When Sen. Mitch McConnell says states should refuse outright to comply with federal clean-air rules, he's continuing a long tradition of stubborn resistance by the coal industry and its political supporters.
But he's out of step with the American people, and is doing a disservice to them by failing to lead the country — and his state — into the new energy economy.
The fast-fading U.S. coal industry is in deep and probably permanent decline, and this is nowhere more true than in Kentucky and Central Appalachia, where coal reserves are depleted and markets are shrinking rapidly. The pain and hardship experienced by communities who have been dependent on coal are real.
But it's clear that the solution to the problem is not to bash the Environmental Protection Agency; Americans clearly embrace clean air laws, and the kind of resistance McConnell promotes will not provide the support communities need.
Twenty-five years ago, a bipartisan Congress renewed the Clean Air Act, which aimed to reduce pollution from coal-fired power plants and other sources. It's well known that coal-fired plants emit deadly pollutants that include mercury and soot and that they are the major cause of acid rain and the proliferation of greenhouse gases.
Rather than complying with the law, however, the coal industry and some of its allies in the utility industry have spent the past quarter-century battling its enforcement in one way or another — in court, in federal rule-making procedures, in the halls of Congress and in the back rooms where political contributions and favors change hands.
In many states many utilities have simply refused to install pollution controls, letting their neighbors suffer the consequences. The only reason the coal industry is now facing what it calls a "train wreck" of regulation is that lawsuits around the renewal of the Clean Air Act of 1990 have finally worked their way through the courts. The EPA, created in a bipartisan spirit under the administration of Richard Nixon, has an obligation to enforce those laws.
While McConnell and his allies resist, many leaders embrace the change. Colorado, New York, Minnesota and Washington have taken a forward-looking approach to the EPA's proposed rules for state-by-state Clean Power Plans by arguing that they help create a more balanced, financially sound, and responsible mix of energy sources.
In fact, Americans across the board support clean air laws and a shift to renewable energy, as seen most recently in a January poll by the National Resources Defense Council. The poll plumbs public sentiment in five states: Colorado, Florida, New Hampshire, Maine and Virginia, a selection that is useful because those five states aren't known for agreeing on much of anything else.
Among the poll's findings:
■ "There is a clear and significant preference for renewable energy sources over traditional ones."
■ "Most respondents in these states believe that enforcement of environmental regulations is not tough enough."
■ "There is no appetite for weakening of environmental regulations."
Polling data also show that Americans are appalled by the practice of mountaintop removal coal mining, which is prevalent in Kentucky and West Virginia, as the industry has sought desperately to blast more coal out of the ground.
Some leaders in McConnell's own state, including Gov. Steve Beshear, and forward-thinking community organizations, like Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, have recognized the dire need for an economic transition away from coal and are devising important new initiatives. They set an important example.
Rather than call on states to defy anti-pollution rules, McConnell and his allies could join this movement and show some real leadership by putting their political muscle into the kind of federal help that was needed when the tobacco and defense industries went through similar seismic shifts.