environment

Erica Peterson

A non-profit is recommending a Kentucky coal plant retire sooner than planned.

The Elmer Smith plant in Owensboro is old — it initially went into service in 1964. And over the past few years, it’s become a target for environmental groups, who point to the plant’s age and emissions, saying the upgrades it would take to comply with upcoming pollution regulations make it uneconomical to keep burning coal there.

At the request of the Sierra Club, the non-profit Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis studied several documents from Owensboro Municipal Utilities, which owns and operates the Elmer Smith plant. IEEFA concluded that retiring the plant’s two units sooner rather than later would be the least-cost option for ratepayers, and urged the utility to consider replacing the capacity with renewable energy.

Among the problems IEEFA Director of Resource Planning David Schissel flagged in his analysis of Elmer Smith was that the area’s demand for electricity has remained relatively flat since 2004. So since then, the plant has been producing more power than it needs to supply its ratepayers. OMU sells the excess power on the wholesale market, but for only a fraction of its cost.

Wikimedia Commons

A coalition of environmental groups is formally protesting the upcoming auction of federal lands in Western Kentucky for possible oil and gas drilling.

The administrative protest was filed last week by groups including the Center for Biological Diversity, the Kentucky Conservation Committee, the Sierra Club and others.

At issue is the proposed auction of 184 acres in Union County. The land is part of the Sloughs Wildlife Management Area; in total, the WMA is more than 11,000 acres owned by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and licensed to the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife. The Bureau of Land Management wants to auction off the land’s oil and gas leases in September, though they note that the leases won’t include any surface disturbance.

Kara Lofton, WVPB

People in West Virginia are still recovering from floods that tore through communities like vengeful gods. When you look at the pictures and videos of the June flood – thick, brown, furious, unrelenting – it’s not hard to imagine how our ancestors believed supernatural beings were behind the devastation.

Today, of course, we have better insight into the natural forces at work, and science shows us that the damage from nature’s wrath has a lot to do with human behavior.

The National Weather Service described the West Virginia disaster as a 1000-year event, a term meteorologists use to describe the rare probability of such extreme rains. Many scientists who study the climate, however, warn that our warming atmosphere is increasing the likelihood and severity of flooding disasters. Further, a review of emergency planning shows that while risk of extreme rainfall is on the rise in Kentucky, Ohio, and West Virginia, the states are not doing enough to prepare for the rising waters.

Bill Hughes

At a committee hearing on Tuesday, state lawmakers discussed how 400 tons of low-level radioactive waste ended up in a landfill in Estill County.

The waste is the result of backflow produced from the natural gas extraction method called horizontal hydraulic fracturing, or, “fracking.”

Earlier this year, state officials acknowledged that the waste from fracking sites in West Virginia ended up in Irvine, Kentucky’s Blue Ridge Landfill, which is operated by Advanced Disposal.

The company has said it didn’t knowingly accept any illegal waste.

Estill County Judge Executive Wallace Taylor said that waste from the deep-drilling process needs to be better regulated.

“We cannot let some large corporation come in and think they can push over what some think as hillbillies,” Taylor said during a Natural Resources and Environment committee hearing on Tuesday.

Erica Peterson

There are lots of factual ways to describe coal: carbon-rich, abundant, fossil fuel. But Republicans would like to add one more to the list: clean.

In the national GOP’s draft platform — leaked earlier this week — the party lays out its position on a number of issues, including the role it believes coal should play in America’s energy production. The share of U.S. electricity produced by coal is at the lowest point in more than half a century; in 2015, it accounted for 33 percent of U.S. electricity generation.

Coal’s recent problems have been numerous: It’s getting harder to reach reserves in Appalachia, it’s facing competition from cheaper natural gas, and utilities are choosing to retire older coal-fired plants rather than update them to comply with new environmental regulations.

But the Republican draft platform doubles down on coal.

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.

Creative Commons

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.”

Bill Hughes

This piece was produced in partnership with the Center for Public Integrity, a nonpartisan, nonprofit investigative news organization.

The energy that lights up, turns on, cools and heats our lives leaves a trail of waste. Natural gas is no exception. The waste from the gas drilling known as “fracking” is often radioactive. The gas industry produces thousands of tons of this “hot” waste and companies and state regulators throughout the Ohio River valley and Marcellus Shale gas region struggle to find safe ways to get rid of it.

Last August a convoy of trucks carrying a concentrated form of this waste traveled from northern West Virginia to Irvine, Kentucky. The small town in Estill County lies near the Kentucky River, where Appalachian hills give way to rolling farm country.

The trucks were headed for a municipal waste facility called Blue Ridge Landfill. Just across Highway 89 from the landfill is the home where Denny and Vivian Smith live on property where their ancestors have lived since the 1800s.

“This is our home place,” Vivian Smith said from her sun porch. “This is roots for us.”

Creative Commons

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.

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.

Pages