Erica Peterson

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

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The future of Kentucky’s controversial changes to a water quality standard is up in the air, after a settlement last year sent the changes back for federal review.

Selenium is a naturally occurring substance that’s released into waterways during strip mining. In large amounts, it’s toxic to both aquatic life and humans. The substance also bioaccumulates up the food chain, so as fish eat other fish, levels of selenium rise.

In November 2013, the Environmental Protection Agency approved changes to Kentucky’s water quality standard that changed the way selenium was measured. The state had requested permission to do away with the chronic — or long-term — standard, and instead institute a two-part process: If water testing reveals levels above a certain benchmark, it triggers fish tissue testing.

The EPA signed off on the changes, but environmental groups sued. In October, all the parties reached an agreement that sent Kentucky’s selenium standard back to the EPA for reconsideration. Part of that involves consulting the Endangered Species Act, which the agency was required to do and hadn’t completed the first time around.

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A bill introduced by U.S. Sen. Rand Paul would allow Fort Knox to continue producing natural gas to power the Army base.

Almost a year ago, Fort Knox became the first U.S. base to generate all of its own electricity. The move was spurred by the region’s 2009 ice storm; parts of Fort Knox lost power for nearly a week and highlighted the national security need for the base to become self-sufficient.

“It was pretty devastating, and Fort Knox was without power for upwards of seven days in some places,” Fort Knox Energy Manager R.J Dyrdek said in March.

The transition was helped by the discovery of natural gas reserves under the property. Now, Fort Knox is powered by a mixture of solar power, on-site natural gas and geothermal. In 2013, the post unveiled the largest solar panel array on a military installation east of the Mississippi River.

Developing natural gas resources on federal lands usually falls to the Department of the Interior. The bill introduced last week by Paul, a Republican, would make Fort Knox an exception and allow the Department of Defense to keep producing natural gas to power the site.

J. Tyler Franklin, WFPL News

In one of his first community meetings since taking office, Gov. Matt Bevin spoke Friday with residents in Hazard about the decline of the coal industry and the area’s economic depression.

Kentucky has lost more than 11,000 coal industry jobs since 2009, and the Eastern Kentucky coalfields have been the hardest hit. Numerous factors have contributed to the decline: competition from natural gas, environmental regulations and rising production costs. But for the past eight years, many Kentucky politicians have placed the blame solely on President Barack Obama and his environmental policies.

Bevin largely stayed away from using the “war on coal” rhetoric* during his community meeting in Hazard, though he did include several pointed mentions of EPA “overreach” and blamed Obama for the region’s woes.

“The EPA and this current presidential administration have absolutely gutted coal,” Bevin said. “Our current president said he was going to bankrupt the coal industry, and boy has he worked his hardest to make sure he’s done exactly that. I tell you, the fall of 2016 can’t come soon enough as far as I’m concerned.”

Erica Peterson

The Kentucky Supreme Court denied a request on Wednesday by the Bluegrass Pipeline to consider an appeals court ruling that restricts eminent domain to regulated utilities in the state.

The Bluegrass Pipeline was originally proposed in 2013. It was a multi-state natural gas liquids pipeline that would have crossed 13 Kentucky counties, carrying NGLs from the Northeast to processing plants in the Gulf of Mexico. The project met a significant amount of grassroots opposition by residents concerned about safety issues and land and water contamination.

The pipeline company Williams officially put the project on hold in April 2014.

One of the factors that likely ultimately played into the Bluegrass Pipeline’s demise was the question of eminent domain. Kentucky law was murky on the subject. Williams representatives said they were confident the Bluegrass Pipeline would qualify, but some legal experts disagreed. Before the project was scuttled, a group of citizens calling themselves Kentuckians United to Restrain Eminent Domain filed a lawsuit, arguing that because it wasn’t a regulated utility, the Bluegrass Pipeline wouldn’t be eligible for eminent domain in Kentucky.

Erica Peterson

In the wake of Tuesday’s Supreme Court decision to temporarily halt the implementation of federal carbon dioxide regulations, the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet said it would also delay seeking public input on its compliance options.

The first deadline under the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan was supposed to be in September. That was the month states were required to either submit a plan to comply with the rules or declare their intention to follow a federal blanket plan.

