Is Virginia Tech’s Coal Center Director Evading Questions to Shield Donors?

Is Virginia Tech’s Coal Center Director Evading Questions to Shield Donors?

(Photo credit: Kingsport Times News)

Professor Michael Karmis is evading basic questions about whether clean energy experts were consulted in his critical cost-benefit analysis of how Virginia can meet its federal Clean Power Plan (CPP) goals.  This raises the possibility that Dr. Karmis, director of the Virginia Center for Coal and Energy Research, is shielding donors from legitimate public scrutiny.

The cost-benefit analysis was mandated by the legislature, is relied upon by the Governor, and is included in the Virginia Energy Plan. As we’ve reported before, Karmis is a curious choice to author this foundational document. The Clean Power Plan gives states wide flexibility on how to meet standards. Logically, such an analysis should consider a variety of solutions to cut power plant pollution, including fast-growing renewable energy sources that have created 290,000 jobs in neighboring mid-Atlantic states in recent years.

Is Virginia Tech’s Coal Center Director Evading Questions to Shield Donors?Yet, Karmis’s Coal Center is heavily oriented to only one, highly-polluting energy source – coal. The Center’s website lists a number of significant players in the coal industry as Sponsors that provide “generous financial contributions.” High ranking members of those same companies serve on the Center’s Advisory Board. Of its eight in-house “experts,” seven have strong financial ties to the coal industry – but none to clean energy sources.

State law mandated that Karmis’s Center be consulted, but not be the lead author of the analysis – a big difference in the level of power a coal-centric perspective would have in driving the process.

Evasion of Basic Questions

On Oct. 9, Karmis told me by phone in my only conversation with him, just as he was about to leave for a “site visit” to a West Virginia coal mine, that he had consulted renewable energy experts, but was unable to say who they were due to a nondisclosure agreement (NDA) signed with Virginia’s Dept. of Mines, Minerals and Energy (DMME). Professor Karmis said that if DMME’s Energy Director Al Christopher, who “coordinated” the study, gave him permission to tell me who he consulted with, then he would be “glad to tell you.” Unfortunately, several subsequent attempts to obtain that permission from Mr. Christopher went unanswered. Here’s an example:

email Scott re permission

The Plot Thickens

A Freedom of Information Act request sent to DMME on Sept. 29, 2014, produced records showing that an unusual non-disclosure agreement was the result of a request from a Mr. Hayes Fromme to Mr. Christopher. Fromme is an advisor to the Secretary of Commerce and Trade, and the McAuliffe Administration’s point person in creating the Energy Plan. The purpose was to prevent “outside people seeing the study prior to release.”

email Hayes requests NDA

Professor Karmis, on the other hand, could see reasons of his own for a non-disclosure agreement. In the following Sept. 15 email, Karmis’s top aide John Craynon explains Professor Karmis had “already had a contact” about the cost-benefit analysis his Coal Center and hand-picked consultants were producing and wanted an NDA to “minimize what we need to say.”

email re Karmis wants NDA

In response to a FOIA I sent to Virginia Tech on Oct. 3, the justification for not providing me with the information I requested was the non-disclosure agreement.

email VT Norris re NDA

Major Questions Remain

Is Professor Karmis shielding his Center’s coal industry donors from scrutiny about their involvement with the analysis of how Virginia can meet its Federal Clean Power Plan goals? If so, this is a highly inappropriate action.

It raises important questions about who hired Dr. Karmis to author the document, if others were allowed to bid, and how much Professor Karmis’s Coal Center was paid?  More on that soon.

Scott Peterson

Executive Director

Why Did the McAuliffe Administration Hire Dr. Michael Karmis?

Why Did the McAuliffe Administration Hire Michael E. Karmis?Earlier this year, the Virginia legislature passed a bill that requires the McAuliffe Administration to evaluate the costs and benefits to the state of complying with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan. That plan would require Virginia to reduce carbon emissions by 37.5% by 2030 from 2012 levels. Carbon pollution from such sources as coal-burning power plants are fueling climate change and resulting sea level rise in areas such as southeastern Virginia.

The Administration tasked its Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy (DMME) to produce the analysis. DMME hired Michael E. Karmis, PhD.

Professor Karmis is a curious choice. He is considered the state’s leading academic expert in coal, with an international reputation. He is the director of Virginia Tech’s Virginia Center for Coal and Energy Research, and founder of the Appalachian Research Initiative for the Environment Sciences, whose partners include leading lights of the coal industry: Alpha Natural Resources, Arch Coal, Cliffs Natural Resources, MEPCO, Natural Resource Partners, Patriot Coal Corporation, and TECO. Karmis is also a director of The Alpha Foundation for the Improvement of Mine Safety and Health, Inc. based in Bristol, Virginia. He is an active consultant to the mining industry. Karmis is the go-to man if you want to know just about anything related to coal in the Commonwealth.   

But is Michael Karmis the man to conduct an impartial analysis of the costs and benefits of complying with the EPA plan? Especially considering that the EPA plan calls for sharply reducing carbon pollution from existing coal-fired plants that generate electricity? Were other less invested in the fossil fuel industry even considered?

Does Karmis have a conflict of interest? 

Checks and Balances Project Virginia FOIA

Click on this image to see the FOIA

To learn more about Professor Karmis’ contract to produce the analysis, I filed, on behalf of the Checks and Balances Project, a Virginia Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request with DMME. I requested copies of any and all records, including meetings, emails, and phone logs, related to the contract and a host of Virginia officials.

With sea levels rising faster in southeast Virginia than in any other area along the East Coast, Virginia deserves an unbiasded look at the costs and even greater benefits of meeting the EPA’s standards. Unfortunately, an independent assessment from someone who makes his living as a “clean coal” expert is questionable.

Hopefully, the FOIA I filed yesterday will shed some light.

 

Scott Peterson

Executive Director, The Checks and Balances Project