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Accusing GOP of ‘political showmanship,’ Cooper’s office seeks public records on pipeline probe [The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.)]

Dec. 12–RALEIGH — The months-long legal spat over the Atlantic Coast Pipeline between Republican lawmakers and Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper took an unexpected turn Wednesday when Cooper’s office requested public records from the legislators in a bid to expose the political machinations behind their planned investigation of him, just hours before the legislators hired a private eye firm to start investigating Cooper.

Cooper sent his public records request Wednesday, coinciding with a legislative subcommittee public hearing to interview a trio of veteran investigators and hire their firm, Eagle Intel Services, at a rate of $100 an hour. Cooper’s letter also said that he would respond by Dec. 20 to the roughly two dozen questions the lawmakers have been awaiting responses to since February.

The GOP lawmakers want to get to the bottom of a $57.8 million mitigation fund the Atlantic Coast Pipeline agreed to create at the same time the $6 billion project received a key state permit last January from the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality. The fund had specifically designated Cooper, or someone he delegated, as being in charge of the money.

Cooper’s office has consistently denied that the funding was a condition of issuing the pipeline permit. His staff has said the mitigation funding was intended to be spent on economic development and environmental protections in areas disrupted by the pipeline construction.

“Your conduct in this matter has not been one of serious oversight but of political showmanship,” Cooper’s chief of staff, Kristi Jones, wrote to the subcommittee co-chairs Sen. Harry Brown, a Republican from Onslow County, and Rep. Dean Arp, a Union County Republican, on Wednesday. “It leads me to believe that you are not looking for answers but rather intend to use these hearings and proposed hiring of an outside investigator to try to score political points.”

Just weeks after the fund became public, the legislature passed a law to take the fund away from Cooper and transferred the $57.8 million for spending on schools near the planned route of the pipeline in eight North Carolina counties. The lawmakers kept the issue alive by creating a special subcommittee to investigate how the fund was created. On Wednesday, that subcommittee hired three private investigators to begin interviewing the gubernatorial staffers and agency employees involved in issuing the state permit and in negotiating the terms of the mitigation fund.

Cooper’s public records request echoes the questions that lawmakers are asking him. He is seeking all communications pertaining to the creation of the special subcommittee, to the subsequent transfer of the $57.8 million, and to any discussion of potential political benefits from conducting the investigation.

During their introduction at Wednesday’s hearing, the investigators said they are unbiased professionals, not political lackeys.

“We don’t have a dog in this fight,” investigator Thomas Beers told the lawmakers. “We’re not political people. We don’t hold office. We’ve never run for office.”

Beers has more than 29 years experience as an agent of the Internal Revenue Service. A fellow investigator, S. Kevin Greene, recently retired from the IRS after 29 years. And investigator Frank Brostrom had spent 27 years with the Federal Bureau of Investigation before retiring in in 2017. The three have experience investigating public corruption, financial fraud, money laundering and organized crime, among other criminal activity.

The Atlantic Coast Pipeline is being jointly developed by Charlotte-based Duke Energy and Richmond, Va.-based Dominion Energy to import natural gas from fracking fields in Pennsylvania and West Virginia. The project has begun tree clearing, grading and other preparatory work, but construction was indefinitely halted this month by a federal court order suspending a federal permit.

Lawmakers aren’t the only ones calling for an investigation. Several environmental organizations that oppose the Atlantic Coast Pipeline have expressed alarm over the mitigation fund, saying the amount of money involved and the timing of the permit pose an ethical conflict of interest for the Governor.

“If Governor Cooper had responded to records requests made pursuant to North Carolina law, we might not be where we are today,” said Therese Vick, a regional director with the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League, said by email after the hearing. “Impacted communities and landowners deserve to know the truth about the permitting process for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and how decisions were made. If it takes an investigation, well, that’s what it takes.”

Sen. Floyd McKissick Jr., a Democrat from Durham, is a member of the special subcommittee, formally called the Joint Legislative Commission on Governmental Operations Subcommittee on the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. McKissick said after the hearing that job interviews conducted with prospective investigative firms suggest the Atlantic Coast Pipeline investigation could cost between $25,000 and $100,000.

