Connect with us

Energy Wars

When Fracking Companies Own the Gas Beneath Your Land

Published

on

Natural gas companies have cut down forests and paved over farms on West Virginia private lands, calling it “reasonably necessary” to access subsurface gas they own the rights to. A new ProPublica documentary chronicles the legal battles.

When Beth Crowder and David Wentz bought their 351-acre property in West Virginia in 1975, they knew that they would only own the surface land, not the minerals beneath it. But it didn’t bother them.

“They showed us gas wells, which were these two tracks in a field where a vehicle would go to, to check on them monthly or even less often,” Crowder recalled. “They were really very, very innocuous.”

At that time, Crowder and Wentz did not envision what future drilling technology might entail and the scale of disruption it would bring to their lives. (They subsequently divorced, but both continue to live on the land.)

Since the mid-2000s, however, drilling companies have crisscrossed West Virginia using a technique that allowed them to drill horizontally from one property into gas deposits across a wide area. The boom is reshaping how West Virginia looks and sounds, as the Charleston Gazette-Mail and ProPublica documented last year.

Before 2007, West Virginia issued only a few dozen permits for horizontal drilling. Over the last decade, the state has issued nearly 5,000.

A new documentary released today by ProPublica and CBSN Originals shows how Crowder and Wentz found themselves right in the middle of this boom.

In late 2010, Crowder ran into a survey crew on the dirt road leading to her home. She learned of plans for a large well site on the property, which would include a 13-well “pad.” Crowder and Wentz fought back against the gas driller on their property, Pittsburgh-based EQT. They hired a lawyer and sent letters telling EQT that it did not have the right to build the pad site.

EQT went ahead anyway, clearing 42 acres of forest, some of which Wentz had cultivated for years for timber. The company put in a road, a 20-acre well pad and a storage pond.

Drilling and fracking just one of the wells that EQT built on Crowder and Wentz’s property required almost 11 million gallons of water and 1.8 million pounds of sand, all of which had to be trucked to the site. By comparison, vertical wells drilled on the property previously used just 305,000 pounds of sand in total.

West Virginia law states that mineral owners have the right to do what is “reasonably necessary” to access their minerals. But the legal concept of “reasonably necessary” was developed at a time when gas wells were a few pipes sticking out of the ground.

The majority of gas that EQT extracted from the well site on the property did not come from beneath Crowder and Wentz’s land, but rather from neighboring properties. The 1901 lease gave the company the right to produce gas from beneath the land owned by Crowder and Wentz, but it did not give them permission to use their land to drill into neighboring tracts.

In 2014, they sued EQT for trespassing. In 2017, they won a $190,000 victory in Doddridge County Circuit Court. EQT later appealed to the West Virginia Supreme Court.

Filing a lawsuit against a gas company in West Virginia is a difficult decision. Judges are elected in the state and some, including Supreme Court justices, receive donations from the industry for their election campaigns. Natural gas companies are also valued in communities where work is scarce.

In the last decade, the number of jobs provided by the sector has risen from around 8,000 to over 18,000, with average salaries ranging from $67,000 to more than $117,000, compared with $45,000 for most private-sector jobs in West Virginia, according to an analysis of data collected by Workforce West Virginia.

In 2018, more than half of the natural gas jobs were in the highest paid category, pipeline construction. But those jobs will likely decline in the next few years as the need for new pipelines diminishes.

On June 5, the West Virginia Supreme Court unanimously ruled in favor of Crowder and Wentz. The court said that natural gas companies must get permission from surface owners to use their land to drill into minerals under neighboring properties.

“The right must be expressly obtained, addressed, or reserved in the parties’ deeds, leases, or other writings,” Justice John Hutchison wrote.

For Crowder, Wentz and their lawyers, the decision was grounds for celebration.

“The short answer is, we won. And we won big time,” David McMahon, the couple’s lawyer, told them over the phone.

“It isn’t April Fool’s Day, is it?” Crowder asked, while Wentz, usually taciturn, cheered.

Joshua Fershee, a West Virginia University law professor who followed the case, said that the decision is not going to stop the drilling, but it will cost drillers more. “This is just really about making sure that people are compensated for giving up their rights,” he said.

A representative from EQT said in a statement last month that since November 2018, a new management team has been in charge of the company, and it has undergone a “cultural transformation.” The company now seeks “to maintain more cooperative relationships with landowners and the residents of the communities in which we operate.”

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

ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up for ProPublica’s Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox as soon as they are published.

