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One on One with Kentucky’s New Energy & Environment Secretary

Charles Snavely says, “I boil down why our Cabinet exists into a three-point philosophy. First, we exist to enforce the laws. Second, our purpose is to keep people safe and healthy. But at the same time, the third thing we strive for is to help the business community to the extent that it doesn’t compromise our purpose and our reason for being here.”

As Snavely begins his term as Kentucky’s newest Energy and Environment Cabinet secretary, he’s discovering how complicated making that all work can be.

“As a Cabinet we’re in the business of trying to keep everything in the middle—we want to have a healthy environment that’s safe for our people to live in, but we also want people to be able to work in good jobs so they can feed their families,” Snavely says. “This is very important to us because almost half of the electricity produced in Kentucky is used in manufacturing. That’s where a lot of good jobs are, so this is a very important policy issue for Kentucky.”

Leading the way
Snavely’s calendar is a scheduling marvel, filled with meetings with business leaders, environmental activists, Governor Matthew Bevin, trade associations, and civic organizations, plus speaking engagements. Amid all this, he must provide leadership to the scientists, technicians, and other highly skilled professionals who carry out the work of the Department for Environmental Protection (that’s 750 people) and the Department of Natural Resources (another 700)—and provide administrative guidance for the independent Public Service Commission (80 people).

With a background in the private sector (he recently retired from a 35-year career focused on mining engineering and coal), Snavely’s introduction to the day-to-day world of state government has been eye-opening. “It’s been a pleasure to find out how hard all the people in this Cabinet work,” Snavely says. “The time and effort these folks spend on doing their jobs right is admirable.”

Snavely thinks this is especially valuable considering how difficult  the circumstances are. “We work right in the middle of the most complex issues of our time,” he says. “We are at the center where politics and policy and regulations all meet.

“It’s important for people in Kentucky to know just how much improvement we’ve had in our air quality since the Clean Air Act started in the 1970s. Things are much better today than ever before,” Snavely says.

As he considers past success, Snavely is also concerned about the future. “In the four months I’ve been in this job I’ve learned a lot about just how much of what we do is dictated by the federal government. But if, as a nation, we keep layering on even more environmental rules, doing these things will cost money. If recent history can predict the future, the continual desire for more environmental controls will cause the price of electricity to increase. Any increase in the price of electricity is most difficult for our lowest income families—and I don’t think that is discussed enough.”

See portions of the interview with Charles Snavely

What’s next for the Clean Power Plan?
During my April visit with Secretary Snavely we talked about the EPA’s Clean Power Plan. Originally rolled out in August 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a “stay” on February 9, 2016, due to lawsuits. While states do not need to file a plan by September 6 to tell the federal government how they will reduce carbon emissions from the electric utility sector, that is far from the end of the story.

The EPA’s plan is so complicated—and so different from anything ever seen before coming from Washington—reaction has been strong from both Democrats and Republicans in Kentucky. In the final days of the Steve Beshear (D) administration, Kentucky joined a multi-state coalition to file suit in federal court challenging the legality of the EPA’s plan.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit is now set to have oral arguments on September 27, 2016, with a decision unlikely until winter or early spring 2017. The Supreme Court is ultimately expected to hear appeals in 2017.

Consequently, with the lawsuits pushing well past the September 6 deadline, the stay hits the “pause” button, but this is only temporary. With compliance deadlines uncertain, this does not mean that Kentucky can forget about the whole thing.

Changing circumstances
Governor Matt Bevin (R) made clear his opposition to the EPA’s requirement for Kentucky to submit a detailed plan for reducing carbon emissions. As a candidate to succeed Beshear (R), Bevin said, “As a state, we will not comply. As governor, I will not submit that plan.”

What will Kentucky do if, after all the lawsuits are heard, the U.S. Supreme Court allows the Clean Power Plan to go forward?

Secretary Snavely says, “Before the stay was issued, Governor Bevin and I found that all of our constituents, from the environmental side, the utility side, and the business side, all wanted us to file a plan of some sort. The reason for that is, no one believes that the federal government can do a better job of regulating anything in the commonwealth than we can do ourselves.

 “We also found that because of other environmental rules in effect,” explains Snavely, “we’ve already gone a long way toward meeting the requirements of the Clean Power Plan. I believe time is on our side to meet the carbon dioxide reductions without doing anything drastic.”

We’ll explore Kentucky’s changing carbon emissions with Secretary Snavely in more detail in a future column.

Nancy Grant from the July 2016 issue Wade Harris

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