Does McConnell and Grimes’ Focus on Coal Distract From Economic Diversification?

 Despite the fact that Mitch McConnell and Alison Lundergan Grimes made clear their unqualified support of Kentucky’s coal industry, coal continues to play a role in this year’s Senate election.

An article published in the Guardian newspaper this week takes a closer look at the issue and goes a bit further. Namely: will any candidate acknowledge the numerous factors stacked against coal, and instead throw their support behind economic diversification?

As the Guardian article puts it: “The two candidates have become stuck looking mainly to the past, and the days when coal was still a mainstay of the economy.”

In their campaigns, Grimes and McConnell have doubled down on criticizing the Environmental Protection Agency’s air regulations, accusing the Obama administration on focusing on the environment over the region’s economy.

The EPA has finalized rules limiting the amount of mercury and other toxic metals power plants can emit, which has forced utility companies to decide whether to update aging power plants with advanced pollution controls, switch to cleaner natural gas or shut them down entirely.

And the agency has proposed new rules to regulate the amount of carbon dioxide power plants can emit, which places another regulatory burden on the industry.

Other factors have are making Appalachian coal increasingly less competitive: reserves that are more difficult and expensive to extract, cheaper natural gas prices and increased competition from other coal-mining areas, including Western Kentucky and Wyoming.

And many in Eastern Kentucky see the writing on the wall. Though the coal economy has always gone through times of boom and bust, miners say this time feels different. In a feature on the region we published in December, coal miners like Garry Cox seemed resigned that coal jobs probably wouldn’t be coming back to Eastern Kentucky.

“I’m over the mad spell, blaming government, EPA. Being mad, it ain’t going to do nothing. It ain’t going to help,” he says. “This one little red light town can’t overthrow the feds. We’re just an itty-bitty grain of sand. So we just have to try to adjust, adapt. Just get over it and do what you have to do.”

That’s what Kenneth Coley is trying to do, too. A few miles away from the job fair, Coley is studying at the Harlan County campus of Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College. He’s been thinking about whether mining could rebound here, and has done some research.

“I don’t see it happening,” he says. “I got out because I’m not going to just stand still and hope for it to come back, because I don’t think it’s going to do it.”

But as the 2014 Senate campaign rolls on, neither McConnell nor Grimes has said as much. Instead, both rolled out campaign ads featuring coal miners and promised their staunch support of the industry. As the Guardian article notes, some see the rhetoric as a distraction from finding alternative solutions for the region’s economy.

“Both candidates are doing the region and the state a disservice by not dealing with the economic reality that is happening to the industry. They are not spending enough time focusing on what the real and practical solutions that will create opportunities,” said Justin Maxon, president of the Mountain Association for Community Economic Development, a Lexington organisation. (Note: MACED is actually in Berea, not Lexington.)

In reality, Kentucky was moving away from coal, even before Obama directed the EPA to come out with the new power plant regulations.

The state now gets 93% of its electricity from coal, according to the Energy Information Administration, more than any other state barring West Virginia. It is also the most wasteful in its energy use, burning more coal to generate a dollar of GDP than any other state. It has no energy efficiency targets or even a single wind turbine.

But that was set to change even without the new power plant regulations. John Lyons, the state’s assistant secretary for climate policy, said Kentucky was gradually shifting from coal to natural gas as old coal-burning plants reach the end of their life span. By 2020, coal will make up about 70% of Kentucky’s electricity mix. “Those are business decisions that have already been made,” Lyons said.

Grimes and McConnell continue to tell voters that if either is elected, they’ll somehow be able to turn the tide in coal’s favor. Click here for the rest of the article.

Erica Peterson

Erica Peterson reports on energy and the environment for WFPL.

@ericampeterson

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