Last month, Kentucky Energy Secretary Charles Snavely announced the cabinet would seek a two-year extension. The EPA requires states requesting an extension to gather public input on their compliance options, and Snavely said the cabinet would do that via listening sessions around the commonwealth.

Now, the rule has been stayed until legal challenges are resolved, which will likely push the plan’s timeline back.

Erica Peterson

The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to halt enforcement of federal carbon dioxide regulations until legal challenges to the rule are resolved.

The stay issued Tuesday evening is a blow to President Barack Obama’s Clean Power Plan, which sets individual carbon dioxide reduction goals for each state.

Kentucky is one of 29 states and state agencies challenging the legality of the regulations. That lawsuit is still pending in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, but the Supreme Court decision will effectively block the implementation of the rule until the lower court acts.

The 5-4 Supreme Court ruling is a victory for the Clean Power Plan’s opponents. Kentucky, for one, had sought the stay in an attempt to get the litigation settled before the state invested time and money in developing a compliance plan for the rule.

Kentucky joined the lawsuit under then-Attorney General Jack Conway, and current Attorney General Andy Beshear is continuing the state’s involvement. In a statement, Beshear praised the Supreme Court’s ruling.

Erica Peterson

U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers on Wednesday announced a bipartisan initiative to send $1 billion to coalfield communities.

The RECLAIM Act (which stands for Revitalizing the Economy of Coal Communities by Leveraging Local Activities and Investing More), is co-sponsored by Rogers and a bipartisan group of coalfields congressmen. The bill would send a billion dollars from the federal Abandoned Mine Reclamation Fund to help spur economic development in communities hurting from the downturn in the coal industry.

Rogers, a Republican from Somerset, represents much of Eastern Kentucky in the House.

“In Kentucky alone, we’ve lost more than 11,000 coal mining jobs since 2009. Instead of allowing those funds to go unused, now is the time to help our coal producing states reinvest in the coalfields with projects that can create new jobs and reinvigorate our economy,” Rogers said in a statement.

“Many coal communities in Appalachia simply do not have the resources to reclaim the abandoned mine sites within their borders. This bill allows these communities to be proactive in restoring these sites and utilize them to put our people back to work.”

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There’s still a lot of interest in the possibility of large-scale gas and oil drilling in Eastern Kentucky, but activity in the Rogersville Shale has slowed over the past few months.

The Rogersville Shale is a Cambrian-age formation that lies under much of Eastern Kentucky and extends into West Virginia. Over the past two years, speculation has grown that the shale play could be as big as or bigger than the Marcellus and Utica shales, which spurred a wave of interest in the region. Many landowners in Lawrence County, Kentucky, reported visits by landmen looking to lease their mineral rights.

Drilling into shale like the Rogersville requires large-scale hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. The technique involves injecting large quantities of water and sand into the wells to release more oil and gas.

Dave Harris of the Kentucky Geological Survey said so far, five test wells have been drilled into the Rogersville. Four of those are in Kentucky and one is in West Virginia.

Erica Peterson

Kentucky’s latest quarterly coal data continues a trend of bad news for the state’s coal industry.

The report released Monday by the Energy and Environment Cabinet shows in the fourth quarter of 2015, the state’s coal production dropped by more than 20 percent from 2014 levels. This puts Kentucky coal production at the lowest its been since 1954. Eastern Kentucky took the largest hit, losing a quarter of its capacity between 2014 and 2015.

With the decreased coal production came layoffs. More than 3,200 coal miners were laid off last year, with 1,000 losing their jobs in the fourth quarter of 2015 alone. As of December 31, 2015, there were only about 8,400 working coal miners in Kentucky.

And it seems unlikely that the industry has bottomed out. The report noted that most of Kentucky’s coal — 85 percent — goes to generate electricity at power plants in the Southeast. Three percent of that went to coal plants that retired in 2015. Another 13 percent went to plants that have announced their plans to retire units before 2019.

US Geological Survey, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

After a federal Court of Appeals rejected an industry-led challenge last month, a new federal rule to reduce coal miners’ exposure to dangerous dust goes into effect Monday.

In 2009, the Mine Safety and Health Administration began a campaign to end black lung disease, which is caused by breathing in large amounts of coal dust. The disease was in decline for decades but has experienced a recent resurgence.

“This disease is far from over,” MSHA Secretary Joe Main said. “Miners have suffered, families have suffered from this disease, and the time has come to fix this problem. And implementation of this rule will help us get there.”