He was concerned that the subcommittee didn’t set a budget for the investigation, but left the spending open-ended. He also dismissed the investigation as politically motivated to embarrass Cooper in advance of the 2020 elections.

But the GOP lawmakers blamed the imbroglio on Cooper.

“If the Governor came forward with the information we had asked for this past year, this would cost us nothing,” Brown said during the hearing. “The Governor is driving this train. He has made this choice for us.”

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(c)2018 The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.)

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Port of Skagit named port of the year [Skagit Valley Herald, Mount Vernon, Wash.]

Dec. 12–The Port of Skagit has been named 2018’s “Port of the Year” by the state Public Ports Association.

The port’s “exceptional success” throughout the year earned it the award, according to a Port of Skagit news release.

The selection committee highlighted accomplishments including the port’s acquisition of the Sedro-Woolley Innovation for Tomorrow (SWIFT) Center, its welcoming of 21 new business tenants to port properties and its securing of $2 million in broadband grant and loan funding from Skagit County and the Community Economic Revitalization Board.

Port Commissioner Kevin Ware said the credit for the success of 2018 belongs to the port’s staff.

“You could not find 33 more dedicated and hardworking public employees anywhere in the country,” he said in the release.

The port added four new employees in 2018, Community Outreach Administrator Andrew Entrikin said.

Below is a timeline of the port’s accomplishments for 2018:

February: The port sells about 122 acres of undeveloped property to truck manufacturing company PACCAR.

March: The port purchases 123 acres off Peterson Road with plans to develop an industrial park focused on value-added agriculture.

May: The port and the Skagit Public Utility District approve an agreement to oversee the construction of a fiber optic network that will extend from Anacortes to Concrete.

June: The port takes ownership of the SWIFT Center, which was once Northern State Hospital.

October: Dredging begins at the La Conner Marina to remove accumulated sediment.

— Reporter Julia-Grace Sanders: 360-416-2145, jsanders@skagitpublishing.com, Twitter: @JuliaGrace_SVH

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(c)2018 the Skagit Valley Herald (Mount Vernon, Wash.)

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Navistar says it has tentative six-year deal with UAW [Dayton Daily News, Ohio]

Dec. 11–SPRINGFIELD — Navistar said today the company has a tentative six-year deal with members of the United Auto Workers, who are expected to vote Sunday on whether to ratify the contract.

Company officials said the truck maker will not discuss any details of the contract before the Dec. 16 vote. Members of the UAW Local 402, which represents the majority of its workers in Springfield, could not be immediately reached for comment.

“We are confident that this agreement will help us work as a team to competitively build our vehicles, run our plants and win in the market,” the company said in a statement on a website dedicated to the negotiations.

This is the second time this month that members of the labor union will vote on a potential contract.

The UAW voted Dec. 2 to reject a separate agreement. According to the UAW’s website, the union voted down that contract with 98 percent of the vote.

READ MORE:

Contract extension between UAW, Navistar could end tomorrow

Volkswagen execs indicate possible takeover of Navistar

Massive fire at GM supplier leads to lost week for some local workers

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(c)2018 the Dayton Daily News (Dayton, Ohio)

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Did drilling off NC coast just move one step closer? [Star-News, Wilmington, N.C.]

Dec. 11–WILMINGTON — A federal agency announced last month that companies exploring for oil and natural gas in the Atlantic Ocean could incidentally harass marine mammals using seismic airguns, a process that has been widely criticized by environmental groups and leaves the door open to further activity off the North Carolina coast.

Catharine Wannamaker, a senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC), said, “Really, this is the first step in eventually opening up the Atlantic to offshore drilling. Why would you do seismic surveys if you didn’t plan to open the Atlantic?”

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) approval of incidental harassment permits for five companies off the East Coast would allow the groups to conduct seismic airgun tests that bother marine mammals and other species but don’t kill them. Environmental organizations, though, believe the approvals are not sufficiently protective of marine mammals and fish and are little more than the next step for offshore drilling.

