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As coal dwindles, mining states trim safety inspections

My Blue Ridge Communications | Posted on July 6, 2017

Kathy Bartlett watched helplessly this spring as Kentucky lawmakers cut back on mine safety inspections and replaced them with coaching sessions on miners' safety habits. She knows more than most what's at stake.Bartlett's son, Rickey Thorpe, was crushed to death in a western Kentucky underground mine in 2015 when a coal-digging machine's 17-ton cutting head — propped up with wooden boards — gave out as he worked underneath it.Bartlett, who recently visited her son's grave on what would have been his 31st birthday, says that's why the state shouldn't reduce the number of traditional inspections."Them passing this (law), it's totally wrong," she said. "I was totally against it, but that's one person against thousands. Rick lost his life because there was things that wasn't done properly." State officials say they aren't easing up on enforcement. They say the new law, which takes effect Friday, puts officials in the mines more frequently to work with miners on safe working habits.Appalachian coal states like Kentucky have seen a slowdown in mining and are looking to trim the required number of annual inspections. West Virginia lawmakers considered scaling back mandatory inspections to one from four this year but backed off amid criticism.With Kentucky's law, passed by the Republican-controlled legislature, state officials can replace half of the six required inspections with "analyst visits" that focus on coaching. The law still allows for increased inspections if officials identify a problem.The reductions come as the Trump administration proposes cuts to the Department of Labor, which administers the federal mine safety program, even as Trump seeks to reinvigorate the coal industry. Federal inspectors are required by law to conduct four inspections a year on underground mines.In West Virginia, a backlash to the proposed state cutbacks may have caught lawmakers by surprise."Frankly I think the attempt to received national media attention in West Virginia, and I don't think those who were leading that charge were prepared for that," said Phil Smith, United Mine Workers of America spokesman.West Virginia recorded its fifth mining death June 13, surpassing last year's total of three. Nine coal miners have been killed this year nationwide. A record low of eight died in 2016.Smith said western mining states have all but eliminated state inspection programs; Illinois and Alabama have reduced theirs. Virginia requires two annual inspections on underground mines.State officials and industry advocates praise the new Kentucky law, saying it will put inspectors in the mine more frequently but alter their role. Inspectors on analyst visits can still write citations if they see violations.

California Supreme Court upholds cap-and-trade law

Reuters | Posted on July 6, 2017

The California Supreme Court refused to consider a challenge by business groups of the state's cap-and-trade law, a ruling that environmentalists hailed as ending a legal fight that had cast a cloud over the program. The state supreme court did not issue a written opinion on the program itself but declined take up the case on appeal from a lower court. California's program to cap emissions and trade carbon permits is a crucial component of a broader effort to reduce the state's output of heat-trapping greenhouse gases to 1990 levels by the end of the decade. The carbon market sets a steadily declining cap on the state's carbon output and then sells or gives permits that businesses are required to submit every three years to the state to cover their emissions.

D.C. federal appeals court blocks Environmental Protection Agency’s effort to suspend Obama-era methane pollution rule

Pittsburgh Post Gazette | Posted on July 6, 2017

A federal appeals court in Washington ruled Monday that the head of the Environmental Protection Agency overstepped his authority in trying to delay implementation of a new rule requiring oil and gas companies to monitor and reduce methane leaks.In a split decision — the first major legal setback for Scott Pruitt, the EPA administrator — the three-judge panel from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ordered the environmental agency to move forward with the Obama-era requirement that aims to reduce planet-warming emissions from oil and gas operations.The ruling signals that President Donald Trump’s plans to erase his predecessor’s environmental record are likely to face an uphill battle in the courts.

