Category Archives: Environment

At Last: Objective Criteria for Scoring Transportation Projects

weighting_frameworks

by James A. Bacon

After lengthy study, the Commonwealth Transportation Board yesterday approved new metrics for prioritizing transportation funding in Virginia. The new metrics are designed to create objective criteria for evaluating the selection of road and rail projects. It remains to be seen how the metrics will be applied in practice, but in theory they represent a big step forward.

As seen in the chart above, the metrics will be assigned different weights for different parts of the state. For instance, Category A, which assigns the greatest weight to congestion mitigation, consists primarily of the highly congested Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads transportation planning organization districts. Category D consists mainly of lightly traveled rural districts. (View the classifications here.)

The different weights reflect the different priorities of different parts of the state. The classifications and methodology can be amended as needed to reflect changes in priorities and advances in technology, data collection and reporting tools.

Here is a breakdown of the measures that go into the weighting framework:

measure_breakdowns

These metrics will provide CTB board members unparallelled insight into the relative benefits of different transportation options. It should be much more difficult now for any administration to gain approval for “highway to nowhere” road and rail projects.

Bacon’s bottom line: I have long called for tools that make it possible to measure projects based on their “Return on Investment,” reflecting congestion mitigation, safety improvements and environmental benefits. This methodology goes beyond that by incorporating additional measures, such as economic development and accessibility, but falls short by providing no mechanism for calculating ROI. Given the complexity of the evaluations, it may be impractical to boil down all these metrics to a single ROI figure, so CTB board members will retain considerable discretion.

Some of the criteria look really fuzzy. How does one evaluate “land use consistency?” How does one measure “project support for economic development”?

Despite modest reservations, the new approach appears to represent a big step forward by limiting the potential for ideology, politicking and log rolling in transportation funding decision-making. I look forward to seeing how the new methodology works in practice. While one can rarely go wrong by taking a cynical view of human nature and the political process, I am hopeful that the transparent use of objective metrics will curb the worst instincts of the political class.

Issues Crystallize in Gas Pipeline Debate

pipelineby James A. Bacon

The battle over the Atlantic Coast Pipeline is intensifying. Foes of the project, residing mainly in picturesque Augusta and Nelson counties, have raised about $500,000, halfway to a $1 million goal, to rouse opposition to the planned 550-mile natural gas pipeline, reports the McClatchy News Service.

The “All Pain No Gain” group has set up a website with splashy graphics, videos, a blog — even an original country & western-style song. The website provides sympathetic profiles of affected landowners and advances economic and environmental arguments against the pipeline. It’s an impressive showing for “rural” Virginia, but perhaps not so surprising given the popularity of the area as a resort or retirement destination, especially around the Wintergreen resort, among high-powered professionals.

Backers include Phil Anderson, president of the Washington, D.C., lobbying firm Navigators Global, whose family has long owned a farm in the area, and Tom Harvey, a former national security official whose nonprofit group works with corporations on global environmental initiatives. Co-chair Charlotte Rea is a retired Air Force Colonel with considerable management experience, while co-chair Nancy Sorrells served two terms on the Augusta County board of supervisors.

The website raises a number of substantive issues:

