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Coal is an issue in Senate race




 

 

You probably didn’t notice it, because it got the scant attention it deserved, but there has been a fuss over coal and energy between the main Kentucky Democrats running for the U.S. Senate. The details of the scuffle are less important than the questions it raises about their relationship, and that of our state as a whole, with one of its most problematic products.

Here’s a quick review: First, Lt. Gov. Dan Mongiardo’s campaign noted Attorney General Jack Conway’s heavy investment in, and campaign money from, a big natural-gas company that has argued against huge taxpayer investment to capture the heat-trapping emissions that come from burning coal.

Conwayc ounter edt hat Kinder-Morgan Energy LP operates several coal terminals in Kentucky and circulated a story from the Hazard Herald
(Mongiardo’s hometown paper) in which the attorney general said he opposes the “cap and trade” emission-control system that the House and a Senate committee have passed to thwart climate change.

The issue has been Mongiardo’s major attack point since July, when Conway said he favored cap-and-trade if it had provisions to protect businesses and consumers. Under attack, he soon abandoned that vague, havecake and-eat-it-too approach, but Mongiardo continues to run as the candidate of coal.

He follows conventional wisdom. Kentucky is the nation’s No. 3 coal-producing state, and 91 percent of our electricity comes from burning the black rock to make steam that drives generators. That’s just one k ind of po wer.

The coal industry and its professional allies outside the state’s two coalfields are big sources of campaign money, as most recently evidenced by Mongiardo’s finance report last month and the big contributions of Alliance Coal, the underground-mine firm whose complaints apparently led to this month’s dismissal of the state director of mine permits.

Yes, as the Kentucky Coal Association tells us in its radio commercials, “Never underestimate the power of coal. Kentucky coal.” That’s a double entendre, perhaps unintended, perhaps not. Given the history of this state, it’s not bad advice. But times are changing, and it’s time to ask ourselves and the candidates just how much coal means to us, to them and to our state. You might be surprised.

Kentucky’s coal industry has shrunk. It employs about 19,000 people, only 0.9 percent of the state workforce. The industry says that for every mining job there are three other jobs, and many people work for companies that supply and service the industry. But calculating those multipliers can be tricky.

Coal jobs pay well, so they contribute more on average to Kentucky’s economy, and the industry contributes through its sales and purchases. But the available data for mining in Kentucky (mostly coal, but also including limestone and more minor materials) show that its share of the gross state product isn’t much greater than coal’s share of jobs and has gone down in the last decade. Last year it was 1.45 percent.

At the same time, coal has never been more controversial. In addition to climate change, there is increasing concern about effects of the mercury and other pollutants it contains, and the impact of strip mining on the Cumberland- Allegheny Plateau. “Mountaintop removal” has become the generic if often inaccurate name for most surface mining in Central Appalachia, and it has become a catchphrase and rallying point.

Every five years, the Kentucky Environmental Education Council pays for a survey that asks Kentuckians to name the state’s top environmental problems. Ten years ago and five years ago, the top three problems were water pollution, air pollution and waste management, in that order. This year, the top two were the same, but there was a new No. 3: mountaintop removal or strip mining in general.

Credit or blame for that, depending on your point of view, goes largely to heavy media coverage and commentary on the issue, and to the efforts of several Kentucky authors to make it a public concern. Many of them live outside the Appalachian coalfield, but the concern is just as great there. The poll, taken by the University of Kentucky’s Survey Research Center, showed that in the 23 Appalachian counties that produce coal, mountaintop removal was rated probably the secondbiggest problem or at least the third. (The error margin for the smaller sample makes it uncertain.)

The coal industry might argue that the big crowds it turned out for recent hearings on an Appalachian mining regulation show that it has coalfield opinion on its side. It may have a plurality, but probably not a majority, because many in the region want a middle ground.

In 2007, the Kellogg and Ford foundations commissioned polls in selected regions of rural America, and chose coal-rich Harlan and Letcher counties to represent Appalachia. The survey included this question: “For the future of your community, do you think it is more important to use natural resources to create jobs, or to conserve natural resources for future generations?” In the Kentucky counties, 37 percent said it was more important to create jobs, 33 percent said it was more important to conserve, and 30 percent volunteered that the two interests were equal or there should be a balance. If the middle ground had been offered as an option, it surely would have been the favorite.

Mongiardo defends mountaintop removal as a source of jobs and land for development. Conway, of Louisville, is somewhere in the middle. A year ago, he formally objected to the outgoing Bush administration’s plan to all but repeal the regulation that prohibits mining activities within 100 feet of a stream. The change, which the Obama administration says it will reverse, removed a legal obstacle to the huge fills made up of blasted mountaintops.

Gov. Steve Beshear wrote a letter similar to Conway’s. It may have been the first time since the federal strip-mine law passed that the governor of Kentucky had weighed in with the feds, publicly and formally, on the side of environmentalists and citizens’ groups and against the coal industry.

Beshear appointed as his energy and environment secretary a highly respected chemical engineer, Len Peters, who seems to be steering a pragmatic and realistic course; he told a forum at UK last month, “Coal is not a Kentucky problem, it’s a national problem.” It’s also unusual for a person in his position to refer to coal, generally, as a problem. But it is, and at least Conway acknowledges that.

Al Cross, former Courier-Journal

political writer, is director of the
Institute for Rural Journalism and
Community Issues in the School of
Journalism and Telecommunications

at the University of Kentucky.
His e-mail address is
al.cross@uky.edu. His views are his
own, not those of the University of
Kentucky. This column originally
appeared in the Nov. 29 edition of
the Courier-Journal.


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