Commerce Lexington turns more pro-coal

Commerce Lexington has changed its official policy statement to be much more pro-coal after a two-day trip to Eastern Kentucky.

"Basically the chamber was better informed of the impact coal was having on Kentucky's economy," said Chad Harpole, the business group's vice president for public policy.

In its 2009 policy, the group acknowledged that coal has meant low energy rates in Kentucky but noted that federal action was likely to place further restrictions on emissions. That policy called on policy-makers to help utilities "and mitigate price volatility for our families and businesses." The coal industry wasn't mentioned.

The statement for 2010 calls pending energy legislation "the most immediate threat to Kentucky's business climate" and says for the first time that the group supports efforts to "protect the viability of Kentucky's coal industry."

The coal industry and some people in the coalfields have been increasingly vocal in fighting back against regulation and what they see as bias by the news media and a lack of appreciation from the rest of the state. There even have been calls for boycotting Lexington businesses.

Harpole said Commerce Lexington's policy change was a direct result of an October trip to the coalfields.

Commerce Lexington organized a trip that took 65 Central Kentucky business leaders to Irvine, Whitesburg, Pikeville and other spots in the eastern coalfields.

Along the way, they were told about the good salaries coal miners make and the coal industry-related work that goes on in offices in Central Kentucky, presentations that Harpole said "showed how the two economies are linked together."

Among the business group's concerns, he said, is that voluntary steps taken by utilities, the Kentucky automobile industry and others wouldn't be taken into account in the cap-and-trade energy bill approved by the U.S. House last summer.

U.S. Rep. Ben Chandler, D-Versailles, voted for that bill. But that doesn't put Commerce Lexington at odds with Chandler, Harpole said.

"We work with the congressman every day," he said. "The things we are for, including coal to gas liquification and increased funding for research at the University of Kentucky, the congressman is very supportive of."

Lane Boldman of Lexington, who is on the Sierra Club's national board of directors, called the Commerce Lexington policy change "disappointing."

"It just seems to be an inordinate interest in the coal industry specifically," she said.

While the Commerce Lexington policy says that low rates from coal-produced electricity have helped Kentucky attract energy-intensive industries such as steel, aluminum and automobiles, Boldman pointed out that Kentucky still ranks 44th among the states in per capita income.

"As an argument for economic development, it's very curious because the numbers clearly don't support that," she said.

While others are seeking to diversify the state, she said, Commerce Lexington appears to be taking a step backward.

When a reporter read the new policy to an Eastern Kentucky radio announcer who called for a Lexington boycott, WTUK-Harlan's Randy Walters said, "We welcome that kind of voice from them. The thing is what we want is their legislators, their senators, congressmen, we want those people saying this.

"We want the people of Lexington ultimately to do that. We want to see this on their media. We want the whole state to get in line with coal like West Virginia did."

Dave Moss, vice president of the Kentucky Coal Association, said his organization supports the additions to the energy policy, which he said was spawned by the October trip.

"They wanted to go one step further and solidify their support," Moss said.