  • Loss of property values. Construction of the pipeline would require cutting a 125-foot swath (the width of an Interstate highway) along the length of the pipeline. Trees cannot be planted within the easement, which means even a grassed-over pipeline route would be highly visible. Although landowners are compensated for land taken, they receive no loss for the damage to their viewshed. Dominion, the managing partner of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, encountered similar objections when it proposed building a high-voltage transmission line through Virginia’s northern Piedmont several years ago. There are legitimate questions as to whether Virginia’s eminent domain law provides landowners adequate compensation for lost value. It’s a legal and philosophical question worth exploring.
  • Safety. By comparison to other transportation modes, pipelines are a safe way to transport natural gas, but they are not risk free. The website cites four gas pipeline accidents across the country since 2005, including a 2008 incident in which a Williams Transco pipeline exploded in Appomattox, Va., destroying two homes and injuring five people. That pipeline was fined $1 million for failing to address the dangerous corrosion that caused the accident. Could such an incident occur with the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, or have regulations, technology and/or business practices rendered it unlikely?
  • Water contamination.  Blasting from pipeline construction could contaminate water quality, while excavation around streams, wetlands and riparian groundwater could disturb groundwater flow and damage springs. Moreover, asserts All Pain No Gain, Dominion pipeline construction in West Virginia in 2012 caused sediment pollution to several adjacent waterways. What’s not clear from the website is how lasting and significant any damage would be, or the likelihood of it occurring at all.
  • Impact on local craft agriculture. Craft agriculture is becoming a pillar of the Shenandoah Valley economy, with companies like Blue Mountain Brewery and Miller’s Bake Shop supporting local jobs. “Any contamination to the local water supply as a result of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline could cripple a business that is quickly becoming an institution in the Shenandoah Valley,” asserts the website. How realistic is that fear? Have other pipeline construction projects contaminated water supplies severely enough to impact jobs?
  • Future of energy prices. All Pain No Gain disputes Dominion’s argument that the pipeline will mean lower electric utility costs. The price of natural gas is likely to rise as the U.S. begins exporting gas overseas. Virginia could do better, the group contends, by shifting instead to renewable energy sources and emphasizing energy efficiency. This is the same argument made by Virginia environmental groups, but it is disputed by Dominion and the State Corporation Commission. Definitive answers are not easy to come by.
  • Job creation. More than 800 construction jobs will be created, but they will be temporary and many of the jobs will be filled by out-of-state workers, and there will be only 39 full-time permanent jobs when the pipeline is in operation.  Those job gains could be negated by the adverse impact on agriculture, tourism and other industries, the website says. On the other hand, All Pain No Gain does not consider the economic-development benefits to other regions of the state, particularly the southern Piedmont and Hampton Roads, which would be better positioned to compete for industry that uses natural gas as a fuel or feedstock.

So far, media attention has focused mainly on the complex of issues surrounding property rights and eminent domain. They’re important but, as can be seen by All Pain No Gain’s website, there are many others. Time permitting, I will look into all of them.

Dubious Oil Lobby Bankrolls Dubious Poll

CEABy Peter Galuszka

In a recent post, Bacons Rebellion extolled the findings of Hickman Analytics Inc., a suburban Washington consulting firm hired by the Consumer Energy Alliance, which found that according to a survey of 500 registered voters, the vast majority of Virginians support Dominion’s Atlantic Coast Pipeline.

The $5 billion project would take natural gas released by hydraulic fracturing from West Virginia southeastward through Virginia into North Carolina. Dominion has taken some strong-arm tactics to force the project through, such as suing property owners who declined to let surveyors onto their property.

Having reported on the controversy in such places as Nelson County, I was surprised to note the Hickman results showing such a strong support for the pipeline.

Maybe, I shouldn’t have been so surprised.

Let’s start with the so-called “Consumer Energy Alliance.” For starters, it is a Texas based lobbying group funded by such fossil fuel giants as ExxonMobil and Devon Energy, perhaps the largest independent oil rim in the country plus as host of utilities.

It has been traversing the United States drumming up support, often through dubious polls, against initiatives to cut back on carbon emissions. It supports the Keystone XL and other petroleum pipelines.

Says SourceWatch, quoting Salon.com, “The CEA is part of a sophisticated public affairs strategy designed to manipulate the U.S. political system by deluging the media with messaging favorable to the tar-sands industry; to persuade key state and federal legislators to act in the extractive industries’ favor; and to defeat any attempt to regulate the carbon emissions emanating from gasoline and diesel used by U.S. vehicles.”

The group was created in the late 2000s by Michael Whatley a Republican energy lobbyist with links to the Canadian and American oil sector.

The alliance’s modus operandi is to use “polls” presumably of average voters on key energy issues.

In Wisconsin, the CEA got involved in a battle over an attempt by electric utilities to hike rates if individual homeowners used solar panels to generate power. The state is dominated by coal-fired power and hasn’t done much with renewables. The utilities claim that they paid for the electricity grid and therefore home-power generators must pay extra for its use and the cost should be shared by all through rate hikes.

Many ratepayers opposed this blatant attempt to push back at solar power. Then, all the way from Texas and Washington, the Consumer Energy Alliance jumped in with the names of 2,500 local ratepayers who backed the rate hikes. It wanted to give their names to Wisconsin regulators.

