PIKEVILLE — Coal mining and global warming theories have polarized the national political landscape, but the only battle among top U.S. Senate candidates in Kentucky is over who loves mining the most.
The leading Republican candidates' first television advertising salvo was about coal's value in the Kentucky economy. One of the first heated exchanges between the Democratic candidates, back in August, was over who most opposed congressional cap-and-trade legislation to limit carbon emissions at coal-fired power plants.
All the candidates — Democrats and Republicans alike — try to distance themselves from President Barack Obama's environmental policies, calling them things like a "war on coal" and an "attack on Kentucky."
The candidates in the May 18th primaries are simply acknowledging Kentucky's political reality, said Democratic political consultant Danny Briscoe of Louisville.
Even though coal plays a much smaller role in the state's economy than it did decades ago, "coal operators can get people to turn out and vote," Briscoe explained.
All this leaves environmentalists nonplussed. Kentucky's Sierra Club chapter has not decided whether to endorse anyone in the race, said club political co-chairman Rick Clewett.
"The bottom line is that all across the country, coal is declining and people are moving away from it, and Kentucky needs to step up here, and it's a shame that politicians don't," Clewett said.
In the money race, Democratic Lt. Gov. Daniel Mongiardo of Hazard is the candidate favored early by the coal industry.
Coal-connected individuals and groups, who have been giving steadily more to political candidates for the last six years, have put more than $50,000 into the Eastern Kentuckian's campaign and rank as his fourth-largest donor group, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
The mining industry doesn't yet rank with any of the three other leading candidates, from either party, and Mongiardo leads in donations from the energy sector overall. However, several Kentucky coal executives have given to Republican Secretary of State Trey Grayson's campaign.
"Mongiardo espouses the 'mine coal at any cost' view. They buy into it and support his campaign, financially," said Roger Noe, a professor at Southeast Community and Technical College in Harlan County, and a former state representative.
One of Mongiardo's favorite applause lines in Eastern Kentucky is, "It's not mountaintop removal; it's mountaintop development." He says hospitals and airports built atop flattened mountains in Eastern Kentucky would not exist without coal mining. However, only about 3 percent of mountaintop-mined land is slated for such development.
Mongiardo's personal connections to Eastern Kentucky give him an advantage in the region over Democratic Attorney General Jack Conway of Louisville and the top Republicans, said Jasmine Farrier, associate professor of political science at the University of Louisville.
Mongiardo doesn't have to build up trust in the region, Farrier said.
"It would be a mistake to assume that an industry has a Republican leaning," Farrier said. Voters and donors often think pragmatically about who will bring the pork barrel money home, she said.
Water woes news to Paul
For their part, the top two Republican candidates say limits on mining or coal-fired power plants amount to an attack on a staple industry and a tax that will be passed on to electric customers.
Bowling Green ophthalmologist Rand Paul, in an interview, said environmental issues are best handled at the local level, not by the federal Environmental Protection Agency, which has tried to slow or halt mountaintop mining in Appalachia by putting holds on dozens of mine permits.
"Local people are acutely aware of pollution," Paul said.
However, when asked about water quality, Paul said he had not heard complaints about drinking water in the coalfields, though some agencies through the years have estimated up to a third of homes in Kentucky's Appalachian counties don't have potable tap water.
"Aren't there municipal water standards?" Paul asked.
There are, set by federal agencies and enforced by state and local governments. But nearly 100,000 people in Eastern Kentucky — about 14 percent of those in the region — get water from largely unregulated private wells, according to Kentucky Infrastructure Authority projections based on 2008 U.S. Census estimates.
According to 1990 census data, more than half of Eastern Kentucky residents complained of hard water, high bacteria content, sulfur-smelling water and iron sediment that turns clothes and sinks orange, the survey said.
"The water didn't look orange to me coming straight out of the coalfields," Paul said.
Farrier said Paul should be careful to not appear out of touch, since he is relatively unknown in the mountains. She noted that Grayson enjoys the advantage of holding statewide office.
Kentucky voters, including coalfield voters, want to know that a senator understands them. "It's a very sophisticated electorate, in a way," Farrier said.
Pursuing coalfield voters
Paul said he has heard from coal executives and miners in the mountains and is in tune with their concerns. For example, Paul is skeptical of global warming theories that say climate change is caused by carbon dioxide emissions from human activity, such as burning coal.
"There is some question as to the validity of the science," he said.
He and Grayson both oppose the cap-and-trade bill now before Congress, which would limit carbon dioxide output from power plants and allow companies to buy and sell emissions allowances. Bipartisan estimates put the cap-and-trade bill's annual cost per household between $800 and $1,600 a year.
"If Kentucky had no coal, I would still be against cap-and-trade," Paul said, because he sees it as a tax on anyone who buys electricity.
Both GOP candidates have struggled to get the upper hand with pro-coal voters.
Grayson's first ad, airing on WYMT-TV in Hazard and in other Eastern Kentucky markets, quoted Paul as saying coal is "dirty" and one of the "least favorable forms of energy." Paul countered with an ad that showed Grayson saying "we need to bring nuclear on" as coal plants are phased out.
Both men say their quotes were taken out of context, but Paul said in an interview that anyone who says there aren't cleaner forms of energy than coal is "disingenuous."
Grayson also criticizes the EPA. He said he supports its 2008 definition of streams adopted as the Bush administration tried to overturn rules limiting mine-waste dumping in watersheds.
"Playing with that definition is an attempt to attack Kentucky," Grayson said.
Grayson, a Northern Kentucky attorney, de-emphasized questions about mine pollution of water and said Eastern Kentucky coal and natural gas operators have told him they want more done about straight pipes and sewage contamination of streams.
"Instead of trying to hurt Kentucky jobs, which is what an attack on the coal industry does, let's go to a more serious problem, which are the straight pipe issues, and stop using coal as a diversion or distraction," Grayson said.
In the Democratic primary, the key environmental argument between Mongiardo and Conway has been over the cap-and-trade bill.
In an interview, Mongiardo said the proposed cap-and-trade system of reducing carbon emissions at power plants would be too costly for Kentuckians. He called it a "one size fits all" approach that would reduce Kentucky's independence and competitiveness in attracting other industry, such as steel and aluminum manufacturing.
Though Mongiardo claims otherwise, Conway has said repeatedly that he does not support the cap-and-trade bill now before Congress.
"We cannot create overnight a completely new energy economy, new environmental standards, and do it completely on the backs of some of the poorest regions of the country," Conway said in a recent interview.
Conway said he thinks state and federal investment in developing carbon capture and sequestration technology is a better way to remove carbon dioxide from coal burning emissions.
"We're going to have coal as a significant part of base-load generation for the foreseeable future, and we have to go on the offense on this particular issue," Conway said.
When asked about reviews of mining permits by the EPA and the U.S.. Army Corps of Engineers, Conway didn't directly criticize them. He said a fall-off in mining in the past year or two may have coincided with the Obama administration's permit reviews but was at least partly caused by excess coal stored by utility companies.
Conway said the key question going forward is this: "How can we mine coal responsibly while doing the least amount of damage to the environment?"
He said he would support regulations that change how post-mine land is re-contoured and change what is done with mining overburden, instead of filling valleys and streams.
"Land use is a big part of it, and also making certain that the spoil or the excess isn't just going over the side of the hill," he said.