Charleston Gazette-Mail staff writer Ken Ward Jr. and ProPublica news applications developer Al Shaw contributed to this report.

Energy Wars

A Resolution Condemning Pipeline Challengers Passed Easily. A Pipeline Lobbyist Wrote It.

Published

on

Protesters gather outside a public hearing in Harrisonburg, Virginia, for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, a 600-mile-long project that will ship natural gas from Northern West Virginia into North Carolina. A West Virginia resolution praised the pipeline and sharply condemned the citizens’ groups that challenged the project in court. Photo: Nikki Fox/Daily News-Record via AP

A Dominion Energy lobbyist drafted the resolution and bought meals for its supporters in West Virginia’s legislature. He says there’s nothing unusual about it. The public wasn’t told.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — It was getting late on March 7 in the West Virginia House of Delegates chamber.

There were only two days left in the 60-day legislative session, and lawmakers had been voting for hours.

By 8:30 p.m., delegates had moved past bills and onto resolutions — measures that don’t become law but express the legislative body’s sentiment. They acted on a batch of resolutions on a voice vote: One to name a Kanawha County bridge in honor of the late Charleston police Capt. Jerry Hill. Another proposed a study to see if struggling rural fire departments could be consolidated to save money. There was a resolution to designate the Mountain Cur (a medium-sized, rough-coated brown dog) as the state dog.

But one resolution seemed different from the others, Delegate Evan Hansen, D-Monongalia, said. He asked that House Resolution 11, titled “Recognizing the Importance of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline,” be read and voted on separately.

“I understand this is just a resolution and that it’s late, but I just want to make sure people have read this resolution,” said Hansen, one of two delegates to speak up against it.

House Resolution 11, sponsored by nearly half the delegates, praised the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, a major natural gas project. Then, the resolution sharply condemned the citizens’ groups that challenged the project in court, calling their legal challenge an “all-out assault” with the goal of “forcing its cancelation.”

The resolution passed 80 to 17.

What wasn’t mentioned on the House floor that night was that the resolution was drafted by the pipeline company itself. Bob Orndorff, a lobbyist for Dominion Energy, wrote the resolution and sent it to the House of Delegates, according to documents obtained through a public records request filed by the Charleston Gazette-Mail with the clerk of the House of Delegates.

At the end of January, as the resolution was being drafted, Orndorff took five Republican delegates — Eric Nelson; Jason Harshbarger, who works for Dominion Energy; Scott Cadle; John Hott and Chris Phillips — out to dinner at Fazio’s, an old-style Italian restaurant in Charleston, according to a disclosure filed with the West Virginia Ethics Commission. The bill: $575.

All of those delegates would sponsor House Resolution 11, which was introduced one week later. 

Harshbarger said he normally goes out to dinner with Orndorff during the legislative session, and that the dinner was “more as a social thing than anything.” 

(The other legislators did not return phone calls seeking comment.)

Then, the day before the resolution passed on the floor, Orndorff, the West Virginia Oil and Natural Gas Association and Antero Resources, the state’s largest gas producer, hosted a luncheon that cost $830 for the House Energy Committee, in the office of Delegate Bill Anderson, R-Wood, the resolution’s lead sponsor and chairman of the committee, another disclosure filing shows.

On the floor the night the resolution passed, Anderson called natural gas pipelines “absolutely necessary.”

It’s not abnormal for a lobbyist to provide insight or help draft legislation. But Orndorff’s resolution was different from other pieces of legislation because it singled out a specific group. It sheds light on the close relationship between West Virginia’s growing natural gas industry and its legislative branch, as the Gazette-Mail and ProPublica chronicled last year.

“What I was trying to communicate to some legislators, what I thought was odd, was how it was directed at citizens who were pursuing mechanisms to make sure that laws are enforced. It seems almost like they were undermining their own authority at the Legislature,” said Angie Rosser, executive director for the West Virginia Rivers Coalition, which lobbies on behalf of environmental groups.

Orndorff confirmed that he wrote the resolution but said it was because Anderson asked him for a draft. There’s nothing unusual about that, he said — legislation has to start somewhere.

“I gave them a draft and they took the draft and rewrote it, and they asked me for a resolution, so I said, ‘I’ll give you some talking points,’ and they took it from there,” Orndorff said in an interview.

He also said: “I take delegates out to dinner all the time. I don’t think there’s a correlation between me feeding them and passing a resolution. It’s relationship-building.”