The Grist asked: “What dog does CEA, a trade group from Texas, have in Wisconsin’s fight, anyway? Well, CEA represents the interests of mostly fossil fuel companies, so it is engaged in a nationwide campaign to slow the spread of home-produced renewable energy. It has a regional Midwest chapter, which pushes for fracking and for President Obama to approve the Keystone XL tar-sands pipeline.”

I was likewise puzzled by the Virginia pipeline survey that CEA paid for by Hickman Analytics, a Chevy Chase, Md. firm that does a lot of political polling. The firm is powerful and its principals were heavily involved with disgraced Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards.

There was a poll by Hickman for CEA showing that New Hampshire vote just love Arctic offshore drilling. That’s off because the Granite State isn’t anywhere close to the Arctic despite its cold winters.

There was another Hickman/CEA poll showing how much Coloradans love the Keystone XL pipeline – another curiosity because the last time I checked that pipeline doesn’t run through Colorado.

And, fresh with a “five figure” sponsorship from Dominion, Bacon’s Rebellion publisher James A. Bacon Jr. starts writing about this dubious poll from a dubious source showing that Virginians are tickled pink with the ACL pipeline. When questioned, he says it’s nothing different from a poll funded by the Sierra Club.

Maybe, on another matter, it is curious that Bacon’s Rebellion’s sponsorship deal with Dominion which Jim posted online is signed by Daniel A. Weekley, vice president for Dominion corporate affairs.

The very same Mr. Weekley signed an informational packet sent out to Virginia homeowners impacted by the proposed pipeline route telling them what a great thing the pipeline is.

Am I connecting the dots correctly?
 

Virginia Voters: Pump, Baby, Pump

pipeline
by James A. Bacon

By significant margins, Virginians support construction of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, a proposed 550-mile pipeline that would deliver natural gas from West Virginia to Virginia and North Carolina. Voters also support measures that would promote continued exploitation of fossil fuels, including the Keystone XL oil pipeline, off-shore drilling for oil and gas, and the generation of electricity using coal-fired power plants. Support for fossil fuels is broad-based, cutting across party and ideological lines.

That’s the big conclusion to emerge from an early June survey of 500 registered voters by Chevy Chase, Md.-based Hickman Analytics Inc. for the Consumer Energy Alliance, an organization describing itself as the “voice of the energy consumer.” Fifty-six percent of those polled support the pipeline either “strongly” or “somewhat,” compared to only 25% who oppose it. (The poll has a margin of error of +/- 4.4 percent.)

However, the poll showed the electorate to be evenly split over the extraction of natural gas through hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, a sentiment that could diminish support for the pipeline in the future.

Media coverage of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline so far has framed the controversy as a property rights/eminent domain issue, focusing primarily on objections raised by landowners along the route. While land owners may care deeply about the impact of the pipeline on their property values, the issue barely registers among voters generally. Only two percent of the voters surveyed mentioned “eminent domain” as a reason for opposing the pipeline.

Virginia voters are far more ambivalent about fracking. While they support offshore drilling, the Keystone Pipeline (which would transport oil extracted from Canadian tar sands) and coal-fired power generation, voters split evenly over fracking.

fracking2

Moreover, fracking foes are more intense in their opposition — those who strongly oppose fracking number 23% compared to 15% who strongly support it.

As Atlantic Coast Pipeline works through the property rights/eminent domain issues by re-drawing the pipeline route and adopting other palliative measures, expect foes to shift the terms of debate. Only 1% of poll respondents cited fracking as a reason for opposing the pipeline — a miniscule percentage that may reflect voter ignorance of the fact that a considerable proportion of the natural gas transported by the pipeline would originate from fracked wells. Insofar as foes manage to depict the pipeline as an adjunct to and enabler of fracking, they may gain political traction.

The Hickman Analytics poll seems to be reasonably objective, although it is not without its limitations.

On the positive side, the poll draws from a sample that is reasonably representative of the electorate — 45% Democrats compared to 37% Republicans; 30% liberals compared to 44% conservatives.

Also positive, the wording of the poll question is neutral: “As you may know, there is a proposal to build a 550-mile Atlantic Coast Pipeline, to bring natural gas from West Virginia through Virginia and North Carolina. Do you strongly support, somewhat support, somewhat oppose or strongly oppose building the Atlantic Coast Pipeline?” Crucially, pollsters asked that question before they asked other questions relating to offshore drilling, Keystone XL Pipeline, coal-fired power plants and other questions that might have biased a response.

