Category Archives: Federal

Is McAuliffe Crying Wolf on the Economy?

naval shipyard By Peter Galuszka

Just how bad is the Virginia economy, really?

Gov. Terry McAuliffe, who released a rather modest state budget proposal just a few days ago, has said that the state’s economic picture is bleak because of government spending cuts, most of them at the U.S. Department of Defense, the state’s largest employer, and at other agencies.

“We’re looking down the barrel of a gun,” he told reporters, noting that automatic cuts in federal spending due to sequestration and the run-down of military spending after more than a decade of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan are badly hurting the state.

There are two curious points. The Washington Post notes that McAuliffe had based some of his gloomy thinking after revenues dipped by $439 million earlier this year. This relates to the $2.4 billion shortfall in the biannual budget. Now, says Finance Secertary Ric Brown, revenues have picked up as the governor and lawmakers have worked to close the shortfall.

There is also a story in this morning’s The Virginian-Pilot that the Norfolk Naval Shipyard (located in Portsmouth, actually) plans to hire some 1,500 workers by this coming September. This will be a net gain of 800 workers making about $21 an hour. The other 700 workers will be to replace retiring ones.

The shipyard, which can handle work on large nuclear ships like aircraft carriers, has a total workforce of 9,500 and the extra hires will take it past 10,000, the highest number since the early 1990s. Most of the new jobs are in skilled trades such as welding and ship fitting.

The Pilot reports that Hampton Roads will lose a total of 18,000 skilled workers by the end of the decade as older employees retire. Replacing them should help mitigate the cuts in federal spending and McAuliffe is doing the right thing by focusing on jobs training and credentialing that will boost high-paying blue collar jobs that don’t require a four-year college degree.

The state’s 23 community colleges are working to come up with a plan required by the federal Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, passed this year, to streamline training and make sure that trained workers pass certain requirements.

The Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission recently issued a scathing report on just how disjointed job training is in the state. It said that there was no system to track how $341 million was spent in state workforce training programs and that only 16 percent of the companies in the state use it. The new federal law may help change that by requiring states to come up with four-year plans on coordinating training.

It could be that McAuliffe is crying wolf to shake up the General Assembly before it convenes Jan. 14. He’s doing just that by including funding Medicaid in his budget again and by calling for restrictions on gun sales (needed). But it may be important to keep in mind that things may not be all that bad, economically.

Feds Back Lengthy Prison Term for McDonnell

Image: Verdict Reached In Corruption Trial Of Former Virginia Governor McDonnell And His WifeBy Peter Galuszka

Spotlighting once again just what a parallel universe Virginians live in, federal probation officers have recommended an unusually lengthy sentence for Robert F. McDonnell, a Republican who was the first present or former governor  ever to be convicted of public corruption in the Old Dominion.

The recommended sentence is a minimum of 10 years and one month with the maximum being 12 years and seven months. If U.S. District Court Judge James R. Spencer follows the recommendations, which statistics show is likely during sentencing Jan. 6, McDonnell could technically be in jail until he is past 70 years old.

The irony, according to The Washington Post, is that McDonnell could have gotten a maximum sentence of three years and a minimum of probation had he accepted a plea deal a year ago. He could have pleaded guilty to lying on a bank application. His co-defendant, wife Maureen who was also convicted of corruption, would never have been charged had the deal gone through.

The federal process for recommending sentences is regarded as a thorough and rigorous process. It shows just how serious the convictions against McDonnell are.

This reality is in marked contrast to the series of opinions and wishful thinking one reads in the blogosphere (and here as well) that McDonnell is an innocent who was framed. Among the ideas are that the conviction is tainted because in one instance star prosecution witness Jonnie R. Williams gave conflicting information during his four days of testimony.

A more bizarre idea is that Spencer, a Reagan appointee, is conflicted because McDonnell and other Republican legislators voted down his wife’s nomination for a state supreme court judgeship back in the 1990s.

