Moutaintop Removal Ordinance Reviewed by Regional Utilities Committee

On Thursday, September 12th, Gainesville Loves Mountains (GLM) was given our first public opportunity to engage with Gainesville Regional Utilities (GRU) and members of the City Commission regarding our proposed ordinance to end GRU’s purchases of mountaintop removal (MTR) coal.

We had a great showing, with more than 25 GLM supporters present at the standing-room only meeting. In fact, the best part of the meeting was seeing all of the amazing, articulate folks who turned out to support our ordinance. With a coalition like this one, we can’t lose!

Meeting Highlights

Our ordinance did not get referred from the Regional Utilities Committee onward to the full Commission. While Commissioner Lauren Poe was a great advocate for us, Commissioner Chase and Mayor Braddy were more sympathetic to GRU’s concerns and worried about our ordinance’s potential impact on rates, so could not offer their support.

However, the consensus amongst the Commissioners and Mayor was that Gainesville Loves Mountains (GLM) will work with Commissioner Poe and GRU to craft something that we can all potentially agree on. Once we have worked through negotiations with Commissioner Poe and GRU, we will bring the final product forward to the full City Commission for their consideration.

We also learned at the meeting that GRU will likely not be making any more coal purchases until April 2014 at the earliest, so we have some breathing room. We will keep our supporters posted as the process moves forward. In the meantime, please continue to contact the City Commission (citycomm@cityofgainesville.org) and Bob Hunzinger at GRU (hunzingerre@gru.com) to let them know that this is important to you and is not an issue that will be going away anytime soon.

GRU’s Recommendation on MTR Ordinance

Sept 12, 2013 RUC Meeting Agenda

GRU’s John Stanton started off by presenting their objections to our ordinance, which are, in summary:

1) The definition of MTR that we use in our ordinance is overly-broad.

2) Verification of the sources of GRU’s coal would be costly to implement, if even possible.

3) Compliance with our ordinance could cost GRU $400,000-$2,000,000/year, a cost that would be passed on to GRU customers.

4) GRU would be the only coal-fired generating utility in the US with this type of restriction, thus putting the utility at a competitive disadvantage from a cost perspective when compared with other generating utilities.

In short, GRU opposes our ordinance and asks that they be allowed to “continue to follow the current process of identifying the mining methods used when procuring coal including MTR production and provide an annual report to the RUC.”

After considering GRU’s objections, Commissioner Chase and Mayor Braddy were unable to support our proposed ordinance, primarily based upon concerns of increased costs to GRU ratepayers.

“I cannot support anything that adds $.01 more to utility bills.” -Mayor Braddy

Both Mayor Braddy & Commissioner Chase also seemed to resonate with GRU’s concerns about verification. We hope that Mayor Braddy and Commissioner Chase, in particular, will join us in a healthy skepticism of some of GRU’s claims, especially given their campaign promises of not taking such claims at face value. But we do take GRU’s concerns seriously and want to make sure that they are addressed.

Many of GLM’s members have volunteered as energy auditors for low-income homes throughout our community. We take the allegation of increased costs to ratepayers very seriously and intend to fully investigate this issue.

Following Mr. Stanton, Jason Fults gave a presentation on behalf of GLM. He was followed by a stream of other volunteers who also supported our ordinance. In specific response to GRU’s concerns:

1) MTR definition

We would be happy to replace our current definition of MTR with “Surface-Mined Coal from Central Appalachia,” as many of our Appalachian allies have suggested. Such a definition would also make verification and compliance a much simpler process.

This very specific definition would, however, significantly reduce the range of coal procurement options available to GRU, as more and more Appalachian mining operations have switched to surface-mining in recent years. Alternately, we would be willing to work with GRU to arrive at an agreed-upon definition of MTR.

2) Source of purchased coal verification

We will definitely need greater clarification from GRU on the verification issue. For the past two years, GRU has not only been reporting the MTR content of their coal to us, they’ve actually reported which specific mines their coal is coming from. Our ordinance has not asked for any higher level of verification than they have already been providing.

We are certainly not asking GRU to dispatch staff to every coal tipple in every holler of Appalachia to inspect the coal being loaded on the trains, nor would we turn back a trainload of coal if there were found to be a few pieces of MTR coal inside. We simply want to monitor GRU’s coal suppliers as best as is currently possible within the industry, and to send a message up the supply chain that we find MTR to be an unacceptable mining practice.

3) Increased costs

On the issue of cost, we will need greater explanation from GRU on these estimates. GRU’s Thomas Foxx reported to the RUC earlier this year that when they’d studied the issue a few years ago, not using MTR coal would cost GRU an additional $300,000/year.

Therefore, we would like to ask GRU for more detail as to what their cost estimates are based on, what they would actually mean for the average ratepayer, and why the projected cost has gone up so much, particularly as reliance upon Central Appalachian (CAPP) coal has declined and coal prices have remained low.

It may be that compliance with our ordinance would raise costs slightly to ratepayers, in which case we’d like to have as good an idea as possible how much those increases would be so that citizens can make an informed decision.

4) GRU as a leader in renewable energy

GRU has certainly not demonstrated a hesitancy about being among the first in the nation when it comes to biomass or solar generation, or award-winning energy efficiency programs. We see no reason to shy away from ending our relationship with MTR simply because it hasn’t yet been done elsewhere. Besides, other utilities have weighed in on this issue.

One of GRU’s competitors, and in fact the largest utility in the nation, Duke Energy, released a statement a couple of years ago announcing their preference for non-MTR coal stating,“…our goal is to strike the right balance between economic, environmental and social considerations.”

In summary, we stand behind the substance of our ordinance and desire for its passage. While we certainly hope that the Commission will pass our proposed ordinance, or some version of it, we believe that GRU’s recommendation, which is to continue identifying the mining methods used and reporting on that to the Commission after the fact, is inadequate.

At the least, we request a formal statement from our Commission in direct opposition to MTR coal mining and directing our utility to avoid its use wherever practicable. We also request direct citizen oversight into the coal procurement process, during the process, not after, perhaps via the Gainesville Energy Advisory Committee (GEAC) or another similarly-empowered citizen body.

5) Rate payer struggles

Finally, we plan to take Commissioner Chase & Mayor Braddy at their word when they speak of their sincere concern for Gainesville’s low-income residents who are struggling to pay their utility bills. GLM has been researching this issue for months and we have concrete suggestions to help address high utility bills in low-income communities.

We had a productive meeting with the Mayor Monday morning on the topic of energy efficiency and jobs creation, and we also received a sincere and encouraging follow-up message from Commissioner Chase the day after our presentation.

As this dialogue moves forward, we request of all our local leaders that they do not perpetuate divisive narratives in the civic arena that force people to choose between dirty energy and high utility bills. Energy efficiency can help us convert to a clean energy community with relatively low utility bills.

What’s next?

Moving forward, we will need everyone’s support to make Gainesville a greener, more efficient community. If you have feedback or resources to offer, or would like to volunteer with us in any capacity, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.

Post authored by Jason Fults

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