Kentucky wisely seeks more of an energy mix

We expect this sort of thing from the Kentucky Coal Association with its admittedly narrow set of interests.

But it's disappointing that the state Chamber of Commerce, which represents 92,000 Kentucky businesses, is opposing Beshear administration overtures to the Environmental Protection Agency aimed at protecting Kentuckians from huge increases in electric power costs.

At issue are white papers issued last year by state Environment and Energy Secretary Len Peters that lay out options for federal regulation of greenhouse gas emissions. The EPA has already issued rules for new power plants and is due to issue regulations for existing power plants by June.

The Kentucky white papers make a compelling case that states should be given flexibility to meet greenhouse gas reduction requirements through efficiency, fuel switching and other means; this would avert the mass retirement of coal-fired power plants and the huge cost of replacing them with generators powered by another fossil fuel, natural gas, until the energy mix can be truly diversified.

The papers state that some state economies, including Kentucky's, are much more energy-intensive than others. Dramatic increases in power costs could cost thousands of jobs in industries that use lots of electricity or force those jobs overseas. That would harm not just Kentucky but the whole country.

The EPA's acceptance of Kentucky's ideas could forestall further losses in the state's 12,400 coal jobs, but the real prize would be protecting manufacturing, which employs 220,000 Kentuckians.

So, why wouldn't the chamber be on board?

The chamber and the coal industry want the Beshear administration to take a hard line against any regulation of heat-trapping gases that cause climate change. By their thinking, the state's efforts to influence the EPA amount to conceding that the agency has the authority to regulate greenhouse gases. They'd rather Gov. Steve Beshear stand at the state line, like George Wallace in the schoolhouse door, and proclaim, "Coal now, coal forever."

The Supreme Court has ruled that the Clean Air Act gives the EPA the authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles. Whether that authority extends to power plants is before the Supreme Court now. Meanwhile, Kentuckians in Congress are trying to block the rules.

But whether greenhouse gases from power plants are regulated this year or not, the notion that Kentucky can remain the island Kingdom of Coal in a sea of change is shortsighted and unrealistic.

It's at odds with the emerging thinking of American business leaders and mainstream economists who, as The New York Times reported last week, "see global warming as a force that contributes to lower gross domestic products, higher food and commodity costs, broken supply chains and increased financial risk." In other words, the cost of not addressing climate change will be higher than the cost of changing how we produce energy.

No wonder the world's largest automaker, Toyota, also one of Kentucky's top corporate citizens, has committed to helping establish "a low-carbon society."

The Kentucky white papers are getting attention and sparking discussions nationally. The Beshear administration is proactively trying to shape federal policy to allow for an orderly transition to a more diverse energy mix, something that would protect Kentucky's economy in any event. That's leadership. Would the chamber rather we wait to cry like a victim when it's too late to have an impact?

Unfortunately, some Republicans are trying to convert complex policy questions into cheap political points. A recent commentary by Sen. Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown, included a bunch of off-base criticisms of the white papers. The commentary was sent out by a public relations firm founded by Scott Jennings, the senior advisor to a super PAC supporting Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell.

Elected officials who truly care about Kentucky will avoid politicizing these efforts to protect the state's economy in a changing energy landscape. The Beshear administration, which has certainly done its part to defend the coal industry, should resist the pressure to back down and keep leading.