I gather they can all float away in their sea of delusions. We had to endure their insistence that there was no case against the McDonnells because everybody does it and this is Virginia. Well, the jury didn’t buy it and didn’t take all that long to come back with ringing guilty verdicts. Now federal probation officers are reminding us once again about what we’re really dealing with.

Taking Another Whack at Virginia’s Dysfunctional Job Training System

workforceby James A. Bacon

Virginia spent $341 million in government funds in fiscal 2013 on workforce development programs. What did taxpayers get for their money?

There is no way to tell, according to a new Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission (JLARC) report, “Virginia’s Workforce Development Programs.” Some of the main findings:

No consistent accounting. Virginia’s workforce development programs appear to spend a high percentage of funds on training rather than administrative overhead — a good thing — but there’s no way to tell for sure. Different programs have different definitions of what constitutes “programs” and what constitutes “administration.

No consistent performance metrics. Virginia programs do not fully measure participants’ success, employee satisfaction or employer satisfaction. Apprenticeship programs do not capture outcomes, such as whether apprentices remain in the industry after program completion or whether they earn higher wages.

Employers don’t use state programs. According to a JLARC survey, only 16% of employers use workforce programs. Employers find them complex, disjointed and difficult to navigate. They are overwhelmed by the number of partners and programs. Instead, they rely upon internal recruitment and training to meet their workforce needs. In many cases, the programs aren’t training skills in demand by employers. In other cases, programs are under-utilized because they are poorly marketed to students and job seekers.

Marginal return on investment. Contract researchers have conducted ROI analysis for several programs and found marginally positive 5- to 10-year returns for Workforce Investment Act programs and a negative return for the Trade Adjustment Assistance program.

These findings should come as little surprise given the way the state’s 24 programs are structured and administered. Sixty one percent of the funding comes from federal sources, which means they have strings attached on how the money can be spent. Administration is scattered across nine state agencies, innumerable regional workforce centers, community colleges, high schools and the Virginia Employer commission.

The fragmentation and ineffectiveness of state workforce development programs has been well known for years, if not decades. In 2014 the General Assembly replaced the old, ineffective Virginia Workforce Council with a Board of Workforce Development to advise the governor and legislature on workforce development matters.  This board, which includes representatives from a wide range of stakeholders,  is expected to monitor and oversee state agencies’ development of a common state vision.

However, JLARC says that state agencies continue to operate in silos, committed foremost to their individual agency missions. Moreover, the Workforce Board lacks the legal authority and the dedicated staff to fulfill all of its responsibilities. “The majority of board members are executive-level staff from Virginia businesses who reported that they have limited time to carry out all of the board’s responsibilities, and several board members expressed only vague knowledge of their responsibilities as board members.”

Bacon’s bottom line: The Commonwealth of Virginia probably could save a lot of money with little harm to the workforce simply by shutting these programs down. The state can’t do that — many of the programs are outgrowths of federal initiatives, and someone local has to administer them. But JLARC has the right idea. Let’s at least develop metrics to measure how well they’re working so the state can conduct Return on Investment analysis to prioritize how the $130 million or so in state dollars are spent.

As for reforming giving more power and resources to the Workforce Board, I’m dubious. We’ll return to the same issue four years from now, a new JLARC team will look at the fragmented, ineffective workforce-development system and, seeing how centralized it is, will recommend we decentralize it. The problems are so fundamental, I suspect, they can’t be fixed by redrawing the organization chart.

Big Energy’s Conspiracy with Attorneys General

Former Va. Atty. Gen. Miller --toady for Big Energy

Former Va. Atty. Gen. Miller –toady for Big Energy

By Peter Galuszka

What seems to be strong opposition to a host of initiatives by President Barack Obama and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to curtail carbon and other forms of pollution is no mere coincidence.

According to a deeply reported story in Sunday’s New York Times, some state attorneys general, most of them Republicans, are part of what seems to be a covert conspiracy to oppose carbon containment rules in letters ghost-written by energy firms.

