Long out-gunned by the Kentucky coal industry's political connections, the non-profit group Kentuckians for the Commonwealth said Friday it has created a new political action committee focused on coal and energy.
Leaders acknowledged that they won't be able to match coal industry money flowing into election campaigns, but the New Power PAC will start with $100,000 of seed money from KFTC dues, Communications Director Jerry Hardt said.
"We don't have a dorm named after us or anything like that," said Megan Naseman, of Richmond, a KFTC steering committee member, referring to the University of Kentucky decision to build Wildcat Coal Lodge, funded with $7 million raised by a group spearheaded by Alliance Coal President Joe Craft.
"We know how to stretch a dollar," Naseman said.
The committee is not planning to endorse or fund any candidates, group leaders said Friday, but it plans to spend money on issue ads that lay out where candidates stand.
Coal industry officials said they will take KFTC's latest move seriously.
"One hundred thousand dollars is a lot of money to me, and while they say they're only going to get involved in issues, I'm sure their long- range goal is to attack candidates who understand the importance of coal and affordable power," said Bill Bissett, president of the Kentucky Coal Association, which has its own statewide PAC that receives contributions from individuals.
KFTC might not have a large budget, he said, but groups such as the Sierra Club, with similar aims, do have large coffers.
The mining industry, largely representing coal interests, has given about $1.6 million to candidates' election campaigns this year, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Electric utility PACs have given $9.9 million. And "single issue" environmental PACs have given just over $307,000, including about $25,000 from the Sierra Club's PAC.
Coal now generates about 50 percent of the country's electricity, and more than 90 percent of Kentucky's.
"If coal truly had to pay for all of its cost ... other energy sources would be on an even playing field," said former KFTC chairwoman Teri Blanton.
Advocates of non-coal energy sources argue coal is not as cheap as its supporters claim because costs such as environmental damage are not factored into the equation.
Political leaders should push for energy efficiency, instead of building new coal-fired power plants, KFTC said in a news conference Friday.
Taxpayer-funded subsidies of coal mining tie the state's future to a resource that is finite and dwindling, they said. And a broader "energy portfolio" that includes solar, wind and biofuel energy as a supplement to coal is better for Kentuckians in the long run, they said.
Efficiency is good, Bissett said, but "with conservative estimates showing an electricity demand increase of 40 percent by 2025, we need to continue to expand our ability to generate electricity."
KFTC is a 501(c)4 organization, so it can legally lobby for legislation and participate in political activity. But forming a PAC lets the group funnel more resources into politics and "gives us the ability to name politicians by name," Blanton said.
The group has about 7,000 members.