On the negative side, the poll did not plumb voter views on fossil fuel pollution, CO2 emissions or renewable energy sources such as solar, wind and biofuels that are regarded as alternatives to natural gas.

Then, yet again, neither did the poll explore other complexities to the pipeline debate. For instance, pipeline supporters make the connection between pipeline construction, economic development and jobs. Also, an argument can be made that natural gas-fired electricity is a complement to intermittent renewable energy sources like wind and solar. The poll did not address any of those issues either.

In sum, the findings are highly favorable to Atlantic Coast Pipeline and the consortium of companies behind it — Dominion, Duke Energy, Piedmont Natural Gas and AGL Resources — but point to potential difficulties down the road if foes tap into Virginians’ ambivalence over fracking.

Fracking Dodges a Bullet

fracking_wellby James A. Bacon

Environmentalists have pointed out numerous potential problems with fracking, the use of high-pressure water and chemicals to extract oil and gas from shale rock formations. The process consumes large quantities of water, it injects toxic chemicals underground, and it might even cause earthquakes. But the most alarming charge is that fracking poses a risk to public health by contaminating drinking water.  As the United States organizes its energy policy around the extraction of oil and gas by fracking — and as Virginia re-orients its electricity portfolio to natural gas, much of it obtained through fracking — it is prudent to investigate these concerns.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has done just that, recently releasing a draft report resulting from a five-year study. During that time between 25,000 and 30,000 wells were drilled and fracked annually. Between 2000 and 2013, more than nine million people lived within a mile of a fracked well. While the EPA identified multiple mechanisms by which fracking theoretically might pollute drinking water, it found that the actual impact to be limited.

We did not find evidence that these mechanisms have led to widespread, systemic impacts on drinking water resources in the United States. Of the potential mechanisms identified in this report, we found specific instances where one or more mechanisms led to impacts on drinking water resources, including contamination of drinking water wells. The number of identified cases, however, was small compared to the number of hydraulically fractured wells.

The EPA conceded that the study had limitations, however, and the paucity of negative impacts might reflect a lack of data rather than the lack of actual harm.

In an assessment of the EPA study, McGuire Woods attorneys Bernadette M. Rappold and Jonathon T. Blank write:

What is clear is that the agency appears not to have found a wake of horrors in hydraulic fracturing’s path. That may reduce, for now, the repeated calls for more vigorous regulation of hydraulic fracturing, but is unlikely quell the protests of environmentalists who claim that this industrial process, which is responsible for an overall reduction in the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions, requires stricter oversight.

— JAB

Virginia’s Newest Power Producer: Amazon.com

Big breaking news today: Amazon Web Services (AWS) announced today that it has teamed with Community Energy, Inc., to build and operate an 80 megawatt solar farm in Accomack County. The new farm, which will begin generating 170,000 megawatt hours annually as soon as October 2016, will be the largest solar facility in Virginia and one of the biggest east of the Mississippi.

AWS’s long-term goal is to generate 100% of its power from renewable energy. The Accomac facility will serve “both existing and planned AWS datacenters in the central and eastern U.S,” the company stated in a press release.

This is a potential game changer in the Virginia energy market. In theory, electricity output on this scale should make solar-generated power more economical than anything else we’ve seen in Virginia. This project could legitimize solar power in a way that no previous project has.

But there are lots of questions not answered in the press release. To what extent is the project dependent upon subsidies and tax breaks (and how do they compare to incentives available for other fuels)? Will the solar plant require back-up generating capacity — and will AWS be covering any of that expense? Will AWS electricity be utilizing the existing electric power grid to wheel its electricity to its customers, and will it be paying to help maintain that? I’ll try to get answers.

— JAB

What Role for Nuclear Power in Virginia’s Energy Future?

virginia_nukesby James A. Bacon

Virginia can lead a national renaissance in nuclear energy, argue Robert Hartwell and Donald Hoffman in a new white paper published by the Thomas Jefferson Institute for Public Policy. They advance two main arguments: (1) nuclear is an economical source of green energy emitting near-zero levels of carbon dioxide, and (2) nuclear can support job creation and contribute to the tax base in Virginia.

