos said. “And we weren’t sure how we had gone from nothing. And then sort of just this trickling of information about some Danish company that was coming, to, oh, my gosh, there’s a giant polluting factory about to be dropped down in the backyard, across the street from an elementary school.”

Jefferson County Vision’s mission statement includes fighting for clean air, clean water, and clean government. The group has filed legal action throughout the year; FOIA requests against the Jefferson County Commission and the Jefferson County Development Authority, or JCDA, all related to Rockwool. They’ve also filed lawsuits against the JCDA and the state.

One lawsuit questions the constitutionality of a PILOT agreement made between West Virginia and Rockwool. A PILOT agreement stands for “payment in lieu of taxes,” and it’s used as an incentive to attract businesses to West Virginia. Another lawsuit questions how the land was zoned on the location where Rockwool is expected to be built.

These lawsuits are still pending, but Amos is confident that Rockwool will be defeated.

“This factory is not coming here, because the citizens have decided that it will not be built here,” he said. “This will not happen here, and it’s just a matter of time before this water flood of citizenry finds the weak places in the wall and undermines the foundation that this thing came here on.”

The debate over Rockwool even sparked upset during the 2018 election. Some new Jefferson County Commissioners were elected, and two House of Delegates seats in Jefferson County flipped from red to blue.

Dels. Sammi Brown and John Doyle, both Democrats, were elected, and both are adamantly opposed to Rockwool.

“I would venture to say, if an accurate poll were taken; if you hired an expensive polling firm to do a thoroughly accurate poll, that the results would be something like 20 percent of the county’s population would be in favor of Rockwool, 60 percent against, and 20 percent undecided,” Del. Doyle said. “So, it’s essentially among those who have an opinion, it’s 3 to 1 against.”

Despite this though, Rockwool isn’t backing down.

What’s Happening Now?

Rockwool has been active within the county in the past year. The company has attended various community events and even donated $30,000 to the Shepherdstown Volunteer Fire Department.

“We really respect the commitment that we made to the community; to build the factory and create the jobs; that was the commitment on our side, and they made some commitments to us,” Rockwool’s North American President Trent Ogilvie said in a Skype interview with West Virginia Public Broadcasting.

Ogilvie said Rockwool will install two independent, public air quality monitoring stations for residents to check. Rockwool said this third-party group is an environmental consultant called ERM. Rockwool admits, however, they are still confirming this will be the consultant for the Jefferson County plant. Rockwool also said they are in the process of commissioning a third-party, human health risk assessment that will investigate the health impacts of the Jefferson County facility. Rockwool did not share the name of this group with West Virginia Public Broadcasting.

WVPB asked Rockwool if it was still worth locating to Jefferson County, given the level of pushback from so much of the community.

“We respect that some local citizens may have a different view and have a right to air their concerns,” Ogilvie said. “And there, all we ask, is to engage in constructive, fact-based, open-minded conversation. We respect concern, and we just want to make sure we can engage and be transparent and answer their questions.”

But Rockwool is facing a new challenge.  

The Jefferson County Board of Education, in April, offered to purchase the land from Rockwool and use eminent domain if necessary. The Jefferson County BOE intends to use the site to build a regional student support center.

Rockwool filed a lawsuit against the Board of Education stating the move violates the company’s state and federal constitutional rights.

Despite the pushback and division within the county, Rockwool President Ogilvie said he expects the plant to be operational by mid-2020.

This article was originally published by West Virginia Public Broadcasting.

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