Category Archives: Land use & development

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.

Our Throwaway Culture

00968005.JPGBy Peter Galuszka

As the holidays approach, what happens to the gifts after you give them?

Many end up in the trash.

I pondered those questions in the December issue of the Chesterfield and Henrico Monthlies. It deals with a polyglot of forces including the planned obsolescence of many goods, especially electronics, global trade cycles, and, most important of all, how Virginia communities deal with disposing of their gifts once they are no longer the latest “in” thing?

“The Throwaway Society” dates back maybe 70 or more years. It is not a new concept at all and it actually hit its prime in the 1940s when it was popularized by the very same industrial designer who gave us the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile.

Oscar-mayer-wienermobile600Today, the cycle often begins at a Chinese wharf and circumnavigates the world. Playing integral roles are lowly county dumps and the companies they hire to recycle what they can and dispose of hazardous materials found in virtually anything electronic.

It’s an off-beat story but it may be a fun read.

Not to spoil your Christmas or anything.

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.

Meet the New Plan, Same as the Old Plan

ed_planby James A. Bacon

Last week Governor Terry McAuliffe published his strategic plan for economic development, which will provide a road map for legislative and executive policy for the remainder of his term. My quick-and-dirty analysis is that there’s nothing much new here — it checks all the usual boxes — but there’s nothing offensive either. This strategic plan, like those of previous administrations, represents the conventional wisdom of the usual stakeholders.

While the plan does acknowledge the necessity of emancipating Virginia’s economy from his dependence upon the federal government, it ignores the state’s slipping rating in a variety of national business climate rankings. Indeed, the report engages in delusional thinking. “From the robust economy to competitive taxes and incentives, Virginia’s pro-business climate has few, if any, peers,” states a passage describing Virginia’s economic development assets. I think Virginia is a great state and wouldn’t live anywhere else but, really, I know nonsense when I see it. Few peers? C’mon.

Virginia does have many strengths, which served the state well in a previous economic era dominated by corporate recruitment. Our building costs are eight to 22 percent lower than the national average. We have the second lowest workers’ compensation costs in the country. The state has maintained a AAA bond rating since 1938. Virginia can boast of “the greatest number of scientists and engineers of any state.” But the state is struggling to shift to an entrepreneurial, knowledge-based economy.

At least the authors of the report understand that such a transition must be made. As they note, thirteen of the state’s top 20 employers are either public-sector enterprises (U.S. Department of Defense, Fairfax County Public Schools) or private contractors dependent upon federal spending (Huntington Ingalls Industries, owner of the Newport News shipbuilding complex). But the situation is even worse than that. Of the top private sector employers, three are retailers (Walmart, Food Lion and Lowe’s Home Centers) and two (Sentara Healthcare and HCA Virginia Health System) are medical enterprises, none of which provide goods or services tradable outside the state. Only one company — Capital One Bank — creates products and services that it trades outside Virginia. That’s a sad commentary indeed.

The report correctly contends that the focus of economic development should be on building private companies that aren’t dependent upon government spending. To foster that growth, it sees government playing supporting role by being best in class in five areas: infrastructure; strategic growth sectors; overall business climate; entrepreneurism and innovation; and talent. The report also is realistic enough to know that in the current economically constrained environment, the commonwealth of Virginia is in no position to launch any big spending initiatives. The proposals described in the report are appropriately modest and focused.

The biggest void in the report is the lack of any connection between economic development and community development. Arguably, the biggest single challenge in economic development is not just developing a skilled and educated workforce but recruiting and retaining a workforce. It’s the old Richard Florida creative-class thesis. Corporations locate where the skilled labor is. Workers with education and skills tend to pick where they live, based on lifestyle amenities and cultural attitudes, not on where they can find a job. If a company can’t recruit workers to live in [name of your town here], it will suffer a competitive disadvantage. If young, skilled employees decamp for other metropolitan regions, the labor pool shrinks… and employers suffer a competitive advantage.

Our understanding of what mobile but highly desirable creative-class employees are looking for in their lives is still fairly primitive. We have some vague ideas — educated young people like walkable urbanism, bicycle lanes, cool food, a live music scene, etc. etc. — but no one is factoring that knowledge into a clearly articulated strategy that encompasses zoning policies, transportation improvements and public works investments. Until we do, every governor’s economic-development strategic plan will fall short.

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.

 

A Pyrrhic Victory: Henrico Keeps McKesson in Henrico

The old Circuit City building -- all full!

The old Circuit City building — all full!

by James A. Bacon

Henrico County has just scored an economic development coup — for the measly cost of $500,000, it has persuaded McKesson Medical-Surgical Inc., a major distributor of medical supplies, to occupy the remaining space at the old Circuit City headquarters building. The state will match the sum with another $500,000. Said county Supervisor David A. Kaechele: “It’s good news all around.”

Just one little problem: McKesson Medical-Surgical is already headquartered in Henrico County. The million dollars in government funds merely moves McKesson from one county location to another. It’s not as if Henrico is recruiting a new business enterprise to the region.

Gary McLaren, Henrico’s economic development director, justifies the incentive payment on the grounds that the company was looking at other locations in the Richmond region and potentially outside the region, according to the Times-Dispatch. The company, he says, had a site outside the state “under serious consideration.” The stakes were high: Over five years, the growing company plans to add 225 employees with compensation averaging more than $100,000 a year.

I suppose one could argue that $500,000 ($1 million, if you include the state funds) is cheap insurance against the risk of losing a major corporate citizen to another state. There is no way for us as taxpayers, however, to know how serious that threat was. Certainly, the cost to McKesson of relocating would be extremely expensive and disruptive — far more than $1 million. But if the competing jurisdiction was dangling incentives, too, it’s conceivable that Henrico’s subsidy was justified.

