Politics & Government

Tom Eblen: Kentucky politicians rant about 'war on coal,' avoid real challenge

Sen. Mitch McConnell referred to a "war on coal" in a speech to the  Kentucky Coal Association on June 1. McConnell claimed the EPA wants to see the "coal industry driven out of business altogether."
Sen. Mitch McConnell referred to a "war on coal" in a speech to the Kentucky Coal Association on June 1. McConnell claimed the EPA wants to see the "coal industry driven out of business altogether."

Did you hear we are at war? I don't mean the never-ending wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the covert wars in Libya and Yemen or even the nebulous wars against terrorism and drugs.

I mean the "War on Coal." All of Kentucky's politicians are talking about it — at least all of those who want campaign contributions and support from the coal industry.

"They have declared war, war on Kentucky's coal industry," U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell said of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in a speech to the Kentucky Coal Association earlier this month. The U.S. Senate's Republican leader claimed the EPA wants to see the "coal industry driven out of business altogether."

The next day, state Rep. Jim Gooch, a Providence Democrat who heads the state House Natural Resources Committee, went even further as he complained about the EPA's efforts to make coal-fired power plants reduce their air and water pollution.

"This is a war on Kentucky," Gooch exclaimed during a hearing, "because what we're talking about is totally destroying our economy."

And don't forget Gov. Steve Beshear's tantrum against the EPA during his State of the Commonwealth address in February. "Get off our backs!" Beshear bellowed. "Get off our backs!"

So what is this War on Coal? A lot of baloney, that's what. It is a public relations campaign by an industry with a long history of maximizing profits by disregarding environmental stewardship and mine safety.

The coal industry is apoplectic because federal regulators are doing their jobs more aggressively now than they did during the Bush administration. The EPA is enforcing the Clean Air Act by requiring industries to reduce carbon dioxide and other greenhouse-gas emissions that cause climate change. The agency also is trying to curb destructive surface-mining practices and reduce water pollution.

Some politicians and business executives have responded by claiming that climate change is a myth, despite overwhelming scientific consensus to the contrary. Others just fear costs. But the costs of pollution have always existed; we just haven't paid enough of them with our power bills and corporate bottom lines. We pay for them with sickness, premature death and degradation of our fragile planet.

I was encouraged to see that the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce has invited journalist James Fallows to be a keynote speaker at its annual meeting July 12 in Louisville. He will talk about his December cover story in The Atlantic magazine, Why the Future of Clean Energy is Dirty Coal.

Fallows' article — which can be read online at TheAtlantic.com — is excellent. For one thing, it punctures illusions on both the political right and left. Yes, climate change is real and carbon emissions must be dramatically reduced to avert disaster. No, renewable energy cannot replace coal — at least not in our lifetimes.

Because coal will be essential to civilization for generations, the sensible thing is to figure out how to mine and burn it more cleanly, Fallows wrote. Most of that responsibility must fall to the United States and China, which together produce more than 40 percent of man-made greenhouse gasses and bring different strengths to the fight to reduce them.

Fallows profiled U.S. and Chinese scientists who are working on innovative solutions. The most intriguing experiment may be "underground coal gasification." Jets of oxygen, mixed with steam or chemicals, are blasted into coal seams deep underground. That creates a chemical reaction, producing a gas that can be piped out and burned to create electricity. The process avoids the need for traditional mining and leaves most of coal's nasty by-products underground.

Kentucky politicians and business leaders could learn a lot from Fallows' thinking, which transcends ideology to see the coal issue for what it really is — a technology problem to be solved.

Rather than fighting a "war" to protect pollution, Kentucky's leaders should look past political clichés and entrenched economic interests.

They should position Kentucky to be a leader in meeting the technical and economic challenge of making "clean coal" a reality instead of an oxymoron. It won't be cheap, easy or painless for anyone, but it is the smart thing to do.

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