Erica Peterson

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

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.

TVA

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.”

TVA

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.”

Twitter

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.

Petr Kratochvil, publicdomainpictures.net

A bill that environmental groups say would damage the Clean Air Act is advancing through the House of Representatives. The bipartisan bill is spearheaded by Kentucky Congressman Ed Whitfield.

The bill—called the Ratepayer Protection Act—passed the House Energy and Commerce Committee last Tuesday. According to Whitfield, the bill is a “commonsense solution to protect ratepayers from higher electricity prices, reduced reliability, and other harmful impacts of EPA’s proposed Clean Power Plan.”

The Clean Power Plan is the proposed regulation to set carbon dioxide emissions reduction goals for each state. It hasn’t been finalized yet, but all states will likely have to make some cuts. The EPA is regulating carbon dioxide under the Clean Air Act; in 2009, the Supreme Court ruled that CO2 is harmful to human health, and thus subject to EPA regulations.

The pending rule is the subject of numerous legal and legislative challenges, and Whitfield’s bill is the latest. It would do two main things: halt the implementation of the Clean Power Plan until all pending lawsuits against the regulation are resolved, and once that happens, allow any state that finds “significant adverse affects” on electricity prices or reliability to opt out.

Coal jobs in Kentucky declined sharply in the first quarter of this year, according to the state’s latest quarterly coal report.

As of April 1, there were an estimated 10,356 people employed at Kentucky coal mines. That’s a decrease of 1,230 jobs—or 10.6 percent—from Jan. 1. And the job losses weren’t limited to Eastern Kentucky, where market conditions and power plant retirements have hit hardest. Western Kentucky coal mines shed 13.7 percent of coal jobs during the quarter, while the Eastern Kentucky coal workforce decreased by 8.7 percent.

And these numbers will likely decline further. Division for Energy Development and Independence Assistant Director Aron Patrick said there are several hundred layoffs pending that will likely be reflected in the next quarterly report.

Coal production in both basins decreased too. Kentucky mines produced only about 16.6 million tons of coal in this quarter. For Eastern Kentucky, production is only a third of what it was in 2008.

WKYU PBS

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has a new legal argument that he says will scuttle the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan.

The EPA’s proposal—which hasn’t yet been finalized—will set greenhouse gas emissions reductions for each state. These greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide, are contributing to climate change. The plan is expected to give states the option of creating individual plans to comply, or to work with neighboring states to formulate a regional plan.

McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, has been a vocal opponent of the EPA and the Clean Power Plan. Most recently, he urged states to hold off on submitting individual plans to the government, in hopes that lawsuits against the rules will prevail. In a subcommittee hearing Wednesday, McConnell told EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy that he believed he had found another legal avenue to oppose the proposal.

McConnell pointed to Section 102 (c) of the Clean Air Act, which requires Congressional approval for any multi-state agreements to reduce air pollution. And that Congressional approval, McConnell said, would not be coming.

The Kentucky Public Service Commission was scheduled to hold a public hearing on Tuesday on Louisville Gas and Electric and Kentucky Utilities’ proposed rate increase.

Instead, as WFPL reported, the utilities and all of the intervenors in the case reached a settlement, which is now subject to PSC approval.

Here’s a deeper look at the settlement, what LG&E/KU got—and what they didn’t get.

Monthly Service Charge

This was the most contentious part of the original proposal because it would affect every customer, regardless of how much energy they used. LG&E electric and gas customers would have ended up paying $37 a month, up from $24.25. KU customers would have paid $18 a month, rather than the $10.75 they pay now. Under the settlement, there will be no change to the monthly charge, but the rates of electricity and gas will change slightly. The company estimates that the average LG&E bill will increase by about $1.15 a month, while the average KU customer will pay $9 more each month.

A new whitepaper released by Kentucky regulators in draft form last week quantifies the economic effects of rising electricity prices on jobs in the state and around the country.

The paper uses a hypothetical 10 percent across-the-board increase in electricity prices around the country, and measures the effects of that increase on various states and industries. The most vulnerable states seem to be those similar to Kentucky: ones that have both a carbon-intensive energy portfolio and electricity-intensive industries.

Overall, the paper estimates a 10 percent rise in the real price of electricity would result in the loss of more than a million jobs and $142 billion in the American economy. But despite these losses, the research found that most of the nation’s industries would be relatively unaffected by the increased cost of electricity.

Energy and Environment Cabinet Secretary Len Peters—who also co-authored the paper—said this information will help regulators decide what policies need to be pursued to protect the economy as electricity prices increase—whether that’s due to environmental regulations or market factors.

“We want to understand the dynamics, and we want to understand at least semi-quantitatively what the implications are,” he said. “We are using these analyses to guide us in directions that we think we should be going.”

