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Kentucky's New Energy Chief Described as 'Pragmatic'

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Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin's pick to lead the state Energy and Environment Cabinet was praised Tuesday by a Lexington mining engineer, and one of Kentucky’s most prominent environmental attorneys was cautiously hopeful.

Charles Snavely, a mining engineer and a former coal executive, was announced Monday as the next secretary of the Energy and Environment Cabinet.

Most recently, Snavely was the president of eastern U.S. operations for Arch Coal. Before that, he worked for International Coal Group, and was a vice president with that company when a dozen miners were killed in the Sago Mine in West Virginia. Federal inspectors determined a lightning strike led to the explosion in the mine, though several safety failings contributed.

“To properly regulate an industry, you need to know something about it,” said Steve Gardner, president of ECSI, a Lexington-based mining engineering firm.

Gardner knows Snavely professionally.

“I know he’s taken some criticism from environmental activists. I heard the one quote from one gentleman who said ‘it’s the fox guarding the hen house,’ and I would take strong exception to that," Gardner said. "You’ve got somebody guarding the hen house who knows something about the hens."

As secretary of the Energy and Environment Cabinet, Snavely will oversee the state’s coal mine safety programs, as well as the state government divisions that regulate oil, gas and forestry operations, environmental protection programs and the Department for Energy Development and Independence.

According to SEC filings, Snavely’s salary at ICG in 2010 — the most recent year available — was $331,154. In his new role, Snavely will likely take a large pay cut; former Energy and Environment Cabinet Secretary Len Peters’ salary was just over $140,600.

Tom FitzGerald of the Kentucky Resources Council said he doesn’t know Snavely personally but has been told by people he respects that Snavely is a pragmatic person and open to other perspectives.

Snavely’s background in large coal companies may mean he has an accurate understanding of the challenges facing Kentucky’s coal industry, FitzGerald said. Most large coal companies and utilities have moved away from the “war on coal” rhetoric and included comprehensive explanations of all the market factors working against the coal industry, which include cheap natural gas prices and declining reserves in addition to environmental regulations.

“It’s the shale gas revolution and the increasing cost of production from certain coalfields that has really been what has hammered Eastern Kentucky,” FitzGerald said.

But there are several major energy and environment-related challenges facing Snavely and Bevin. One is whether to submit a state plan for compliance with new federal carbon dioxide regulations to the Environmental Protection Agency.

“The Clean Power Plan is going to be a big challenge,” Gardner said.

Before his election, Bevin indicated Kentuckywouldn’t submit a plan and would instead ignore federal environmental laws.

“And that makes great copy and great soundbites, but the reality is if you default on preparing a state plan, EPA will in fact put together a federal plan,” FitzGerald said. “And that federal plan may have more significant consequences than a state-advised plan.”

The deadline for the state to submit a plan is next September, though state officials could submit an outline and ask for an extension.

Another challenge Snavely will face is delegating sufficient funds to the Energy and Environment Cabinet. Environmental protection programs in particularhave been cut significantly in the past decade, and FitzGerald said they've reached the point where regulators don't have enough resources to do their jobs.

“[State regulators] are marginally capable of running these programs. And I think absent some additional funding of these programs, some additional attention to these programs, that I think you may see a loss of the state’s ability to manage these programs," said FitzGerald, who added that with the Kentucky Resources Council, he’s worked with every administration since 1982. He also said he wants Snavely to succeed.

In theory, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Office of Surface Mining could take away the federal programs Kentucky regulators oversee. But Gardner said he would be surprised if that happened.

“That’s always a threat in the background, but from a realistic standpoint, EPA and OSM are not in a position to take over state programs,” he said.

Regardless, Gardner and FitzGerald agree that Snavely’s new job isn’t an easy one.

“I am confident that Charles will be able to handle the job,” Gardner said. “He’s a very no-nonsense type of manager, and the type of guy who will get in and study the issues and delegate to the appropriate people to handle the details.”