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Federal Agency Move Favors Oil And Gas Industry, Critics Say

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An oil and gas operation in Colorado that’s regulated by the Bureau of Land Management. Credit: Bureau of Land Management Oil and Gas Leasing informational video.

The Trump administration is moving staff from another agency out of Washington, D.C., citing efficiency and cost savings as reasons. If you want to improve the responsiveness of the Bureau of Land Management, start by filling vacant positions, says an employees’ association.

The Trump administration announced last week it will move another federal agency out of Washington, D.C., relocating dozens of management-level employees of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). While the administration claims the move is necessary to increase agency responsiveness, critics of the decision say the BLM reorganization is part of a broader pattern of poor management and lack of respect for the federal workforce.

BLM officials made the announcement July 16, explaining the decision to move the Interior Department Agency’s headquarters from the National Capital Region to Grand Junction, Colorado. The bureau has nearly 10,000 employees, with only 550 currently located in Washington, D.C.

“This approach will play an invaluable role in serving the American people more efficiently while also advancing the Bureau of Land Management’s multiple-use mission,” said Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, in a statement. “Shifting critical leadership positions and supporting staff to Western states — where an overwhelming majority of federal lands are located — is not only a better management system, it is beneficial to the interest of the American public in these communities, cities, counties and states.”

The Palisade Wilderness Study Area near Grand Junction. Credit: Bureau of Land Management

If the move is implemented as outlined, 61 BLM employees will remain in DC, 222 will be redistributed in local BLM offices throughout the West and 27 employees will establish the “new headquarters” in Western Colorado. BLM manages 245 million across the country, nearly all of which are located in rural communities of the West.

Much like USDA’s decision and rationale to relocate the Economic Research Service (ERS) and National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), numerous critics of the BLM relocation plan are not convinced by the administration’s statements about saving money and making the agency more responsive.

“I don’t think anyone was complaining about a lack of responsiveness at BLM, particularly the oil, gas and mining industries,” said Jeff Ruch, Pacific director at the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). “If anything, this administration has had an open-door policy so that they get what they want.”

Ruch is referring to BLM decisions since 2017 to pursue “increased energy dominance” by opening additional federal lands to fossil fuel and mining development. “The BLM is understaffed as it is,” Ruch said. “The White House has proposed budget cuts each year they have been in office despite a bigger workload of processing more permits for energy and mining.”

“If they were interested in actually improving performance,” Ruch said, Interior Secretary Bernhardt “would at the very least appoint a functioning staff. Everyone in BLM is an ‘acting’ appointment. We’re two and a half years in and there has not even been a nomination for BLM director.”

Representative Raul Grijalva (D-New Mexico), the lead congressional Democrat on BLM issues and chair of the Natural Resources Committee, said the move would give oil and gas interests more of an advantage in gaining access to public lands.

“This administration has been handing over public lands to fossil fuel companies at record speed, and this move is part of that agenda,” Grijalva said. “Putting BLM headquarters down the road from Secretary Bernhardt’s hometown just makes it easier for special interests to walk in the door demanding favors without congressional oversight or accountability. The BLM officials based in Washington are here to work directly with Congress and their federal colleagues, and that function is going to take a permanent hit if this move goes forward. The agency will lose a lot of good people because of this move, and I suspect that’s the administration’s real goal here.”

Changes to BLM staff and location of the headquarters have been discussed since the early days of the Trump administration when Ryan Zinke was head of Interior, according to Kate Kelly, Public Lands Director of the Center for American Progress. “While this is a huge blow to the morale and talent at BLM, I don’t think you can overestimate the politics of this decision,” Kelly said.

“There are Senate and local elections coming in 2020 in Colorado,” Kelly said. “Plus, Interior Secretary Bernhardt is from Grand Junction, as are many other major players in the oil industry. And, when the BLM employees are redistributed to local offices, every state in the West is going to gain a number of federal employees.”

Kelly said that moving key policy staff away from the Capital Region, where the Secretary of Interior and Congress are located, doesn’t make sense. “Like it or not, D.C. is the place where many agency decisions are made,” Kelly said. “From the budget to policy, having staff available on-site where the Secretary sits is very important to informing good decision-making.”

Retaining those staff through the reorganization also worries Kelly, who points to the large number of USDA employees choosing to retire or resign rather than relocate to Kansas City.