For seismic testing to move forward in the region ranging from Delaware to Florida, the permits must also receive approval from the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM). Those approvals are believed to be imminent, Wannamaker said.

In 2016, then-President Barack Obama removed the Mid-Atlantic region, which includes North Carolina, from the five-year plan for oil and natural gas, denying six seismic permits a short time later.

President Donald Trump’s administration, though, announced its own five-year offshore plan, in which nearly all federal waters are to be evaluated for their energy potential. The companies appealed the denials, with the permits then slated for further evaluation.

At least 40 local governments in North Carolina have passed a resolution opposing one or both of seismic testing or offshore drilling, including nearly every body along the coast.

Lack of state support

Pro-drilling advocates in North Carolina, including the N.C. Petroleum Institute, have insisted it is important to understand how much of the resource is found off the state’s coast. The most recent studies are decades old, and estimates inci

Under Secretary Michael Regan, the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality last December asked four companies that were told in 2015 seismic testing was consistent with the state’s coastal policies to submit more information. New studies, officials said, showed the loud noises used to test for oil and gas could harm marine life and damage the state’s fisheries.

In a statement released shortly after the November announcement, Regan said the state’s coastal habitat was in a precarious spot following Hurricane Florence that could be further disturbed by seismic airguns.

“With the stress our coastal communities are enduring from the recent hurricanes and other effects of climate change, it is disappointing that the Trump administration would further jeopardize our coastal resource by approving dangerous seismic testing that could lead to offshore drilling,” Regan said in the statement.

A group of public aquariums, including the North Carolina Aquariums, announced their opposition to the approval, citing reasons similar to those stated be Regan, namely that the noise would disturb plankton, fish stocks and whales, among other marine creatures.

Listening to industry

During a Nov. 30 press call, NOAA representatives fielded questions about when and where seismic testing could happen, as well as how they determined the potential impacts it would have on marine life. The agency’s biologists were tasked with determining how seismic testing would impact individual creatures and, in turn, their species.

Benjamin Laws, a biologist in NOAA’sFisheries Office of Protected Resources, said, “Our analysis shows that we shouldn’t expect that there will be impacts greater than negligible on rates of recruitment and survival to these populations.”

Among the mitigation measures required by NOAA is having an observer posted on each survey ship, acoustic observation devices and avoiding close-to-shore areas from November to April, when the endangered North Atlantic right whales are likely to be present.

Sturgill said the required mitigation measures are not sufficient.

“I don’t even think it comes close to addressing any type of true precautions that could be taken,” Sturgill said. “There are hardly any that could actually be good that I know of.”

Wannamaker, of the SELC, also questioned the mitigation measures, saying seismic sound can travel further than the 55-mile buffer used in the winter. Additionally, Wannamaker said, the testing — and potentially offshore drilling — are being allowed to move forward despite significant opposition from governments along the Atlantic coast.

“We’re still proceeding forward with this,” Wannamaker said, “so it appears the administration is listening to the industry but not the people of the states.”

Reporter Adam Wagner can be reached at Adam.Wagner@GateHouseMedia.com.

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(c)2018 the Star-News (Wilmington, N.C.)

Visit the Star-News (Wilmington, N.C.) at www.starnewsonline.com

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Dakota Plains co-founder sentenced to 12 years in stock manipulation case [Star Tribune (Minneapolis)]

Dec. 11–Ryan Gilbertson, a founder of a Wayzata oil services company, was sentenced Tuesday to 12 years in federal prison for multiple fraud offenses in a stock manipulation scheme.

Gilbertson co-founded the now defunct Dakota Plains Holdings, which owned a facility in North Dakota that loaded oil onto rail cars. Gilbertson was charged with manipulation of the company’s stock after it went public in 2012, a complex plan that triggered bonus payments of over $30 million to Gilbertson and another company co-founder.

