As Some States Refuse IRA Money, Cities Search for Work-Arounds

After Kentucky failed to apply for funding, the state’s largest metro areas worked to create new climate goals anyway

By Austyn Gaffney

September 6, 2023

illustration of a large shoe stepping on a bill held by a small man

Brent Childers, director of Neighborhood and Community Services for Bowling Green, Kentucky, didn’t know his community could receive a historic amount of funding to create a climate action plan until the city got calls from reporters and other interested parties last spring. “We didn’t know we were eligible,” Childers said during a phone interview in August.

Bowling Green, one of the three largest metro areas in Kentucky, qualifies to receive up to $1 million from the EPA’s Climate Pollution Reduction Grant Program under the Inflation Reduction Act, the historic climate law passed a year ago. The program, which includes $250 million in funding, launched March 1. Officials had a month to submit a notice of intent to participate; after that notice, states could receive up to $3 million in funding, and metropolitan areas up to $1 million, to create climate action plans. The non-competitive grants are part of a treasure trove of funding created by the sweeping climate-action law. But the funding will only create more resilient communities if it’s actually used.

Childers was blindsided by the opportunity because officials in his state have decided to forgo the funding provided under IRA. While 46 states applied for the funding, four did not: Florida, Iowa, Kentucky, and South Dakota.

Childers said after the state failed to apply, no state officials communicated with the City of Bowling Green or worked with city staff on their application. “Since there was no communication that the state had denied [the grant],” Childers said, “we didn’t know this thing existed.”

Climate change is politically polarizing here in the United States, and so it’s no surprise that states controlled by Republicans are spurning the federal dollars, even in Kentucky, where the Democratic governor’s administration failed to apply for the grant. IRA’s authors anticipated such resistance, and so they included in the law a provision that allows the largest metro areas in any state to apply for IRA funds independently of their state governments—a work-around designed to avoid a repeat of the way in which some states have opted out of provisions of the Obama-era Affordable Care Act. When Florida, Iowa, Kentucky, and South Dakota chose not to participate in the Inflation Reduction Act, funding defaulted to the three largest metro areas in those states, which had another month to apply for “regional” planning grants that included a flagship city and surrounding counties.

According to the grant application received through an open records request, the Bowling Green officials asked for almost $1 million to cover almost 180,000 people in a four-county region. Their application included funds for a climate monitoring site for greenhouse gas emissions, a part-time staff position, and support funds for initiatives in three partner counties. Childers said Bowling Green would have to branch out to larger metro areas to bring in outside talent for the climate action plan.

The grant didn’t start a conversation around emissions in Bowling Green—Childers said the city had been working on energy efficiency programs to lower its power usage over the past decade, including retrofitting his own office into an Energy Star building—but it accelerated one. The grant application said the city planned to target emissions from the transportation sector, electricity production and distribution, and land use like agriculture and forestry.

“But when you look at what the projects are, [they require] an expertise that we just don’t have here on staff,” Childers said. Bowling Green does not have a climate, environmental, or sustainability office. He said the application was geared toward larger metro areas, which is why the city consulted with the state’s two largest metro areas, Lexington and Louisville, on their applications.

“I understand it [climate change] is a political topic,” Childers said. “We acknowledge that, but we look at it as how we can best make it work in this community, where we understand the context of the community we work in and how we can make it successful here.”

The rationale for declining the IRA funding differs among states. In April, the Iowan paper The Gazette reported that Debi Durham, director of the Iowa Finance Authority and Iowa Economic Development Authority, supported Governor Kim Reynolds’ decision not to pursue the funding, telling the finance authority, “The reason why was because the strings attached to it are not things I believe we’re in a position to meet.” Instead of creating a new climate action plan with federal dollars, the state would continue implementing the 2016 Iowa Energy Plan.

The 2016 plan mentions climate change only to encourage local governments to adopt local policies “such as climate protection or sustainability goals,” but does not include a statewide plan for lowering carbon pollution. Instead, the plan recommends that Iowa “adopt voluntary, nonbinding targets for renewable energy generation.”

Brian Campbell, director of the Iowa Environmental Council, told Axios the 2016 plan should be updated, adding that Iowa’s decision meant “rural communities where environmental projects could have substantial influence on jobs and lower energy bills will be left out.”

In South Dakota, Rapid City authorized staff to apply for funding while the City of Sioux Falls eventually rejected the funding. Sioux Falls mayor Paul TenHaken wrote in The Dakota Scout that Sioux Falls declined to participate because the grant would “tie our hands to goals and targets set within the plan” and “take away the focus from the city’s current and planned sustainability efforts,” which include a riparian buffer along the Big Sioux River Watershed, community gardens, electric vehicle purchasing, and replacing street lights with LED lightbulbs.

