West Virginia Environmental Council in Midst of Legislative Mayhem

By Frank Young

Legislative Session Preparations:

The West Virginia Environmental Council (WVEC, aka “E-Council”) is, as its name suggests, a council or coalition of several environmental organizations whose general purposes include conservation of the natural resources of West Virginia and the region, and dedication to the improvement and preservation of the environment through education, grassroots organizing and coalition building, leadership development, and media outreach.

WVEC then, is primarily the lobbying arm of West Virginia’s organized environmental community.  WVEC lobbying activities include lobbying the state legislature as well as monitoring and advising, and hopefully educating, various agencies of government on appropriate administrative rules and procedures relating to the environment, and the carrying out of governmental duties to protect the environment from unhealthy and unwise exploitations.

WVEC annually develops what it loosely calls its “legislative priorities” for the following year’s regular 60 day session of the state legislature. Development of those priorities begins with polling of WVEC member organizations about their preferred items requiring legislative action.

But as the membership of the state legislature has become increasing conservative or reactionary with the elections of 2014 and 2016, every WVEC member group cautions that playing defense against pending but unknown “bad bills” that are introduced is becoming the most important and time consuming task of WVEC lobbyists.  These “bad” bills are usually promoted by well funded industry groups and their lobbyists.

For 2018 the couple dozen or so initially suggested lobbying priorities has been distilled and combined into the broad categories of (1) Water Defense, (2) Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, (3) requiring affirmative determination of the health impacts of Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) rules, and (4) Property Rights Issues. Refining further, WVEC’s top three priorities for 2018 are: (1) to defend air and water, (2) to rein in fossil fuels, and (3) promote renewable energy and energy efficiency.

To actually walk the halls of the state capital building to lobby and inform legislators, WVEC has hired experienced progressive lobbyists Karan Ireland and Crystal Good. Both Karan and Crystal were initiated into volunteer lobbying in response to the Kanawha Valley water contamination crisis in January, 2014.

WV E-Council’s 2018 lobby team will also include WVEC board members and other unpaid citizen lobbyists, as well as, for certain issues, lobbyists for other allied organizations.


The Current Session:

As this report is being written, the state legislature is in its 4th week of the 2018 session. To date 1,331 bills have been introduced. By the time you read this many of those bills will have already been deemed “dead”- at least for the 2018 session. Many others will be “stuck in committees” and so will never make it to the Senate or House floor for a vote. So far only one bill has actually been passed by both houses of the legislature- a relatively minor bill relating to eliminating certain film production tax credits. So early in the session things move pretty slowly overall.

The following brief discussion of some environmental related bills that have been introduced in either the Senate or the House is mostly an exercise in “flash in time” reporting.           That’s because from this point on a bill’s status can change quickly. Some bills will be rejected by their assigned committees. Other bills will be approved as introduced, or modified (amended) by the committee(s) before being either rejected or approved and sent on the Senate and or House floor. The legislative committee system can be arbitrary and disappointing- depending on the whims of committee Chairs and House and Senate leaders who more or less direct committee Chairs based on their own preferred bill outcomes.

The two bills that have generated the most environmental concern to date are Senate Bill 270 and House Bill 4182. These bills would allow commercial timbering/ logging in West Virginia State Parks. The stated purpose of these bills would be to sell State Park timber for monies that would be used to perform a backlog of State Park maintenance.  Introduced by request of the governor during the first week of the session, these two bills have generated hordes of citizen protest opposition in the form of thousands of phone calls and letters to legislators and to the governor, newspaper editorials, and letters to the editors of newspapers statewide. WVEC’s current tally of public comment on logging in State Parks is that opponents of State Park logging outnumber supporters by about ten to one. These bills are currently in Natural Resource and Finance committees.

House Bill 4268 is the “forced pooling” bill.  Named the Co-tenancy Modernization and Majority Protection Act, this bill provides that use and development of oil and gas mineral property that has been consented to by three fourths of the oil and gas owners is permissible, is not waste, and is not a trespass. In other words, the bill would force an owner of oil and gas minerals beneath the surface of a property to allow development (extraction) of those minerals without the consent of the owner(s).

Senate Bill 410 would direct the appointment of an “industry advocate” within the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). The bill establishes powers and duties of the industry advocate, and provides for salary and staff for the “industry advocate”.

Ironically, House Bill 2909 would abolish the office of Environmental Advocate at Department of Environmental Protection.  Yes, you read correctly. SB 410 would appoint an “industry advocate” while HB 2909 would abolish the DEP’s only official Environmental Advocate.  Some of us suggest that the entire DEP ought to be the Environmental Advocate. But others, including current DEP Director Austin Caperton, insist that the DEP should be an agency that holds out a big, green “Go” sign to applicants for industrial pollution permits.

Am I putting words into the Director’s mouth? NO! At a recent environmental conference this writer heard with my own ears Director Caperton brag that he had turned the DEP agency’s “culture” from one of holding up a STOP sign to industry to a culture of green lighting any reasonable project. And guess who decides what is reasonable? Yes, industry’s hand-picked (via our coal operator Governor, Jim Justice) DEP Director decides what is “reasonable”.

What You Can Do to Help

Even if it is a cliché it is still true:  the Legislature is supposed to reflect the will of the people.  If you have an opinion on logging in State Parks, it needs to know.

The West Virginia Legislature can be a fast paced and confusing place.  Bills get referred to different committees in both the House and the Senate.  They are put on the agenda for votes.  They may go to another committee for votes.  It can  all move very quickly, particularly as the session moves forward.

The Highlands Voice only comes out monthly.  Because of this, it cannot hope to have the latest information.

But all is not lost.  There are still ways to find out what is going on and whom you should contact.

One option is to could consult the Legislature’s website, wvlegislature.gov.   There is a place to click for BILL STATUS.  You can type in the bill number 270 or 4182.  (These are actually HB 4182 and SB 270; Senate Bills can have one, two or three digits.  House Bills have four.  By the number of digits the computer knows if you want a house bill or a Senate Bill so you don’t have to type in HB or SB).  The computer will tell you what committee the bill has been assigned to, whether the committee has voted or not, whether the bill has been sent to the House or Senate floor, etc.  It is always helpful to contact members of different committees who are considering the bill or, if the Committee has already voted, your own Delegate or Senator.

A second option is to contact the Environmental Council at wvecouncil.org or one of the lobbyists, Karan Ireland or Crystal Good.  They can tell you the status of the bills and suggest Senators or Delegates it would be useful to contact.  If you want to go to Charleston to talk to Senators or Delegates they would be glad to help you.  The Environmental Council also publishes a weekly on-line legislative update.

Finally, you could go to West Virginia Rivers.  It has a special section of its website devoted just to this legislation, http://wvrivers.org/2018/01/sosparks/ with lots of information.