Orndorff said he didn’t actually lobby for the resolution after it was introduced. Any other group was welcome to write its own resolution, too, he said.

Anderson, however, said he didn’t know that Orndorff wrote it. “I had no knowledge of it,” he said. As for the luncheon in his office paid for in part by Orndorff, Anderson said such events are commonly sponsored by energy lobbyists. The resolution, Anderson said, “was not discussed at that luncheon. I don’t do business that way.”

Anderson also noted that the draft he first saw, which a reporter told him was written by Orndorff, was not identical to the resolution that passed. But the wording changes were minor. One changes “the Atlantic Coast Pipeline” to “the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and others”; another deleted the words “extremist environmental” from the description of the groups that challenged the project.

The Atlantic Coast Pipeline is a 600-mile-long project primarily being built by Dominion Energy that will ship natural gas from Northern West Virginia into North Carolina. Although developers say the project is key to transporting gas to the Mid-Atlantic region, citizens’ groups argue that regulators were hasty in their approval of the pipeline. In December, a federal appeals court sided with the citizens’ groups and vacated a key permit, saying the U.S. Forest Service had abandoned its responsibility to protect national forests. Earlier that month, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals also issued a stay to the project’s permit from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

By March, construction on the project had been stalled for three months after the court’s decisions. Developers blamed the environmental groups’ “assaults and delaying tactics.”

“These unwarranted attacks have resulted in regulatory and legal proceedings that have repeatedly delayed both the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and the related Supply Header Project,” the resolution said.

Dominion Energy is among several companies trying to tap into the booming Marcellus Shale formation by building a natural gas pipeline. The work stoppage forced the company to lay off about 4,500 workers and pushed the project’s completion date back by about three years, according to a Dominion spokesman. Originally projected to cost about $4.5 billion, the Atlantic Coast Pipeline might now cost $7 billion. Its developers are appealing to the U.S. Supreme Court.

“Forty-eight hundred men and women lost their job a week before Christmas. Now, your paper doesn’t seem to be sensitive to that,” Orndorff said when asked about his role in the resolution. “Obviously, you will write a story saying that Dominion Energy is trying to influence the process. Yes, that’s our right to do that.”

Some of those workers were able to find new jobs quickly; some were out of work for longer, said Steve White, director of the Affiliated Construction Trades Foundation.

“What I would say is, it was our workers that got hurt when this project was put on hold,” White said. “We really wish that, whatever the problems are, they would be resolved and that our workers would not be the ones to bear the brunt of the legal battles.”

The Atlantic Coast Pipeline isn’t the only multibillion-dollar project that has been stopped after an appeals court ruled that federal agencies had neglected to follow their own rules. The Mountain Valley Pipeline, a 300-mile-long pipeline that will run from Northern West Virginia into Virginia, also was temporarily halted last year after the court said the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management ignored rules that protect rivers and forests. That pipeline also is under federal investigation for possible violations of the Clean Water Act. Construction is still underway, with a targeted completion by the end of this year.

A review last year by the Gazette-Mail and ProPublica showed how federal and state agencies tasked with enforcing the nation’s environmental laws repeatedly cleared roadblocks and expedited natural gas projects like the Mountain Valley and Atlantic Coast pipelines.

“It concerns me that, even with all the consequences we’ve seen because of this hasty process or shortcutting process, we still have a resolution where they’re pushing it aside and saying, ‘As quickly as possible, let’s get this done,’” Rosser said. “That remains distressing and really not considering the communities and peoples’ properties being damaged when laws are skirted.”

A Resolution Two Months in the Making

According to records obtained by the Gazette-Mail, the groundwork for the resolution began in January.

On Jan. 8, a day before the regular legislative session resumed, Orndorff stood in front of the Joint Committee on Natural Gas Developmentin a Senate committee room.

He had a request.

“I think it’s important for the Legislature to stand up to these rogue environmental groups to say, ‘You’re going to impact our economy in West Virginia, you’re going to impact job growth in West Virginia,’” Orndorff said, referring to the citizens’ groups that had challenged the Forest Service and Fish and Wildlife in federal court.

“Do a resolution supporting condemning them,” Orndorff said. “I think it’s important for West Virginia to go on record that the end result of their tactics hurt the state economy of West Virginia.”

A simple resolution, like House Resolution 11, is read over once before it’s adopted or rejected, and it doesn’t require action by the other house or the governor. A bill, on the other hand, is formally introduced in the House or Senate before it’s considered in committees, read three times and sent to the other house where it’s subject to the same process. It can also be vetoed by the governor.