A lawsuit that sought to have the federal government respond to requests for them to take over Kentucky’s water pollution program has been dismissed, but the plaintiffs plan to re-file the suit in the Court of Appeals.

Five years ago, environmental groups Kentuckians for the Commonwealth and the Sierra Club petitioned the Environmental Protection Agency, asking federal regulators to take over Kentucky’s water pollution program because of alleged routine mismanagement and lack of enforcement in the commonwealth. The EPA delegates Kentucky regulators the authority to run the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System program in the state, but the environmental groups claimed state regulators weren’t enforcing the Clean Water Act. The EPA never responded to the petition, so in January, the groups sued the agency.

From the original petition:

“We recognize we are asking EPA to take drastic action. Given the nearly complete breakdown of Kentucky’s implementation and enforcement of its NPDES program, however, withdrawal of the State’s NPDES program is the only remedy that will bring Kentucky into compliance with the Clean Water Act (CWA). In particular, the State’s capitulation to the coal industry and its complete failure to prevent widespread contamination of state waters by pollution from coal mining operations leaves EPA no choice but to withdraw its approval of that program.”

The EPA sought for the suit to be dismissed, saying that there was no requirement for the agency to reply to the petition. The environmental groups agreed in court to the dismissal, and plan to re-file the lawsuit as an Administrative Procedure Act claim in the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Louisville’s Morris Forman treatment plant is still not fully functional after an electrical fire and power outage Wednesday night.

More than 100-million gallons of diluted sewage went into the Ohio River yesterday, and more continues to flow today. Some of that sewage was partially-treated, after Morris Forman began resuming some operations.

Some of it wasn’t treated at all, as the outage at the plant and rain caused the city’s combined sewer system to overflow into the river.

As of Friday morning, the sewage was still being discharged into the river, including at the Morris Forman site in Louisville’s Rubbertown neighborhood and at overflow sites around the city.

Metropolitan Sewer District officials are investigating the cause of the fire, but they say preliminary evidence suggests a lightning strike could be responsible.

It will be several days before the treatment plant is fully operational, but MSD spokesman Steve Tedder said the sewer overflows should stop sometime today, if there’s no more rain.

People are advised to avoid contact with the Ohio River and its tributaries.

A reduced crew of firefighters remains on site at the fire that broke out Friday at General Electric’s Appliance Park in Louisville.

Okolona Battalion Chief William Schmidt said the fire isn’t still burning, but there are spots smoldering and smoking. About 200 firefighters battled the blaze Friday at Appliance Park; now, Schmidt said that force has been reduced to about 30.

“We still have people out there. I couldn’t tell you when we’re not going to have people out there,” he said.

Now, crews are working to pick through the building’s wreckage to reach what Schmidt called “hot spots.”

“We’re having to utilize wrecking crews and contract crews to be able to dismantle the steel, to be able to safely reach those areas,” he said. “And that’s just time consuming.”

The shelter-in-place that was in effect for those living near Appliance Park was lifted Sunday night. Though technically General Electric could resume operations in its other buildings at the plant, the company has told employees the facility will be closed this week. The cause of the fire is still unknown.

Rick Toomey, National Park Service

Citing drastic population loss, the federal government has listed the northern long-eared bat as “threatened” under the federal Endangered Species Act. This is the first bat species to be protected under the act solely because of the toll the disease white nose syndrome has taken on its population.

White nose syndrome is caused by a white fungus, and it’s deadly to bats. Since 2006, it’s killed nearly 6 million bats in five Canadian provinces and 25 states, including Kentucky.

Under the Endangered Species Act, species can be listed as either “threatened” or “endangered.” White nose syndrome has affected the northern long-eared bat to “the point that it’s basically a species that could become endangered in the foreseeable future,” said U.S. Fish and Wildlife spokeswoman Georgia Parham. “And this designation of ‘threatened’ extends some of the protections of the Endangered Species Act to this species.”

The northern long-eared bat is found across Kentucky, as well as throughout many Northeastern, Mid-Atlantic and Midwestern states. Parham said these bats are among the hardest-hit by white nose syndrome, and are the first to be protected under federal law solely because of the diseases.

“Now, white nose has affected other bat species, and some of those are already endangered—the Indiana bat is a good example,” she said. “It was listed as endangered back in the ’60s and it has been affected by white nose syndrome, but it was already listed before that happened.”

The new federal designation for the bat goes into effect on May 4. It makes it illegal to harm, harass, capture or kill the northern long-eared bat, and also puts certain restrictions on human activities in the bats’ natural habitat. The Fish and Wildlife Service also is proposing a separate rule that will exempt certain activities—including forest management practices and the removal of hazardous trees—under some circumstances in the bats’ habitat, because regulators don’t believe those activities will affect the bats.

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