Mining for Money

Gov. Steve Beshear rides the coal train to re-election

Illustration by Judson Baker
Illustration by Judson Baker

Gov. Steve Beshear stood in front of the entire General Assembly in Frankfort this past February, delivering his State of the Commonwealth Address and leaving no doubt as to which side he stands on in — what he calls — the “war on coal.”

“Washington bureaucrats continue to try to impose arbitrary and unreasonable regulations on the mining of coal. And to them I say, ‘Get off our backs!’” Beshear shouted, pointing his finger with emphasis.

“Get off our backs!”

The gathered state legislators — most of whom rely heavily on campaign contributions from the coal industry and belong to political parties that equally rely on them — gave Beshear a rowdy standing ovation.

It was a shot to the bow of President Barack Obama and the Environmental Protection Agency, and a sneak preview of a prominent campaign theme that he would re-emphasize throughout the rest of the year.

But this wasn’t just calculated political rhetoric, using a large platform to separate himself from an unpopular president and ingratiate him with a politically powerful industry at the beginning of his re-election year.

Ever since Beshear moved into the governor’s mansion four years ago, his actions and policy have walked the walk. He has been a consistent and fierce advocate of coal company executives’ wishes, using the power of his administration to thwart the attempts of both the federal government and state environmental activists to place stronger regulations on the mining and burning of coal.

Whether or not one thinks Beshear’s words and actions are calculated or genuine, they have undoubtedly created political dividends for him.

Whereas some Democratic candidates in recent years have had to withstand a wave of attack ads funded by the coal industry — for not being a sufficient “Friend of Coal” — Beshear has managed to inoculate himself, even using them to his advantage.

As Election Day approaches, Steve Beshear finds himself with an insur-mountable lead over his Republican challenger, Senate President David Williams — in large part due to the fact that coal executives are more likely to sing his praises and cut his campaign a large check than try to oust their reliable friend from office.

Two months after Steve Beshear was sworn into office, Kentuckians for the Commonwealth held their annual “I Love Mountains Day” rally on the capitol steps in Frankfort, lobbying for a bill that would effectively end mountaintop removal mining. The new governor was invited to attend. He passed.

The following month, Beshear accepted an offer to speak at another rally on the steps of the capitol. The purpose of this rally was to oppose KFTC’s proposed bill and defend Kentucky’s status quo on coal.

Beshear voiced his support to the crowd full of miners, saying he would fight to continue burning Kentucky coal “for as many years as you and I and the coming generations are going to be here.”

He was their modern-day George Wallace: Coal now, coal tomorrow, coal forever.

But Beshear wasn’t truly able to prove himself to the coal industry until President Obama was sworn into office in 2009. During the Bush years, the EPA was mostly derelict from its duty to regulate coal, but under Obama there would be an aggressive push to enforce the Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Over the next three years, Beshear confronted anyone standing in the way of King Coal.

The Beshear administration sued the EPA in October 2010 — joining forces with the Kentucky Coal Association (the industry’s chief cheerleader in Frankfort, whose website claims a Bible quote justifies mountaintop removal) — fighting their efforts to block strip mining permits that would protect water quality. Len Peters, his Energy and Environment secretary, testified before Congress this summer to denounce the EPA blocking those permits. And when Obama came to Kentucky in September, Beshear made a very public effort to greet him at the airport and express his opposition to the EPA’s actions, calling them “arbitrary and unreasonable.”

That same month, local activists from KFTC discovered that two Eastern Kentucky coal companies had not only committed 20,000 violations of the Clean Water Act by exceeding the pollutant discharge limit in nearby streams, but also falsified their own reports to hide it — a watchdog action that is supposed to be handled by the state department whose budget was cut by 21 percent under Beshear. After the administration gave the companies a slap on the wrist, activists found more violations. A judge ruled that KFTC could intervene in a lawsuit against the companies, and Beshear’s cabinet responded by filing an appeal to exclude them.

When LEO Weekly asked Kentucky Coal Association president Bill Bissett if he could recall any instance where the Beshear administration made an action that was against their liking, he said he could not, adding, “The main thing we’ve appreciated is an ongoing dialogue with the administration.”

Such a dialogue occurred before Energy and Environment Sec. Len Peters fired Ron Mills, the state’s mine permit director who opposed a rule allowing coal companies to mine parts of land that they do not own. Alliance Resource Partners — a coal company that is one of the largest campaign contributors in the state, despite employing only 2,000 people — lobbied the Beshear administration to reinstate the rule, which they did. Shortly before Mills was fired, a Beshear aide sent advance notice to an Alliance executive saying Mills would now be out of their hair, which The Herald-Leader reported. Peters said the firing was due to poor work performance, but Mills has filed a wrongful termination suit against the administration.

Beshear also aided the Kentucky Coal Association’s effort to pass their “dialogue” onto school children, as his administration allocated $400,000 in state funding to a group that provides curriculum to students explaining that mountaintop removal is actually good for the environment.

This summer, Beshear accused the EPA — because they sought to lower the amount of mercury emissions from power plants — of waging “war on coal.” And unlike some Kentucky Democratic candidates before him, there was no doubting what side he was on. After all, Beshear wasn’t about to lose his war with David Williams.