And, there’s a big Virginia connection in former Democratic Atty. Gen. Andrew P. Miller and George Mason University which have been bankrolled by conservative and Big Energy money for years.

The cabal has drawn its modus operandi from the American Legislative Exchange Council, funded by the ultra-right, oil-rich Koch Brothers of Kansas. In that case, ALEC prepares “templates” of nearly identical legislation that fits the laissez-faire market and anti-government and regulation principles held dear by the energy and other big industries. Many marquee-name corporations such as Pepsi, McDonald’s and Procter & Gamble have dropped their ALEC membership  after public outcries.

In the case of the attorneys general, big petroleum firms like Devon Energy Corporation of Oklahoma draft letters opposing proposals that might hurt their profits such as ones to regulate methane, which can be a dangerous and polluting result of hydraulic fracking for natural gas. The Times notes that Oklahoma Atty. Gen. E. Scott Pruitt then took Devon’s letter and, almost-word-for-word, submitted it in his “comments” opposing EPA’s proposed rules on regulating fracking and methane.

The secretive group involves a great deal of interplay involving the Republican Governor’s Association which, of course, helps channel big bucks campaign contribution to acceptable, pro-business attorneys general. In 2006 and 2010, Greg Abbott of Texas got more than $2.4 million from the group. Former Virginia Atty. Gen. Kenneth Cuccinelli got $174,5638 during his 2009 campaign.

One not-so-strange bedfellow is former Virginia Atty. Gen. Andrew P. Miller who was in office from 1970 to 1977 and is now 82 years-old. He’s been very business promoting energy firms. As the Times writes:

Andrew P. Miller, a former attorney general of Virginia, has in the years since he left office built a practice representing major energy companies before state attorneys general, including Southern Company and TransCanada, the entity behind the proposed Keystone XL pipeline. The New York Times collected emails Mr. Miller sent to attorneys general in several states.

“Mr. Miller approached Attorney General Scott Pruitt of Oklahoma in April 2012, with the goal of helping to encourage Mr. Pruitt, who then had been in office about 18 months, to take an even greater role in serving as a national leader of the effort to block Obama administration environmental regulations.

“Mr. Miller worked closely with Mr. Pruitt, and representatives from an industry-funded program at George Mason, to organize a summit meeting in Oklahoma City that would assemble energy industry lobbyists, lawyers and executives to have closed-door discussions with attorneys general. The companies that were invited, such as Devon Energy, were in most cases also major campaign donors to the Republican Attorneys General Association.

“Mr. Miller asked [West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey] to help push legislation opposing an Obama administration plan to regulate carbon emissions from existing coal-burning power plants. Legislation nearly identical to what Mr. Miller proposed was introduced in the West Virginia Legislature and then passed. Mr. Morrisey disputed any suggestion that he played a role.”

Not only that, but George Mason has an energy study center that is bankrolled by Big Energy and tends to produce policy studies of what the energy firms want. It also has the Mercatus Center, a right-wing think tank bankrolled by the Koch Brothers.

So, when you see what seems to be a tremendous outcry against badly needed regulations to curb carbon emissions and make sure that fracking is safe, it may not be an accident. And, it comes from attorneys general who should be protecting the interests of average residents in their states instead of being toadies for Big Energy.

Suddenly, It’s Raining Gas Projects and Tax Breaks

Anti-Pipeline By Peter Galuszka

Suddenly it seems to be raining natural gas pipelines and snowing millions of dollars in tax breaks and incentives for rich electric utilities.

Dominion Resources, the powerful and politically well-connected Richmond-based utility, apparently is getting $30 million in public money from the Virginia Tobacco Indemnification and Revitalization Commission without apparently asking for it to help build a new natural gas-fired generating plant in Brunswick County. The information was broken by the Associated Press.

Largesse for Dominion stretches to the other side of the Potomac River as well. The Washington Post reported Sunday that Calvert County Md., where Dominion has approval to convert a liquefied natural gas facility to handle natural gas exports, is going to give the utility about $560 million in tax credits.