Last week, USDA announced that only 145 ERS and NIFA workers had chosen to move along with the research agencies. Another 250 employees have declined to stick with their employer because of the decision.

“Given all the employees who have resigned in recent months in light of this ill-advised relocation, plus those who say they will not relocate, USDA is likely to retain less than 10 percent of the total workforce at these two agencies once all is said and done,” said J. David Cox, president of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), which represents the USDA employees, in a statement. “In addition to the direct costs of the relocation, the resulting brain drain from this massive loss of talent will severely damage NIFA and ERS, and it will take years to rebuild the highly specialized workforce at these agencies.”

Congressional opposition to both the USDA and BLM relocations continues to surface, as do concerns about the cost-effectiveness of the agency projections. Questions remain about how congressional action through the budget process can affect both decisions.

The BLM’s 245 million acres of public forest, grass and rangelands are located primarily in 12 Western states, including Alaska. The BLM also administers 700 million acres of sub-surface mineral estate throughout the nation.

This article was originally published by the Daily Yonder.

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Uneasy State of Affairs: Scotland’s Use of American Shale Gas

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The Grangemouth refinery and petrochemical plant in Grangemouth, Scotland. Photo: Reid R. Frazier/StateImpact Pennsylvania

On a quiet street overlooking Scotland’s largest refinery and chemical plant, Kevin Ross surveyed the newest outgrowth of the American fracking boom. 

Since 2016, gas from the U.S. has been feeding the Grangemouth petrochemical plant, a vast complex of cooling towers, tall flares and pipelines. The gas is harvested in Western Pennsylvania, near Pittsburgh. Then it’s sent through a pipeline to Philadelphia. There, the gas is put on ships to cross the Atlantic, Ross explained.

Ross, president of the Scottish Plastics and Rubber Association and managing director a local plastics testing company, said the arrival of Pennsylvania shale gas has allowed the Grangemouth plant to re-open a unit that had been shut down for years; the plant is now operating at full production, producing 1.4 million tons of chemicals and plastic pellets a year.  

“The import of American shale gas has certainly resulted in a lot more investment into Grangemouth,” Ross said. “It is invested in the safeguarding of jobs, it is invested not just into the plant but contractors and colleges, all supplying the plant.”

Recognizing an Opportunity

Natural gas is mostly used for heating homes or fueling power plants.  But when it comes out of the ground, it contains another key ingredient — ethane, a building block of plastics. 

The American fracking boom has produced so much ethane that it’s fueling a chemical boom in the U.S., where over 300 new chemical and plastics plants are either planned or under construction, including a massive new Shell ethane plant in Beaver County.

But for the past few years, this ethane has fed hulking chemical plants around the world, including the one at Grangemouth, owned by the European chemical company INEOS. 

The plan to ship this shale gas was hatched in 2011, when INEOS began looking for a new source material to feed its European chemical plants. Its own supplies of ethane from the North Sea were running low, said Warren Wilczewski, an economist with the US Energy Information Administration.

“INEOS looked at the United States, where ethane supply was growing– and especially in the Appalachian region, that ethane had, like, no place to go,” Wilczewski said. “And they recognized an opportunity.”

INEOS commissioned a fleet of ships — the first ever to carry ethane by sea — to move the gas from a port near Philadelphia to plants in the UK and Norway. It also signed a deal with Sunoco Logistics to ship gas over the Mariner East pipeline from Western Pennsylvania to a port near Philadelphia. 

Sunoco’s construction of Mariner East has been controversial because of its use of eminent domain, and its spotty environmental record. The project is the subject of multiple criminal investigations, including a reported FBI investigation into possible corruption by Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration related to its issuing of permits to the project. But the project has proved vital for INEOS’ plan to gain a new supply for its chemical plants. 

INEOS officials did not agree to an interview for this story. But in a company video, CEO Jim Ratcliffe said the cost of ethane from Pennsylvania was about one-fourth of what he would have had to pay for it in Europe.

“I think for some of these (chemical plants) in Europe, it’s the only way they can survive, if we can bring some of the US economics across to Europe,” Ratcliffe said. 

The US has quickly become the world’s leading exporter of ethane, feeding growing plastics industries in India and China. Ethane exports are expected to rise from 65,000 barrels a day in 2015, or about 6 percent of total production, to 330,000 barrels a day this year — about 17 percent, according to figures from the Department of Energy.  

