Read coal's future is in the tobacco leaves; Ky. energy mix will change

Twenty years ago the tobacco industry was under siege.

The industry fought back vigorously against demonic government scientists and misguided local critics, tarring both with charges they were threatening the very fabric of Kentucky's life and livelihood.

In 1991 when a Miss Kentucky endorsed the Great American Smokeout to encourage people to stop smoking cigarettes she came under fire from the Burley Tobacco Growers Cooperative Association. "I don't think it is appropriate for Miss Kentucky to speak out against smoking," Danny McKinney, chief executive officer of the association, said at the time. "I would hope that more people would appreciate what tobacco has done for Kentucky." Two years later the director of the University of Kentucky's tobacco and health research program assailed an Environmental Protection Agency report that classified secondhand smoke as a known carcinogen, saying the agency had used "bad science," and predicted dire consequences if the trend toward smoke-free workplaces continued. "I don't know where all this is leading, but to me it's scary. It's almost back to prohibition."

Sound familiar? No wonder coal has been so quick and effective in battling back against the legions of scientists and citizens who question the impact it has on both human and environmental health and who advocate for a diversified energy strategy. Tobacco had already written the playbook.

The interesting — and instructive — story, though, comes from what actually happened.

Tobacco did decline but the world did not come to a crashing end, not even in Kentucky. Today tobacco represents only 8 percent of the state's total farm cash receipts, down from about 25 percent in the early 1990s. But Kentucky agriculture has survived, and thrived. A more diversified Kentucky agricultural sector will top $5 billion in cash receipts for the first time this year. It is, in fact, one of the brightest spots in an otherwise dreary economic climate.

Kentucky agriculture has diversified. Poultry, corn, beef cattle, horses and soybeans all beat out the once-dominant tobacco in sales. Indeed, fruits and vegetables combined topped tobacco, with 11 percent of total ag receipts.

Tobacco isn't coal but the lessons remain. Our leaders can shout about the EPA, coal interests can pay for basketball dorms and buy football games but they can't change the reality. We will have a more diversified energy future, whether we like it or not. The question that faces us is how Kentucky will get there and what it will cost.

The legislature's decision to invest half of the state's tobacco settlement money in diversifying the farm economy, along with some smart and collaborative planning, helped agriculture rebound from tobacco's decline.

This legislative session there will be opportunities to help usher in a more diverse and sustainable energy future, from allowing the Public Service Commission more latitude in considering rates for alternative energies to providing incentives and requirements for alternative energy sources and conservation.

Change is hard and it's scary, but the story of life after tobacco proves it can be for the best. Kentucky's leaders must heed that lesson.