In June, Gilbertson, 42, was convicted on 14 counts of wire fraud; six counts of securities fraud; and one count of conspiracy to commit securities fraud. In presentencing filings, Gilbertson, of Delano, asked for 12 to 18 months of home confinement. The federal government called for 25 years in prison.

U.S. District Judge Patrick Schiltz ordered 12 years of incarceration, a $2 million fine and $15 million in restitution.

“Mr. Gilbertson has committed an extremely serious crime, brazenly trying to steal $32 million from Dakota Plains” and its shareholders, Schiltz said from the bench in U.S. District Court in Minneapolis. It was an act “of almost pure, unalloyed, unfathomable greed.”

Gilbertson was already a wealthy man, “yet that was not enough for him,” Schiltz said. He orchestrated the stock manipulation “in an attempt to stuff millions of dollars more into (accounts) that were already overflowing.” And he never showed “the slightest remorse,” Schiltz said.

Before the sentencing, Gilbertson, dressed in a dark blue suit, light blue shirt and yellow tie, told the court he “stood here, humbled, stripped and bared of everything I have worked for in my life.”

Noting he had founded 11 companies, Gilbertson said, “I like creating things and building things and seeing them grow.” Investors won great returns in many of his ventures, Gilbertson said.

“I realize today it only takes a single one to wipe away a whole lifetime of work,” he said. “The distance of the fall is great.”

Schiltz recommended that Gilbertson serve his sentence at the federal prison camp in Duluth, since it’s close to his family, which includes his wife and 9-year old son.

Dakota Plains eventually became a casualty of the oil bust that swept through North Dakota after the price of oil crashed in 2015. The company went bankrupt in 2016.

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(c)2018 the Star Tribune (Minneapolis)

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EDITORIAL: Forget OPEC — Texas and the rest of America now drive oil markets [The Dallas Morning News]

Dec. 11–If you think there is something going on in West Texas, you may be underestimating how important oil and gas exploration has been in the Permian Basin and how much it is changing the world.

Two data points should suffice to underscore just what is happening. In recent days, federal officials released the earth-shattering news that for the first time in 75 years, the United States became a net exporter of oil. In other words, we now ship more of the black gold overseas than we import. The importance of that is we — the United States — now have the upper hand over the oil-autocratic regimes of the world.

The second data point is connected to the first. The United States is now the largest oil producer in the world. If you think the trade deficit matters, consider these data points will reduce it. And if you think it matters whether we boost our GDP, produce jobs at home, and gain influence for spreading the rule of law and open markets, you should celebrate both of these data points.

And the timing of the news from the Energy Information Administration couldn’t be more fun. OPEC was meeting to decide whether to cut production in order to boost prices.

OPEC members struggled last week to agree on production cuts, but eventually on Friday announced a deal. Oil prices rose. But by Monday, much of those gains vanished as investors worried about a supply glut.

If OPEC cuts production, the cartel risks losing market share to the U.S., where production is amping up. And, as we saw this week, the move might not have the desired effect on prices. That’s because new technology, including fracking and horizontal drilling, allows U.S. oil producers to draw enormous volumes of oil out of mature oil fields.

And those fields hold a lot of oil. News also broke last week of a U.S. Geological Survey report showing West Texas’ Delaware Basin contains twice as much oil as the nearby Midland Basin. The Delaware Basin side of the Permian is the largest continuous oil assessment the government has ever released.

Rather than fret about OPEC, which is far from its glory days of the 1970s, let’s talk about those who are relevant now. If producers are about to turn up the volume on Permian drilling, great. We welcome the jobs and the wealth production. But it’s critical that the region get the support of Texas’ oil and gas regulator, the Railroad Commission.

The commission needs to enforce environmental and safety rules that boost safety and public confidence. As we know from the Deepwater Horizon explosion in the Gulf of Mexico, one accident can halt drilling in an entire region. Even small accidents can prompt local authorities to block production activity.