“If we weren’t exporting ethane right now, [we’d] be giving it away for free,” said Steven McGinn, an editor for the chemical trade publisher ICIS.

The growth of ethane exports comes as plastics and petrochemicals are becoming more important to the oil and gas industry. The petrochemical industry is expected to account for more than a third of growth in world oil demand by 2030, according to the International Energy Agency. 

For its Grangemouth plant, INEOS got over $350 million in loan guarantees from the UK to retrofit the plant for American shale gas. But the company also wants a local supply; it is pushing the UK to allow fracking, the controversial technology that breaks up rock deep underground to get oil and natural gas. 

“There is potentially quite a lot of gas underneath the UK,” said Zoe Shipton, a geologist at Strathclyde University in Glasgow, who was part of a team of researchers that studied the potential for fracking in the UK. Shipton said the amount of retrievable gas remains unknown, and can’t be known unless there’s more drilling. 

That won’t happen any time soon, though, because in 2015 Scotland put in place a moratorium on fracking, and England recently did the same, after fierce public opposition. 

Opposing Fracked Gas

Norman Philip, of Friends of the Earth Scotland, grew up in Grangemouth, where his father worked at the plant when it was owned by BP. 

He opposed fracking because of issues like earthquakes and climate change–the plastics industry accounts for around 4 percent of global carbon emissions, and that number is expected to increase. He also heard about it from communities in the US and Australia.

“People were telling us of gas leaks, they were telling us of children having headaches,” he said. “There was a toxic element of it.” In Pennsylvania, fracking has been controversial. It has brought royalties to landowners and jobs to some parts of the state, but it has also been linked to air and water contamination and a variety of health problems. More recently, a group of residents in Washington County, the most heavily-drilled county of the state, have asked the state to study whether fracking had anything to do with a high number of rare cancers.

Norman Philip grew up in Grangemouth and opposes the import of American shale gas. Photo: Reid Frazier/StateImpact Pennsylvania

As the pursuit of shale gas has spread across the Atlantic, so too have arguments both for and against that are familiar in Pennsylvania.  

Despite the country’s moratorium, INEOS still has licenses to frack in Scotland if the government were to change its mind. 

Philip is bothered by the conflict: Fracking is illegal in Britain, but it’s legal to import fracked gas from the U.S.

“Why should a community in America have to suffer what we’ve fought hard against?” he said. “Our slogans were, ‘No fracking here, no fracking anywhere.’”

Keeping the Economy Afloat

Others in Grangemouth say they’re glad of the economic impact of getting fracked gas from America.

Lee Sinclair, a railroad engineer at the Grangemouth plant, likes the fact that the plant is now up and running at full speed, but he has mixed feelings about where the gas comes from.

“The only thing I don’t like about it is, Scotland said, ‘No, you’re not fracking here,’ so they decided to go to America to get this gas,” Sinclair said.  

He’d rather the UK get a local supply. But for now, he said, America’s boom in gas and ethane is helping him keep his job.

A few blocks from the plant’s gates, Lindsey Breen sells haggis, curry, and Scottish sausages to hungry refinery workers at the Rumbling Tum food cart. 

Most of her customers come from the refinery or surrounding chemical plants, she said. 

“If the refinery were to close down, then it would make a big impact on our business,” she said.

The refinery almost did close a few years ago, over a labor dispute. But INEOS won concessions from the union representing workers and government help to begin importing American shale gas.

Kenny Mullen, of the nearby town of Falkirk, said when the plant threatened to shut down, there was panic over the potential economic effects.

There was a lot of fear, like you could tell–people were scared about losing their jobs,” he said. 

Watching his son ride a bike at a park a few blocks from the plant on a September afternoon, the cabinetmaker and stay-at-home dad said he’s glad there’s no fracking in Scotland, even though fracking in the U.S. is helping the economy of his town. 

I think most people are anti-fracking, myself included,” he said. It may sound “cut throat” he said, but “we’re happy to take the gas which has been obtained (through fracking) from America.”

Mullen said if there was a way to get by without using fossil fuels, “I’d be all for that.” But for now, the gas arriving from Philadelphia is keeping the plant, and local economy afloat.