After $3 billion spent, Keystone XL can't get oil companies to sign on

Fox Business | Posted on July 6, 2017

Keystone XL is facing a new challenge: The oil producers and refiners the pipeline was originally meant to serve aren't interested in it anymore. Delayed for nearly a decade by protests and regulatory roadblocks, Keystone XL got the green light from President Donald Trump in March. But the pipeline's operator, TransCanada Corp., is struggling to line up customers to ship crude from Canada to the U.S. Gulf Coast, say people familiar with the matter.TransCanada Chief Executive Russ Girling remains committed to completing Keystone XL and believes it will prove profitable in the long term, say two people familiar with his thinking. But it may be years before the company recoups its investment in the pipeline, these people say.TransCanada has spent $3 billion to date on Keystone XL, much of it on steel pipe, land rights and lobbying. Completed, the pipeline would travel 1,700 miles from Alberta to Steele City, Neb., where it would link up with existing pipelines that run to the Gulf Coast.

U.S. Rice Farmers Turn Sustainability into Carbon Credits, with Microsoft as First Buyer

Inside Climate News | Posted on July 6, 2017

Microsoft bought carbon offsets from rice farmers in Arkansas, Mississippi and California who had worked for the better part of the last 10 years to implement conservation measures on their farms. Through a complicated measurement and verification process, these conservation steps ultimately translated to carbon offsets purchased by the software giant. The transaction this month was the first of its kind and, in the complex and controversial world of carbon markets, it represents a milestone for agriculture."Now we know what it takes to do this," said Debbie Reed, director of the Coalition on Agricultural Greenhouse Gases, a group that works with agricultural producers to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. "It's not symbolic, so much as proof-of-concept."For years, researchers, advocacy groups and private-sector environment-focused investment groups have eyed agriculture's potential contribution in carbon markets to help address climate change. But carbon trading is complex under any circumstances, and particularly so when the entities generating the offsets grow rice or corn or raise cows. Measuring emissions—or, rather, emissions reductions—accurately and consistently from agricultural sources can be more complicated than for wind energy or solar power projects.

Trump vows to ‘unleash’ American energy but unveils only modest new steps

The Washington Post | Posted on July 5, 2017

President Trump vowed to “unleash American energy” on Thursday, pledging to bolster the ailing nuclear industry, open up new offshore areas for drilling, and help seal deals for oil pipelines and coal exports.Riding a wave of shale drilling that doubled the country’s total oil and gas production during the Obama administration, Trump said: “We’re here today to usher in a new American energy policy, one that unlocks millions and millions of jobs and trillions of dollars in wealth.”But energy experts were not impressed with the measures Trump unveiled Thursday, saying they would have little effect.“We’re going to be an exporter,” he said. “We’re going to export energy all around the world, all around the globe.” And he celebrated “near limitless supplies of energy” in the United States, adding: “We are now on the cusp of a true energy revolution.”The United States exports liquefied natural gas (LNG) in tankers, natural gas through pipelines, and petroleum, though it remains a net importer of 4.8 million barrels a day of crude oil and refined petroleum products — about a quarter of total U.S. oil consumption.Trump said his administration would take steps to “to revive and expand our nuclear energy sector,” which he said “produces clean, renewable and emissions-free energy.”He didn’t describe those steps, saying that he awaits a “complete review.” But few expect the administration review to include a carbon tax, a policy that would greatly benefit nuclear energy and simultaneously acknowledge the problem of climate change.

What's Up with Ethanol Production Profits?

