How tree sitters hope to delay and block the Mountain Valley Pipeline (Blue Ridge Outdoors, Belt Magazine)

Since late February, a series of tree sitters and their allies have placed their bodies in the path of the Mountain Valley Pipeline, a 303-mile interstate line intended to move natural gas from the Marcellus and Utica shale formations to markets in the Southeast.

I’ve covered this story a few different times in a few different places.

For background, read my 2015 Roanoke Business story on the various pipeline proposals and my 2014 Grist story about how craft brewers were lining up against them.

The tree sits first went up on Peters Mountain, beside the Appalachian Trail near the Virginia/West Virginia line, in late February. In early April, a mother and daughter stationed themselves in trees on their land in Bent Mountain, and later that month, tree-sitters went up in Franklin County, to the east.

My first story on the tree sits appeared in Blue Ridge Outdoors in late April and covered what had happened up to that point.

In early May, however, Red and Minor Terry, the mother-daughter pair on Bent Mountain, were forced down by a court order. I live-tweeted their descent and collected those tweets at Medium. Another story also was published by Blue Ridge Outdoors.

When I was writing that first story for Blue Ridge Outdoors, a guy said to me, “Those people are way too late. They should have been fighting it years ago.” Thing is, the pipeline opponents HAVE been fighting for years, and they’ve more or less done everything right along the way: Packing open houses, filing public comments that right time, activating opposition around assets such as the Appalachian Trail, collecting scientific data to refute the pipeline’s filings, etc.

So I wrote a story for Belt Magazine specifically for the Rust Belt, Appalachian & Midwestern communities that stand in the paths of more than 100 pipelines planned for the near future, many of them moving fracked natural gas from the Marcellus & Utica shale formations. What can they learn from the tree sits & the broader fight against the Mountain Valley Pipeline? You can read that story here.

Meanwhile, the battle between the tree-sitters and MVP construction crews continues. The Franklin County tree-sitters were forced down by a federal court on Memorial Day, leaving one original tree-sitters on Peters Mountain, plus a nearby aerial blockade of a National Forest access road that was blocked for more than 50 days by one woman who has since been replaced by another.

The odds against stopping the pipeline remain long, but the sitters are buying time for a half-dozen or more court proceedings to play out. The story is still unfinished.

Don Blankenship has turned WV’s Republican primary for U.S. Senate into a 3-way race (New Republic)

When he first entered the West Virginia Republican primary for U.S. Senate, I kind of wrote off Don Blankenship’s campaign as an effort at rehabbing his image after a year in prison. But now, five weeks out from the primary election, it appears that the former apex predator of blood capitalism is in the hunt.

Read my story about Blankenship’s background & the current moment at The New Republic.

Don Blankenship’s entry into the GOP US Senate campaign scrambles the race (Blue Ridge Outdoors)

The 2018 GOP primary for West Virginia’s US Senate seat was turning into another Mitch McConnell/Steve Bannon proxy fight. Then one of the most hated men in West Virginia announced his candidacy.

I think Don Blankenship is using this mostly to grind his ax against MSHA, incumbent US Sen Joe Manchin & the federal government. Even so, he’s injecting a unpredictable element of chaos into what had been a seemingly straight-forward primary.

Read the story at Blue Ridge Outdoors.

Can a new kind of West Virginia Democrat emerge from its 3rd congressional district? (The New Republic)

West Virginia’s 3rd congressional district went 73/23 for Trump over Clinton last year, but Democrat Nick Rahall held that seat up through 2014. With the seat open again (Evan Jenkins is running for Senate), I wrote about how Democrats are trying to engage voters and address the real challenges of poverty & economic disruption there (including at least two who are doing so by running for the Republican nomination).

My story for the New Republic looks at several present and past Democrats in the district (including some current Republicans) who are now maneuvering for the open seat. The story focuses largely on Richard Ojeda, a veteran and state senator who supported Trump in 2016 but is building a campaign that combines his brawling anti-establishment style with a generally progressive platform.

Summer stories for 100 Days in Appalachia

From mid-June through mid-August I worked as a contributing editor for 100 Days in Appalachia.

I posted a short thread on Twitter about my departure from the digital publication.