This article was originally published by the Allegheny Front. It was produced in collaboration with StateImpact Pennsylvania.

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Portal 31: How a Closed Mine Opened New Prospects for One Coal Town

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Devin Mefford emerges from Portal 31. Photo: Brittany Patterson/OVR

This article was originally published by the Ohio Valley ReSource.

Devin Mefford is sitting in the squat metal buggy of a modified mantrip, the train-like shuttle coal miners use to travel underground. Mefford is dressed for work, in a hardhat and a navy shirt and pants with lime green reflective stripes.

It’s a uniform his father and grandfather — both Kentucky coal miners — would be familiar with.

Mefford does go into a mine every day, but not for the coal. He’s the tour guide at Portal 31, a train ride through a once-operational coal mine in Harlan County.

“People are amazed,” the 21-year-old says, gesturing to the dark mine entrance behind him.

Portal 31 tour guide Devin Mefford. Photo: Brittany Patterson/OVR

Portal 31 first opened in 1917. A subsidiary of U.S. Steel operated the mine and built the nearby community of Lynch, which was at the time the world’s largest coal camp. At its height, 10,000 people lived in the community, including a diverse immigrant population from more than 30 countries.

When it closed its doors in 1963, Portal 31 had produced more than 120 million tons of coal. More than 40 years later, in 2009, the mine reopened — this time to tourists.

For 35 minutes visitors ride the rail cars, often in pitch darkness, on a journey not just through the mine, but back in time. The drawling voice of an actor playing a miner named Mike Mackenzie, or Mac, narrates.

“We’re going to visit the miners and see how it’s changed over the years,” he says. “First stop, 1919.”

An animatronic miner materializes out of the darkness. Another actor gives voice to an Italian immigrant named Joseph, who recounts what it was like for the thousands of people who came to work in the mines in the early 1900s. Next to his lifelike form is a robotic mule and chirping canary.

“The mine she’s cool and safe,” he says. “You will see to that won’t you cantante. As long as I can hear your song I know I’m safe.”

Visitors hear what it was like to mine for coal before and after mechanization. They also learn about Harlan County’s bloody conflicts over union organizing.

“This is a story that never needs to die. It’s a story that needs to be told,” Nick Sturgill, director of Portal 31 said. “People need to understand what these guys went through, but they also need to understand how prosperous a place this was at one time — what coal not only did for this city, but for this region, for this country, for this entire world.”

He said about 5,000 visitors from around the world take the ride under Black Mountain each year. It’s a bright spot for Lynch, which today is home to just a few hundred residents.

Like many former mining communities, in recent years Lynch and neighboring towns have turned their sights on attracting tourists. It’s often a costly endeavor, but in recent years the federal government has expanded its support for repurposing old mine lands as new economic engines, including to draw new visitors.

Federal Role

Portal 31 was part of that effort. In 2018, the attraction was awarded a $2.55 million Abandoned Mine Land Pilot grant. The funding will be used to update the ride as well as nearby historic buildings for use as retail and office space. Some of the money is slated to go to a new parking lot and scenic overlook at nearby Black Mountain.

“The main outlook on the AML grant is to really just be a shot in the arm for all of Lynch as well as Harlan County,” Sturgill said.

Central Appalachia has thousands of acres of abandoned mine sites that can threaten local economies and people’s health and safety. In 1977, Congress created the Abandoned Mine Land Reclamation Program to clean them up. The funds come from fees paid by active coal mine operators on each ton of coal mined. The fee and authorization of the AML Program is set to expire in 2021 without Congressional action.

The AML Program chiefly provides funding for reclamation.  In the last five years, federal support has grown for a slightly different approach — going beyond merely sealing mine portals and treating polluted water to supporting projects that could grow local economies.

The Appalachian Regional Commission in 2015 began investing in coal-impacted communities through Partnerships for Opportunity and Workforce and Economic Revitalization, or POWER Initiative. Congress appropriated money from the U.S. Treasury to create the AML Pilot program in 2016, aimed at not only boosting reclamation work in the highest-need Appalachian states, but promoting projects that spur economic development and growth on abandoned mine lands.

“There’s significant economic benefits that communities can get from embracing mine reclamation,” said Joey James, with the Reclaiming Appalachia Coalition, which advocates for sustainable reclamation investment. “There’s also opportunities to repower some of these sites that were once the lifeblood of these communities.”

