environment

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.

Wikimedia Commons

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.

WFPL News

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.

Flickr/Creative Commons/John Karwoski

Citing concerns over pricing and pollution, the Obama administration unveiled a moratorium on new coal leases on federal lands Friday. The change won’t affect existing leases — which generated nearly $1.3 billion for the government last year.

NPR’s Jeff Brady reports:

“The moratorium will remain in place while the Department of the Interior reviews whether fees charged to mining companies provides a fair return and considers coal’s effect on the environment. Leases already awarded are not affected.”

Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell announced the change in a conference call Friday morning. Before that call, an administration official confirmed details of the plan to Jeff.

During what her agency is calling a “pause” in issuing leases, Jewell said Friday, “we’ll make accommodations in the event of emergency circumstances to ensure this pause will have no material impact on the nation’s ability to meet its power generation needs.”

In addition to analyzing the return American taxpayers are earning on the use of natural resources, the Interior Department says it’ll also review coal’s public health impacts.

Last year, Jewell called for a new discussion of the coal program, focusing on the fairness of prices charged for coal leases and other concerns at five public meetings.

Years of litigation against an Eastern Kentucky coal company for thousands of Clean Water Act violations were resolved late Monday. Environmental groups hailed the $6 million settlement agreement with Frasure Creek Mining and the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet as “historic.”

The Frasure Creek story is a long and complicated one. In 2010, environmental groups found inconsistencies in the water quality reports the company is required to submit to the state. They found missing reports and identical water quality measurements reported from one quarter to another, even though it’s virtually impossible for the numbers to remain the same.

The groups, including Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, Appalachian Voices, the Waterkeeper Alliance and others, announced their intention to sue the company for the violations. But before they could, the state cabinet stepped in and initiated a lawsuit. In total, there were four lawsuits filed against Frasure Creek over the past five years for similar violations.

An attempt to reach a settlement in one of the cases last year was rejected by Franklin County Circuit Judge Phillip Shepherd. In his order, Shepherd said the proposed penalty of $310,000 was insufficient.

Incoming governor Matt Bevin has appointed retired coal executive Charles Snavely as secretary of the Energy and Environment Cabinet.

Snavely most recently served as the president of eastern U.S. operations for Arch Coal, the second-largest coal producer in the country.

In a statement, Bevin said Snavely’s professionalism and leadership experience are well-known in the industry.

“Charles understands the balance we must maintain between the commonwealth’s need for low-cost, reliable energy and the need for clean water and air for all Kentuckians,” Bevin said.

TVA

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.

Flickr/Creative Commons/DL Duncan

Kentucky lawmakers are criticizing the federal Clean Power Plan, which will place the first-ever national carbon dioxide restrictions on existing power plants.

Released earlier this month, the federal plan orders Kentucky  to reduce power plant carbon emissions by 31 percent by 2030. The EPA’s final rules were much more stringent than the 18 percent reduction outlined in a previous draft version.

The Environmental Protection Agency predicts Kentucky will meet the standards a decade early due to market pressures and current regulations on the coal industry. But Eastern Kentucky lawmakers on Monday said the new regulations would cripple the already ailing coal industry in the region.

“It infuriates me what’s happening to our people in East Kentucky,” said House Majority Leader Rocky Adkins, a Democrat from Sandy Hook, at a legislative committee meeting in Frankfort.

Because of the limits on carbon emissions, the plan will require the state to turn to new forms of power generation, especially natural gas and renewable energy.

Kentucky LRC

The new co-chairman of the Kentucky legislature’s subcommittee on energy says he would support a lawsuit against the federal government’s new regulations on carbon emissions.  

House speaker Greg Stumbo has appointed State Representative Gerald Watkins (D-Paducah) to share the co-chairmanship with State Senator Jared Carpenter (R-Berea).  

Watkins says the subcommittee has plenty of issues on its plate, but one of the main concerns is the status of Kentucky’s coal industry and how it may be affected by new federal regulations on carbon emissions.

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