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“Jobs Alliance” Backed by Coal Giant Loses Bid To Stop West Virginia Natural Gas Plant

A group backed by Murray Energy has tried to block gas plants in West Virginia. The state Supreme Court rejected arguments against one plant, saying it will help the local economy.

The gas industry’s growth has largely come at the expense of the state’s coal industry, and some coal loyalists like Murray Energy founder and CEO Robert E. Murray have spoken against the continued growth of gas. (REUTERS/Ramin Rahimian)

This article was produced in partnership with the Charleston Gazette-Mail, which is a member of the ProPublica Local Reporting Network.

A group funded by coal giant Murray Energy has lost its latest court battle to block construction of new natural gas power plants in West Virginia.

The state Supreme Court on Thursday affirmed the state Public Service Commission’s approval of Brooke County Power LLC’s gas plant, turning aside objections by the Ohio Valley Jobs Alliance and saying the plant’s developers had “substantially complied” with state power plant siting rules.

Separately, the jobs alliance appears to have abandoned challenges of gas plant permits issued to the Brooke County Power plant and another in Harrison County. The group’s lawyers did not file appeals of permit approvals prior to the legal deadline for doing so, developers and supporters of the plants said this week.

In September, the Charleston Gazette-Mail and ProPublica detailed how Murray Energy, one of the nation’s largest coal companies, had been quietly funding the jobs alliance’s litigation aimed at stopping the natural gas power plants proposed for Brooke and Harrison counties and another in Marshall County.

The legal battles come at a time when the state’s natural gas industry is flourishing. Developers of the gas plants say they would put the gas to work locally, generating electricity in West Virginia, rather than piping the fuel out of state. They say the plants would provided more jobs and revenues for West Virginia.

But the gas industry’s growth has largely come at the expense of the state’s coal industry, and some coal loyalists like Murray Energy founder and CEO Robert E. Murray have spoken against the continued growth of gas.

With its legal fees covered at least in part by Murray Energy, the jobs alliance — known locally as the OVJA — has challenged permits issued by the state’s Public Service Commission and the Air Quality Board for the facilities. The OVJA has cited environmental regulations that are similar to those that Robert Murray has railed against when those rules were aimed at coal.

One such legal challenge, aimed at the Moundsville Power plant proposed for Marshall County, was resolved in favor of the developers. But litigation took so long that investors got nervous and the project may not be built, supporters say.

The Brooke County Power plant case was the first to reach West Virginia’s Supreme Court. In its 15-page ruling, the court said that the Public Service Commission should have required Brooke County Power to submit a more detailed analysis of the impacts of tax breaks being given to the project. But the court also said that analysis “is but one small piece of the larger and extremely extensive application.”

“Given the current economic condition of West Virginia and Brooke County, in particular, it is apparent that the project will substantially and positively impact the state and local economies,” the court ruling said.

Drew Dorn, president of Energy Solutions Consortium, the company proposing the Brooke plant, said he was pleased with the court decision.

“We are excited to clear another important hurdle to bring this project and the huge economic benefits it will deliver to West Virginia,” Dorn said in a prepared statement.

Steve White, director of the Affiliated Construction Trades Foundation, a coalition of construction unions whose members would build the gas plants, said he wants construction to start soon.

“We hope this ends the delays caused by unwarranted appeals and that this and other projects can be built as soon as possible,” White said. “With this decision and no further appeals we see a green light to get to work on these projects.”

A lawyer for the OVJA did not respond to a request for comment. A Murray Energy spokesman declined to comment. OVJA leader Jim Thomas has previously said that other than legal fees, Murray Energy does not provide any funding to the group.

The Charleston Gazette-Mail and ProPublica want to tell the story of the changing landscape in West Virginia, and how coal and natural gas are impacting it. West Virginians: Tell us how your community is changing. Call or text us at 347-244-2134, or email us: [email protected].

Ken Ward Jr. covers the environment, workplace safety and energy, with a focus on coal and natural gas, for the Charleston Gazette-Mail. Email him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @kenwardjr.

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