Part of MSHA’s campaign includes federal rules to keep better track of the coal dust to which miners are exposed. Companies now have to take more dust samples, as well as sample for an entire shift. Over the next few months, coal miners working in the jobs with the most dust will have to wear small continuous personal dust monitors.

Kentucky State Government

Kentucky environmental advocates are worried that budget reductions called for by Gov. Matt Bevin will make it impossible for the Energy and Environment Cabinet to perform its basic functions.

In his first budget proposal since taking office last month, Bevin on Tuesday called for across-the-board 9 percent budget reductions to most state agencies.

From 2012-2016, the cabinet has already seen its budget reduced by nearly 16 percent, and has implemented those cuts in various departments.

The cabinet’s responsibilities include implementing and enforcing federal laws such as the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act, plus mine safety, surface mine permitting and reclamation, forestry, oil and gas regulation and preserving Kentucky’s wild areas.

What specific state agencies would be cut, and by how much, would be up to cabinet secretaries, Bevin said on Tuesday.

Erica Peterson

Two bills before the Kentucky House would change the way the state taxes coal that’s left in the ground.

The “unmined minerals tax” applies to minerals such as coal, gas, oil and limestone that aren’t currently being extracted.

The owner of the mineral rights pays taxes to the state every year. And that adds up to a substantial amount: In 2014, Kentucky collected more than $39 million from this tax. Most of that — $34 million — went to the individual counties where the minerals are. The remainder went to the state.

But with the decline of the coal industry, less coal is being mined in Eastern Kentucky. And when it’s not economical to mine the coal, mineral rights owners are still stuck paying taxes on coal they may never extract.

That’s why two Eastern Kentucky legislators — Democratic state Reps. Fitz Steele and John Short — have introduced separate bills to change that tax.

Tennessee Valley Authority

On Thursday, Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin announced his administration would seek an extension to comply with upcoming federal carbon dioxide regulations from power plans.

On the face of it, this isn’t surprising. Without an extension, the deadline to decide how Kentucky will reduce emissions is fast-approaching. It makes sense that the state would seek as much time as possible.

But piecing together the statement released by Bevin’s office and a brief interview I did with the Energy and Environment Cabinet raises more questions. While state regulators plan to ask the Environmental Protection Agency for two more years to consider their options, they seem opposed to every option that actually involves reducing the state’s carbon dioxide emissions.

The Clean Power Plan is calling for steep cuts in emissions from power plants. To do this, states have two options: Create a state plan or follow the federal plan.

There’s a third option Kentucky regulators are hoping for, which is that the judicial system overturns the regulation, and the EPA is forced to go back to the drawing board and spend years reformulating the regulations.

Tennessee Valley Authority

Kentucky regulators are seeking an extension for the state to comply with upcoming federal carbon dioxide regulations. But in order to do that, the state will have to show progress toward completing a state plan–a move that Governor Matt Bevin has been against in the past.

Bevin announced the move on Thursday.

The Environmental Protection Agency finalized the Clean Power Plan last year.  It sets carbon dioxide reduction goals for individual states and gives state regulators two options: to craft their own plans to meet the goals or follow a federal blanket plan.

Kentucky is tasked with reducing carbon dioxide nearly 31 percent from 2012 levels by 2030. The regulations target carbon dioxide from power plants, and coal-fired plants are heavy emitters. Because Kentucky still relies heavily on coal-fired power, most Kentucky politicians have panned the new rules.


A county in central Kentucky is poised to consider a zoning change that could affect a massive multi-state pipeline project.

Boyle County government will consider whether to require all hazardous liquids pipelines to receive permits from the county’s zoning board. That would create a hurdle if energy company Kinder Morgan’s conversion of the massive Tennessee Gas Pipeline moves forward.

The Tennessee Gas Pipeline isn’t new; it’s carried natural gas across 18 Kentucky counties for 70 years. But now, Kinder Morgan is seeking regulatory approval to change the pipeline. The proposal involves reversing the flow and converting it to carry natural gas liquids, rather than natural gas.

Natural Gas Liquids, or 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, and they’re worth money. But they’re also more hazardous than natural gas, and create different safety risks.

Because of this, NGL pipelines have been controversial in Kentucky. One large new project — the Bluegrass Pipeline — was put on hold in 2014 after substantial opposition.