Farm Doc Daily | Posted on July 5, 2017

In a farmdoc daily article last week, we showed that biodiesel production profits in the U.S. had moved into the black in recent months, seemingly defying the typical pattern of losses in years following the expiration of the biodiesel tax credit. Given the anomalous movement in biodiesel production profits one wonders whether something similar has been happening to ethanol production. The U.S. ethanol production industry is coming off a good year in 2016. Net profits averaged $0.12 per gallon, about $0.05 higher than in 2015. In the following section, we examine trends in ethanol production profits in the first half of 2017. A model of a representative Iowa ethanol plant is used to track the profitability of ethanol production. It is the same basic model that has been used the last several years in numerous farmdoc daily articles on ethanol markets and policy. The model is meant to be representative of an "average" ethanol plant constructed in the last decade. There is certainly substantial variation in capacity and production efficiency across the industry and this should be kept in mind when viewing profit estimates from the model.  Net profits declined sharply in January 2017, moving as low as -$0.18 per gallon. Since that time, profits have recovered and peaked in recent weeks at $0.20 per gallon. The recovery of ethanol profits can be traced to a rise in ethanol prices that has slightly outpaced the rise in corn prices (Figure 2). The average profit to date in 2017, however, is only $0.01 per gallon. A significant factor pulling down ethanol profits is low DDGS prices, which have been below $100 per ton most of the time in 2017. These are some of the lowest prices of the last decade. So, 2017 to date has essentially been a breakeven year for U.S. ethanol producers. This is in contrast to the rosier picture for biodiesel production profits. However, if ethanol production profits in the last few weeks can be maintained for the rest of the year, full year 2017 profits could be on par with 2016. With a largely stagnant domestic consumption outlook, recovery will likely depend on developments with regard to ethanol exports. Figure 4 shows that exports through March have continued very strong, but Brazil, the second largest import customer of the U.S. is considering imposing import duties to staunch the flow of U.S. imports. This could be a major drag on ethanol prices and profits in the second half of the year. On the positive side, Mexico recently announced a change in regulations to allow 10 percent ethanol blends throughout the country except in three large cities.

US mayors pass resolution to target 100% renewable energy by 2035

Utility Dive | Posted on July 5, 2017

The U.S. Conference of Mayors (USCM) on Monday approved a resolution supporting a 100% renewable energy goal by 2035, and launched the Ready for 100 campaign to support the utilization of more clean power. The group of more than 250 U.S. mayors also passed resolutions to support vehicle electrification, energy efficiency grants and city-driven plans to reverse climate change. The resolutions are symbolic and represent statements of intent for city planning and work with federal and state governments. Interest in renewables is already running high in cities: A joint survey by USCM and the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions found almost 70% of responding cities already generate or purchase some clean energy, more than 20% are considering the option, and more than 60% are buying low-emissions vehicles for fleets.

Southern suspends work on Kemper coal gasification units

Utility Dive | Posted on July 5, 2017

Southern Co. is "immediately suspending start-up and operations activities" on the gasifier units of its Kemper County power plant, the company said in a release Wednesday.The 582 MW plant was designed to convert locally-mined coal into a synthetic gas and capture over half of its carbon emissions. But years of cost overruns and construction delays led Mississippi regulators to direct the utility to draw up a plan for the plant to run solely on natural gas, prompting Southern's decision.Mississippi Power, Southern's subsidiary in the state, will continue to operate the Kemper plant as a combined cycle natural gas facility. Shareholders have already lost $3.1 billion on the plant and the utility could be on the hook for $3.4 billion more if the utility cannot reach a settlement with regulator

Dakota Access security firm operated in ND without license, board says

The Bismarck Tribune | Posted on July 3, 2017

A North Dakota regulatory board has accused a security firm hired by the company that built the Dakota Access Pipeline of operating in the state without a license.In a complaint dated June 12, attorneys for the North Dakota Private Investigative and Security Board said the agency denied an application to James Patrick Reese, the founder of North Carolina-based TigerSwan, to become a licensed private security provider earlier this year. But Reese “and/or” the firm have “illegally continued to conduct private investigative and/or private security services in North Dakota following the denial of their application of licensure.”The complaint said TigerSwan “maintains roving security teams” to monitor valve sites in North Dakota, and the firm’s personnel are armed with semiautomatic rifles and sidearms “while engaging in security services.” The firm continues to provide private investigative services, including “monitoring of persons affiliated with the DAPL protests,” the complaint alleges.The board is asking a state district court for an injunction against TigerSwan and Reese and for an administrative fine for each violation they have allegedly committed. Providing private investigative or private security services without a current license issued by the board is a Class B misdemeanor under state law.