Erica Peterson

Erica reports on environment and energy issues for WFPL, which run the gamut from stories about the regionââââ


Another of Kentucky’s coal-fired power units will be shut down in the next few years, further reducing the state’s carbon dioxide emissions.

Owensboro Municipal Utilities announced last week that it plans to shut down Unit 1 of the Elmer Smith Power Plant sometime between 2019 and 2021.

The Elmer Smith plant has two coal-fired units; Unit 2, the larger of the two, will continue to operate for the foreseeable future.

The plant is the latest of the state’s coal-fired power plants to be shut down. As the state’s coal fleet ages — more than half of the coal plants operating in 2011 were built before 1970 — utilities are being forced to decide whether it will save money to update the plants or shut them down. In many cases, the decision is influenced by stricter environmental regulations and the low cost of other fuels, like natural gas.

Elmer Smith Unit 1 produced more than a million tons of carbon dioxide in 2014. Kentucky is facing steep carbon dioxide emissions cuts under the federal Clean Power Plan, and the unit’s retirement will get Kentucky’s projected emissions a little bit closer to compliance with the federal standard.


Residents offered their two-minute takes in Lexington Thursday on a thousand-page federal coal mining regulation that’s been years in the making.

The Stream Protection Rule was proposed in July by the federal Office of Surface Mining and Reclamation. It’s a rewrite of a Reagan-era regulation that was weakened under President George W. Bush and then thrown out by a federal court last year. Since then, coal companies have been following the 32-year-old version of the rule.

The proposed regulation places requirements on coal companies that mine near streams. Both the proposed and the original rules put a 100-foot buffer zone in place around streams and waterways. But the new version proposes different criteria for different mining activities. Like the original, it wouldn’t ban valley fills — which is when mining waste is discarded in valleys.

Most of the comments on Thursday didn’t revolve around the rule’s merits or disadvantages, but instead the idea that this regulation is another step in a calculated effort to weaken the coal industry.

U.S. Rep. Andy Barr, R-6, said the rule would “ban coal mining in Appalachia” and called for a balance between the economy and environmental stewardship.

Office of Ky Governor

Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear was unclear Tuesday evening about whether his Energy and Environment Cabinet would continue working on a plan to help the state comply with the Environmental Protection Agency’s final Clean Power Plan, which it released the day before.

The governor also said he would support a lawsuit against the EPA over the new rule, aligning with Attorney General Jack Conway — the Democratic candidate for governor — and reversing his previous position.

The Clean Power Plan represents the first national limits on carbon dioxide from existing power plants, with an eye toward protecting human health and the environment. It sets emissions reduction goals for each state and lets the states craft individual plans to comply. States that don’t create a plan could be subject to a federal one.

When the EPA released its proposal last year, Conway joined other states in suing the agency. But at the time, Beshear stressed that Conway wasn’t acting for him in that lawsuit, and the Energy and Environment Cabinet began work on a state compliance plan.

Flickr/Creative Commons/NASA

Climate change will begin to have a demonstrative effect on Kentucky’s economy within five years.

This is the conclusion from a report released today by the nonprofit Risky Business. The organization is dedicated to exploring the economic effects of climate change, and is chaired by liberal billionaires Michael Bloomberg and Tom Steyer, as well as former banker and George W. Bush-era Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson.

Recently, groups have begun focusing on the economic costs of climate change, considering any discussion or debate over the science or existence of climate change to be unnecessary. Yesterday, 13 major companies including Walmart, UPS, General Motors and Google launched the “American Business Act on Climate Pledge,” and pledged to reduce emissions with an eye toward their bottom lines.

Today, Risky Business’ report analyzes the factors around the Southeast that will become amplified as the climate changes. Researchers identified “likely” outcomes, which it defined as events with a 67 percent chance of happening if the country continues its current greenhouse gas emissions pattern.

Alfred Sommer, dean emeritus of the Johns Hopkins University School of Public Health, worked on the report with Risky Business. He said it’s easy for politicians to bury their heads in the sand, but that’s a short-sighted perspective.

As natural gas speculation increases in the Rogersville Shale in Eastern Kentucky, scientists are beginning research into the region’s existing seismic activity.

Right now, several test wells have been drilled into the Rogersville, which is thought to cover 4 million acres in Kentucky and West Virginia. The results of those test wells are confidential, but if the reserves prove profitable, companies could begin drilling large-scale oil and natural gas wells in the formation.

Tapping the Rogersville will also involve hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. Fracking is used to extract oil and gas from deep below the earth; the practice includes injecting water and chemicals miles underground. The dirty water is eventually discarded in deep disposal wells. In some oil and gas drilling areas, numerous earthquakes have been recorded, and scientists are becoming more confident that these quakes are linked to the industry.