And, back in Virginia, controversial is growing over the $5 billion natural pipeline that Virginia and three other southern utilities are planning to take natural gas drilled by hydraulic fracking methods from West Virginia to Virginia and North Carolina.

The Atlantic Coast Pipeline has drawn criticism from environmentalists who fear that gas is not the cleaner panacea to coal that many think. Landowners complain that Dominion and its powerful Richmond law firm, McGuireWoods, are using strong arm methods to force their way on their land to survey possible routes.

mountain valley pipelineYet another pipeline – this one doesn’t involve Dominion – is drawing concern in southwestern Virginia. The $3.5 billion Mountain Valley Pipeline that would likewise begin in the fracked gaslands of northern West Virginia and head south west of Roanoke and then cut to the small town of Chatham.

The complaints are the same as the Atlantic Coast Pipeline – green concerns about leaking methane and the threat of bulldozing bucolic private land by companies using eminent domain.

The Mountain Valley project is being spearheaded by EQT Corp. of Pittsburgh and NextEra Energy of Florida.

So what gives? Utilities like Dominion are using more gas, namely at its new Brunswick County natural gas plant and at an older coal-fired station that’s been converted at Bremo Bluffs on the James River. But how much gas does it actually need?

In the case of Cove Point, Dominion notes that the plant has been importing LNG from places like Northern Africa and Scandinavia for decades although imports have come to a spot given the glut of cheap, domestic gas.

Dominion, which bought the facility about a decade ago, can get gas from an older pipeline that for years has linked the Chesapeake Bay area with gasfields in Pennsylvania where some of the fracking for new product is occurring. Dominion can also tap gas from the venerable Transco Pipeline that for decades has transported gas the traditional way – from the Gulf State processing stations to the northeast.

Dominion says it already has contracts to export gas – from where it comes domestically – to utilities in Japan and India. But when one looks at the spaghetti-like twirl of all of the proposed new pipelines, one wonders what the game really is.

The Atlantic Coast Pipeline has a leg that bounds over to Hampton Roads from near the North Carolina border. Dominion says that this one will help supply one of its pipeline partners with gas because it serves South Hampton Roads. Ok, fine, but it might also serve another new LNG export facility in that area that has perfect deep water conditions for such a facility.

And, as some environmentalists and property owners wonder, why couldn’t the energy companies tap rights of way near existing pipelines? Why can’t existing pipelines be expanded? Go back to the utilities and they say they don’t know exactly where the pipelines will go.

That is very curious. While they don’t know where mega-billion project projects are going to go, they seem to be getting tens, if not hundreds, of billions of dollars in public funds and tax breaks to help them proceed with the Brave New World of natural gas.

 

More Evidence of Parallel Universe!

By Peter Galuszka

Front Page, today’s Richmond Times Dispatch:

“Judge tosses one conviction against Maureen McDonnell

He finds evidence does not warrant obstruction verdict”

Page B-1, The Washington Post:

“McDonnells’ request for retrial denied

VA. EX-GOVERNOR, WIFE FACING PRISON TIME

Judge  throws out one count against former first lady”

And in which universe do you live?

My Drive Through Two West Virginias

A natural gas well fire in nothern West Virginia

A natural gas well fire in northern West Virginia

 By Peter Galuszka

It was a biting eight degrees when I hit the road in Beckley, W.Va. last Wednesday morning having held a book signing and given a talk in Charleston the night before.

I wanted to drive two hours up to Harrison County, where my family lived from 1962 to 1969, and see what had changed. I hadn’t been there in a few years.

Harrison and neighboring counties Doddridge and Lewis had long been coalfield areas along with natural gas. Coal had pretty much played out after the 1980s but there are still some big mines. Its real claim to fame is the underground rock formation ideal for glass-making. In the 1890s, it had attracted hundreds of craftsmen from Italy who made Clarksburg an important glass center and home to the locally-famous “Pepperoni Roll” – a small loaf of bread with a long stick of pepperoni inside.