A few hours after the committee meeting, Orndorff sent an email to two staffers and another Dominion lobbyist with a note: “Attached is the resolution” we “spoke about today” and a copy of his draft, dated Jan. 7 — the day before he presented to the joint committee.

The resolution he wrote said the Legislature “categorically condemns these irrational, counterproductive and economically damaging assaults on the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and other urgently needed energy infrastructure” and said “some extremist environmental groups have launched an all-our [sic] assault on the Atlantic Coast Pipeline project, with the ultimate aim of forcing its cancellation.”

Almost three weeks later, Robert Akers, the chief lawyer for the House Energy Committee and staff on the Joint Committee, wrote back to Orndorff. The resolution draft Akers sent wasalmost identical to Orndorff’s first draft.

On the night the resolution was considered, which was one night after the luncheon Orndorff hosted for the House Energy Committee, Hansen, the delegate who opposed it, contrasted this resolution with one read right before. The other resolution, adopted on a voice vote without any debate, recognized “the importance of West Virginia’s energy resources and critical energy infrastructure to support economic development and national security.”

Hansen, who is an environmental scientist, didn’t have any problem with the message or language of the other bill, he later said.

As for House Resolution 11, he said: “I just thought this was such an irresponsible issue, I had no choice but to speak up. It was essentially the legislative branch saying we don’t want pipeline companies to follow the law, and that’s a very irresponsible stance for the Legislature to take.”

“The real attack is in the resolution itself,” Delegate John Doyle, D-Jefferson, said on the floor.

Delegate Andrew Byrd, D-Kanawha, voted for the resolution. He said he didn’t realize Orndorff wrote it.

“Ideas can come from your constituents, but drafting is usually put together by a delegate and reviewed by a delegate,” Byrd said. “I’m kind of shocked to hear that” the resolution was drafted by a lobbyist.

Asked whether he’d vote again in favor, he looked at the resolution.

After a pause, Byrd said he would — the “overall concept” was enough to outweigh the harsh language.

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

ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up for ProPublica’s Big Storynewsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox as soon as they are published.

Kate Mishkin covers the environment, workplace safety and energy, with a focus on coal and natural gas for the Charleston Gazette-Mail. Email her at kate.mishkin@wvgazettemail.com and follow her on Twitter at @katemishkin.

Continue Reading

Energy Wars

PA Prosecutors Eye Potential ‘Environmental Crimes’ of Oil and Gas Companies

Published

on

In this 2015 file photo, people demonstrate against fracking at Gov. Tom Wolf’s inauguration. Eight people were arrested, but charges were later dismissed. Photo: Marie Cusick/StateImpact Pennsylvania

When he ran for attorney general in 2016, Josh Shapiro promised to prosecute the state’s fracking industry. In a campaign ad, he said regulators in Pennsylvania were being too soft on polluters.

“All they’ve ever gotten is a slap on the wrist. It’s time for that to change,” Shapiro promised. “I’ll hold the oil and gas companies criminally liable for poisoning our air and our drinking water.”

Shapiro appears to be living up to his campaign promise. He’s summoned witnesses before an investigative grand jury in Pittsburgh to look into possible “environmental crimes” related to oil and gas activities. Close to Philadelphia, he’s helping Delaware County prosecutors investigate the troubled Mariner East pipeline project, which has caused sinkholes, contaminated well water and leaked gasoline into waterways.

And Shapiro isn’t the only prosecutor in the state looking into the oil and gas business.

Chester County District Attorney Tom Hogan has launched a grand jury investigation of his own on the Mariner East.

“Somebody’s got to step in,” he said in January. “Our citizens are very concerned. As soon as our prosecutors and investigators started digging into this, they said, yes, there are significant problems. Yes, some of them could fall into criminal charges.”

A spokeswoman for Energy Transfer — the company behind the Mariner East, declined to be interviewed. But in a statement, she said there was no “legitimate basis” for an investigation and that the company would “aggressively” defend itself.

After years of complaints from residents living near fracking sites, pipelines and other oil and gas infrastructure, prosecutors are looking into whether any actions taken during the state’s fracking boom crossed the line of criminality.

This wouldn’t be the first time the AG’s office has pursued charges against the oil and gas industry. In 2013, it charged XTO, an ExxonMobil subsidiary, with violating state laws for a spill of fracking wastewater in Lycoming County. In 2011, the state charged a Greene County man with illegally dumping oil and gas wastewater throughout Southwestern Pennsylvania.