And as we watch geopolitical history develop in real time, let’s not forget that there’s another side to the equation of net exporter. That’s consumption, where Americans have long been dominant. But consumer power is expected to shift over the next couple of decades, as developing countries industrialize and as people in the U.S. shift toward electric vehicles and renewable energy. As that happens, we’re less dependent on foreign oil.

One more news item this week to illustrate the point: Exxon Mobil Corp. announced it will use solar power for its operations in the Permian Basin.

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(c)2018 The Dallas Morning News

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In a first in Pennsylvania, judge says PennEast Pipeline can take property in Carbon County [The Morning Call (Allentown, Pa.)]

Dec. 11–A federal judge has granted PennEast Pipeline the right of eminent domain, allowing the company to take a portion of property in Carbon County for the construction of its controversial 120-mile pipeline.

The ruling by Judge Malachy E. Mannion of the Middle District of Pennsylvania last week is the first of its kind for PennEast, whose natural gas pipeline would cut through Northampton County on its way from Luzerne County to Mercer County in New Jersey.

Mannion’s order grants the pipeline company .60 acres of permanent easement on property owned by Susana Bullrich of Towamensing Township for “operating, maintaining, altering, repairing, replacing and removing a 36-inch-diameter pipeline and related equipment.”

Another .60 acres is granted as temporary workspace during the construction period.

There are approximately 535 landowners along the entire route in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, according to PennEast officials.

In February, the pipeline company filed 185 eminent domain lawsuits in federal court — 134 in New Jersey and 51 in Pennsylvania — to access property in both states for land surveys.

Bullrich’s attorney, Anne Marie Garti, said Tuesday that Bullrich was the last “holdout” property owner in Pennsylvania who had refused to grant access for the pipeline company to survey her land.

The property is about eight acres and Bullrich has owned it for more than 30 years, Garti said, speaking on behalf of Bullrich.

The Towamensing Township resident could decide to appeal the decision, she said.

PennEast spokeswoman Patricia Kornick said the eminent domain decision allows the company to gain access to Bullrich’s property so it can be surveyed, though Mannion’s ruling also gives the company the right to construct there.

Kornick said Bullrich’s case was the only one in Pennsylvania that required a judge’s intervention at this time.

The other 50 Pennsylvania landowners agreed to allow PennEast to survey their properties, so the company did not move forward in those eminent domain proceedings, she said.

PennEast needs data from land surveys to collect permits from the Delaware River Basin Commission, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection.

Construction of the pipeline cannot begin until the permits are issued.

ctatu@mcall.com

610-820-6583

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(c)2018 The Morning Call (Allentown, Pa.)

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REG names Cynthia Warner new president, CEO [Newton Daily News, Iowa]

Dec. 11–An Ames-based producer of biodiesel fuel which operates a 30-million gallon per year, commercial-scale plant in Newton, has named its new chief executive officer.

Renewable Energy Group, Inc. (REG) announced Thursday that its board of directors has named Cynthia Warner as president and CEO. She will replace outgoing president and CEO Randy who has served in that position since July 2017. In a press release issued last week, the company said he will remain on the board to assist in the transition.

Among her 35 years of experience in the energy sector, Warner brings an extensive background in refining, a REG spokesman said in the press release. Most recently, she served as Executive Vice President, Operations for Andeavor — formerly Tesoro Corporation, an integrated marketing, logistics and refining company. Prior to her most recent role, Warner served as executive vice president, strategy and business development of Andeavor. Before joining Andeavor, Ms. Warner served as president, chief executive officer, and chair of the board of Sapphire Energy, a biofuels company.

Warner has also served as a vice president focused on health, safety, security and environmental technology at BP (British Petroleum).

“I am delighted and honored to be joining the REG team as President and CEO,” Warner said. “This growing company is well positioned to meet the rising global demand for cleaner, competitive low carbon fuel solutions. I look forward to the exciting future ahead and to leading the team with a continued focus on value creation.”

During the leadership transition, Howard will remain engaged with the business. Upon completion of the transition, Howard will continue to serve on the REG board of directors, a position he has held since February 2007.