As the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan compels Virginia to retire coal-fired power plants as the only practical way to meet strict CO2 emission goals, citizens face a critical decision whether or not to build a new nuclear power plant at Dominion Virginia Power’s North Anna nuclear facility. While Hartwell and Hoffman do not endorse the particulars of Dominion’s plans, they make the case that nuclear power is both safe and economical.

Neither Hoffmann nor Hartwell are disinterested parties. Hoffman chairs the Virginia Nuclear Energy Consortium Authority and Hartwell is president of Hartwell Capitol Consulting, which does work on energy and environmental issues. But as the debate over a third nuclear plant at North Anna heats up, they provide an advance look at how the pro-nuclear side will frame the debate.

Safety. Despite the impression created by highly publicized incidents like Chernobyl, Fukushima and Three Mile Island, nuclear power is safe, they assert. “There has never been a nuclear power accident in the United States resulting in radiation being emitted into the atmosphere.” Likewise, there have been “no accidents of any kind involving nuclear” in Virginia, including Dominion’s nuclear plants, dozens of nuclear-powered vessel, and experimental reactors at Fort Belvoir near Alexandria.

As for the North Anna nuclear plants being located on a fault line, they write:

During the 5.8 earthquake centered in Louisa County in August 2011, the North Anna 1 and 2 plants automatically shut down and were carefully checked before restarting nearly 90 days later. No damage occurred although some of the nuclear storage casks were moved closer together and some slid more than 4.5 inches.

Cost. Studies have found that nuclear power generated in Virginia was the least expensive of any power generation source. The cost per kilowatt hour was estimated at 0.6 cents compared to 3.5 cents for coal and 4.5 cents for natural gas. (The authors do not cite their sources for this data.)

Economic development. Aside from California, Virginia is the largest electricity importer among the 50 states. Moreover, the state will need more than 4,000 megawatts of additional power to meet the increased demand for electricity by 2021. Building power plants in Virginia creates jobs locally and bolsters the tax base.

Experts have found that the average nuclear power plant generates $470 million in sales of goods and services annually. One plant provides approximately $40 million in labor income each year and 400 to 700 full-time permanent jobs which pay 36% more than other local jobs. Each plant also generates an average of $16 million in state and local tax revenue for schools, roads and hospitals.

Virginia is particularly well suited for nuclear power, the authors contend. “The sheer number of nuclear operations and nuclear-related facilities, engineering schools and federal facilities and critical infrastructure which could benefit from safe and secure nuclear power is breathtaking.” An idea of the number of players who could benefit from a renaissance of nuclear power can be seen in the list of nuclear-related companies with a presence in Virginia:

  • Areva
  • Babcock and Wilcox
  • Bechtel Power Corporation
  • Bridgeborn
  • Dominion Virginia Power
  • Excel Services Corporation
  • Fluor Daniel Services Corporation
  • GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy
  • Huntington Ingalls (Newport News Nuclear)
  • Siemens
  • The Atlantic Group
  • Thorium Power (Lightbridge)
  • Toshiba America Nuclear Energy

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New Lessons from the Fracking Revolution

Fracking well in West Virginia

Fracking well in West Virginia

by James A. Bacon

Silicon Valley may be the biggest fount of innovation and productivity in the American economy, but the oil & gas industry arguably comes a close second. Fracking entrepreneurs have boosted U.S. oil production by 3.6 million barrels daily in just the last four years and have deluged the country in natural gas. Many analysts fretted that the extraction of oil and gas from shale, which took off when oil sold at $150 per barrel, would become unprofitable under $100. But thanks to continued innovation, some operators say they can produce more profitably today at a price of $65 a barrel than they could at $95 a barrel three years ago.

Donald L. Luskin and Michael Warren suggest in the Wall Street Journal today that innovation could drive the profitability point even lower, writing, “The oil patch today is afire with the same technological imperative and competitive mission that has powered the U.S. electronics revolution—think Moore’s Law—to dash headlong down the learning curve, crushing costs and prices and making up for it in volume.”

The Marcellus Shale formation where much of this oil and gas production is taking place, skirts along the edge of Virginia. Only one finger of the formation runs through the Old Dominion, and much of that is in protected national forest. While Virginia is not likely to benefit much from the production of oil and gas, it can position itself as a consumer — of gas especially.

