Coal a 'driving factor' in U.S. Senate race

Issue is big with Ky. voters in east, west

bestep@herald-leader.comSeptember 5, 2010 

The landscapes of Eastern and Western Kentucky have little in common, but the areas share at least two things: an abundance of coal and a pivotal role in the U.S. Senate race.

That means coal policies, such as the controversial "cap and trade" approach to cutting greenhouse gas emissions, are a key issue in the contest between Republican Rand Paul and Democrat Jack Conway.

In Western Kentucky, one concern is that cap and trade would cause higher rates for electricity produced by burning coal, hurting two large aluminum smelters that employ 1,500 people and support thousands more jobs.

In Eastern Kentucky, where coal is an economic linchpin, companies and many miners fear tougher environmental regulation will cripple surface mining.

Coal will be the "driving factor" in who carries the eastern counties that rely on it, Bell County Judge-Executive Albey Brock predicted.

"On Election Day, when they go vote, how (Conway and Paul) stand on coal is how these counties are going to go," said Brock, a Republican.

There has been a perception in Eastern Kentucky, at least so far, that Paul would be a better candidate for coal, several local officials said.

Cap and trade plays a role in that.

The term refers to a plan that sets a limit on emissions from power plants and other sources and creates a market to trade pollution credits in order to meet the cap.

The goal is to reduce carbon emissions that many scientists have concluded contribute to global warming. The U.S. House approved such a measure last year, but it died in the Senate.

Paul and Conway say they oppose cap and trade. It would drive up electricity rates in Kentucky — now among the lowest in the nation — hurting homeowners and industry, they say.

Paul, who rejected cap and trade early on, often says on the campaign trail that Conway supported the law before switching his stance.

Conway, however, said that is not true.

A story published last year created the perception he was for cap and trade, but he did not say that, Conway said. Rather, he listed several things it should include, such as provisions to protect Kentucky's coal industry and electric rates. The bill the House passed did not meet that test and he did not support it, Conway said.

There is almost no chance the cap and trade plan approved by the House last year will be resurrected. However, there continues to be significant interest in measures to cut carbon emissions and boost cleaner energy.

Paul and Conway said they oppose a tax on carbon emissions, which has been discussed as an alternative to cap and trade.

Is global warming real?

When asked whether Congress should do anything to limit greenhouse-gas emissions, Conway said the government needs to invest in technology that would allow coal to be burned more cleanly.

He pointed to the market for Western Kentucky coal, which rebounded because of technology to scrub out its higher sulfur content.

"Who knows where technology can take us in the next 15 years, in terms of carbon capture, in terms of burning coal more cleanly?" Conway said.

Paul said any discussion of whether the government should move to limit emissions should acknowledge that the nation's skies already are much cleaner than 30 years ago.

"I think that any time you emit a pollutant into the air, particularly if the air goes across the state lines, which it does almost always, that there is a role for the federal government in that, in deciding that," Paul said. "The complicated thing is, and it's not always an apparent answer, is how many parts per billion is pollution and how many parts per billion is acceptable emission?"

The goal should be to minimize pollution, Paul said.

On a central premise in the climate-change debate — whether human activity is causing the planet to warm — Conway said he thinks global warming is real.

"I think the science is fairly well established on that," he said.

The United States and other nations will have to deal with issues related to climate change, Conway said, but the measures must be fair.

"The cap and trade bill's not fair to Kentucky," he said.

Asked whether human activity is making the planet warmer, Paul said, "I think it's complicated, first of all. And I think anyone who makes an absolute conclusion is probably overstating their conclusion."

There have been doubts raised about some climate-change science, Paul said. There have been periods when the Earth was much warmer than it is now, long before the Industrial Revolution, he said.

At one time, for instance, people could dig graves with a shovel in Greenland in spots now buried under snow and ice, Paul said.

However, the fact that the Earth has previously been warmer is not an excuse to pollute, Paul said.

"We all want to minimize pollution, but at the same time we live, and unless we want to go back to burning candles or riding bikes, we all live in a modern industrial age," Paul said. "It's a balancing act between jobs and advanced civilization on the one hand, and pollution on the other."

