Category Archives: Taxes

Interview: McAuliffe’s Economic Goals

 maurice jonesBy Peter Galuszka

For a glimpse of where the administration of Gov. Terry McAuliffe is heading, here’s an interview I did with Maurice Jones, the secretary of commerce and trade that was published in Richmond’s Style Weekly.

Jones, a graduate of Hampden-Sydney College and University of Virginia law, is a former Rhodes Scholar who had been a deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development under President Barack Obama. Before that, he was publisher of The Virginian-Pilot, which owns Style.

According to Jones, McAuliffe is big on jobs creation, corporate recruitment and upgrading education, especially at the community college and jobs-training levels. Virginia is doing poorly in economic growth, coming in recently at No. 48, ahead of only Maryland and the District of Columbia which, like Virginia have been hit hard by federal spending cuts.

Jones says he’s been traveling overseas a lot in his first year in office. Doing so helped land the $2 billion paper with Shandong Tranlin in Chesterfield County. The project, which will create 2,000 jobs, is the largest single investment by the Chinese in the U.S. McAuliffe also backs the highly controversial $5 billion Atlantic Coast Pipeline planned by Dominion because its natural gas should spawn badly-needed industrial growth in poor counties near the North Carolina border.

Read more, read here.

(Note: I have a new business blog going at Style Weekly called “The Deal.” Find it on Style’s webpage —   www.styleweekly.com)

Whatever Happened to “Boomergeddon?”

rush_limbaugh5By Peter Galuszka

Attention ditto-heads!

Before President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address last night, there was an interesting piece on CNN of hard-line conservatives claiming two years ago that the U.S. economy would collapse if Obama were re-elected.

They claimed that the U.S. faced uncontrollable government spending and ever-growing budget deficits. Obama’s efforts to kick-start the economy were just one missfire after another. Don’t believe me? Look up a zillion posts in Bacon’s Rebellion written by the usual suspects.

My favorite segment on the CNN report was radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh making his usual dire predictions about our plunge to Boomergeddon:

“How long does this country have if Obama wins? We’re headed toward an economic collapse and we are the leader of the world. ….If Obama’s re-elected, it will happen. There’s no IF about this. And it’s gonna be ugly. It’s gonna be gut-wrenching, but it will happen. The country’s economy is going to collapse if Obama is re-elected. I don’t know how long: a year and a half, two years, three years.”

Well we’re almost there and guess what? Obama felt comfortable enough strong economy last night to rebrand himself as a liberal and push programs to finally help out the middle class. They include a more fair tax system and helping make community college study free. In a University of Richmond poll in last year’s fourth quarter, most of the 62 chief executive officers of Central Virginia companies said they had “strong optimism” about the country’s brightening economic picture.

What about deficits? Well, not to raise any names associated with this blog, but last October, the budget deficit had dropped to its lowest level since the Great Recession. It had fallen to $483 billion in f/y 2014. That’s only 2.8 percent of GDP and less than the average of the previous 40 years, the U.S. Treasury Department reported.

Hmm. Does anyone have a copy of the book “Boomergeddon?” I can’t find mine and want one as a keepsake.

Thank You, Congress

fallonby James A. Bacon

With apologies to Jimmy Fallon:

Thank you, Congress…. for your inability to pass the Marketplace Fairness Act. Your legislative ineptitude not only spared Virginians from paying an estimated $250 million a year in online sales taxes, but it triggered a provision in Virginia law replacing the anticipated set-aside of $168 million of that sum with a 5.1% wholesale gasoline sales tax — actually requiring people who drive cars to pay a portion of the cost of building and maintaining roads.

The Rube Goldberg taxation scheme was enacted by the 2013 General Assembly as part of the McDonnell administration’s transportation tax deform program to raise an estimated $880 million for new road and mass transit projects. The law scrapped the retail gas tax, jacked up the retail sales tax, hiked fees on motor vehicle sales and titling and tapped the expected revenue geyser from the sales tax on online sales. Virginia’s lawmakers were astute enough to anticipate the possibility that a gridlocked Congress might not get around to passing the online sales tax, however, and approved a backup, the higher wholesale gasoline tax, as a replacement.

Virginia’s 2013 tax deform was an abomination because it obliterated the user-pays principle for transportation funding, in which the people who use roads and rail are the ones who pay for it. Legislators embraced the essentially socialist principle that everyone should help pay for transportation infrastructure, regardless of how much they use it, or indeed whether they use it at all.  Telecommuters, bicycle riders, pedestrians and little old ladies who drive 3,000 miles a year contribute as much through their sales taxes as road warriors driving 20,000 miles a year and rail riders who pay nothing toward the cost of building their projects.

By jacking up the wholesale price of gasoline, the commonwealth will partially, though incompletely, restore the user pays principle, at least for road users. The system for financing transportation improvements in Virginia remains hopelessly broken, but it’s a little less hopelessly broken than it otherwise would have been.

