Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Jim Gray said Tuesday his plan for boosting Eastern Kentucky’s tattered economy would include increased investment in research to capture carbon emissions from power plants.
The goal of the technology is to allow plants to burn coal more cleanly.
Coal-fired plants have been major sources of carbon emissions that the Obama administration has pushed to cut in an effort to tackle climate change. That has put coal at a disadvantage against cleaner-burning, relatively cheap natural gas.
Many power plants have switched from coal to gas because of price and environmental considerations, helping create a downturn that has wiped out more than half the coal jobs in Eastern Kentucky in recent years.
Coal advocates hope that carbon-capture can be developed to the point it could be used commercially on a widespread basis and keep coal plants in business, but it’s not at that stage yet.
Gray said the nation needs to keep coal as a vital part of the energy portfolio.
“We have to invest in the future of coal jobs,” Gray said at a news conference in Pike County, where the county seal includes lumps of coal.
Gray, who is the mayor of Lexington, said federal policymakers have not given sufficient attention to pushing carbon-capture research, noting that Obama’s budget request this year for the fossil-fuel energy program was a 5.1 percent decrease from the prior year.
Many people in Eastern Kentucky place sole blame for the crippling loss of coal jobs on tougher environmental rules the Obama administration has pursued, but analysts say the very low price of natural gas and other factors also play important roles.
Still, Gray faces a challenge to win over many voters on coal issues in Eastern Kentucky because of the unpopularity of Obama and Hillary Clinton, the Democratic nominee for president, whom Republicans have accused of waging a war on coal.
It’s clear Republicans will try to lump Obama and Clinton in with Gray in his race against incumbent Republican U.S. Sen. Rand Paul of Bowling Green.
“You can’t be a friend of Eastern Kentucky or coal if you’re a supporter of Hillary Clinton, who promised to put coal miners out of business,” Paul said in a statement.
Tres Watson, spokesman for the state Republican Party, said it is “laughable” that Gray would expect Kentuckians to think he is a friend of coal, noting among other things that he has donated to Obama.
Clinton did refer to putting miners out of work, but said she misspoke and that she was actually referring to the fact that market changes are hurting coal employment.
Clinton had outlined a $30 billion proposal to help hard-hit coal areas months before making the statement.
Asked if he faces an uphill battle, Gray said people are tired of rhetoric without results.
Paul and some other leaders in Congress have done little to create jobs in Eastern Kentucky, Gray said.
“Most of the people that I talk to, they say that there’s been a lot of words, like the war on coal, but there’s not been a lot of action,” Gray said. “That’s what I’ve been about all my career and all my life, is recruiting jobs and actually giving people opportunity.”
Gray acknowledged carbon-capture technology is in the early stages of development, but said it will improve over time.
As to whether he feels coal is over-regulated, Gray said he has long dealt with regulations through his career with Gray Construction.
“We can’t just accept the regulations on the face of them. I know that you have to push back on bureaucracies,” Gray said.
Gray said he thought it was a good thing that the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan was put on hold in the courts.
That was the proposal for significant cuts in carbon emissions from existing power plants.
Asked if he would support the plan if it is revived, Gray said only that he would have to examine it carefully.
Paul has strongly criticized what he argues are excessive federal regulations affecting coal, and pushed resolutions to block the Clean Power Plan.
Paul has proposed a program called economic freedom zones to help Eastern Kentucky and other areas with high unemployment and poverty. The proposal includes slashing federal taxes and lifting some regulations in an effort to boost economic development.
Former Gov. Paul Patton, House Speaker Greg Stumbo, state Sens. Ray Jones and Johnny Ray Turner and Angie Hatton, a state House candidate, appeared with Gray.
Stumbo argued that only Gray and Clinton have outlined plans that would actually help Eastern Kentucky if adopted, describing what the GOP has offered as “rhetoric and garbage.”
Jones said Gray had a long record of success in business and creating jobs, but said Paul had done nothing for Eastern Kentucky, instead using his seat to advance his career and political aspirations.
“And we all know how that turned out,” Jones said, a reference to Paul’s aborted bid for the GOP presidential nomination.
The other pieces of the plan Gray outlined Tuesday include upgrading the Hal Rogers Parkway between London and Hazard to interstate standards and supporting Stumbo’s proposal for an interstate between Prestonsburg and Beckley, W.Va.; supporting legislation to shore up pensions of retired United Mine Workers of America members; and continued funding for worker training.
Gray also said it’s important to finish the KentuckyWired project to install high-speed internet service across the state. The service, which is in development, would come first to Eastern Kentucky.
“Economic development in rural Kentucky will suffer until we open up high-speed (internet) access to business and residents,” Gray said.