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March 18, 2009

The environment in Frankfort

A slew of environmental and energy bills are headed to the governor’s desk

It seems the environment became synonymous with energy in Frankfort this legislative session, and it doesn’t appear to be a coincidence. In fact, some environmental advocates believe proponents of industries like coal and gas have hijacked environmentalism, tying their old industries to progressive ideas.

“We were all sort of put on the same train. A lot of us didn’t realize it was a coal-fired locomotive,” says Bruce Williams, legislative agent for the Kentucky Conservation Commission.

A number of environmental and energy-related bills sailed through the General Assembly, which is now in recess until March 26. At that point, Gov. Steve Beshear will have a chance to sign or veto the measures.

Under the auspices of an amended bill that would support innovations like biofuels produced from algae, two environmentally unsavory bills might make their way to the governor’s desk. The original measure, House Bill 537, looks like a comprehensive measure to overhaul Kentucky’s energy future at first glance. In reality, it’s about studying a renewable energy portfolio, not actually creating one. “It’s a bucket of warm spit,” says Williams, also a former deputy of the natural resources and environment cabinet.

That bill spawned two related pieces of legislation that Williams calls “shady bills.” The first, S.B. 13, would lift a 25-year ban on nuclear power plants, while S.B. 138 would create the framework to lease mineral rights on state-owned lands, and also allow oil and gas drilling on those properties.

The latter seems especially premature in light of another measure in the Senate — S.J.R. 67 — that would begin the year-long process of searching for oil and gas resources on state-owned and university-owned land. It would direct the Beshear administration’s new Department for Energy Development and Independence to work with the Kentucky Geological Survey at the University of Kentucky to identify and assess suitable lands for such an undertaking.

The initiative would seek out state parks, wildlife refuges and any other state property that might be ripe for drilling, according to David Harris, head of the energy and mineral section at the UK Geological Survey, which would conduct the research.

Scenic areas or those with endangered species would be safe, Harris says, although ecological and other environmental information that is not already available would not be under his purview. He added that the visual footprint of most oil and gas operations is minimal: “In most areas, you wouldn’t even notice it. Maybe a pipe sticking out of the ground or something like that.”

There are “quite a few” properties where oil and gas wells have been drilled right to the state property line, he says, so it is likely such reserves exist beyond those boundaries. There are currently more than 150,000 wells on record in the state, mostly in eastern and western Kentucky, plus an unknown number drilled before permitting procedures were in place.

There is also an effort to establish a Kentucky Natural Resource Caucus to support coal, oil and natural gas industries, also located primarily on the far ends of the state. Rep. John. A. Arnold, D-Sturgis, the sponsor of H.C.R. 141, says the intent is to put concerted muscle behind related bills, such as H.J.R. 116, which would give funding priority to coal-to-liquid facilities.

Despite energy’s domination, there are several truly environmental bills likely to pass. Among them is Senate Bill 27, which would create a development fund for brownfields, areas that are difficult to redevelop due to contamination. The forthcoming Kentucky Center for African American Heritage, for example, is located on a former trolley barn site in an old industrial corridor once deemed a brownfield.

Environmental groups and the University of Louisville have studied the cleanup of brownfields in recent years, says Susan Hamilton of Metro Economic Development, adding that she hopes to report on those results in the coming months.

But the Senate bill dealing with brownfields does not provide dedicated funding to help further those efforts. Instead, the money would come from nebulous sources, including “funds received from appropriations of the General Assembly” and “grants or donations.” In other words, it will come from somewhere, someday.

Rounding out the positives, H.B. 160 would require state agencies and state-supported institutions to report how much waste they recycle, and H.B. 215 would clean up the state’s environmental trust fund so that it includes “environmentally beneficial” projects and prohibits its use for routine permitting, monitoring and enforcement activities.