“It has been a great privilege to lead the experienced senior leadership team at REG the last 18 months as they have delivered record-setting performance in EBITDA, sales and production,” Howard said. “I look forward to supporting CJ as she applies her deep experience and strategic insights to furthering REG’s success and continuing our growth trajectory.”

According to the company website, REG Newton was originally engineered and constructed by Renewable Energy Group and owned by Central Iowa Energy, LLC (CIE) in 2006 with production beginning the same year.

REG and CIE consolidated in February 2010, with REG becoming sole owner and operator of the facility. The plant was upgraded to produce an even higher purity of biodiesel from a wider array of raw materials in 2014.

The leadership change comes after biodiesel and renewable energy industry leaders are digesting updates to revised rules by the EPA on the renewable fuel standard (RFS) released Nov. 30.

The adjustments show modest changes in the amount of biomass-based diesel U.S. fuel retailers are required to sell in 2020, setting the volume requirement at 2.43 billion gallons and the 2019 advanced biofuel volume at 4.92 billion gallons. The biomass-based diesel requirement for 2019 was set at 2.1 billion gallons in last year’s rule and was flat for the previous two years.

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(c)2018 the Newton Daily News (Newton, Iowa)

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Small Business Optimism Remains High Heading into 2019

Small Business Optimism Remains High Heading into 2019Small business owners still feel confident about their companies and the future, according to the latest small business index conducted by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and MetLife. The 2018 4Q survey topped out at a strong 69.3, just six-tenths of a point down from its all-time high score of 69.9, set in the 2018 3Q index.

According to the chamber and MetLife, the results show small business owners and operators are still upbeat about the overall national and local economy. More than a quarter of small businesses surveyed said they planned to increase investments and hire more staff in the coming year.

“The findings of this quarter’s Index show they are still bullish, which bodes well for our economy as a whole,” said Jessica Moser, senior vice president of MetLife’s Small Business Solutions segment, in a joint press release. “Their level of optimism is a good indicator of future growth.”

However, 67 percent of companies reported greater difficulty in finding qualified workers. (For more on how small businesses are finding it hard to attract skilled workers, read our September story on “What Happens When You Put Up a Now Hiring Sign and No One Applies? The Problem of Full Employment.”)

Manufacturing is having an especially tough time locating suitable applicants.

“There are too many people that lack the skills or credentials they need to compete for 21st century jobs and too many businesses that can’t find the workers they need, when and where they need them,” said Thomas J. Donohue, president and CEO of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. “A lack of skilled workers is going to hold back economic growth for the entire country.”

(Read our article “The Brave, New World of Manufacturing – It’s Not Your Father’s High School Metal Shop Anymore” for a closer look at how qualifications for factory jobs are far more technical than in years past.)

Elsewhere, the National Federation of Independent Businesses (NFIB) has issued its own Small Business Optimism Index, which reports similar findings. The most recent NFIB survey, released in October, totaled a healthy 107.4. The NFIB says this score marks a continuation of record high scores dating back two years.

The biggest takeaway from the latest survey, the NFIB said, is that small business owners are optimistic about the overall economy’s direction and business conditions. A large number report strong sales figures. This gives them the confidence to expand, boost capital spending, hire more workers and invest in more inventory.

“For two years, small business owners have expressed record levels of optimism and are proving to be a driving force in this rapidly growing economy,” NFIB President and CEO Juanita D. Duggan stated in a release. “The October optimism index further validates that when small businesses get tax relief and are freed from regulatory shackles, they thrive and the whole economy prospers.”

NFIB also credited low inflation and interest rates for the continued lengthy run in small business optimism and the robust economy.

“October’s report sets the stage for solid economic and employment growth in the fourth quarter, while inflation and interest rates remain historically tame. Small businesses are moving the economy forward,” said NFIB Chief Economist Bill Dunkelberg.

The year 2018 has proven to be a year of profit … and challenge … for small business owners. What does the future hold as the calendar begins to flip?  No one knows for sure, but small businesses across the nation are clearly confident the coming 12 months will be good for them and for America. Stay tuned…