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Kentucky's Outgoing Energy Secretary Says State Must Take Action on Climate Change

Len Peters, secretary of the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet, will step down from his post next week, as Gov. Steve Beshear leaves office.

Peters has led the cabinet since 2008. He’s a chemical engineer by training, and before working in state government he led the Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. He’s also held academic and administrative positions at the University of Kentucky and Virginia Tech.

In an interview, Peters reflected on his tenure in the position.

Here are a few highlights:

On the immediate challenges his successor and Governor-elect Matt Bevin will face:

Peters said he believes the most pressing challenge is creating a plan to comply with upcoming federal carbon regulations. A state-specific plan for Kentucky to meet its federally imposed carbon goals is due in September.

“I will continue to advocate that Kentucky should figure out how it’s going to submit a plan so that we do not have a federal plan imposed on us,” he said. “Is it going to be painful? Yes, it can be painful. Is it possible? Yes, with a lot of work it’s possible. If we’re going to litigate, that’s fine, there may be reasons to litigate. But there’s also no reason we should not move forward with preparing a plan.”

On Kentucky’s flagging coal industry:

Peters said he wishes he had been able to predict how rapid the decline in coal production and employment would be. This is something he said pains him because of the personal toll to individuals and families in the Eastern and Western Kentucky coalfields.

“It’s not just regulations — the price of natural gas fell through the floor very, very quickly and the switch was on,” he said. “That rapid decline was something I’ve spent many, many hours thinking about, worrying about, and it’s one of those things I wish we would have been a little bit more able to predict that future. We knew it was there, we knew the slide was there, we didn’t know how rapid the slide was.”

On his legacy in Kentucky:

Peters said it’s not up to him to decide his legacy — that’ll be determined by what people are talking about years from now. But he cited two main achievements: bringing the state’s energy and environment programs under one roof for the first time, and opening a discussion on climate change in the state.

“I happen to have some scientific knowledge in that area [climate change], and I understand many of the scientific issues that are fairly obtuse at times, and I know we have to take some sort of action,” Peters said. “When your governor stands up there in front of an audience and says, ‘I am not a climate science denier,’ I think we have broadened that conversation, and I think that’s going to be one of the things I hope we’re remembered for.”

Peters’ last day in office is Dec. 7. Bevin’s transition team has not yet named his successor.

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