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The Coal Industry Extracted a Steep Price From West Virginia. Now Natural Gas Is Leading the State Down the Same Path

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Those who do not learn from history are doomed to make the same damn mistakes repeatedly. Ken Ward, Jr., reports in ProPublica:

This article was produced in partnership with the Charleston Gazette-Mail, which is a member of the ProPublica Local Reporting Network.

It was a warm Monday afternoon in late February. Thousands of teachers, public school employees and supporters rallied on the steps of West Virginia’s Capitol building, on the banks of the Kanawha River in Charleston.

Schools in all 55 counties were closed again. Teachers, cooks and janitors were in the third day of a strike. They wanted pay raises and a fix to the skyrocketing cost of their health insurance.

On the other end of the state, at a town hall meeting with teachers in Wheeling, Gov. Jim Justice tossed out a possible solution: Fund the pay raises with an increase in taxes on the state’s booming natural gas industry.

West Virginia “benefited from the extraction of coal and we benefited from the extraction of timber, but we were still dead last in everything,” said Justice, whose family made its fortune in coal. “And now we have this gas situation and we’re on fire, and we have a real opportunity again.” If the state doesn’t pass a gas-tax hike, the governor said, “we’re going to be left holding the bag again.”

But what seemed like a stunning change of direction proved to be little more than a feint. Gas industry lobbyists strongly criticized the proposal and the governor’s tax hike idea quickly faded.

West Virginia has been here before.

Sixty-five years ago, then-Gov. William Marland, the son of a mine superintendent, shocked state lawmakers by proposing a new tax on coal to upgrade schools and roads.

“Let’s use this equitable source of revenue, because whether we like it or not, West Virginia’s hills will be stripped, the bowels of the earth will be mined and the refuse strewn across our valleys and our mountains in the form of burning slate dumps,” Marland told a joint session of the Legislature in February 1953.

Marland’s proposal was soundly defeated following an onslaught of criticism. One biographer called it “political suicide.”

Today, West Virginia’s headlong race into the gas rush is taking the state down the same path that it’s been on for generations with coal.

Elected officials have sided with natural gas companies on tax proposals and property rights legislation. Industry lobbyists have convinced regulators to soften new rules aimed at protecting residents and their communities from drilling damage.

In 2011, for example, then-Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, a Democrat, and his party’s legislative leadership weakened a measure to regulate the growing industry, at the urging of gas company lobbyists. Among other changes, language was eliminated that would have given state regulators more authority to deny drilling permits that threatened water supplies and populated areas.

Supporters say the state’s actions over the past few years have positioned West Virginia to compete for growth.

“We have a regulatory body and a legislative body and an industry that are all willing to work together,” said Al Schopp, chief administrative officer for Antero Resources, the state’s biggest natural gas producer. “That makes it a good environment.”

But critics fear that West Virginia won’t fully share in the riches the industry creates and will be forced to bear the long-term environmental, health and infrastructure costs, much as it has for the now-dwindling coal industry.

“It’s repeating the same cycle,” said former state Senate President Jeff Kessler, a Democrat from Marshall County, one of the state’s biggest producers of both coal and natural gas.

In 2014, after several years of trying, Kessler persuaded the Legislature to approve a plan to use gas industry taxes for educational and infrastructure projects, to help diversify the state’s economy. Six U.S. states have such programs, including North Dakota and Alaska.

But while West Virginia lawmakers created a similar program on paper, they haven’t set aside any money for it.

Retired Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., also worries about what he’s seen in recent years. Rockefeller, who served for 30 years in the Senate and, before that, as the state’s governor, recalled “devastating” testimony about the gas industry during a 2012 public hearing in Fairmont. A local sheriff, Rockefeller remembered, described an “invasion” of heavy traffic and damage to local roads from thousands of trucks servicing all the new natural gas wells. Such complaints continue today.

“It’s a terrible peril for a rural state like West Virginia to have so much drilling,” Rockefeller said in an interview this month. “Natural gas is doing well now, but at what price?”

As One Industry Busts, Another Booms

For generations, coal has been the most economically significant, politically powerful and socially influential industry in the state. West Virginia coal provided high-wage jobs, paid a large portion of state and local budgets, and fueled a nation hungry for both electricity and steel. The state’s mining jobs peaked at more than 125,000 in the 1940s.

Along the way, the industry received huge tax breaks, often to offset the costs of machines that allowed much more coal to be mined with fewer workers. Lobbyists, lawmakers and regulators picked away at environmental and worker safety rules and enforcement.

Over time, the costs of these regulatory and tax breaks became clear: Miners died in horrific explosions, massive mine cave-ins or from deadly black lung disease. Creeks were left polluted and land scarred.

In the past 10 years, the job losses in coal have picked up. The 14,000 miners working in West Virginia last year represented a drop of about 40 percent from 2008, according to U.S. Department of Labor data. Today, the parts of West Virginia that for generations produced the most coal are among the poorest communities in the region. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

28 April 2018 at 9:33 am

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