Natural gas is the most clean-burning of all the fossil fuels and it releases less carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than coal, which it has largely displaced in Virginia’s electric power industry under Environmental Protection Agency pressure to to meet tougher toxic emissions standards. The restructuring of Virginia’s electric power industry will continue under another round of EPA mandates to reduce CO2.

gas_prices

Natural gas prices at the Henry Hub in U.S. dollars per million BTUs. Source: Wikipedia

One of the big questions facing Virginia’s power companies and utility regulators is how much to depend upon natural gas. Gas is abundant and cheap now but historically it has been prone to wide cyclical price fluctuations, as seen in the chart to the left. If gas prices are likely to stay at their current low levels forever, it would be an easy choice to use gas as a base-load fuel, not just save it for power stations that can dial output up and down quickly to match fluctuations in demand for electricity. While coal and oil are out of favor as base-load fuels, due to pollution considerations, Dominion Virginia Power believes that nuclear is a viable alternative over the long run. Local environmental groups oppose construction of a third nuclear unit at the North Anna power station.

Dominion argues in favor of nuclear, in part, as a fuel diversification strategy. The more the state relies upon natural gas to power its electric turbines, the more ratepayers become vulnerable to spikes in gas prices. It is prudent to diversify fuel sources to include nuclear and even some renewables in the electricity-generating portfolio, the argument goes.

So, the question becomes, what are the odds that gas prices will spike as they have in the past? If export controls on natural gas are relaxed, and the U.S. begins exporting gas, could prices becomes more even volatile? Could Virginia electric power generation become too dependent upon natural gas?

Luskin and Warren argue that fracking has altered the economics of the oil-and-gas industry to make supply less volatile, which implies that prices will be more stable.

Wells in light tight-oil formations can be drilled and completed for millions—not billions—of dollars, and the majority of the estimated recovery will occur within a year or two of bringing it on line. Capacity across a diversified portfolio of wells can be turned on when future prices justify it, and off when they don’t. That turns upside-down the traditional model of oil megaprojects that require billions in upfront capital, years of lead time, and always-on production irrespective of price.

All this means that, for the first time in history, oil production is becoming a modern manufacturing process. The frackers are engaged in “just-in-time” production, analogous to the methods pioneered by Japanese manufacturers in the 1970s and 1980s, which led directly to hyper-efficient global supply-chain management perfected by Wal-Mart in the 1990s.

I don’t sense that public opinion full appreciates the extent to which fracking changes the rules of the energy game. Virginians need to incorporate these new realities into their thinking about energy policy.

New Film Documents Horrors of Coal Mining

blood on the moutain posterBy Peter Galuszka

Several years in the making, “Blood on the Mountain” has finally premiered in New York City. The documentary examines the cycle of exploitation of people and environment by West Virginia’s coal industry highlighting Massey Energy, a coal firm that was based in Richmond.

The final cut of the film was released publicly May 26 at Anthology Film Archives as part of the “Workers Unite! Film Festival” funded in part by the Fund for Creative Communities, the Manhattan Community Arts Fund and the New York State Council of the Arts.

Directed by Mari-Lynn Evans and Jordan Freeman, the film shows that how for more than a century, coal companies and politicians kept coal workers laboring in unsafe conditions that killed thousands while ravaging the state’s mountain environment.

As Bruce Stanley, a lawyer from Mingo County, W.Va. who is interviewed in the film and has fought Donald L. Blankenship, the notorious former head of Massey Energy, says, there isn’t a “War on Coal,” it is a “war waged by coal on West Virginia.”

When hundreds of striking workers protested onerous and deadly working conditions in the early 1920s, they were met with machine guns and combat aircraft in a war that West Virginia officials kept out of history books. They didn’t teach it when I was in grade school there in the 1960s. I learned about the war in the 1990s.

The cycle of coal mine deaths,environmental disaster and regional poverty continues to this day. In 2010, safety cutbacks at a Massey Energy mine led to the deaths of 29 miners in the worst such disaster in 40 years. Mountains in Central Appalachia, including southwest Virginia, continue to be ravaged by extreme strip mining.

As Jeff Biggers said in a review of the movie in the Huffington Post:

“Thanks to its historical perspective, Blood on the Mountains keeps hope alive in the coalfields — and in the more defining mountains, the mountain state vs. the “extraction state” — and reminds viewers of the inspiring continuum of the extraordinary Blair Mountain miners’ uprising in 1921, the victory of Miners for Democracy leader Arnold Miller as the UMWA president in the 1970s, and today’s fearless campaigns against mountaintop-removal mining.”

