In Kentucky’s U.S. Senate race, environmentalists says there’s little to distinguish Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes from Republican incumbent Mitch McConnell on coal.
But activists say what they’re most disappointed about is Grimes hasn’t outlined an agenda that speaks to the future of Kentucky’s economy or the country’s energy needs.
Ahead of new federal rules limiting greenhouse gas emissions, the Grimes campaign presented a decidedly pro-coal message by scolding the Obama administration.
When the Environmental Protection Agency released those proposed standards last week, Grimes reiterated her disappointment, saying the regulations were “out of touch” with Kentucky’s needs and would hurt middle-class families.
The Grimes campaign told WFPL the first-term secretary of state does acknowledge climate change and the effects carbon emissions have on the planet’s weather patterns.
But aides quickly pivoted to emphasize what they call “unnecessary regulations” that hurt Kentuckians who rely on the coal industry to provide for their families.
“While it is important to protect the environment, it is just as important to make sure the men and women of Kentucky are able to provide for their families,” said Grimes campaign spokeswoman Charly Norton. “As Senator, Alison will work to protect the jobs of hardworking Kentuckians in any solution to the changing climate.”
A 2007 Supreme Court ruling found that greenhouse gases created by coal-fired plants are pollutants that are harmful to human health, and are thus subject to regulation.
Longtime Louisville environmental activist Sarah Lynn Cunningham says voters who care about the environment are frustrated with Grimes and that enthusiasm is already declining more than a year before Election Day.“Basically, we will have to hold our noses and vote for Grimes, but I don’t see us donating money, putting up yard signs or working at the grassroots level to help her get elected,” she said. “We’re just so turned off.”
Cunningham is also the director of the Louisville Climate Action Network, though she wasn’t speaking on behalf of the group. Her position is a familiar place for activists who care about the state’s air, water and soil quality, who often feel their issues are squeezed out in statewide races. Many recall three years ago when former Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Jack Conway backpedaled on his previous support for cap and trade legislation.
Some are working to persuade Grimes while others say a more progressive candidate—such as Democrat Ed Marksberry—should receive their support in the primary election.
In Morehead, Kentuckians for the Commonwealth member Suzanne Tallichet says when it comes to the candidates’ positions on energy and climate change, both Grimes and McConnell are “stuck” on coal.
“And that is a concern to us because this is backwards-looking thinking,” she said. “Coal is an old energy source. And you see this battle, this dialogue, between the two candidates that is really rather meaningless because coal is on the decline. Instead of looking behind them, they need to look forward.”
In an e-mail to WFPL, Norton did say Grimes will push for a broader approach to put federal funding in so-called “clean coal technology” to help the industry “become more competitive in a changing marketplace.”
Nothing was mentioned in regard to alternative energy sources outside of coal, however.
And despite Grimes’s attempts to fortify against Republican criticism by pledging unequivocal support for coal, GOP operatives still bombard her with attacks. The only political dividends thus far have been a handful of state Democrats coming to Grimes’s defense blaming McConnell for the coal industry’s job losses.
That’s not good enough for Cunningham, who argues Grimes should be leading constituents by talking about a new energy direction.
“The Kentucky tobacco industry has already fallen to market forces and health concerns, and the coal industry is doing the same. That is so inevitable. And politicians need to face reality and sober up,” she said.
“I can’t speak for the environmental community, but I would entertain voting for someone like Ed Marksberry just to send a message that I would like to vote for a leader,” Cunningham added. “I don’t want to have to keep dealing with the least of two evils.”
In the end environmentalists tell WFPL that it’s a political calculation for Democrats in Kentucky to support coal without question.
But with employment in the coal industry at the lowest point in Kentucky since 1927, Tallichet said it’s past time to begin talking about both an economic transition for the coalfields and a more balanced energy mix.
“I’d like to see some debate over federal programs that would help people help themselves and create new jobs. I mean, that’s really where the dialogue should be,” she said. “We need new power here. New political power, new energy power. Those two things go together.”