Environment

The three Republican candidates for Kentucky governor were in agreement on several issues during a debate last week sponsored by the Kentucky Press Association. All oppose the use of eminent domain for companies not regulated by the state Public Service Commission, and all are in favor of allowing large-scale hydraulic fracturing (fracking) in Kentucky.

Agriculture Commissioner James Comer, former Louisville mayoral candidate Hal Heiner and former state Supreme Court justice Will T. Scott participated in Friday’s forum. Democratic candidate Geoff Young was there, too. Kentucky Attorney General Jack Conway has also filed to run as a Democrat, but didn’t attend the forum.

Eminent domain issues were thrust to the forefront in Kentucky politics in 2013, when a company proposed building a natural gas liquids pipeline across the state. The Bluegrass Pipeline developers said they would only seek eminent domain as a last resort, but believed they had the ability to condemn property for the pipeline under Kentucky law. The issue is currently before the Kentucky Court of Appeals. The Bluegrass Pipeline has since been put on hold, but another company is considering converting an existing pipeline to carry NGLs.

Heiner, Scott and Comer said that companies not regulated by the Public Service Commission shouldn’t have the power of eminent domain.

Scott said in the case of high-pressure lines carrying materials like NGLs, people should have the right to decide whether it goes through their land.

“There’s a lot of reasons people are afraid of it and there’s a lot of reasons where you take extra care in how you place it,” he said, citing the risk of explosion. “But hey, the market can handle this. Believe me, if somebody in one farm doesn’t want it and it’s important to us commercially, they’ll get another way around it and everybody gets their right and nobody loses their land.”

But even amid a discussion of natural gas and natural gas byproducts, candidates kept steering the conversation to coal.

Agriculture Commissioner James Comer said the proposed pipelines—to carry natural gas liquids from drilling fields in the Northeast to the Gulf of Mexico—wouldn’t be an issue at all if the Obama administration hadn’t pursued stricter environmental regulations on coal mining and burning.

“We wouldn’t have to have the pipeline if President Obama wasn’t trying to cram unfair, overburdensome environmental regulations down the throats of our utilities,” he said.

(Environmental regulations are playing a role in making coal less competitive in the marketplace, but there are other factors, too. Natural gas is abundant and cheap, due to technology like hydraulic fracturing, and coal reserves are declining in Eastern Kentucky.)

Then, someone in the audience asked the candidates about fracking, and whether they’d support fracking in Kentucky. As WFPL reported earlier this month, speculation has begun in Eastern Kentucky about whether shale gas buried two miles underground would be profitable to extract. If gas drillers begin tapping the Rogersville Shale, they’ll need to use hydraulic fracking like what’s used in Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia.

All three candidates said they supported fracking in Kentucky. For Comer and Scott, their support included a caveat: cheap, abundant natural gas is great, but cheap, abundant coal is better. Both men used the opportunity to repeat their support of the state’s beleaguered coal industry.

Heiner pointedly did not talk about the coal industry, and stuck to the topic at hand.

“In our current oil and gas industry in Kentucky, permitting is not handled in Kentucky, we do not have primacy,” he said. “I would move to bring primacy of permitting here to Kentucky. The estimates are we’d have another 300-400 people today working in the oil and gas industry, in good jobs, if we had primacy in permitting.”

But Heiner is incorrect about state regulators not issuing permits for oil and gas drilling. Kentucky actually regulates almost every detail of oil and gas permitting.The only federal permit operators need are for underground injection wells, which are used for enhanced oil recovery or disposing of brine water.

In an email sent Monday, a campaign spokesman said Heiner was referring to those injection wells in his comment.