Erica Peterson

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

Erica Peterson

Even in what has historically been the country’s coal-fired stronghold, coal’s share of the electricity market is declining. The drop of coal-fired electricity generation in the Southeast — and a corresponding rise in natural gas and renewables — is reflecting what’s happening to the nation as a whole.

The Southern States Energy Board released its regional energy profile last week. The SSEB is an interstate compact made up of elected officials from 16 Southern states, as well as Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Kentucky is part of the compact, as are neighboring states like Missouri, West Virginia and Tennessee.

“The states that have been predominantly coal in the past are seeing some of the same pressures [as the rest of the country],” said SSEB Senior Technical Analyst Gary Garrett.

Erica Peterson

The fiscal court in Boyle County, Kentucky and the Danville City Commission have formally approved resolutions opposing a proposed natural gas liquids pipeline that would cross the county.

Both bodies are also asking the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to conduct an environmental impact study before granting approval for the conversion of the Tennessee Gas Pipeline.

The Tennessee Gas Pipeline is already in the ground, carrying natural gas from the Gulf of Mexico through Kentucky. But the proposal by company Kinder Morgan would reverse the pipeline’s flow and convert it to instead carry natural gas liquids.

NGLs are the byproducts of natural gas drilling: hydrocarbons such as ethane, butane and propane. They’re used in manufacturing plastics, synthetic rubber and antifreeze, but they also include health hazards and the risks of water or soil contamination if a leak occurs.

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Kentuckians who bought Volkswagen’s “clean diesel” cars will receive restitution, and the state will get millions to offset pollution. The details of the settlement were announced Tuesday.

Dozens of class action lawsuits were filed last year after the German car company admitted it had rigged many of its vehicles to cheat emissions tests. These cars — including 2009-2015 Jettas, 2010-2015 Audi A3s and Golfs, and 2012-2015 Beetles and Passats — were billed as “clean diesel.” In fact, they emitted more pollution than was advertised.

Louisville attorney Alex Davis filed an initial class action lawsuit on behalf of local Volkswagen owner Robert Wagner and others. That lawsuit was eventually consolidated with others filed by attorneys and state attorneys general.

“We’re still evaluating the details; this is a very complicated settlement,” Davis said. “But my initial impression is that this is going to go a long way toward making things right with all of Volkswagen’s customers.”

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It’s going to be a hot next few weeks in Louisville, with temperatures projected to reach the upper 80s or 90s almost every day.

Flavio Lehner says to get used to it.

Lehner, a post-doctoral researcher at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, is the author of a study on summer temperature projections. Using climate forecasting data, he and his colleagues found that if carbon dioxide emissions continue on their current pace, it’ll translate to hotter summers for most of the globe.

“Towards the end of this century, under a scenario where we continue emitting greenhouse gas unabated, you will see a very large chance that basically every summer in most parts of the world will be as hot or hotter than the hottest we’ve seen up to date,” Lehner said.

J. Tyler Franklin

A survey has found some interesting takeaways about Kentuckians’ attitudes toward climate change, including that the biggest influence on beliefs may be political affiliation rather than scientific knowledge.

There have been numerous studies about attitudes toward climate change around the country, but very few have looked at Kentucky specifically. For her master’s thesis at Kentucky State University, Jennifer Hubbard-Sanchez surveyed 229 Kentuckians about their climate change beliefs and knowledge.

Climate scientists overwhelmingly agree that the earth’s climate is changing, and humans are contributing to that change. And Hubbard-Sanchez found that the majority of Kentuckians (about 70 percent) agree. But she also found some unexpected relationships between climate change beliefs and climate science knowledge.

J. Tyler Franklin, WFPL

A Kentucky non-profit is the state’s only recipient in the latest round of federal environmental education grant funding.

The Kentucky Association for Environmental Education will get $91,000 from the Environmental Protection Agency to implement programs to increase climate literacy around the state.

“So by climate literacy, we mean people’s understanding of climate science in order to make educated decisions about it,” said KAEE Executive Director Ashley Hoffman.

Hoffman said the grant money will let the organization provide professional development for Kentucky educators through the state’s universities. Participants can then apply for additional money to put toward climate change-related community projects.

Ford Motor Company

There’s about 30 lbs. of polyurethane foam in the average vehicle. It’s in everything from headrests to seats and instrument panels. And usually, a key ingredient in that foam is petroleum.

But Ford Motor Company is experimenting with swapping out the petroleum for something that’s abundant in today’s environment: carbon dioxide.

“We conserve petroleum, we better the atmosphere and we make a very suitable material to use out of carbon dioxide,” saidDebbie Mielewski, Ford’s senior technical leader of sustainability.

Carbon dioxide is, of course, naturally in the atmosphere. But it’s also emitted from burning fossil fuels, and climate scientists have linked the earth’s quickly rising CO2 levels with climate change.

Ford’s new foam relies on a partnership with a company called Novomer that harvests waste carbon dioxide from sources like fossil fuel plants. Carbon capture technology hasn’t been proven to be economical on a large scale thus far.

J. Tyler Franklin, WFPL

A Louisville Catholic school will be the site of a new air pollution experiment, as researchers at the University of Louisville study whether trees and greenery can reduce pollution from a nearby roadway.

St. Margaret Mary School is located on Shelbyville Road, right across from Oxmoor Mall. It’s a busy road, and during peak times, cars often back up and idle at traffic lights.

It’s known that trees and greenery help reduce some types of air pollution — and that reducing such pollution has some health benefits. But this summer, University of Louisville researchers will begin testing whether adding a vegetative buffer at St. Margaret Mary will have a measurable effect on the pollution on school grounds.