The role of the EPA

Paul has an overarching philosophy of reducing the role of the federal government on many fronts. On environmental issues, that strikes a chord in the coal industry.

Under President Barack Obama, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has done heightened reviews of applications for surface-mining permits, holding up many, and it has added rules aimed at limiting mining's effect on streams.

Environmentalists have applauded the EPA's tougher stance, but the coal industry says the agency is strangling surface mining.

Paul said significant changes in laws and regulations should have to pass Congress rather than be imposed by a regulatory agency.

"The main thing I don't want is I don't want unelected bureaucrats writing rules or laws," Paul said.

Paul said he does not favor banning mountaintop mining.

Conway said that water-quality standards must be met and that the EPA has a role in policing coal, but the agency doesn't need to "come in and legislate."

He also said rules should be clarified so it's easier to get a surface-mining permit.

But Conway, whom the Sierra Club has endorsed in the past, also said he thinks "mining needs to be done in the most environmentally responsible way, and I'm not convinced that's what's always been done."

In late 2008, Conway opposed a move to change a rule on buffer zones required near streams during surface mining. The coal industry supported the change, but environmentalists argued it would reduce protection for streams.

At the time, Conway said he was concerned the change would lead to the potential for mining abuses or arbitrary enforcement. Gov. Steve Beshear and Democratic U.S. Rep. Ben Chandler also opposed the change.

Conway may have "portrayed a negative stance to coal" on the issue, and there is concern in the industry he would support the Obama Administration on coal issues, said Bob Zik, an executive with TECO Coal.

Conway, however, said that some in Eastern Kentucky are failing to recognize his independence and unfairly trying to tie him to national Democrats on coal issues.

He pointed out that his office has joined other states in a lawsuit challenging the EPA's authority to regulate greenhouse gases in the absence of congressional approval.

Mine safety a federal job?

Oversight of safety in underground mines has been another flash point in the campaign.

A quote attributed to Paul in a speech in Harlan County before the May 18 primary created a perception that he wanted the federal government out of safety oversight.

"The bottom line is I'm not an expert, so don't give me the power in Washington to be making rules," Paul said, according to an article in Details magazine. "You live here, and you have to work in the mines. You'd try to make good rules to protect your people here."

One leading mine-safety advocate called Paul's stance "idiotic." Conway, who has been endorsed by the United Mine Workers of America union, criticized his opponent.

"He just seems to have the world view that government should never touch business in any way whatsoever," which would result in people being hurt, Conway said.

But Paul said the charge that he is against any federal involvement in mine safety and other issues is wrong.

As to whether there should be a reduced federal role in regulating mine safety, Paul said, "I don't think there is an absolute to the question."

However, he reiterated that in general, he supports local control over federal regulation where possible.

The more local a government, the better the oversight and the better chance that if you work in a mine and don't like a regulation, "that you can go down to your magistrate, your county judge-executive, and you can redress your grievances easier," Paul said.

It's harder to get to Washington, and the Capitol is awash in money that corrupts the process, Paul said.

"I think local government would be less corrupt than federal government on most issues," he said. "But I've never said absolutely there won't be federal regulations of mining safety, that there won't be federal involvement in a lot of the issues of the day."

Some local officials in Eastern Kentucky said county governments don't have the expertise or resources to play a significant role in the complex job of regulating mine safety.

"There's no way that county government in Kentucky, the way it's set up, could take that up," said Pike County Judge-Executive Wayne T. Rutherford, a Democrat. "We'd have death after death, and the coal production would go down. You have to have the federal involvement."

Conway did not call for a reduced role for the federal government in mine safety, but he said state and federal inspectors should focus on structural issues that have a direct effect on miners' safety.

Coal ambassadors

Both candidates argue they would be the best representative for coal.

"I understand the idea that business needs to be able to operate in an environment where they can make decisions and have certainty," Paul said.

Cap and trade creates great uncertainty, he said.

Conway said he would be a strong advocate for Kentucky coal and he knows the industry far better.

He worked on coal policy as an aide to then-Gov. Paul Patton, helping set up thin-seam mining credits, for instance, he said.

"I know a heckuva lot more about coal and the Kentucky coal industry than Rand Paul does," Conway said.

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