Herald-Leader Editorial

Beshear, Rogers should start mending Ky.'s wounds from 'war on coal'

July 7, 2013 

Coal industry lobbyists are calling for a truce in the "war on coal" strategy.

The National Journal reports that coal interests are regrouping after spending $35 million to defeat President Barack Obama, only to watch dumbfounded as he carried all four swing states where coal was a factor (Ohio, Virginia, Pennsylvania and Colorado), leaving "a giant swath of scorched earth."

Also, after $50 million spent over the past three years by the National Mining Association, in large part to burnish coal's image, a Gallup Poll in March found that coal is the public's least favorite fuel. More than two-thirds of Americans favor more production of solar, wind and natural gas, but only one in three wants to prioritize coal production.

No wonder a top adviser to the largest energy companies said the coal industry's first step should be to open a dialogue with the White House as the administration moves to curb climate change through limits on burning coal by power plants here and around the world.

Rest assured: As this transition unfolds, the coal industry will be looking out for itself.

But who will look out for Kentuckians?

The "war on coal" strategy was a dead end for the industry, but much worse for Kentucky. The political atmosphere has been poisoned by the "us or them" mentality fostered by the expensive PR campaign. A rational public conversation about the state's complex energy and economic challenges seems too politically risky.

The coal industry is re-thinking its strategy. Why, oh why, can't coal-state politicians do the same?

Let them start by debunking the notion, pushed by the PR. blitz, that the coal industry's interests and Kentucky's interests are the same.

Nothing could be further from the truth, especially in Eastern Kentucky, where not that long ago, people recognized the coal industry as their exploiter, not their ally.

Another hard truth: Even if there were no climate change or Obama, and even if the country spends more billions to develop carbon-capture technology to save coal-burning power plants, the industry in Eastern Kentucky would be on the ropes — for reasons having much less to do with environmental regulation than with geology and market forces.

After 100 years of mining, Appalachia's remaining coal is buried in thin, rocky seams that cost so much to mine that it can't compete with cheaper natural gas or coal from other regions. Natural gas prices could rise, buying some time for Appalachian coal, but for now, mined coal is piled up, waiting for buyers.

In unveiling his climate plan, Obama asked Congress to join him and called for "special care to people and communities that are unsettled by this transition." This sounds like an invitation to Kentuckians, who depend more than most Americans on coal for electricity.

But who will step up to advocate for Kentucky?

Eastern Kentucky needs a plan for economic rebirth and money to seed it. The region's people have remained this nation's poorest, through coal booms and busts. Who will champion their futures?

As he would be the first to say, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell has more clout than any other Kentuckian in Washington. But, facing a re-election challenge from Democratic Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, McConnell seems bent on running against Obama and the "war on coal" even though the president is a lame duck and the industry is seeking peace.

Rep. Hal Rogers is the Kentuckian in Congress who should care the most. His Fifth District has been impacted by energy extraction and needs economic help probably more than any district in the country. As chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, Rogers also has tremendous clout.

The coal industry has been Rogers' biggest patron, pouring more into his campaigns than any other economic sector. Gov. Steve Beshear is in the same boat of being beholden to the industry.

As the industry changes gears, Beshear and Rogers should unhook their brains from the coal-cash drip and direct some thought to helping their constituents. Beshear could follow through on his energy plan, help build consensus on economic development in Eastern Kentucky and how to make better use of coal severance tax dollars.

But people who care about Kentucky can't wait on the politicians.

Citizens and local leaders should seize the moment and, under the noise of the Senate race, launch their own smart discussions of how to sow a better future for Kentucky and her mountains.

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