West Virginia fossil fuel industry leaders see untapped potential in the state Public Energy Authority.
“If modernized, this authority could be a player in energy development in this state,” Gas and Oil Association of West Virginia Executive Director Charlie Burd said.
State code gives the Public Energy Authority broad powers for whenever it may become active again, such as buying, leasing and issuing bonds to build electric power or natural gas transmission projects, and representing the state regarding “national initiatives” and “international marketing activities” that concern the mineral development industry.
The Public Energy Authority Board, as constituted under state code, is to consist of the secretaries of the departments of Commerce and Environmental Protection, and the director of the state Economic Development Authority, along with four members appointed by the governor with Senate approval.
The authority went dormant in the 2010s. The term of the last governor appointee to the board expired in June 2012, according to both the Governor’s Office and the Secretary of State’s website.
But the authority got briefly pushed back into prominence in this year’s state legislative session by Senate Bill 542, West Virginia Coal Association and United Mine Workers of America-backed legislation that would have required power producers to file compliance plans every three years with the Public Energy Authority specifying their fuel supply and how 2019 coal consumption levels would be maintained.
That provision got stripped from the version of the bill that the Legislature ultimately passed, but Coal Association President Chris Hamilton still views the authority as a valuable tool waiting to be used.
“It would be a natural place for these proposed coal-to-liquid plants, advanced carbon technologies and coal alternatives — for those groups to submit their proposals to,” Hamilton said.
The authority has the power to enter into management contracts with second parties to operate any electric power, gas transmission or other related energy project, either during construction or permanent operation. It can finance electric power or natural gas transmission projects by making secured loans to provide funds to buy or build those projects. It can also take property through eminent domain.
The Governor’s Office said it could not find any records responsive to a Freedom of Information Act request filed by the Gazette-Mail seeking any annual reports provided by the authority to the Governor’s Office since 2010 as required by the law establishing the authority.
Industry leaders recall that the authority’s impact was limited prior to it going dormant, and state lawmakers said they had never heard of it during legislative meetings on SB 542.
The authority was missing in action amid the coal industry’s decline in the 2010s, and Hamilton sees a void to fill.
Hamilton would like the authority to share oversight of the state’s coal-fired power generating facilities with the state Public Service Commission. Another provision removed from the final version of Senate Bill 542 would have directed the Public Energy Authority to coordinate with the Public Service Commission to review electric utilities’ integrated resource plans, documents which the commission already to be filed every five years identifying the type, amount and timing of resources utilities say they need to meet expected electricity demand over a long-term period.
The version of SB 542 that did pass requires electric utilities to keep coal-fired power plants owned by public electric utilities to keep at least 30 days of coal supply under contract for the lifespan of those plants, effective July 9.
“There’s a lot of opportunity to be harnessed through the Public Energy Authority,” Hamilton said.
Burd thinks that an active, supportive Public Energy Authority could have better positioned West Virginia to help save the Atlantic Coast Pipeline that would have transported natural gas supplies from West Virginia to public utilities in Virginia and North Carolina.
“It creates a level of enthusiasm that, hey, wait a minute, the state of West Virginia is fully committed behind the development and construction of this pipeline,” Burd said.
The Legislature approved a resolution expressing support for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline in April — nine months after its developers canceled the project amid mounting legal challenges to the project’s federal and state permits that caused project costs to soar.
The state code establishing the Public Energy Authority observes that, “with all due regard to the protection of the environment and husbandry of the natural resources of this state, the health, happiness, safety, right of gainful employment and general welfare of the citizens of this state” will be advanced by coal-fired generation and natural gas and “other energy” projects.
But former authority board member Allan Tweddle, a Charleston-based industrial engineer, would want any reboot of the board to make what he sees as much needed updates to the state’s energy portfolio.
“This body, from my understanding, was to stay on top of where energy is going, and if there are problems in our energy industry, what can we do about it?” said Tweddle, a clean energy advocate. “ … What sort of thoughtful approaches can be taken to energy, where it is and where it’s going? I wish that was there now, because we’re being left behind.”