The movie (here is the trailer) is a personal mission for me. In 2013, after my book “Thunder on the Mountain, Death at Massey and the Dirty Secrets Behind Big Coal,” was published by St. Martin’s Press, Mari-Lynn Evans called me and said she liked the book and wanted me to work with her on the movie project. She is from a small town in West Virginia a little south of where I spent several years as a child and thought some of my observations in the book rang true.

I drove out to Beckley, W.Va. for several hours of on-camera interviews. Over the next two years, I watched early versions, gave my criticisms and ideas and acted as a kind of consultant. Mari-Lynn’s production company is in Akron and I visited other production facilities in New York near the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

Interesting work if you can get it. My only forays into film making before had been with my high school film club where he videographed a coffin being lowered into a grave (in West Virginia no less). I was greatly impressed when I saw the movie at its New York premiere.

Mari-Lynn and Jordan have been filming in the region for years. They collaborated on “The Appalachians,” an award-winning three-part documentary that was aired on PBS a few years ago and on “Coal Country” which dealt with mountaintop removal strip mining.

They and writer Phyllis Geller spent months detailing how coal companies bought up land on the cheap from unwitting residents, hired miners and other workers while intimidating them and abusing them, divided communities and plundered some very beautiful mountains.

Upper Big Branch is just a continuation of the mine disasters that have killed thousands. The worst was Monongah in 1907 with a death toll of at least 362; Eccles in 1914 with 183 dead; and Farmington in 1968 with 78 dead (just a county over from where I used to live).

By 2008 while Blankenship was CEO of Massey, some 52 miners were killed. Then came Upper Big Branch with 29 dead in 2010.

At least 700 were killed by silicosis in the 1930s after Union Carbine dug a tunnel at Hawks Nest. Many were buried in unmarked graves.

While state regulation has been lame, scores West Virginia politicians have been found guilty of taking bribes, including ex-Gov. Arch Moore.

The movie is strong stuff. I’ll let you know where it will be available. A new and expanded paperback version of my book is available from West Virginia University Press.

Blankenship is scheduled to go on trial on federal charges related to Upper Big Branch on July 13.

Finally, Tobacco Commission Gets Reforms

Feinman

Feinman

By Peter Galuszka

Virginia’s infamous tobacco commission appears to be finally getting needed reforms 15 years after it went into existence.

Gov. Terry McAuliffe announced today that he was appointing a new executive director, Lynchburg native Evan Feinman, ordering a slimmed down board of directors and requiring a dollar-for-dollar match on grants the commission doles out to support community development in Virginia’s old tobacco belt.

In another break with the past, McAuliffe is renaming the old Virginia Tobacco Indemnification and Community Revitalization Commission as the Virginia Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission.

That might sound cosmetic, but any change is welcome given the commission’s history.

Since its formation after the 1998 Master Settlement Agreement between 46 states and four large cigarette makers, the commission has been spending millions of dollars won from the tobacco firms supposedly to help tobacco growers in a region roughly following the North Carolina border wean themselves off of the golden leaf toward economic projects that are far healthier.

Instead, the commission has been racked by scandal after scandal, including the conviction of a former director, John W. Forbes II, for embezzling $4 million in public money. He is now serving a 10-year jail sentence.

The commission also figured in the corruption trial of former Gov. Robert F. McDonnell since it was suggested my McDonnell as a possible source of funding for businessman Jonnie R. Williams Sr. during McDonnell’s trial for corruption. Williams, who was the star prosecution witness against McDonnell, got help from McDonnell in promoting one of his vitamin supplement products. McDonnell was convicted of 11 felonies and is now appealing.

The old commission also has been criticized by a major state audit for funding dubious projects and not keeping track of whether the money it has doled out has done much good. It had been criticized for acting as a slush fund for projects favored by Southside and southwestern Virginia politicians.

McAuliffe’s reforms include reducing the commission’s board from 31 to 28 members and requiring that 13 of them have experience in business, finance or education.

Feinman has been deputy secretary of natural resources and worked with McAuliffe’s post-election team.

It’s too soon, of course, to know if these changes will bring results, but anything that moves the commission away from its past and the grasp of mossback Tobacco Road politicians is welcome.