The race to replace Jim Bunning in the U.S. Senate is shaping up as a contest of who loves coal the most.
Kentuckians shouldn't be misled by this lovefest into supposing that the coal industry is a major source of employment or economic opportunity.
Quite the contrary. Coal has been a source of jobs loss, not jobs creation, as the accompanying graphic shows.
Mining coal represents fewer than 1 percent of Kentucky jobs. Even in coal-rich Harlan County more people worked in state and local government (1,891) in 2007 than mining (1,433), according to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis.
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Nonetheless, the Republican primary's first television volley was Trey Grayson and Rand Paul blasting each other for being disloyal to coal by supporting nuclear energy. This was a variation on last year's spat between Democratic Senate candidates Daniel Mongiardo and Jack Conway who accused each other of harboring a secret love for natural gas.
The state Office of Employment and Training reports that in 2009, Kentucky had 17,400 jobs in coal mining. Contrast that with 216,200 in health care and social assistance, 168,800 in leisure and hospitality or 39,700 in the federal government.
None of that stopped Grayson from declaring, "I've consistently favored Kentucky coal to create good jobs and get our economy moving again."
Counting on coal to create jobs or move the economy is a dead end.
Granted that in the past cheap coal-fired power has helped Kentucky attract energy-intensive industries. In the future, coal is more likely to come from Wyoming, as Appalachia's easily accessible reserves are depleted, while even in Kentucky utilities will be gradually shifting to renewable sources of power.
Candidates for Senate should be talking about jobs and building the economy. Even before this recession pushed more than 1 in 10 Kentucky workers into unemployment, per capita income had slipped further behind the national average and Kentucky moved from the 18th poorest to the fifth-poorest state.
Kentuckians should demand reality-based ideas and leadership from those who seek to speak for them in the U.S. Senate. We haven't seen it yet.