It’s a War on War (on Coal)

Kentucky politicians blast Obama’s bold move to combat climate change

The Obama administration unveiled plans for the strongest action ever taken by the federal government to combat climate change on Monday, a draft proposal for EPA regulations to reduce greenhouse gases from power plants 30 percent by 2030.

The biggest target of the new EPA regulations is the biggest source of carbon pollution in America: coal-fired power plants, which currently generate roughly 40 percent of the nation’s electricity, 93 percent in Kentucky. Though the rules will not be finalized until next year and its impact on Kentucky remains unclear, the political ramifications of the act drew bipartisan ire from office holders in Kentucky, particularly in its heated U.S. Senate race between Sen. Mitch McConnell and Alison Lundergan Grimes.

The new EPA rules give flexibility for how Kentucky decides to implement them — which could include regional cap and trade systems, energy efficiency measures, and increased use of natural gas and renewable energy sources — and do not mandate the immediate closure of coal-fired power plants. The rules also factor in the coal-dependence of states like Kentucky, who by 2030 would be allowed to have the third-highest carbon emissions in the country, and the sixth-lowest reduction (18 percent).

Gov. Steve Beshear issued a measured but critical response to the EPA, saying while he appreciated the leeway given to Kentucky, he is “still extremely concerned” that there is not enough flexibility and the goals aren’t attainable. “The president’s desire to protect our climate is one I share, but that desire must be attained while also providing economic security to our families and businesses,” said Beshear.

Environmental groups praised the new EPA regulations for taking aggressive steps to combat climate change — which an overwhelming majority of climate scientists say will have devastating environmental impacts — and the impact that a reduction in coal plants will have on human health, citing estimates that this will prevent up to 6,600 premature deaths and 150,000 asthma attacks. They also see this as another opportunity to push for economic diversification in eastern Kentucky, whose coal industry is declining in large part due to market forces outside of government regulation.

Such sentiments were not shared by Sen. McConnell, who said in a statement that the EPA’s announcement “is a dagger in the heart of the American middle class, and to representative democracy itself.” McConnell, who said last year that he doubted the science behind climate change, argues the rules would lead to further destruction of coal mining jobs in Kentucky and skyrocketing utility rates, and has introduced an admittedly hopeless bill to block the rules.

McConnell says Congress must first approve of the new rules, though the 1990 Clean Air Act and a 2007 Supreme Court decision clearly mandated the EPA to enact such rules if Congress failed to act. A 2009 bill to regulate carbon emissions — and devote $60 billion for “clean coal” research — passed the House but was blocked by a McConnell-led filibuster in the Senate. McConnell also voted for the Clean Air Act in 1990, saying at the time, “I had to choose between cleaner air and the status quo. I chose cleaner air.”

McConnell argues that countries like China, whose use of coal is rapidly increasing, will render America’s attempted leadership on climate change moot. “The notion that these competitors will follow our lead is pure and utter fantasy,” said McConnell. “The sad truth is that the only thing America will lead in if these rules go into effect is the unilateral dismantling of our own economic supremacy.”

Though McConnell’s campaign has attempted to tie Grimes to Obama and his so-called “War on Coal,” she continued to distance herself from the president with a statement panning the new EPA rules, saying, “When I’m in the U.S. Senate, I will fiercely oppose the president’s attack on Kentucky’s coal industry, because protecting our jobs will be my No. 1 priority.”

Grimes’ campaign followed that statement by releasing a newspaper ad scheduled to run in coal counties of eastern and western Kentucky featuring a soot-faced miner holding up a lump of coal, reading, “President Obama and Washington don’t get it … Alison Grimes does.” Her campaign added that she’ll “work with members of both parties and fight for federal investment in clean coal technology that can help save and create coal jobs.”

While McConnell’s campaign has attempted to highlight the “anti-coal” quotes of prominent Grimes supporters like Sen. Harry Reid, Grimes’ campaign returned the favor on Monday by sending out a story that dug up 6-year old quotes from Sen. Rand Paul – the “#1 McConnell surrogate” – where he called coal “very dirty” and “one of the least favorable forms of energy.”

Congressman John Yarmuth, one of the rare Kentucky politicians to stand up to the coal industry, tells LEO he supports the new EPA rules for both legal and practical reasons.

“Legal, because the Clean Air Act requires it,” says Yarmuth. “And secondly, we have a situation with climate change that we need to begin to address. So I’m glad the EPA is taking this action. I think anybody who makes a claim like Sen. McConnell did today is basically just using scare tactics, because there’s no way yet to judge how it’s going to impact Kentucky.”

Asked about Grimes’ similar tactics, Yarmuth replied, “Well, Alison and I don’t agree on this issue, there’s no question about that. What I say to my environmentalist supporters is, ‘Look, we may not agree on this issue, but there’s no question that a Republican majority Senate led by Mitch McConnell will be far worse for the environment than Alison Grimes being our senator.’ When you’re talking about the environment, that’s the balance we have to strike.”

While Grimes touts the possibility of clean coal research — technology still many years away from being viable — saving the coal industry, Yarmuth says the possibly of the current GOP House appropriating more money for such research is virtually nil. He laments that Congress couldn’t pass the 2009 cap and trade bill that devoted $60 billion to such research, “which is another irony that makes McConnell’s position so disingenuous, since he killed that bill.”

Though McConnell describes the new EPA rules as a deathblow to the American economy, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said that similar  dire predictions have been made every time a new environmental rule has been proposed over the last four decades, all of which were proven to be false.

“Time after time, when science pointed to health risks, special interests cried wolf to protect their own agenda, not the agenda of the American people,” said McCarthy. “And time after time we followed the science, we protected the American people and the doomsday predictions never came about.”

Asked at a press conference two weeks ago about the negative health effects caused by coal emissions, McConnell replied that “We’re burning coal cleaner and cleaner and cleaner” and “America has made incredible strides toward a cleaner environment in a variety of different ways over the years.” This is undoubtedly true, just as its true that most of these advancement came about because of government mandates for industry to do so.

A Washington Post poll released Monday showed wide bipartisan support nationally for the federal government requiring states to limit greenhouse gases. Even in states that Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney won in 2012, respondents said the government should make such moves by a 60- to 35-percent margin, even if it raises their monthly utility bill by $20. Yarmuth says such support may be lower in Kentucky, but “Kentuckians want clean air, they believe in climate change, and they know that burning coal is not good for the environment. So I suspect we’re not at that 70-percent number, but we’re probably not far off that.”