McConnell's spiel offers no hope; E. Ky. ready for a real jobs plan

U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky.
U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky. Herald-Leader

When the words "McConnell" and "jobs legislation" flashed across computer screens yesterday, we thought, "finally."

Facing a tough re-election fight next year, the Senate's top Republican was wisely turning to bread-and-butter issues in Kentucky, where poverty is rising, median income lagging and a declining coal industry laying off workers by the thousands.

Alas, we were wrong.

McConnell had nothing new to propose. He was rehashing the same old stuff, making yet another speech in which he blamed every single one of Kentucky's 6,000-plus unemployed coal miners on President Barack Obama and the Environmental Protection Agency.

McConnell offered no proposals for creating jobs outside the coal industry. No strategies or seed money for regional economic development or encouraging entrepreneurs.

He expressed no commitment to education to help Eastern Kentucky compete economically. No support for improving communications technology or transportation in rural areas. No support for developing technologies for capturing carbon emissions to keep coal a viable fuel in the future.

In short, he provided no hope that anything he was offering would make one bit of difference to Kentuckians who need work — or to a region that has suffered in poverty whether the coal industry was booming or busting.

At this rate, McConnell might end up being the last sentient Kentuckian who thinks the EPA's slowdown of the surface-mining permitting process has any practical effect on coal industry employment.

Coal companies are shutting down fully permitted mines in the mountains. Piles of coal wait for a buyer. What company would incur the expense of opening a new mine when it already has permits to mine coal that nobody is buying because both natural gas and coal from other places are much cheaper?

Is it possible McConnell does not understand this?

In addition to forcing the EPA to quickly act on mining permits, McConnell's Saving Coal Jobs Act also would require congressional approval before any new limits on carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants could be imposed.

The Supreme Court in 2006 ruled that the EPA has the authority to regulate carbon emissions in a lawsuit brought by states demanding that the agency do just that. So McConnell's insistence on a congressional veto has shaky legs.

But even if McConnell and his allies succeed in blocking new regulations to deal with climate change, their success would have no immediate practical effect on Eastern Kentucky. That's because the high cost of mining the region's remaining thin seams has priced the coal out of a market dominated by cheaper, cleaner natural gas.

Even without new limits on carbon, which are expected to be unveiled today, coal's share of U.S. electricity production has fallen to 39 percent, down from half a few years ago. Cities in China are banning new coal-fired plants because of pollution. The market for coal will likely keep shrinking.

We'd expect McConnell and other politicians to defend coal — while working on economic alternatives. Bashing Obama and the EPA has been a winning political formula in Kentucky. But the blame game's getting old. By November 2014, voters may well want something new.

Eastern Kentucky knows it must plan beyond coal. Now would be a great time for McConnell to start offering some real ideas and support.