I contributed a number of stories to 100 Days in Appalachia through the summer:

Trump’s Proposed Infrastructure Improvements Remain a Windy Road for Commuters in Appalachia

Can ‘Berniecrats’ Win in Appalachia?

How a Rash of Tick-Borne Illnesses is Challenging Appalachian Health Systems

How the Annual Remote Area Medical Clinic in Wise, Virginia, Became Ground Zero for Parachute Journalists Writing about Healthcare in Appalachia

What Congress Can Learn from West Virginia About Tax Reform and Budgets

With Trump, West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice Announces he’s Becoming a Republican. Again.

How a 40-Year-Old Federal Law Literally Changed the Appalachian Landscape

Appalachia Can’t Close the Health Disparity Gap Until it Fixes its Hospitals

Probably my favorite story for 100 Days involved visiting Camp Lincoln, a Goldwater-era conservative leadership camp near Webster, WV, where I watched teenagers debate recreational marijuana and practice political maneuvers to introduce last-minute legislation and push it into law.

If I squinted, I could see the future.

100 days in, here’s what Donald Trump has meant for Appalachia (Vice)

Donald Trump dominated Appalachia on Election Day, 2016, and he wasted no time in loosening regulations on the region’s coal industry. In the big picture, however, the regulatory shifts mean an extension of the status quo.

His proposed budget, however, which would gut the Appalachian Regional Commission, the Economic Development Administration, the USDA’s infrastructure budget and other programs crucial to economic development efforts, may well wipe out any job gains from the coal industry.

For Vice, I tried to sort out the impact of federal actions on Appalachia under Trump. Read it here.

How a billionaire Democrat could win election as governor in one of Trump’s strongest states (Politico Magazine)

When the billionaire entered the primary, longtime politicos scoffed. He had no political experience, had switched parties repeatedly over the previous decades, and had a spotty track record in business. Yet he vanquished his establishment candidates in the primary and headed into the general election running an unorthodox campaign based around his personality.

It’s not Donald Trump, of course, but Jim Justice, West Virginia’s only billionaire and owner of the Greenbrier Resort and the largest privately held coal company east of the Mississippi River. Justice stands as a figure simultaneously beloved—he coaches high-school basketball and bailed out the historic Greenbrier when it faced potential closure—and reviled, as his coal company has developed a reputation for not paying debts, taxes or environmental obligations.

Read more about Justice, his Republican opponent Bill Cole, and what may be the weirdest undercard election in America at Politico Magazine.

The coal depression’s downstream effects (Roanoke Business)

The combination of competition from cheap natural gas, a decline in overseas construction and enforcement of federal clean air regulations have sent the U.S. coal industry into a tailspin.

It’s not just miners who are suffering, however, but also the various downstream businesses that support the coal industry. For Roanoke Business, I wrote about how railroads, equipment manufacturers and other support businesses are dealing with the slump.

Read the story in the April issue of Roanoke Business.

Appalachian Power’s big shift from coal (Roanoke Business)

In late October, Appalachian Power President Charles Patton made headlines in West Virginia when he told a summit of energy executives that coal just isn’t coming back, even if federal rules on power plants get rolled back.

Sure, that may be conventional wisdom in much of the country, but this speech came from the president and COO of Central Appalachia’s biggest electric utility, which has relied on coal as its dominant source of generation since its inception in 1911.

Two weeks later, as he walked into Appalachian Power’s offices in Roanoke, Virginia—his news-making remarks were delivered in the West Virginia community of the same name—he acknowledged that his comments were not what the room wanted to hear. After all, the economy in southern West Virginia and southwest Virginia was built around coal mining, and many there today still fervently hope that a coal comeback will fuel a new round of economic prosperity.

The problem for them is that, even as elected officials still continue to fight the so-called “war on coal” in state houses and on Capitol Hill, Appalachian Power already is taking action that will only cement the move away from coal when it comes to producing electricity. That’s not to say the utility won’t continue to rely on its existing fleet of coal-burning power plants, but, according to a document filed with the Virginia State Corporation Commission, but Appalachian Power has begun a substantial pivot away from the fossil fuel that defined its first century. The Integrated Resource Plan (IRP) filed with the SCC on July 1 includes a dramatic decrease in its use of coal, as well as a corresponding increase in natural gas and renewable energy such as wind and solar.

Read more in “Old King Coal Dethroned,” my special report for Roanoke Business.