WASHINGTON — The Environmental Protection Agency's declaration Monday that carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions endanger the public's health could deeply affect Kentucky's multimillion-dollar coal economy.
The announcement, which comes as a historic climate change conference gets under way in Copenhagen, could set the groundwork for broader cap-and-trade policies in the United State — the kinds of policies the state's coal companies and most of the state's congressional delegation have long tried to block.
"What his arbitrary administrative edict would do is what Congress has refused to do statutorily — tell coal-burning utilities how much, or little, coal can be burned," said Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Somerset. "It could prove devastating to Kentucky's coal industry and cause havoc to our working men and women of Eastern Kentucky."
Meanwhile, Kentucky environmentalists lauded the EPA's announcement as a first step toward addressing global warming and curbing pollution.
"We have chosen an energy source for our electricity," said Tom FitzGerald, director of the Kentucky Resources Council. "What was an economic development edge — the allure of cheap power — is about to become a significant liability."
Fifty percent of the nation runs on coal-generated electricity, and more than 90 percent of Kentucky's electricity is coal-fired — part of the reason the state's energy rates are so low, attracting factories and other industries, coal advocates say.
The coal industry suffers when overly stringent environmental regulations are put in place, said David Gooch, president of Coal Operators & Associates Inc. in Pikeville. High-sulfur Western Kentucky and northern West Virginia mines "saw tremendous downturn" after 1990 crackdowns on sulfur dioxide emissions, he said. Those mines were able to resume business only after they got contracts with power plants that installed sulfur scrubbers.
"Who wants to sit unemployed for 15 years again?" Gooch said.
Passage of the climate bill by the U.S. House of Representatives earlier this year was an important political test for President Barack Obama, who made personal appeals to lawmakers and stressed his desire to travel to the climate change conference in Copenhagen buoyed by a strong national stance on the matter.
It was also an important political test for Rep. Ben Chandler, D-Versailles, who faced heavy backlash for supporting cap-and-trade energy policies that could lead to penalties for his state's leading industry.
A renewed focus on climate change could once again force Chandler, who generally eschews the spotlight, to take a very public stand on policies aimed at curbing greenhouse emissions.
Chandler's office did not respond Monday to a request for comment about the EPA's announcement.
The Obama administration's announcement also signals that regardless of Congress's actions, the EPA will use its regulatory powers to curb greenhouse emissions.
The move rankles lawmakers who say stricter regulations will affect power companies' ability to compete, employ workers and maintain low prices.
"With double-digit unemployment and over 3.5 million jobs already lost this year, the administration inexplicably continues to push for a job-killing national energy tax — either through legislation or regulation," said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.
Last year, McConnell led a largely successful push against Democratic-backed climate change legislation that would have encouraged companies to use natural gas instead of coal, capped greenhouse gas emissions over the next 40 years and required businesses to buy permits in exchange for going over those caps.
At one point, McConnell brought proceedings to a standstill after calling for all 492 pages of the bill to be read aloud.
The Senate might revisit climate change legislation in 2010. However, both of the state's senators remain firmly opposed.
"EPA's finding is reckless, irresponsible and will only serve to increase the reach of Washington's bureaucratic arm into the American taxpayer's pocket," said Sen. Jim Bunning. "This finding is based on flawed science and will only serve to kill jobs in Kentucky and endanger industries across the country."
Environmentalists, though, say Kentucky's cheap energy has come at too steep a price.
Lexington has the country's largest "carbon footprint" — leading the nation in emitting the greenhouse gases that contribute to global climate change.
Other Kentucky cities follow closely, including the Cincinnati-Northern Kentucky area and Louisville, according to a study of the nation's 100 largest metropolitan areas by the Brookings Institution.