Legal experts say it’s too early to say what will happen with these investigations, but they can end in penalties like fines for companies, or probation and even jail time for individuals.

Typically, these prosecutions involve proving the intent or the mental state of an individual or corporation, says David Uhlmann, a former environmental crimes prosecutor for the U.S. Department of Justice. Uhlmann, who’s now a law professor at Michigan, says companies can’t plead ignorance of the laws they’re accused of breaking.

“Ignorance of the law generally is not a defense in the United States and it’s not the case that companies can say ‘Oh well. I had no idea that the law applied to my conduct,’ or, ‘I didn’t realize what the law required,’” he said.

Subpoena power a key prosecution tool

Prosecutors have a high bar to clear — proving a case beyond a reasonable doubt. But they also have tools that other government agencies don’t, says Mark Freed, a former prosecutor in the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s office who’s now in private practice.

Chief among them is the ability to convene a grand jury.

“They have the power to subpoena, so they are very useful in conducting investigations, gathering the evidence that’s needed then for the prosecuting agency to decide they have enough information to make a charge,” Freed said.

Having subpoena power means prosecutors can talk to people who’ve signed non-disclosure agreements with oil and gas companies.

Shapiro and his deputies have used that power to talk with Stephanie Hallowich, a western Pennsylvania woman who testified before the grand jury in Pittsburgh in February. Hallowich, at one time an outspoken critic of fracking, has not talked publicly about her case since signing a settlement with Range Resources in 2012.

Stephanie Hallowich with her children. The Hallowich’s sued after they say drilling activity made their children sick. The drilling companies say there is no medical evidence to link the illness to gas drilling. Photo: Mark Schmerling / Protecting Our Waters

In the lawsuit that preceded the settlement, Hallowich claimed Range Resources and two other oil and gas companies contaminated the air and water at her Washington County home. A letter from Shapiro asked attorneys involved in the case between Range Resources and Washington County resident Stacey Haney to preserve documents and evidence.

So is Range a target of Shapiro’s?

That’s tough to say, said Jamie Colburn, a former EPA attorney who’s now a Penn State law professor.

“You don’t open a grand jury investigation because you know who is guilty. You open a grand jury investigation to find out if anybody is guilty,” Colburn said.

Spokesmen for Range Resources didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment.

The attorney general’s office won’t even confirm there is an investigation, let alone discuss details of the case, though Shapiro has acknowledged (on Twitter) accepting a referral from Delaware County District Attorney Katayoun Copeland to investigate the Mariner East pipeline project.

Can a regulator be a target of an investigation?

Before Hallowich’s lawsuit was settled, it named the Department of Environmental Protection as a defendant. In other high-profile contamination cases, public agencies tasked with safeguarding water supplies have become targets for prosecution.

In Michigan, the state attorney general has charged 15 officials for their roles in the Flint Water crisis, and three have pleaded guilty. Shapiro himself charged Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority with more than 150 counts related to lead in Pittsburgh’s drinking water.

So far, there’s been no indication that Shapiro is investigating DEP’s role in regulating oil and gas companies.

Chris Carusone, a former chief deputy attorney general in Pennsylvania, says he wouldn’t bet on that happening.

“I can’t imagine a scenario where the attorney general’s office could investigate the DEP for failing to do its job,” Carusone said.

He says that typically, environmental crimes are reserved for individuals or companies — not government agencies.

“You could have a scenario where a state employee is charged with conspiring with a business entity or other individuals outside of the agency to violate the law,” Carusone said.

Uhlmann, the former Department of Justice lawyer, says prosecutors can only enforce laws already on the books. Criminal investigations, he said, are no substitute for regulation of industry by legislatures and state agencies.

“You can’t go in through the back door and sort of regulate through litigation conduct that you haven’t regulated at the front end,” Uhlmann said.

Most agree on one possible outcome of the investigations: Prosecutors could go through all this and decide they don’t have enough evidence to bring charges. Grand juries in Pennsylvania can last up to 24 months. When they’re done, they can release their findings in a report.

This story is produced in partnership with StateImpact Pennsylvania, a collaboration among The Allegheny Front, WESA, WITF and WHYY to cover the commonwealth’s energy economy.

This article was originally published by The Allegheny Front. The Allegheny Front is produced in Pittsburgh and reports on the environment. More at alleghenyfront.org.

Continue Reading

Energy Wars

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

Published

on

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.

Continue Reading

Trending