Twenty years from now, Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes and Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell will probably look silly and shortsighted. Kentucky’s major candidates for the U.S. Senate are competing to see which one can bury themselves more deeply in coal.
The candidates are competing to see which one can object more strongly to President Obama’s plan to limit heat-trapping carbon dioxide from coal-fired power plants.
Grimes is openly attacking Obama, addressing him directly in a radio commercial: “Your EPA is targeting Kentucky coal with pie-inthe sky regulations that are impossible to achieve. It’s clear you have no idea how this affects Kentucky.”
The syntax was strange: How do you achieve a regulation? By winning the inevitable lawsuit over the plan? Does lawyer Grimes think the reg won’t stand up in court? And the charge was off base: Obama knows how the coalfields would be affected, and that’s one reason EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy called Gov. Steve Beshear shortly before she announced the plan, which sets state-by-state goals for CO2 reduction.
In direct terms, the plan goes relatively easy on Kentucky and some other big coal states, mainly because they are so dependent on coal for electricity that it will be more difficult for them to cut carbon. But the broader threat to them is the planned national reduction of coal burning. That will cost more coal jobs, especially in the Central Appalachian coalfield, where mining is most expensive and coal is highly vulnerable to competition from natural gas; and increase electric rates, which could cut Kentucky’s competitive advantage with other states and nations for manufacturing.
So, there are reasons for Kentuckians to worry about the regulations, and for the Senate candidates to attack it. But this is politics, so some important facts get lost in the rhetoric.
McConnell’s broadsides against the regs presume that China, which recently became the world’s largest CO2 emitter, and India will keep building new coal plants and taking U.S. jobs. But the day after Obama announced his plan, China said it would limit CO2 emissions beginning in 2016. The devil is in the details, but some observers called it a breakthrough in talks toward a global CO2 agreement.
Grimes’s opposition, more strident than McConnell’s, is less about making people think she embraces coal than making them think she does not embrace Obama, who is firmly unpopular in Kentucky and probably getting more so.
McConnell isn’t so much running against Grimes — who, as a one-term secretary of state, has little in her record to attack — as he is running against Obama, so how this issue plays out could be decisive. Most voters seem to have made up their minds about McConnell, but are still deciding about Grimes. This could be a defining moment for her, and that helps explain her stridency, and the unusually long run of a TV ad in which she says she will answer only to voters “no matter who the president is.”
Grimes’s attitude could also be partly a matter of timing; last week, she raised money in Washington with McConnell’s opposite number, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who famously said in 2008, “Coal makes you sick.”
Some environmentalists complain that Grimes isn’t respecting their concerns, and say there aren’t enough coal votes to matter. Wrong. The coalfields have been an important part of the Democratic base, especially in eastern Kentucky, which is virulently anti-Obama, and not just because of his coal policies.
Those who put priority on the coal vote, and say it has power outside the coalfields, point to Democrat Ben Chandler’s 2012 loss of his congressional seat in a district that had only one coal mine, a small strip job at its far eastern tip. But that case is easily overstated.
The key point was Chandler’s assertion that a coal executive wearing miner’s gear in an ad for Republican Andy Barr was not a coal miner. When the executive replied indignantly in another ad that he still had a miner’s certificate and a heritage in the industry, Barr jumped ahead. But I think that turned more on voters’ sympathy for coal miners than for coal companies.
That sympathy provides an opening for Grimes to attack McConnell’s weak record on coal-mine safety, but for now at least, she seems to think her prime directive is to cover herself in coal dust so the Obama label won’t stick.
The political rhetoric, tactics and strategy of the Senate race obscure the long-term challenge: What is Kentucky to do about its eastern coalfield, a poor region that has already lost many of its best-paying jobs and is becoming a greater burden to the rest of the commonwealth?
Some national observers say the war on coal should end like the war on tobacco, with the losers being compensated by the taxpayers. Obama suggested as much in his agenda-setting climate speech at Georgetown University almost a year ago: “We’re going to need to give special care to people and communities that are unsettled by this transition.”
But doing that for coal communities will be more complex and expensive than it was for tobacco farmers. When Congress repealed tobacco production limits and price supports in 2004, farmers were paid for their quotas, and most who wanted to keep farming had viable options. Many were lucky that the next decade was the best ever for the cattle market, and that Kentucky used money from the national settlement with cigarette makers to diversify its agriculture.
Transition for the Eastern Kentucky Coalfield has long been needed, but has become more urgent in the last five years with the advent of cheap natural gas and Obama’s air- and water-pollution policies. The region’s transition will require a lot more money than tobacco’s, and a combination of public and private investment to create a more diversified and vibrant economy.
Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear and Republican 5th District Rep. Hal Rogers are trying to figure that out, with their Shaping Our Appalachian Region effort. As SOAR solicits the views of citizens in public meetings this summer, it should hear from McConnell and Grimes — not about how much they despise Obama’s plan, but about adapting to the future. Kentucky has been on the wrong side of history too often. Let’s not do it again.
Al Cross, former political writer for the Courier-Journal of Louisville, is director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues and associate professor in the University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Telecommunications. His opinions are his own, not UK’s.