Politics overpower reason in governor's race

Taking a cue from Sen. Mitch McConnell, both major candidates for Kentucky governor are vowing to ignore a federal mandate to reduce heat-trapping carbon emissions from power plants.

Such defiance no doubt plays well when Democrat Jack Conway and Republican Matt Bevin have private audiences with the coal industry, as they did in Bristol, Va. last month and plan to again next month with the Kentucky Coal Association.

But the state's electrical utilities — on the hook for meeting the state's power needs — take a different view.

We checked with the two major investor-owned utilities — Kentucky Utilities/Louisville Gas and Electric, and Kentucky Power — and also with consumer-owned East Kentucky Power Cooperative and Big Rivers Electric Corp.

None of them are fans of the Clean Power Plan, a key to President Barack Obama's efforts to combat climate change. They worry about the costs of reducing carbon emissions 31 percent from 2012 levels by 2030 and about the power grid's reliability during and after the change.

Despite all that, none of the utilities endorse boycotting the carbon rule, as McConnell, the Senate's top Republican, has urged the nation's governors to do.

The utilities' position is not surprising. Kentucky industries, including coal, always prefer state-developed regulatory schemes to defaulting into a federal system, which would happen if Kentucky fails to submit a plan for decreasing the output of heat-trapping carbon dioxide.

"We have always had a preference to be responsible to our state and local environmental regulators, as they have a much better understanding of what is best for our state," said a statement from KU/LGE.

"The full effects of the final rule and what operational changes are required — and at what cost — will not be known until the commonwealth finalizes its compliance plan, which will guide utilities' plans moving forward."

That's a very polite way of saying the stakes are too high for the next governor to shirk this responsibility.

Anthony Campbell, CEO of East Kentucky Power, which sells electricity to 16 member cooperatives, said once a plan is final, the governor could then decide not to implement it, but it's always better to have a plan than not.

Bevin has said he will do "nothing" to comply with the climate rule and may instruct state regulators to "ignore" other federal regulations "that are unreasonable and excessive."

Independent Drew Curtis changed his mind when he realized the price of refusing to develop a plan is loss of state control. He wants a plan heavy on increasing efficiency.

Conway is the only Democratic attorney general to join 11 Republicans in challenging the climate rule in federal court. He says he would stop work on a state plan until the lawsuit is resolved.

But Greg Pauley, Kentucky Power's chief operating officer, says developing a state plan should proceed concurrently with the lawsuit and appeals.

By not developing a plan, Pauley said, Kentucky loses options for negotiating with the Environmental Protection Agency and protecting consumers from rate increases. "It's always better to be at the table than on the table."

Pauley says Kentucky should seek the two-year extension, until September 2018, allowed by the final rule, for submitting a plan.

William J. Ray, superintendent of the municipally-owned Glasgow Electric Plant Board, says Kentucky has barely begun to tap potentially dramatic cuts in emissions by involving consumers in low-cost demand management. So, why not "lean toward" meeting the guidelines "instead of just resisting them without fully giving ourselves the chance to move the emissions ball down the field."

On Nov. 4, it will be time to drop the bluster and get down to Kentucky's serious business.