As I drove up Interstate 79, I noticed the first signs of the area’s most recent transformation. There were plenty of oversized truck rigs with oddly-shaped machines. A number carried long steel pipes.

When I drove on familiar roads, I noticed that small lots that might have stored strip coal mine gear were all now filled with bright-orange wellheads. Davisson Run, a small creek where we used to hunt for frogs, is now near a large new building for Dominion Transmission — yes, that Dominion based in Richmond — which plans a $5 billion natural gas pipeline from the area through Virginia and North Carolina.

Welcome to Fracking Central. This part of northern West Virginia is booming thanks the Marcellus Shale formation rich with hard-to-get natural gas. In just a few years, hydraulic fracking, using high pressure water and powerful chemicals to fracture underground gas pockets and pump them out, has revolutionized the U.S. energy industry.

My mission (which failed) was to find a woman living in a rural house in the rolling hills and dairy farms of western Harrison County. She had been on YouTube two years ago complaining how her neighbor had sold gas rights and turned pleasant pastureland into an obnoxious industrial site with all-night floodlights and diesel generators roaring 24/7. Huge trucks carrying water for high pressure injection clogged narrow county roads.

I drove through Salem, a tiny college town, and noticed signs reading “Antero Resources” that reminded truck drivers supplying rigs to drive slowly and not to “Jake Brake” – use brakes on some trucks that make a loud, machine gun sound as they tap engine exhaust to slow down.

Antero Resources was a big clue. They are an independent gas and oil firm based in Denver that has hit the fracking craze in a big way. They have rights to something like 384,000 acres of gasland in the surrounding area. Having gone public only recently, the company has revenues that have zoomed from $195 million in 2011 to $259 million in 2012 to $689 million last year.

Antero has had its problems. In July 2013, “flowback” material from a Doddridge Count well exploded, badly burning five workers and killing two. Earlier this year, the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection issued a case operations order to Antero because of tank ruptures. The firm has also been accused of released methane into the private wells of 12 individuals.

I couldn’t find out if some are enjoying the economic benefits of fracking. One reads of people suddenly drawing $1 million a year in royalties. I did notice was that there was a lot more drilling support activity and more shopping malls.

My road trip was in marked contrast to one I had taken the day before in the southern part of West Virginia.

Upper Big Branch memorial in Whitesville

Upper Big Branch memorial in Whitesville

I was on my way to give a talk in Charleston about the paperback edition of my book “Thunder on the Mountain: Death at Massey and the Dirty Secrets Behind Big Coal.” I had the time so I chose to head up fateful Route 3 through the Coal River Valley where I have spent a lot of time in the past four years.

Route 3 in Raleigh County is a lot different from any road in Harrison County. The peaks are taller, steeper with more distinct hollers. Rock outcrops jam out at you, unlike the gently rolling hills of the north. The late fall sun is dramatically restricted.

This is the road that suddenly became flooded with ambulance and fire trucks on April 5, 2010. A huge explosion at the Upper Big Branch deep mine owned by then-Richmond-based Massey Energy killed 29 miners. Before then, it had been Ground Zero in the environmentalists’ vigorous war against Mountaintop Removal, which is strip mining on an obscenely large scale. Hundreds of feet of mountaintops are lopped off by gigantic drag lines. The leftover dirt and trees are dumped into creek beds destroying habitat.

I headed north along Big Coal River, which is anything but. Its valley provides just enough space for a road and a CSX rail line in some areas. I went past the new Marsh Fork Elementary School that Massey Energy was forced to build to replace one a few miles away that was threatened by its mine operations.

There was Jarrett’s store (new sign) where bystanders watched all the police cars and ambulances that fateful April day. Soon, the old Marsh Fork school appears. It had been a focus of yet another battle over coal but today it is abandoned and fenced in. Its playground is close to huge coal storage towers. Soaring above them is an earthen dam holding back a lake with about 3 billion gallons of toxic sludge.