James, who is a senior strategist at West Virginia-based Downstream Strategies, said projects with federal backing can attract other investors looking to make an impact.

“While these federal programs are really, really important, and we need to have them, I think what the AML Pilot program does is it offers an opportunity to develop enterprises on former mine sites that might pull private capital and create models for redeveloping and reusing mine sites that won’t rely entirely on federal funding,” he said.

Another federal proposal, the RECLAIM Act, would accelerate reclamation of abandoned mine land by dispersing $1 billion of Abandoned Mine Land funds over a 5-year period with an eye toward economic development. That bill has not been passed by Congress despite bipartisan support.

Critics argue the millions poured into these programs have failed to produce the desired outcomes. Some efforts planting lavender or apple trees on old strip mines have floundered. James said it’s important to objectively assess the effectiveness of projects receiving federal funding.

“If states are investing in projects that aren’t providing that opportunity in the future, we need to think of how we can be better,” he said.

Growing Pride

Back inside Portal 31, the mantrip snakes its way back toward daylight.

A group of visitors from South Carolina is milling around in the small gift shop. They’re visiting the area on a mission trip. A gaggle of middle school-aged kids excitedly share what they learned.

“We learned how difficult it was and how dangerous it is for them,” one says. Another adds his amazement that Portal 31 holds the record for most coal mined in a single day — a record set in 1923.

A scene from inside Portal 31. Photo: Brittany Patterson/OVR

Mefford, the guide, takes questions at the end of the tour. He says the most common one he’s asked is if coal is coming back.

“In all honesty, coal mining is a thing of the past, and it’s sad to say that for small towns like mine,” he says.

But he adds that makes Portal 31, and federal investment into both preserving and showcasing Kentucky’s coal heritage, even more important.

“Every person in this community deserves to have something to be proud of, and that’s what we do here,” he said.

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Report: Mine Reclamation Done Well Could Be Catalyst For Regional ‘Just Transition’

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A patch of miscanthus towers above other grasses on the former mine site. Photo: Brittany Patterson/Ohio Valley ReSource

A new report by a group of regional advocacy organizations argues reclaiming abandoned mine lands could be a key factor in Appalachia’s transition from coal.

In its second annual report, released Thursday, the Reclaiming Appalachia Coalition, highlighted 19 reclamation projects in West Virginia, Ohio, Virginia and Kentucky. They run the gamut from installing solar on abandoned mine lands to boosting outdoor recreation opportunities like biking and hiking trails. 

“Although funding streams may change, the idea and the need for a restoration economy is not going away,” said Joey James, with Downstream Strategies. “We’re excited to work within a growing community of practice to accelerate the adoption of innovative approaches to land restoration and redevelopment that contribute meaningfully to the region’s economy.”

The group’s goal is to support and promote innovative reclamation projects — projects that can be replicated, involve local communities, and are financially viable after grant funding runs out. 

“We see this limited pot of money is available for innovative land reuse, and we want to ensure those dollars are efficiently and effectively spent,” James said. 

The new report, “A New Horizon: Innovative Reclamation for a Just Transition,” includes both new projects and projects that recently were awarded state and federal funding, including a combined $15.8 million in federal Abandoned Mine Land Pilot program funding.

In West Virginia, one new project slated to be built near old mine lands would turn food waste from West Virginia University into compost. The facility would employ those in recovery from substance use addiction. The project is slated to cost more than $3 million, but developers estimate would bring more than $7 million in economic impact — $2.4 million in payroll alone — and employ 54 people across multiple sectors. 

The group said reauthorization of the Abandoned Mine Land (AML) program, administered by the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement, is critical to continue this work. It also advocates for more oversight of projects. 

“As the first AML Pilot projects move from these big check moments, to construction and then on to operation, we across the region need to objectively assess the effectiveness of projects that are receiving this very limited funding and intervene where necessary, both within individual projects and organizations that are receiving money,” James said. 

The group expects to begin collecting data on economic impact of some funded projects beginning next year. 

The coalition’s members include Appalachian Voices in Virginia, Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center in Kentucky, Coalfield Development Corporation in West Virginia, Rural Action in Ohio, and Downstream Strategies, based in West Virginia.

This article was originally published by West Virginia Public Broadcasting.

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