The 2010 election in Kentucky was the first of the post-Citizens United world — the Supreme Court decision that allowed unlimited corporate donations to independent expenditure groups, who in turn could flood the airwaves with political attack ads.

Kentucky Attorney General Jack Conway would learn this the hard way in his race for U.S. Senate that year. Though he was a centrist on coal and environmental issues — suing the EPA during his Senate race — Conway would soon find himself deluged by attack ads from shadowy outside groups, painting him as a far-left radical, hell bent on helping Obama destroy the coal industry, Kentucky’s economy, and your basic freedoms.

Two of these groups were American Crossroads and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, who spent $2.3 million and $1.3 million against Conway, respectively — a small slice of the more than $70 million they spent in races all over the country to defeat Democrats. Though the court ruled that the source of funding for the Chamber and an offshoot of American Crossroads (Crossroads GPS) could be kept secret, the Federal Election Commission shows that one coal company donated a staggering $2.4 million to American Crossroads: Alliance Resource Partners.

Alliance has been one of the most prolific political contributors in Kentucky over the past decade, as its PAC, employees and their relatives have given hundreds of thousands of dollars to candidates and committees of both parties. However, only one Alliance employee has ever donated to Conway, while its employees and relatives gave $46,000 to his opponent Rand Paul (and $26,000 to his current and vocally anti-EPA opponent, Todd P’Pool). All of which makes the similarity in amounts spent by Crossroads against Conway and the amount given to them by Alliance seem like not much of a coincidence.

Supporters of U.S. Rep. Ben Chandler, D-Ky., fear he’ll face the same fate as Conway. Though many expected coal companies to pour money into his 6th District congressional race to defeat him last year — due to Chandler coming out against mountaintop removal — this did not happen. But just weeks after Chandler’s narrow victory — 600 votes — Crossroads GPS began airing radio ads slamming Chandler, which were followed by TV ads doing the same.

Many observers believe the coal industry smells blood in the water and won’t let Chandler escape this time. And perhaps they’ve already won in some way, as the notoriously timid Chandler has spent the past year making a string of votes for legislation that de-funds and guts the regulatory power of the EPA — though the thought of this appeasing the Alliances of the world seems implausible.

But Steve Beshear has no need to put on the Johnny-come-lately act.

Despite the fact that David Williams portrays Beshear as not sufficiently pro-coal, Beshear has been able to raise even more money from coal company employees and their relatives than Williams. The current figures from the Kentucky Registry of Finance show that Beshear has raised over $100,000 from them, while also dominating in fundraising from employees of coal-burning utility companies.

Though this makes up a rather small portion of Beshear’s impressive fundraising totals — as he’s scratched the backs of many more people than the coal industry during his first term — he has at the very least neutralized the situation that plagued Conway. His actions against Obama and the EPA have matched his “get off our backs!” rhetoric, thus making his opponents’ efforts to tie him to the president seem futile and desperate.

Though Beshear received only one donation from Alliance before the primary — while Williams received $27,000 — he has since picked up his most coveted donor of all: Alliance CEO Joe Craft, who gave him a maximum contribution. And after all that Beshear’s done for him, why not?

There would be no repeat of the Citizens United-era thrashing of a Democrat in Kentucky this year.

But then again, all of this effort to curry favor with the coal industry comes with a real cost.

In February of this year, 20 Kentuckians For The Commonwealth members staged a four-day sit-in at the office of Gov. Beshear — an “occupation” of sorts, before those kids in New York made it trendy eight months later. They refused to leave until Beshear agreed “to stop the poisoning of Kentucky’s land, water, and people by mountaintop removal.”

A compromise was reached, as Beshear agreed to let KFTC give him a tour of areas damaged by mountaintop removal mining. Beshear took along Len Peters to get a first-hand view of the peculiar bright orange — and toxic — water that settles near homes next to surface mining sites.

Beshear told them he would “take their concerns under consideration” and repeated his often-used phrase, that he is convinced we can mine coal and protect he environment.

Teri Blanton, a KFTC fellow who was in the sit-in and with the governor on this tour, tells LEO Weekly that Beshear still doesn’t get it.

“The governor has ignored the environmental impacts that coal has on his constituents,” Blanton says. “We’re exposed to mining through extraction, burning and disposal of waste. Instead of the governor standing with his people, he’s actually stood against them.”

Blanton says she understands the fear of politicians in the Citizens United-era, but says they need courage for the sake of those they represent. “Coal only has the power because we give them the power.”

Kentucky Coal Association president Bill Bissett says he has great faith that Beshear will continue on the same course should he win a second term, as he is a “man of conviction” who is “keenly aware of the direct connection between coal production, the low cost of electricity, and the economy of the commonwealth.”

Of course, there are many factors besides Beshear’s policy and rhetoric on coal that explain why he is likely to win in a historic landslide on Tuesday — most of them having to do with David Williams.

And for those who want to vote for someone opposed to mountaintop removal, independent candidate Gatewood Galbraith has unapologetically positioned himself as aligned with clean air and water — though that doesn’t pay for TV ads, of which the longshot candidate has none.

But until more Kentuckians change their views on coal — or Citizens United bites the dust — Democratic politicians like Beshear will continue to jump on King Coal’s dirty back and ride to the finish line.