From the Associated Press:

Earthquake activity in Oklahoma in 2013 was 70 times greater than it was before 2008, state geologists reported. Oklahoma historically recorded an average of 1.5 quakes of magnitude 3 or greater each year. It is now seeing an average of 2.5 such quakes each day, according to geologists.

This story has been updated.

The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that it’s too early to intercede in a lawsuit challenging the Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed carbon dioxide limits for power plants.

The decision was handed down Tuesday, and the coalition of states involved have indicated they’ll petition for a rehearing, and will challenge the final rule.

Thirteen states, including Kentucky, West Virginia and Indiana sued the EPA last year over the Clean Power Plan.

The rule will set individual goals for carbon dioxide emissions reductions from power plants, in an effort to curb the gases which contribute to climate change. Kentucky lawmakers have been vocal about their opposition to the rule, even though regulators’ predictions indicate the state will have to do little to comply initially.


A lawsuit filed by Kentucky and several other states challenging the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan could be decided “any day now.”

Chief Deputy Attorney General Sean Riley briefed a legislative committee on the lawsuit Thursday.

The lawsuit argues that with the Clean Power Plan, the EPA is exceeding its authority under the law. The law—expected to be finalized this summer—will set state-specific goals for carbon dioxide reductions.

Riley said the three judge panel hearing the oral arguments in April seemed to agree with the states on the technical merits of their argument: that the sections of the Clean Air Act the EPA is using to regulate carbon dioxide are inappropriate.

“They were very receptive to the substantive argument that the EPA may have precluded its ability to regulate greenhouse gases under [section] 111d by operation of regulating them under [section] 112,” he said. “However, they did voice some skepticism about whether the timing of our lawsuit was procedurally proper.”


Kentucky is on track to comply with the EPA’s upcoming federal regulations on greenhouse gas emissions—even if no further actions are taken.

The Union of Concerned Scientists released a report Wednesday outlining Kentucky’s progress in complying with the yet-to-be announced federal standard. It estimates that by 2020, the first year the state will have to meet greenhouse gas limits, Kentucky will have already cut its emissions to 113 percent of the goal.

In all, 14 states are on track to meet or surpass the expected federal benchmarks. In an article published last week, Inside Climate Progress came to similar conclusions.

But this isn’t news to Kentucky, or to the state’s utilities. In a report released more than a year ago about the economic challenges greenhouse gas regulations could pose to the state, regulators estimated that Kentucky’s electric utilities would emit 73.8 million tons of carbon dioxide by 2025. This is solely through power plant retirements that have already happened, or have been set in motion and will happen next year. The EPA’s limit for Kentucky is expected to be 94.7 million tons by 2020.

U.S. Energy Information Administration

A federal judge in Colorado has ruled the federal government should have taken the indirect environmental effects of expanding the Colowyo and Trapper coal mines into account before issuing a permit.

These “indirect effects” include the environmental toll of burning the coal in power plants. But because of differences in the way western and eastern coal mines are regulated, it’s hard to say what effect, if any, this ruling could have on Appalachian mines.

In the west, most of the coal is on federal lands. So as part of the permitting process, coal companies have to get approval from the Office of Surface Mining and the Secretary of the Interior. Under the National Environmental Policy Act, the federal government is required to analyze the environmental impacts of mining.

But NEPA only applies to the federal government, not to states, and Kentucky has been delegated the authority to manage the commonwealth’s coal mining by the federal government.

“To say it’s apples to oranges, it’s not even that,” said Jeremy Nichols of Wild Earth Guardians, the environmental group that sued OSM over its decision to grant the permits to the Colowyo and Trapper mines. “It’s like apples to carrots. The state permitting processes are very different. And even though there’s some environmental accountability in place, it’s not as explicit as it is under the federal law.”


Kentucky’s Republican gubernatorial candidates disagree specifically on what evidence proves that, according to them, climate change isn’t happening or influenced by human activity. During a debate on CN2 last month, candidates Will T. Scott and Hal Heiner prefaced their statements with “I’m not a scientist, but…” and Matt Bevin called climate science “fluff and theory.” But Agriculture Commissioner James Comer offered the most specific example.

“I do not believe in global warming. I’m the one person whose business and livelihood depends on Mother Nature, so I understand weather patterns,” he said, citing his farming experience. “We’ve had a very severe winter this year with 12-inch snows, so there is no global warming.”

Putting aside the science behind climate change, and the fact that nearly all climate scientists agree both that it’s happening and is influenced by human activity, it was a severe winter this year. Louisville got 27 inches of snow, which is 15 more inches than usual. But there are some key differences between weather and climate, especially as pertains to agriculture, and these nuances are missing in Comer’s remarks.

“Climate determines where we grow crops, weather determines how much we grow,” Jerry Hatfield said. He’s the director of the National Lab for Agriculture and the Environment, which is run by USDA.

He said  the climate is definitely changing. One of the manifestations of that changing climate is weird weather patterns.