TenHaken wrote that while he did not deny a changing climate, “protecting and conserving our environment has unfortunately become a polarizing and political topic.” A lack of regional collaboration, TenHaken argued, was an insurmountable obstacle to seeking the federal funds.

“Regional participation is key to making a difference in targeted goals regarding greenhouse gas emissions,” TenHaken wrote in his opinion piece, adding that the effort needed to be much larger than Sioux Falls. “None of our regional partners or regional elected leaders were supportive of participating.”

Of the four states that have declined to pursue IRA monies, Kentucky is the only one without a Republican governor. But Governor Andy Beshear, up for reelection against Republican state attorney general and climate denier Daniel Cameron in November, has been quiet on climate throughout his time in office, even after West Kentucky faced historic tornadoes and East Kentucky faced historic flooding, disasters that together claimed the lives of 126 Kentuckians.

Because the statewide funding was declined, areas of Kentucky that don’t include counties adjacent to the three largest metropolitan areas will not see any of the climate action plan funding or future funding opportunities provided by the grant program. The state’s last climate action plan was created in 2011; it called on the state to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent below 1990 levels by 2030.

John Mura, communications director for Kentucky’s Energy and Environment Cabinet, told Sierra in an email that the Beshear administration is applying for and receiving federal grants to boost efforts to build a better Kentucky. “In this instance, local governments are best situated to apply for and administer the Climate Pollution Reduction Grant funds. While the Commonwealth did not pursue this funding, it opened the door for the cities of Louisville, Lexington, and Bowling Green to participate.… While not administered at the state level, the funding will still be hard at work in the Commonwealth,” Mura wrote.

Instead of the state having a climate action plan, Mura said it had an “energy strategy” called Kentucky E3 that prioritizes energy, the environment, and the economy and includes working with “communities and businesses to help them meet their energy goals, including those that are centered around climate change.”

Mura highlighted the governor’s focus on hydrogen as “part of the future of economic development in the Commonwealth,” along with nuclear. He also pointed to the state’s Home Energy Rebates Program that has administered $131 million to improve energy efficiency, among other projects.

When asked to comment on how the cabinet assisted cities in their applications, Mura said the grant was through EPA’s Region 4 and that office was in touch with applicants. “We will happily assist communities with information and support services. We definitely want to see them attain their goals,” Mura wrote in an email.    

But officials with the cities of Lexington and Louisville say that, like Bowling Green, they did not receive any direct communication from the state about the historic grant opportunity. State officials did not answer additional questions on why they did not work with cities to pursue IRA grants, or when the state planned to update its own climate action plan. 

“It would’ve been a very promising and coordinated statewide effort if they would’ve applied,” said Sumedha Rao, executive director of the Mayor’s Office of Sustainability in Louisville. She spoke to peer cities in Indiana and Ohio that were doing far more statewide coordination. While Rao said she’s excited that her office is able to assist such a large fraction of Kentucky’s population, a lot of smaller counties won’t see any benefits. Rao also said there are state-level impediments to a climate action plan, like state-controlled utilities and the building codes that determine how much energy efficiency and sustainable principles are included in building projects.

“It would’ve been helpful for the state to be a more direct partner on efforts,” Rao said.

When the state declined the funding, Rao collaborated with Bowling Green and Lexington on funding and shared best practices for their applications. All three metro areas, encompassing 20 of Kentucky’s 120 counties, and about one-third of the state’s population, applied. (None of Kentucky’s three metro areas have yet heard back from the EPA about the status of their applications; they expect to learn more this fall.)

Jada Walker Griggs, senior program manager for sustainability for the City of Lexington, the state’s second-largest metro area, said she initially emailed the state when she heard about the grant, but she recalled state officials saying they didn’t have the bandwidth to apply. She expressed concern that the state is missing out on the federal money. If all three metro areas receive their funding but do not spend it all, the funding goes back to the EPA for another state to spend. Had the state itself applied, it could have funneled excess funding into the metro areas now applying for a piece of the pie.

One of the biggest tasks in creating a climate action plan is starting or updating a greenhouse gas inventory. Louisville, for example, completed a greenhouse gas inventory in 2016, but Rao said it’s outdated. Lexington’s baseline is 2007, and the city is currently in the process of updating the inventory for a 2021 baseline.

Lexington’s plan for a resilient community—the Empowered Lexington Plan—is also out of date, Griggs said, and the funding will provide an opportunity to create new region-wide climate goals. The plan’s 2012 goals—to reduce emissions by 1 percent annually on a voluntary basis—have never been quantified. Griggs, who has been in her position for a year, is the only employee in the Lexington Fayette County Urban Government solely focused on sustainability.

“Ultimately, our goal is to make a change when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions,” said Griggs, along with “reducing the waste and energy usage that’ll make our state more resilient.”

“This is an exciting time for cities and states with all of IRA funding for any environmental initiative, so we’re trying to do our best to get funding for our communities,” Rao said.