A top coal industry leader in Kentucky is questioning if Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes can break with President Obama on restraining environmental regulations.
Kentucky Coal Association President Bill Bissett also credits Republican Senate Leader Mitch McConnell for being the industry’s chief proponent in Washington, D.C. despite the Grimes campaign blaming the GOP leader for job losses.
The Environmental Protection Agency is expected to unveil stricter pollution limits this week to reduce greenhouse gas emissions across the country.
Despite reports that regulations would not be as stringent on coal plants as originally expected, Grimes pounced on the Obama administration to hold off.
“Coal keeps the lights on in Kentucky—plain and simple—and I will not stand idle as overreaching regulation adversely impacts jobs and middle-class families. Any new regulations must take into account the impact on Kentucky jobs and be based on current technology that will not drive Kentucky coal out of business,” Grimes said.
The message is part of an effort to blunt Republican attacks that Grimes would be beholden to the president’s environmental agenda. But attempts to pick up support from Kentucky coal industry leaders has yet to materialize when many already view McConnell as their top advocate.
“One person’s position on coal is defined and the other has yet to be,” says Bissett. “I would say our industry has looked at Sen. McConnell as the chief adversary of President Obama since he took office. I think you’ve seen Sen. McConnell be very engaged in coal and standing in the way of a lot the president’s policies as it relates to coal in Kentucky.”
Bissett adds that Grimes hasn’t said much about the subject until now and rarely was involved with the industry’s concerns or needs in her capacity as secretary of state.
As WFPL’s Erica Peterson reported earlier this year, coal production in Kentucky is at it lowest levels in the past half century as the industry face challenges beyond environmental regulations such as unfavorable market conditions and fewer accessible reserves.
The “war on coal” rhetoric used by leaders in both parties hasn’t ceased, however. And that puts Grimes in an awkward position given a decidedly more liberal donor base outside of Kentucky as she seeks to overthrow McConnell next year.
McConnell’s re-election campaign is eager to have this fight over coal, as a new cinematic web video demonstrates. The senator’s aides point out Grimes is set to hold a fundraiser in Nevada with Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid, who has been a public critic of the health risks coal presents.
In her statement, Grimes avoided any environmental concerns and said coal miners are the “heart and soul” of Kentucky who are a driving force for the economy in rural parts of the state.
“That is appreciated,” says Bissett. “But when you consider we’re hearing a lot of rumors about upcoming fundraisers with Sen. Harry Reid, there is a real question of what that relationship is going to be with someone who has carried out all of the president’s marching order against coal in the Senate. It is my understanding that if someone gives you money, you expect them to think and act like they do.”
Grimes’s positions on coal also doesn’t help her with environmentalists and the liberal wing of the Democratic Party in the state, who see little daylight between their presumptive nominee and McConnell.
A spokesman for Congressman John Yarmuth, the state’s lone Democratic representative in Washington, declined WFPL’s request for comment on Grimes’s coal position.
Those who support the new carbon regulations argue it will help create incentives for the energy industry to invest in new technologies as coal is depleted. But in terms of Kentucky’s U.S. Senate race, those pushing for anti-pollution measures see no difference between Grimes and McConnell.
“I am disappointed when any politician Democrat or Republican turns to support a dirty, polluting energy resource that is killing our state,” says Thomas Pearce, an organizer with the Sierra Club in Western Kentucky. “We need (Grimes) to stand in support of new carbon regulations that will protect our climate, our citizens from asthma and other illnesses caused by dirty coal. And I’m sure we will try to push her to do the right thing on climate.”
But there is a growing question about Grimes’s overall position on the environment given her repeated stiff arm to direct questions about climate change.
“I don’t see any difference between Alison Lundergan Grimes and Mitch McConnell on this issue. I’m the only candidate standing up to coal and telling the truth about it,” says Owensboro contractor Ed Marksberry, who is one of three Democrats running against Grimes in the primary. “You may be a friend to coal, but I like to say I’m a lover for Mother Earth.”