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West Virginia Repeals Law Made By Coal Industry To Help Coal Industry

Lawmakers in West Virginia repealed the Alternative and Renewable Energy Portfolio Standard Act, which forced utility companies to use more alternative fuels, early this month.

The law, passed in 2009, mandated West Virginia to get 25 percent of its electricity from alternative and renewable energy sources. However, the law defines “alternative energy resources” as natural gas, waste coal, tire derived fuel, carbon capture or any resource the Public Service Commission deems as an “alternative energy resource.”

Such a loose definition in the bill could lead to a situation, as noted by the Department of Energy, where the state only relies on these “alternative energy resources” instead of renewable energy such as solar or wind power.

This is because the law was crafted by the coal industry, which benefited as a result. In fact, Bill Raney, president of the West Virginia Coal Association,  previously mentioned efforts of the coal industry in crafting the act. Although, after the law was repealed, he praised it as “getting our state coal miners back to work,” despite, in West Virginia’s Public Service Commission in its annual report last year, the coal industry not being affected by the law.

Conni Gratop Lewis, lobby team coordinator for West Virginia Environment Council, told Firedoglake a mixture of factors led to the repeal, including the drop in coal prices.

“This was seen as a threat as a mining to coal. If you were encouraging other fuels in the mix, it could only have a negative impact on coal,” Lewis said.

As noted by journalist Naveena Sadasivam, the repeal was an effort of the state’s Republican Party, which won in the midterm elections last November, pledge to support the coal industry. Indeed, in both the state’s House and Senate it passed with an overwhelming majority.

Vivian Stockman, project coordinator for the Ohio Valley Environmental Council, told Firedoglake how much of a tight grip the coal industry has in the state, especially with the state’s top trade association–West Virginia Coal Association.

“The West Virginia Coal Association keeps lobbyists up at the state house. They work very closely with state lawmakers in writing legislation serving no one’s interest but the coal industry,” Stockman said.

The West Virginia Coal Association writes on their website how they work to “to create an environment that will establish West Virginia as a safer, cleaner and more competitive energy source.”

The reality, as the David Suzuki Foundation notes, is coal causes significant problems ranging from health issues to carbon emissions. In West Virginia, the most notable damage caused by coal is mountain-top removal as well as lakes being contaminated.

Even the prospects of clean coal are difficult to do as the Department of Energy recently withdrew funding from FutureGen, a clean coal project in the state of Illinois.

“There is no such thing as clean coal. It’s dirty when you dig it. It’s dirty when you process it. It’s dirty when transfer it. It’s dirty when you dispose it and it’s dirtying politics here [in West Virginia,” Stockman said.

Raney, however, believes the coal industry can help not only the state, but the entire nation in its position as an energy leader in the world:

I see a future in which coal is recognized as our nation’s true “alternative fuel.” I see a future in which coal-to-liquids plants replace old oil refineries across the country. I see a future in which carbon capture and storage technology truly makes West Virginia coal a “green” fuel. And I see a future in which West Virginia is a leader in the development of these technologies and our people reap the benefits of our hard work.

Raney made such comments through Friends of Coal, a front group funded by the West Virginia Coal Association, that works as an arm of the organization in lobbying the public and lawmakers

As Stockman notes, coal mining jobs have declined, yet the power of the industry is still in tact. As a result, lawmakers “prefer to listen to corporate lobbyists than common people.”

In general, the coal industry still holds power in the state. Lewis told Firedoglake how the industry was able to obtain such power by offering jobs.

The act may be repealed, but net metering is still in place. The net metering allows citizens who generate electricity through renewables by themselves to receive a rebate. This was placed by groups like the West Virginia Environment Council, despite not liking the bill in general.

“The portfolio was not helpful [and] did not accomplish much. The big deal in West Virginia is fighting the administration is to reduce carbon emissions from power plant. That is a much bigger fight. That is one moving forward,” Lewis said.

Meanwhile, groups like the Heartland Institute view this as a victory to be replicated across the country. James Taylor, a senior fellow at the Heartland Institute, called the repeal a model for other states to follow:

West Virginia policymakers recognized, in a bipartisan and overwhelming manner, that renewable power mandates drive up electricity costs, kill jobs, punish the economy, and inflict substantial unintentional harm on the environment. Fortunately for electricity consumers and environmentalists, several other states are poised to follow West Virginia’s lead and will be considering similar legislation this year.

The Heartland Institute does not disclose its donors as it wants to dispel myths it is paid by those who support them. Regardless, the organization accepted money in the past from coal organizations like the Illinois Coal Association and organizations tied to the Koch brothers.

Stockman said the strategy of environmentalists is now shifting to a more local level as state lawmakers refuse to invest in renewable energy especially with the impact of climate change in the future. For her, she wishes to dispel myths about renewable energy.

“Basically we’re trying to use small-scale research and shine the light on all the different and more sustainable activities that we can go on with. People who blocking renewable energy can move out of the way,” Stockman said.

State investment in solar energy, for example, is so low that the Solar Foundation found it created only 300 solar jobs and ranked it low relative to other states.

Meanwhile, after the repeal of the act, Raney said it “clearly shows how much things have changed in Charleston.” The truth may be that things have not changed whatsoever as the coal industry gains another victory in the state.

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Brandon Jordan

Brandon Jordan

Brandon Jordan is a freelance journalist in Queens, NY and written for publications such as The Nation, In These Times, Truthout and more.

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