While recognizing the necessity of preserving the region’s business base — and McKesson is one of the larger, more successful companies headquartered in the Richmond region — corporate welfare rubs me the wrong way. McKesson doesn’t need this money to prosper. It’s taking the money because it can. No such consideration is given to citizens or small businesses.

Perhaps most frustrating is the way this transaction symbolizes the bankruptcy in thinking about economic development in Henrico — the way to keep business is to bribe companies to stay. Needless to say, only big, highly visible businesses need apply. Meanwhile, I hear rumbles of how the county is alienating other businesses by shaking them down over utility fees.

The biggest problem is the failure to comprehend how labor markets and the corporate site-location calculus are changing, and the failure to make the necessary adjustments. It takes more than a low property tax rate to entice business to stay in Henrico County. Increasingly, employers are looking for the kind of amenities typically found in traditional core cities — the experience commonly referred to as “walkable urbanism.” Henrico is creating scattered pockets of walkable urbanism but the initiative is coming almost entirely from developers. The county isn’t making the transition any easier. Our elected officials are providing no strategic vision. They’re simply responding to events as they occur and declaring a victory when a company like McKesson can be bribed to stay.

It won’t be much of a victory if every other major employer in the county has to be bribed the same way.

Virginia’s Very Own Keystone XL

acl pipeline map By Peter Galuszka

The rise of natural gas keeps raising more questions about the proper future of Virginia’s and the nation’s energy policies. What just a little while ago seemed a benign source of energy has gushed into a mass of controversy and advantage.

One focus of the conflict – good and bad – is the $5 billion Atlantic Coast Pipeline that Dominion Transmission and three other southern utilities want to build from the booming natural gas fracklands of northern West Virginia, across sensitive Appalachian terrain and on through Virginia and North Carolina.

The pipeline is unusual since it doesn’t follow the usual post World War II path – Gulf States to the industrial northeast — but it shows just how the U.S. energy picture is being turned on its head.

People in West Virginia have faced the raw end of energy issues for a century and a half, but it is a new matter for the bucolic areas of Nelson County and some of Virginia’s most pristine and appealing mountain country.

Here is a story I wrote for Style Weekly on the promises and problems of Virginia’s very own Keystone XL.

Dominion’s Strange Tobacco Money

tobacco commission logo By Peter Galuszka

Dominion Resources, the powerful, Richmond-based utility with $13 billion in revenues, has strangely been getting $30 million public funds to bring a natural gas pipeline to a new generating plant in Brunswick County.

Odder still (or maybe not so) the public funds are coming from the GOP-controlled Virginia Tobacco Indemnification and Community Revitalization Commission which has figured in a wave of corruption since it was formed in 1999.

Even more bizarre, the tobacco commission made up of politically-appointed people arranged for Dominion to receive millions more than its own staff recommended, according to an intriguing report by the Associated Press.

The tobacco commission was created to use money from a massive 1996 settlement that 46 states received from four top tobacco companies in health-related lawsuits. Many states used their funds to promote health and anti-smoking campaigns. Virginia did some of that but created a pork barrel commission to dole out $1 billion to projects allegedly aimed at helping residents of Virginia’s Tobacco Road along the state’s southern tier for economic development projects.

In the Dominion case, the utility says it never lobbied for grants, but somehow it got $30 million – or $10 million over three years for a pipeline to its $1.3 billion Brunswick gas plant. The commission’s own staff said $6.5 million should have been sufficient for the first installment.

So, you have a situation where Dominion, which is a huge contributor to political campaigns,  says it never really wanted grants, the commission staff recommended one amount and the tobacco commission awarded a much bigger one. And, according to the AP, no one seems to know anything about it.

Well, that’s about par for the course. Here’s something I wrote for The Washington Post in September:

“No one seems to be checking whether commission projects are worth it. A 2011 study by the state’s Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission found that, of 1,368 projects funded for $756 million, only 11 percent were measured for results. “They are just handing out money,” Del. Ward Armstrong (D-Henry) said in 2011.

John W. Forbes II, a former state secretary of finance and a tobacco commission board member, was convicted in 2010 of defrauding the commission of $4 million. He used the money for “The Literary Foundation of Virginia,” which he created, and set up himself and his wife with six-figure jobs. The rest was siphoned to shell companies.

The commission has awarded $14 million in grants to the Scott County Economic Development Authority, which is headed by John Kilgore Jr., Terry Kilgore’s brother (Terry heads the commission and his brother Jerry is major Republican politician). Meanwhile, their father, John Kilgore Sr., heads the nonprofit Scott County Telephone Cooperative’s board, which has received $7 million in tobacco money to expand broadband access.

The Kilgore family affair isn’t illegal, but it looks bad. The tobacco stench just doesn’t go away. In June, federal agents subpoenaed commission records in their probe of former state senator Phillip P. Puckett. The powerful Democrat from Russell was supposedly discussing a lucrative staff job on the tobacco commission with Terry Kilgore just before a key vote on expanding Medicaid. Puckett resigned in time to throw the vote toward opponents, most of them Republicans.”

The gas pipeline apparently would connect with a major interstate pipeline operated by Transco and runs from the Gulf State gas fields through Virginia to the Northeast. And, Dominion is one of four utilities planning a brand new $5 billion that would take natural gas fracked in West Virginia, over sensitive tops of the Appalachians, southeast to North Carolina. That project includes a spur line to the Dominion Brunswick plant.

One wonders why Dominion needs two pipelines to one plant — especially one built with funds intended directly for public service.

Well, as they say in the giant newsroom in the sky, good stories only get better.

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.

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.