“People appreciate trees and they’re good and they’re aesthetically pleasing, but whether they actually have specific quantifiable health-promoting effects by removing pollutants from air has never been rigorously tested,” said Aruni Bhatnagar, the director of U of L’s Diabetes and Obesity Center.

A couple that served as the lead plaintiffs in one of the court cases that prompted last year’s landmark Supreme Court ruling legalizing gay marriage is protesting a decision by the Archdiocese of Louisville to reject parts of their proposed gravestone design.

Greg Bourke and Michael De Leon have been together for 30 years and married in 2004 in Canada. They identify as lifelong practicing Catholics, and last fall, they submitted a proposed headstone design for a joint plot in Louisville’s Saint Michael Cemetery.

The design includes Bourke and De Leon’s names and dates of birth. It also includes an image of a cross, wedding rings and the United States Supreme Court building.

“It means a lot to me to be buried in a Catholic cemetery,” Bourke said. “Saint Michael’s is a stone’s throw from both my grandparents’ homes, and the really important thing is that my parents have cemetery plots they’ve purchased there.”

Gabe Bullard

Kentucky regulators are looking for proposals to spur economic development on Appalachia’s abandoned surface mines.

Two state cabinets — the Cabinet of Economic Development and the Energy and Environment Cabinet — announced the pilot program Monday. It’s funded by the massive spending bill passed by Congress last year that sent $90 million to Abandoned Mine Lands programs in the region. Kentucky’s share of that money is $30 million.

The bill’s language requires the money to go toward projects that reclaim abandoned mine lands and create economic and community development. Additional money was included in President Obama’s “Power+ Plan”— a part of his Fiscal Year 2016 budget that addresses economic development in the nation’s coalfields. Obama’s budget hasn’t seen any movement in Congress.

With the $30 million available to Kentucky through the spending bill, state officials say they’re looking for projects that would bring long-term, dramatic growth to Appalachia. State and local governments are the only eligible grant recipients, and projects must be in one of the 54 counties that are in Eastern or Southeastern Kentucky.

Erica Peterson, WFPL

Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin says the commonwealth has a lot in its favor when it comes to attracting manufacturers.

But in a speech and question-and-answer session at the Kentucky Association of Manufacturers’ annual energy conference Wednesday, Bevin also spoke about the importance of planning for the future of workforce development.

Sometimes, he stressed, that includes making sure there are alternatives to four-year degrees available for high school graduates.

“As a kid who grew up poor in the country, I was blessed by opportunities that came my way to go to and graduate from college. But this idea that every kid needs to get on a fast track to some college degree, no matter what it’s in, is nonsense, it really is,” Bevin said.

“There are certain degrees that are frankly not applicable in your world, or frankly, in a lot of other worlds, either,” he said, jokingly using French Literature and Interdisciplinary Studies as examples.

Sam Owens/Getty Images via NPR

All over eastern Kentucky, you see cars and pickup trucks with black license plates proclaiming the owner is a “friend of coal.”

Even though the license plates are all over, it’s getting harder to find actual coal miners here: Fewer than 6,000 remain in the state, where the coal industry is shrinking fast. More than 10,000 coal workers have been laid off since 2008.

Many have had to leave the area to find work, but a few have found employment in other — and sometime unexpected — fields, as businesses are innovating to use former coal workers in new ways.

Rusty Justice’s company is one of these.

“The realization I had was that the coal miner, although we think of him as a person who gets dirty and works with his hands, really coal mines today are very sophisticated, and they use a lot of technology, a lot of robotics,” says Justice, who has worked in the coal industry all his life.

Erica Peterson, WFPL

Kentucky’s coal industry continued its freefall in the first quarter of this year, according to data released Monday by the state Energy and Environment Cabinet.

Coal production fell nearly 13 percent across the state in the first three months of 2016. Only about 11 million tons of coal was mined, making this the lowest statewide rate since 1939.

As has been the trend, Eastern Kentucky’s coalfields took a larger hit than Western Kentucky. Eastern Kentucky coal production declined more than 21 percent in the first three months of this year alone. The last time coal production was lower in the region was 1917. The bulk of the job losses came in Eastern Kentucky too, with more than a thousand jobs lost this quarter. Statewide, about 6,900 coal miners are employed: the lowest level recorded since 1898.

Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet Assistant Director Aron Patrick said it’s likely that Kentucky coal production and employment will continue to drop—at least for the next two years or so.

Gabe Bullard

An environmental nonprofit has named an Eastern Kentucky river as one of the nation’s 10 most endangered.

American Rivers released its annual list Tuesday, and it includes the Russell Fork River.

The Russell Fork is on the border between Kentucky and Virginia, and flows through the Breaks Interstate Park. It’s used for whitewater rafting and fishing, but it’s coal mining that landed it on the annual list.

For the past few years, the Russell Fork has been threatened by a mountaintop removal mine proposed by Paramount Coal, a subsidiary of Alpha Natural Resources. The Doe Branch mine was proposed several years ago but hasn’t moved forward. The Environmental Protection Agency has issued objections to the project, citing existing pollution problems in the watershed.

Tarence Ray of nonprofit Appalachian Voices said the juxtaposition of the Doe Branch permit and the Russell Fork River is emblematic of the choice many coalfields communities are facing.

Erica Peterson

Despite the fact that federal carbon reduction rules have been put on hold, a Kentucky group is moving ahead with discussions about how the state should reduce its emissions.

The Clean Power Plan was stayed by the Supreme Court earlier this year, while multiple states — including Kentucky — challenge the rule in court. The regulation sets out carbon dioxide reduction goals for each state, and gives states the option of crafting their own plans to meet those goals.

Kentuckians for the Commonwealth announced last year that it would build a state plan for Kentucky by crowdsourcing ideas. At the time, there was a question of whether Kentucky would even submit a state plan, and the answer to that still isn’t clear.

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