There was very little activity – odd since the coal of the valley is the best in the world. Then it came – Upper Big Branch mine – lifeless. It was sealed after the disaster. Past roads with signs reading “Ambulance entrance” there was the portal where the UBB miners came and went. There is a lonely memorial of 29 black helmets at the base of a steel tower. Another memorial to them is a few miles north at Whitesville – a classic coal town filled with empty stores, although the florist shop is still busy.

No coal trucks, no pickups, for miles. The only activity was at the Elk Run deep mine at the very top of Route 3.

Why? One reason is that fracked natural gas from Harrison County and its region is stealing electric utility market share away from coal.

The other reason is Asia’s economic slowdown. Coal River and UBB provide metallurgical coal used for export to smelt steel in foreign mills. (They don’t anything to do with “Keeping Our Lights On” as the pro-coal propagandists say.) Met coal can be enormously lucrative but its prices are down two thirds from three years ago.

That’s bad news for Bristol-based Alpha Natural Resources, which bought out Massey for $7 billion after the disaster. Alpha is in such bad straits that hedge funds are lining its stock up for shorting trades, according to this morning’s Wall Street Journal.

Well, that’s my road trip. Not to worry, though, I’ll be back soon. The criminal trial of Donald L. Blankenship, former Massey CEO and otherwise known as “The Dark Lord of the Coalfields,” starts Jan. 26 in U.S. District Court in Beckley.

Proposed CO2 Regs Will Harm Virginia’s Economic Competitiveness

Image credit: Department of Environmental Quality

Image credit: Department of Environmental Quality

by James A. Bacon

Proposed federal regulations to cut future carbon dioxide emissions from electric power plants would put Virginia at a significant competitive advantage by giving the state no credit for its progress in reducing CO2 over the past ten years, asserts the state Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) in a letter response to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Even back in 2005, Virginia power plants emitted less CO2, a greenhouse gas, per unit of energy produced than those of other many states, thanks to the state’s reliance upon nuclear power. Since 2005, Virginia power companies have phased out older coal-fired plants and substituted natural gas. Although natural gas is a fossil fuel that emits CO2, it is much cleaner burning than coal and produces less CO2 per unit of energy.

In 2005, coal accounted for 46% of Virginia’s electric generation; by 2012, coal had fallen to 20%.  Virginia reduced carbon “pollution” by 39% between 2005 and 2012, the seventh best performance nationally. In 2012 Virginia ranked 15th among the 50 states for the rate of carbon “pollution” from all electric generating sources.

Rather than credit Virginia for recent progress or how much citizens spent to get there, argues the DEQ letter, the EPA Proposed Emission Guidelines bases its performance targets on a state’s electric generating system as it exists now. States the letter:

EPA’s approach fails to recognize the achievements made by many states, including Virginia, that have reduced CO2 emissions by making significant investments in zero and low carbon emitting generation, such as nuclear power, and rewards states that have not done so by giving them substantially higher CO2 emission reduction targets.

carbon_goals

Source: Division of Environmental Quality

All of Virginia’s neighboring states have electric generating systems that are more carbon-intensive than Virginia’s, but all have emission rate goals substantially higher than Virginia’s final goal of 810 [pounds per Megawatt house]. In fact, the Proposed Emission Guidelines would require greater reductions in megawatt hours or carbon intensity from affected units in Virginia than from similar units in either Kentucky of West Virginia, even though those states generated approximately twice the amount of electricity on a megawatt hour basis from fossil fuel than did Virginia in 2012.

“The disparity in state goals,” writes the DEQ, “leaves Virginia at a competitive disadvantage to its neighbors and numerous other states because they will be able to comply with the Proposed Emission Guidelines more cost effectively. … Such states could use their competitive advantage over Virginia to keep their state electric rates or taxes relatively lower in order to lure away existing Virginia businesses and render Virginia less competitive in the quest for new business.”

