Herald-Leader Editorial

Protecting planet and Ky.'s economy: House on wrong track with pro-coal dictates

March 12, 2014 

Chairman Jim Gooch recently told the state House Natural Resources and Environment Committee: "I think we all know that coal is the most affordable, reliable, available fuel source we have."

If that is so, Gooch, should explain why two aluminum manufacturers, employing 1,200 people in the heart of the Western Kentucky coalfield, threatened last year to pull out of the state unless they were allowed to switch from coal-fired power to cheaper power from natural gas.

The aluminum industry got what it wanted, averting layoffs.

But the loss of Big Rivers Electric Corp.'s two biggest customers shifted huge costs onto the remaining 113,000 consumers who will be paying much higher power bills.

For two paper mills, annual energy costs will soar by millions of dollars, stifling future investment in those plants.

The two aluminum smelters accounted for two-thirds of Big Rivers' coal-fired production and almost 70 percent of its revenue, which should remind us why the adage about not putting too many eggs in one basket dates back to Aesop's times.

This ancient and easily grasped principle eludes Kentucky politicians when it comes to coal.

Big Rivers was too dependent on one industry; the risks are the same when a state's economy is too dependent on one energy source, and more than 90 percent of Kentucky's electricity is coal-fired.

If the legislature has its way, Kentucky will never diversify its energy mix, no matter how much overreliance on coal costs consumers or hamstrings the economy.

The latest example is House Bill 388, touted by Gooch, D-Providence, co-owner of a coal-mining equipment company, and approved by the House without a dissenting vote.

The question underlying HB 388 is valid and urgent: How do we respond to climate change without severely punishing Kentucky and other states that have capitalized on a natural resource, coal.

The problem with HB 388 is that it's all about advancing the coal industry's political agenda, even at the risk of backfiring on Kentucky's economy.

The bill is a rebuff to the Beshear administration's overtures to the Environmental Protection Agency seeking flexibility for states whose economies are built on industries such as auto-making that consume vast amounts of electric power.

Instead, Gooch and the House are trying to dictate pro-coal regulations for power plants that the feds will never approve.

They're also trying to tie the Beshear administration's hands, rendering it unable to negotiate with the EPA to protect Kentucky from steep increases in electricity costs required to comply with whatever limits on climate-changing emissions are enacted.

If the EPA can be persuaded, the Beshear administration's ideas for how Kentucky can reduce its greenhouse gas output through efficiency and other means — while making a gradual, orderly transition away from fossil fuels — could prolong the state's 12,000 coal-mining jobs. More important, 220,000 manufacturing jobs would be protected.

HB 388 serves just one global interest, the coal industry. Smart lawmakers would be seeking a way forward that protects the planet and the economy.

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