Erica Davis (’19), a student of the University of Tennessee College of Law and a Tennessee native who recently received a prestigious Brower Youth Award, is working to ensure that Appalachian communities can benefit from the extraction of natural resources for generations to come.
Davis started on her path toward becoming an Appalachian advocate as an undergraduate at UT studying environmental sociology. “I fell in love with the mountains and decided that I wanted to dedicate my life and my career and my energy to protecting them and the people that live in the mountain communities,” Davis says.
Through working on her senior thesis, Davis met Dean Rivkin, the Williford Gragg Distinguished Professor of Law, who in turn connected her with the grassroots organization Statewide Organizing for Community eMpowerment (SOCM).
Through SOCM, Davis began researching coal severance taxes in Appalachia.
“A severance tax is applied at the point of extraction for natural resources, so it’s the only legislative instrument that is able to take revenue from the extractive industries and keep it back in the state and communities that are being affected,” says Davis. “I realized that a lot of work had already gone into strengthening coal severance taxes in Appalachia, but with the decline in the coal industry, I thought we should start looking at oil and natural gas severance taxes and strengthen them preemptively to make sure that in the coming years and decades, communities are being damaged as little as possible and benefiting as much as possible, as coal mining declines and oil and natural gas mining increases.”
Davis’s research eventually culminated in a bill, SB 1944/HB 1881, co-sponsored by Senator Ken Yager (Kingston) and Representative Dennis Powers (Jacksboro). “Currently oil and gas severance taxes are 3 percent of the sale price of the resources, and two-thirds of that revenue goes back to the state general fund, which means that only one-third of that money goes to the counties,” explains Davis. “The bill that I wrote would raise that severance tax rate to 7.5 percent, which is more on par with what others states’ rates are. So Tennessee wouldn’t be losing out on what I see as a huge opportunity. The bill would also change the distribution of the tax so that all of it would go back specifically to the districts where the resources are mined from, not just the counties, and the state would just get administrative costs.”
Although the bill didn’t reach the floor for the 2015–2016 session, Davis intends to revive it in the next legislative session. Additionally, her intensive work on the bill and passion for environmental advocacy were recognized by the Earth Island Institute when they awarded her a Brower Youth Award at a ceremony in San Francisco earlier this month.
“It has been an amazing experience to work with Professor Rivkin, local organizers and activists, and people who just really love their community and want to see it be the best place it can be,” says Davis. “It was an experience I will never take for granted.”