Governor Terry McAuliffe says he supports the EPA’s goal of reducing carbon emissions to combat global warming. But he says the proposed regulations could be “more equitable,” according to the Times-Dispatch.

Bacon’s bottom line:  Not only are onerous new environmental regulations being imposed by executive fiat, not based upon anything contemplated by Congress when it enacted the Clean Air Act… Not only are these regulations being enacted  on the basis of claims that runaway global warming (a) is occurring, (b) will prove to be an unmitigated catastrophe and (c) that re-engineering the U.S. economy by reducing CO2 emissions is the best way to deal with it… but the state-by-state implementation of the regulations will punish Virginia for its previous efforts to be environmentally virtuous.

Virginia, like the United States, faces many environmental challenges. As a society, I believe, we should steadily increase our investment in environmental protection. But we also need to prioritize that investment to accomplish the most good per dollar spent. I’m far from convinced that spending billions of dollars — the proposed EPA regs could cost Virginians an estimated $5 billion — will generate anything tangible for Virginia or its environment. If these regulations go through, they will be a tragedy of the first order.

Fracking Our Pristine Mountain Forests

GW forestBy Peter Galuszka

Is nothing sacred? Of all groups, the U.S. Forest Service should protect the lands it controls, but today it introduced a plan that would allow limited hydraulic fracturing for natural gas in the 1.1 million-acre George Washington National Forest which straddles Virginia and West Virginia.

Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe had opposed lifting the ban, although he supports other proposed gas projects in the state, such as the 550-mile Atlantic Coast Pipeline that would stretch from the fracked gaslands of Northern West Virginia over the mountains and southeastward to Southside and Hampton Roads and North Carolina.

Forest lands help supply drinking water to 4 million people including those in Richmond and Washington. Some of the forest land has so-called “Karst” topography made up of rock formation that can be dissolved. In those conditions, any leakage of methane, or the toxic, powerful chemicals used in fracking would be more, rather than less, likely to poison drinking water.

The only good news out of the new USFS plan is that before some 995,000 acres could be available for drilling and that amount will now be limited to 177,000 acres.

But what can’t they let it all be? If you head west where the heart of the Marcellus Shale formation has become one of the mega-meccas of fracked gas, you hear of impacts of all types from drilling. These have included fire, explosions, diesel generators roaring 24/7, drinking water effects, bright floodlights and so on. In fact, I am embarking on a drip in about an hour that will end up in frack-land and will report when I get back.

To be sure, natural gas drilling has been going on for decades in the Appalachian Plateau of the western slopes of the Appalachians. Few pipelines crossed eastward over mountains and it was rare to find many drilling rigs in those areas.

But the fracking craze continues unabated and is now a $10 billion industry in the Marcellus Shale formation. One potential new target could be a different formation that starts from Fredericksburg and slips under the Potomac northeast into Maryland. A Texas firm with a letter drop address has been talking about leasing rights for fracking. One assumes that if the leases are in place, they’ll be quickly flipped to an actual drilling company, but you won’t know who. Virginia is only in the very early stages of setting up state rules for fracking.

Environmentalists say natural gas can be an even worse carbon polluter than coal should methane be released. Some others believe that the biggest damage comes not from the actual fracking process with millions of gallons of water and chemicals but from faulty wells.

One can make an argument that gas is good because it has completely reorganized the global pecking order in terms of energy. It means the U.S. need not be beholden to machinations of the Middle East, Central Asia and the likes of Vladimir Putin.

What bothers me is the rush to frack. I remember back in the 1960s in West Virginia when mile after mile of mountain side had been ripped apart by surface miners. It was a cheap way to get at coal. Mystery companies were supposed to reclaim the mine site but rarely did because they’d bankrupt one alphabet soup firm merely to create a new one.

The fracking craze, if not properly regulated, could yield even worse environmental disasters.

