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Climate-denying House committee chair wants Kentucky to be a fossil fuel ‘sanctuary state'

Senate Pres
Sylvia Goodman
Senate President Robert Stivers from Manchester, Sen. Robby Mills from Henderson and Sen. Stephen West from Paris present their bill to add more hurdles to process for retiring power plants at the House Natural Resources and Energy committee Thursday.

A joint resolution that passed the House natural resources committee Thursday would direct the state’s environmental authority to defy federal rules for fossil fuel power plants.

Lawmakers are putting large sums of federal funding at risk with a resolution that would declare Kentucky a ‘sanctuary state’ for fossil-fueled power plants.

House Joint Resolution 121 says the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is “overreaching” its regulatory power. It would also prohibit the state’s environmental cabinet from enforcing federal air quality standards related to power plants.

Kentucky’s climate change-denying House natural resources chair Rep. Jim Gooch of Providence is lead sponsor for House Joint Resolution 121.

Gooch said Thursday that he received a letter that actually enacting the measure could lead to a federal government takeover.

“They were saying that if we pass this, that the federal government would come down on us and actually take primacy away from us, and take over our enforcement of environmental law,” Gooch said. “And you know what, they are absolutely right, they will do that.”

Gooch said he believed that was unfair because other states have passed sanctuary state laws to protect undocumented immigrants.

The measure passed committee Thursday and now moves to the House floor for a vote. Gooch said he was unsure the resolution would move much further in the legislative process.

Lexington Democrat Rep. Lindsey Burke called the resolution “an embarrassment” to Kentucky and Louisville Democrat Rep. Daniel Grossberg alluded to the Civil War.

“I'm not comfortable with going down the road of nullifying federal laws that we don't like,” Grossberg said. “It sets a dangerous precedent. It didn't work out well 170 years ago.”

In the same hearing, lawmakers discussed allowing fossil-fueled power plants to pollute beyond federal standards, they also passed a bill which would create more hoops for utilities to jump through before they could retire fossil-fueled power plants.

The Republicans pushing for the legislation say it's necessary to protect the state’s grid reliability and blamed the federal government for pushing the transition to greener, cleaner energy sources.

Earth has warmed about 2 degrees Fahrenheit coinciding with the rise of the industrial revolution and coal power in particular. The world’s leading body on climate scientists say humankind must cut carbon emissions nearly in half by 2030 in order to avoid a planet inhospitable to civilization and many existing ecosystems.

GOP Senate President and bill co-sponsor Robert Stivers said the legislation is designed to plan for Kentucky’s energy needs into the future through the creation of an “independent” energy commission that would review all requests to shut down existing power plants. That would be an added step on top of the existing Public Service Commission approval process.

“They will look at all sources, but particularly to make sure what we have right now is not taken offline too fast,” Stivers said.

The bill’s sponsors claimed that the executive branch has failed to come up with an energy plan for the state. That is not true. In 2021, Beshear unveiled his energy strategy called Kentucky E3, which is an all-of-the-above approach that includes fossil fuels.

Kentucky still gets about 68% of its electricity generation from coal and another 23% from natural gas, according to the resolution. Less than 1% comes from wind and solar power. The commission that the bill creates would be stacked with fossil fuel representatives and only one representative for all renewable energies. While the governor would select the members of the commission, they would need to gain Senate approval.

GOP Rep. Tom Smith from Corbin argued the legislation wouldn’t necessarily stop utilities from investing in alternative energy sources — like nuclear power — but it would force them to further justify any moves away from fossil fuels.

“You're not ruling out energy in any form, you're basically going to try to keep it on a pace to make sure that we have energy that we have as the most affordable,” Smith said. “And what we've heard testified is that fossil is a part of that play right now.”

Louisville Gas & Electric and Kentucky Utilities, and Duke Energy are both actively fighting the bill, saying it would lead to higher energy costs and could force them to keep open ineffective and uneconomical plants that need to be shuttered.

“The group is neither configured nor intended to be an unbiased group formed for the purpose of considering Kentucky's energy future,” said John Crockett, the president of LG&E and KU. “Claiming to promote reliability, it is instead stacked with special interests almost entirely without expertise in forecasting, generating or delivering electric energy to Kentucky customers.”

Kentucky Electric Cooperatives and East Kentucky Power Cooperative, however, supported the legislation. David Sanford from East Kentucky Power said he felt it was necessary to maintain the reliability of the grid.

“It is very important that we have the resources to be able to protect the grid here in Kentucky and to be able to meet our native load if we want to be able to advance economic development,” Sanford said.

State government and politics reporting is supported in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Ryan Van Velzer is the Kentucky Public Radio Managing Editor. Email Ryan at rvanvelzer@lpm.org.
Sylvia is the Capitol reporter for Kentucky Public Radio, a collaboration including Louisville Public Media, WEKU-Lexington, WKU Public Radio and WKMS-Murray. Email her at sgoodman@lpm.org.
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