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A Look Back at the Year in the Environment

“This was the year where climate change went from being controversial to being conventional."Attorney Tom Fitzgerald heads the Kentucky Resources Council.  He says the so-called “debate” about the science behind climate change faded away this year.  And leaders are facing up to its realities.  For instance, in the state legislature, Fitzgerald says lawmakers put forth several bills aimed at fighting global warming, including one to provide tax credits for energy efficiency projects.“Kentucky actually made some significant strides in the area of energy efficiency, in the area of climate change, and in the area of environmental policy," says Fitzgerald.But Fitzgerald says the biggest lost opportunity for the environment this year was the lack of any national legislation dealing with climate change.  And as the economy worsens, Fitzgerald says he’s worried the focus will turn away from environmental issues.  He says funding for Kentucky’s environmental programs is already tight.“The big constraint and the big concern now on the environmental front are the serial reductions in budget that have been inflicted on the Energy and Environment Cabinet," says Fitgerald.Fitzgerald says the cabinet was already laboring under a reduced budget when the most recent financial crisis hit.  And tighter funding will mean, for example, that the Cabinet won’t be able to step up surface mining inspections.  When it comes to mining, mountaintop removal remained a big story in 2008—in Kentucky and worldwide.  The BBC sent reporters to document the practice this year.  Several books have just been published on the topic.  And a new, controversial rule that loosens regulations for placing mine waste in valley streams drew the public ire of several Appalachian governors—including Kentucky’s Steve Beshear.   But despite the attention, Kentucky Sierra Club spokeswoman Betsy Bennett says the practice continued to damage water quality in mountain communities.“With every valley fill permit that’s been issued for a mountaintop removal site, we’ve lost more streams in Kentucky," says Bennett.Recently released Environmental Protection Agency data shows that more than a thousand miles of streams have already been buried with debris.  And Bennett says her group is looking to the incoming presidential administration to address the issue.  Journalists will be watching, too.  Society for Environmental Journalists co-founder Bud Ward says many reporters believe Obama will be the president to tackle the biggest environmental issue heading into 2009: global warming.“And I think there’s reason to be optimistic at this point that the commitment may be real, and not just posturing.  Nonetheless it’s going to require extraordinary leadership, at all levels," Ward says.And Ward says it will require keeping global warming front and center.  He says environmental media coverage in 2008 helped to accomplish that, although it evolved to reflect several related crises that hit this year.“I think it started the year as the biggest environmental story.  In mid-08, it became part of the energy story,"says Ward.And now Ward says it has become part of the economic crisis story.  Concerns are mounting over whether the economy will trump environmental issues, or even cause environmental funding to dry up.   What’s more, keeping environmental stories in front of readers and listeners may be more difficult in 2009. Ward says that with so many newsroom cuts nationwide, environmental news could fall to the bottom of the news editor’s list.

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