The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

August 7, 2013

Kentucky lawmakers lash out at Obama's 'war on coal'

Ronnie Ellis
CNHI News Service

FRANKFORT, Ky. — A bi-partisan group of 50 Kentucky lawmakers has appealed to President Obama to show greater sympathy for and grant relief to the nation's beleaguered coal industry.

Democratic Speaker Greg Stumbo, who represents coal-producing Floyd County in Eastern Kentucky, and 49 other members of the Kentucky House sent a letter to Obama objecting to his administration’s “unfair attack on coal.”

In June, Obama proposed stricter air quality emission standards to deal with climate change, accelerating the move from coal to natural gas by electrical utilities and large manufacturers.

Obama’s proposals include provisions to mitigate the impact on coal-producing regions but the lawmakers’ letter says they’re insufficient and the letter calls for more investment in “clean coal technology.”

It says “coal is not just an energy source, it’s a way of life” in Kentucky, contributing $10 billion to Kentucky’s 2010 economy. It goes on to say lawmakers have “deep concern” the new climate policies will make matters worse.

So far, Stumbo said, the White House had not responded to the letter, which was sent to the president last Friday.

Stumbo said the letter “was prompted both by the president’s June speech on climate change and by a desire to establish a new way forward when it comes to coal, a trend that is starting to take shape nationally.” 

Kentucky is the nation’s third-largest coal producing state, after Wyoming and West Virginia, and generates 90 percent of its electricity from coal-fired plants. The state’s cheap electrical rates, third lowest in the country, are a large reason Kentucky is home to three automobile assembly plants and two aluminum smelters.

Coal is mined in 22 counties in Eastern Kentucky and seven in the western part of the state, but the declining coal market has devastated Eastern Kentucky, already plagued by high unemployment rates and one of the nation’s poorest regions.

“It’s critical for the rest of the country to understand what’s happening in Eastern Kentucky,” said Bill Bissett, President of the Kentucky Coal Association. “We’ve lost nearly 6,000 direct mining jobs, and for every one of those, at least three other workers have lost their livelihoods.”

According to the state Energy and Environment Cabinet, the coal industry now employs 12,342 miners in Kentucky, about 8,000 of them in hardscrabble Eastern Kentucky. That’s down from 13,109 during the first three months of 2013 and down from 18,804 in September of 2011.

Kentucky coal production for the second quarter of 2013 was 20.4 million tons, off by 25 percent over the past two years and down 38 percent since 2,000. Coal production recently stopped altogether in three Eastern Kentucky counties – Owsley, Rockcastle and Wolfe.

Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear said he has "repeatedly voiced my concern and dismay with the administration’s actions regarding coal and climate. Just last month, I expressed to the acting EPA administrator my concerns about unreasonable emission standards that could pose an economic threat to our state’s manufacturing base.”

Bissett acknowledges the latest downturn in the historically boom-and-bust coal industry is affected by an abundant supply and declining prices of natural gas.

“But the additional (environmental) regulations by this administration in Eastern Kentucky and West Virginia that aren’t applied to the rest of the country have a chilling effect on expansion and employment," added Bissett.

Fealty to the coal industry is almost a political requirement in Kentucky and Obama’s environmental policies are especially difficult for Democrats in  increasingly red, coal-dependent Kentucky.

Coal is already an issue in the 2014 U.S. Senate race for the seat now held by U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

The five-term Republican is running television ads against his likely Democratic opponent, Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, linking her to Obama and the “war on coal.” Grimes has responded by publicly declaring “the president is wrong on coal” and she vigorously courts support from the coal industry.

At least some coal backers in Kentucky are trying to come to grips with coal’s apparently bleak future. Rep. Leslie Combs, D-Pikeville, represents three Eastern Kentucky coal-producing counties and is a Stumbo ally who signed the letter to Obama. But in a recent newspaper opinion article Combs said: “I believe the time has come to focus less on placing blame and focus more on how coal-mining regions can move forward. We need to be talking about the new reality of less mining because we’ve known since 1992 this day was coming.”

Even Stumbo acknowledges coal’s changing reality.

“My goal is to make sure this resource continues to help power our nation,” Stumbo said. “We need an ‘all of the above’ strategy when it comes to energy while also adjusting to the new reality coal finds itself in.”

Ronnie Ellis is the CNHI state reporter in Kentucky. Contact him at rellis@cnhi.com.