Former Massey Coal Chief Indicted

DonBlankenshipBy Peter Galuszka

The indictment today in Charleston, W.Va. of coal baron Donald L. Blankenship, the former head of the notorious Massey Energy Company, for violating federal mine safety and securities laws, has been long awaited, especially by the families of the 29 miners who died on April 5, 2010 in a huge explosion at Massey’s Upper Big Branch mine in Montcoal, W.Va.

It was the worst coal mine disaster in this country in 40 years. It topped off a wild run by Blankenship, who thought he had political potential and spoke for the Appalachian coalfields while dodging safety violations and blowing away mountains in horrific surface mining practices.

He was a poster man for the view, popular among this country’s business elite, that cost cutting and productivity are sacrosanct, human lives are cheap and environmental concerns such as climate change are mere diversions from the country’s true goals. At one point he literally wrapped himself up in the American flag to push his ideas.

A federal grand jury today turned those arguments on their heads. The four charges accuse Blankenship of conspiracy in blunting the numerous federal safety violations that lead to the catastrophic disaster at the Upper Big Branch mine.

For several years leading up to that fateful day, Blankenship allegedly connived to ignore concerns that the mine had broken equipment and excessively high levels of highly inflammable coal dust. He also is accused of keeping federal mine inspectors from doing their jobs.

The grand jury also claims that Blankenship violated federal securities laws by giving investors misleading information about Massey stock.

Blankenship was a huge celebrity in the Appalachian coalfields. Tying himself to a reactionary ideal of doing what he thought was best for America, he spent a million dollars at what was an anti-Labor Day celebration in West Virginia in 2009. He wore a costume formed from an American flag and hired testosterone-infused country music stars Hank Williams Jr. and Ted Nugent to entertain his crowd.

The irony was that it was a holiday to celebrate labor unions while Blankenship and his firm were notorious for union-busting. He also had a habit of taking the chief justice of the West Virginia supreme court on vacation on the French Riviera.

Another irony is that Blankenship, like much of the U.S. coal industry, promotes the propaganda that there is a “War on Coal” and that coal is essential to “keeping our lights on.” Never mind that the free market and the flow of natural gas from hydraulic fracturing drilling from the very same area, not the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, are what is really hurting the Appalachian steam coal market.

The coal mined at Upper Big Branch, however, had nothing to do with power generation. It was metallurgical coal that was exported to make steel in markets such as China. At the time of Upper Big Branch, China’s steel market was hot and met coal prices were going through the roof.

The indictment reads that the group of mines associated with Upper Big Branch “generated revenues of approximately $331 million, which represented 14 percent of Massey’s approximately $2.3 billion in in revenue.” Obviously, it was in Blankenship’s interest to keep the steel-making coal flowing.

In that process, according to the indictments, Blankenship oversaw efforts to cut corners, dodge safety issues and keep miners on edge. They are rich in detail about poor ventilation; flawed water sprays to keep explosive coal dust down and warning when federal coal inspectors were on the prowl.

After he was forced to resign from Massey Energy with an over-sized golden parachute, Blankenship kept quiet for a couple for of years. Recently he came back on the scene with a self-made documentary just on the eve of the fourth anniversary of the Upper Big Branch disaster. The movie was so tasteless that even Joe Manchin, a U.S. Senator from West Virginia who was quoted in the film, disassociated himself from it. Families of the dead mines were appalled.

The long-in-coming indictments illustrate the problems of coal as an energy and steel source and just how its issues have been ignored in the Appalachians for about 150 years. In the past, huge mine disasters, such as the 1968 blast at Farmington W.Va. that killed 78, sparked real safety reform.

Not so after Upper Big Branch. Pro-coal Republicans in Congress have blocked bills to toughen rules. This is a reason why the federal indictments are so important. They show that leading a culture of safety laxity will no longer be tolerated.

It may be curious that Blankenship’s indictments come just after President Barack Obama has just agreed to a turning point treaty with heavy polluter China to cut carbon emissions. But they should give some closure to long-festering problems in a part of the United States where industrial death and destruction are considered business as usual.