Politics & Government

Obama's plan to fight climate change sparks strong reaction in Kentucky

The Trimble County LG&E power plant smoke stack, left, and cooling tower in Bedford.
The Trimble County LG&E power plant smoke stack, left, and cooling tower in Bedford. Herald-Leader

Kentucky's coal-fired power plants produce a lot of carbon dioxide, so President Barack Obama's call Tuesday to limit such emissions from existing plants sparked sharp reaction.

Supporters saw a historic effort to step away from the brink of devastating climate changes. Opponents predicted economic ruin. Utilities said the plan could drive up electricity rates.

About the only thing everyone seemed to agree on is that limiting carbon-dioxide emissions from existing power plants would have "significant, far-reaching effects" in Kentucky and elsewhere, as Len Peters, secretary of the state Energy and Environment Cabinet, said in a blog post.

The effects are hard to predict because Obama did not say what standards he would push. He directed the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to come up with rules.

U.S. Sens. Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul, and U.S. Reps. Andy Barr, Hal Rogers and Ed Whitfield, all Kentucky Republicans, condemned Obama's plan, saying higher electricity rates would kill U.S. jobs.

"He may as well call his plan what it is: a plan to ship jobs overseas," McConnell said in a speech hours before Obama released the plan.

Whitfield, chairman of the House Subcommittee on Energy and Power, said the panel would hold hearings on Obama's plan and its anticipated economic effects.

In Kentucky, Peters said his cabinet would study how greenhouse-gas regulations could affect the state, with an eye toward coming up with strategies — such as improved efficiency at coal-burning power plants or capturing and storing carbon — to cut the cost of complying with the rules.

Peters said Kentucky had a lot of jobs that rely on relatively low-cost electricity.

"Kentucky is unique, and when we talk about the ramifications of standards on existing plants it's not because we are pro-coal or anti-environment; it's because jobs and economic well-being are particularly vulnerable, and not every state is equally vulnerable," Peters wrote.

Kentucky gets more than 90 percent of its electricity from coal-burning power plants, so the state is one of the largest carbon producers in the country — one of 18 where emissions went up from 2000 to 2010, according to federal statistics.

The state's economy "will further erode" because it relies so heavily on coal-fired electricity generation, Peters said.

The plan to cut carbon emissions from coal-fired plants could mean much higher electricity prices, East Kentucky Power Cooperative and Kentucky Utilities said Tuesday.

The reason would be the cost to retrofit plants to meet the rules, East Kentucky spokesman Nick Comer said.

"Clearly, Obama's plan will have a profound impact on the electric rates paid by Kentuckians because we depend on coal to generate affordable, reliable energy," Comer said.

Obama's plan would have a "chilling effect on the production and use of coal domestically that will greatly impact coal-producing states like Kentucky," said Bill Bissett, president of the Kentucky Coal Association.

One reason is that natural gas burns more cleanly than coal, so utilities could switch fuels to meet lower carbon limits.

Eastern Kentucky already has seen a dramatic drop in coal production and jobs as low natural gas prices led utilities to switch for cost savings.

Justin Maxson, president of the Mountain Association for Community Economic Development, said that as the administration moves to cut carbon emissions, it should invest in Eastern Kentucky communities long dependant on coal.

Officials at every level need to build a more diverse economy by supporting entrepreneurs and promoting sustainable forestry and wood products, energy efficiency, and local foods and tourism, Maxson said.

In his speech, Obama anticipated the charge that his plan would kill jobs.

U.S. businesses have responded many times before with innovation to reduce pollution without economic ruin, Obama said. "Don't bet against American workers. Don't tell folks that we have to choose between the health of our children or the health of our economy," he said.

Environmentalists and others applauded Obama's initiative.

"This should have been done a long time ago," said Suzanne Tallichet, chair of Kentuckians for the Commonwealth.

Reducing carbon pollution will benefit human health and the environment, she said.

Paul Vincelli, a plant pathologist at the University of Kentucky who organized a forum on climate change, said Obama's move was historic.

Science makes clear that it's time for the United States to act to address the causes and effects of climate change, said Vincelli, who emphasized that he didn't advocate a particular approach and was speaking in an individual capacity, not as a UK representative.

"It's very clear that we should be doing something," he said.