Virginia’s Top Stories in 2014

mcd convictedBy Peter Galuszka

The Year 2014 was quite eventful if unsettling. It represented some major turning points for the Old Dominion.

Here are my picks for the top stories:

  • Robert F. McDonnell becomes the highest-ranking former or serving state official to be convicted of corruption. The six-week-long trial from July to September of the Republican former governor and his wife, Maureen, was international news. In terms of trash, it offered everything – greed, tackiness, a dysfunctional marriage, a relationship “triangle,” and an inner glimpse of how things work at the state capital.  More importantly, it ends forever the conceit that there is a “Virginia Way” in which politicians are gentlemen above reproach, the status quo prevails and ordinary voters should be kept as far away from the political process as possible. It also shows the unfinished job of reforming ethics. The hidden heroes are honest state bureaucrats who resisted top-down pushes to vet dubious vitamin pills plus the State Police who did their investigative duty.
  • Eric Cantor loses. Cantor, another Republican, had been riding high as the 7th District Congressman and House Majority Leader. A wunderkind of the Richmond business elite, Cantor was positioned to be House Speaker and was considered invulnerable, at least until David Brat, an unknown college economics professor and populist libertarian, exploited fractures in the state GOP to win a stunning primary upset. Cantor immediately landed in a high-paying lobbying job for a financial house.
  • Terry McAuliffe takes over. The Democrat Washington insider and Clinton crony beat hard-right fanatic Kenneth Cuccinelli in a tight 2013 race. He bet almost everything on getting the GOP-run General Assembly to expand Medicaid benefits to 400,000 low income Virginians. He lost and will try again. He’s done a pretty good job at snaring new business, notably the $2 billion Shandong-Tralin paper mill from China for Chesterfield County. It will employ 2,000.
  • Roads projects blow up. Leftover highway messes such as the bypass of U.S. 29 in Charlottesville finally got spiked for now. Big questions remain about what happened to the $400 million or so that the McDonnell Administration spent on the unwanted U.S. 460 road to nowhere in southeastern Virginia.
  • Gay marriage becomes legal. A U.S. District Judge in Norfolk found Virginia’s ban on gay marriage unconstitutional and the U.S. Supreme Court pushed opening gay marriage farther. The rulings helped turn the page on the state’s prejudicial past, such as the ban on interracial marriage that lasted until the late 1960s.
  • Fracking changes state energy picture. A flood of natural gas from West Virginia and Pennsylvania has utilities like Dominion Resources pushing gas projects. It’s been nixing coal plants and delaying new nukes and renewables. Dominion is also shaking things up by pitching a $5 billion, 550-mile-long pipeline through some of the state’s most picturesque areas – just one of several pipelines being pitched. The EPA has stirred things up with complex new rules in cutting carbon emissions and the state’s business community and their buddies at the State Corporation Commission have organized a massive opposition campaign. McAuliffe, meanwhile, has issued his “everything” energy plan that looks remarkably like former governor McDonnell’s.
  • State struggles with budget gaps. Sequestration of federal spending and defense cuts have sent officials scrambling to plug a $2.4 billion gap in the biennial budget. It is back to the same old smoke and mirrors to raise taxes while not seeming to. Obvious solutions – such as raising taxes on gasoline and tobacco – remain off limits.
  • College rape became a hot issue after Rolling Stone printed a flawed story about an alleged gang rape of a female student at the prestigious University of Virginia in 2012. Progressives pushed for raising awareness while conservatives took full advantage of the reporter’s reporting gaps to pretend that sex abuse is not really an issue.
  • Poverty is on the radar screen, especially in Richmond which has poverty rate of 27 percent (70 percent in some neighborhoods) and other spots such as Newport News. Richmond Mayor Dwight Jones got a lot of national press attention for his campaign to eradicate poverty but it is really hard to understand what he’s actually doing or whether it is successful. The real attention in Richmond is on such essentials as replacing the Diamond baseball stadium, justifying a training camp for the Washington Redskins and giving big subsidies for a rich San Diego brewer of craft beer.
  • Day care regulation. Virginia has a horrible reputation for allowing small, home day care centers to operate without regulation. Dozens have children have died over the past few years at them. This year there were deaths at centers in Midlothian and Lynchburg.
  • The continued madness of the Virginia Tobacco Indemnification and Community Revitalization Commission. This out-of-control slush fund in the tobacco belt continued its waywardness by talking with Democratic State Sen. Phil Pucket about a six-figure job just as Puckett was to resign and deny a swing vote in the senate in favor of expanding Medicaid. The commission also drew attention for inside plays by the politically powerful Kilgore family and giving $30 million in an unsolicited grant to utility Dominion.

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.

 

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.

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.