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April 9, 2013

Fables of Coal

Can a statewide candidate challenge coal in Kentucky and win, and will we ever find out?

After months of Democratic strategists and state legislators dismissing her possible challenge against Sen. Mitch McConnell as hopelessly doomed — mostly due to her longstanding opposition to mountaintop removal coal mining — Ashley Judd quietly and suddenly bowed out in a series of tweets last month, ending her bid before it even began.

The talking points stated that in a coal state like Kentucky, you can’t question the industry’s mining practices or advocate strong environmental regulations, lest you be labeled an ally of the Obama administration’s so-called “War on Coal” and an enemy within the ranks, jeopardizing our way of life.

But according to U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth, D-3 — fellow critic of mountaintop removal and Judd’s most prominent backer — this entire premise is based on a myth, one that an unchallenged coal industry public relations campaign has managed to perpetuate over the past decade.

“The narrative has always been there, like an NRA myth, that no one has ever really examined and everyone just assumed,” Yarmuth says.

The congressman has argued since last November that a candidate like Judd — well-liked and well-funded — could have finally proven you don’t have to toe the coal industry’s line to win a statewide election in Kentucky.

“I would say that someone who is sensitive to the mountaintop removal issue and can explain the nuance between that and being totally against coal has an opportunity to move a lot of undecided voters and energize a lot of environmentalist types toward his or her way,” Yarmuth says.

But is Yarmuth correct, or is the growing sentiment among political power players in Kentucky that in order for Democrats to win, they must follow the model of two-term Gov. Steve Beshear, who in both words and actions tells environmental regulators to get off coal’s back?

Without such a candidate to test the theory, it’s impossible to know for sure. And given the words and actions of prominent Kentucky Democrats rumored to be aiming for statewide office in the coming years, we may not find out for quite some time.

As the Beltway political media devoured every quote from Kentucky strategists in the seemingly forthcoming spectacle between one of the most powerful Republicans in the country and a famous Hollywood actress, their readers might have assumed people like Carl Shoupe do not exist.

A retired coal miner who has lived all 66 years of his life in Harlan County, Shoupe was thrilled by the prospect of a Judd candidacy. Frustrated by greedy, out-of-state coal companies who have polluted the community’s water through reckless strip mining, as well as local and state officials in their pocket who do little about it, Shoupe says he was finally ready for a candidate who would fight for people like him.

“That’s what upsets a lot of us who are in support of coal up here, because we’re also in support of the environment,” Shoupe says. “But every time you try to talk about the environment or get the operators to mine the coal correctly and not destroy the water or mountaintops, the first thing they do is say you’re against coal.”

Shoupe — who bemoans that the Beshear administration is currently trying to weaken water quality standards for selenium pollution runoff from strip mining — assumes that whomever Democrats find to run against McConnell, or in the 2015 gubernatorial race, will just be more of the same.

“I got a letter from Gov. Beshear recently, telling me to donate to the Democratic Party,” Shoupe says. “Here’s what I told them: ‘You give me a daggone candidate that’s worth voting for and I’ll start sending a little money your way.’”

But is Shoupe — a Kentuckians for the Commonwealth activist focused on transitioning the region as the coal industry declines — simply an environmentalist anomaly of Appalachia?

Public polling on the issue in Kentucky is sparse, but a 2011 survey commissioned by environmental groups suggests Shoupe is not alone.

The poll found support and opposition to mountaintop removal in Kentucky evenly split at just over 30 percent, with opposition leading support 44 to 35 percent when a sample argument from each side was read. While the polling didn’t break down the numbers from Kentucky’s coal-producing counties, the same poll showed slightly less support for mountaintop removal among West Virginians, who are much more reliant on coal.

Though the same poll showed both coal mining and coal companies in general with a large favorable rating, the fact also remains that coal mining directly employs only 18,000 Kentuckians, less than 1 percent of the state’s workforce.

Despite these numbers, as well as a series of studies over the past few years linking mountaintop removal mining with serious health effects for those living near it, most Democrats steer clear of supporting stricter regulations, a trend many expect to continue.

With the exception of the late Gatewood Galbraith’s independent run for governor in 2011, the last major party candidate to run a statewide campaign focused on criticizing mountaintop removal and promoting energy transition for Kentucky’s future was Jonathan Miller, the former state treasurer who unsuccessfully ran for governor in the 2007 Democratic primary.

Like Yarmuth, Miller was a big supporter of Judd’s prospective run for Senate and hoped she would be able to discus those taboo issues without an electoral backlash. But now with Judd out of the picture, Miller doesn’t expect any viable Democratic candidates to immediately emerge “with the guts to try it,” including the gubernatorial race in 2015.

Miller says coal industry-funded groups such as the Kentucky Coal Association — with their “Friends of Coal” campaign — have shaped the debate on coal in Kentucky, and the industry’s political clout has been demonstrated by their ability to contribute large amounts to help defeat candidates perceived as “anti-coal,” most recently former U.S. Rep. Ben Chandler, D-6, last November.

“They have done an extraordinary job of promoting this idea that coal is the lifeblood of our economy,” says Miller, noting that polls show wide acceptance of coal as part of the state’s fabric, even in Louisville. “And that’s fine, but the problem is the way we’re defining ‘attacking coal.’”

Though Chandler drew the ire of many environmentalists in Kentucky for consistently voting to weaken the EPA, in 2009 he voted for cap and trade legislation to lower carbon emissions and slow climate change. This vote unleashed a flood of coal industry money to defeat him, though they narrowly missed their mark in 2010; however, Republican Andy Barr sent Chandler back to Versailles in 2012.

Though the cap and trade legislation didn’t even become law, attack ads blamed Chandler for the loss of coal jobs (of which there were zero in his 6th District). Miller further points out that not only was cap and trade the energy policy of GOP Sen. John McCain when he ran for president in 2008, but it would have invested $60 billion for research in “clean coal” technology to help the industry compete in the future.

While Miller says that one issue did not doom Chandler, “It provided a lesson to some Democrats that you better not mess with the coal industry, or you can’t win elections here.”

Kentucky Attorney General Jack Conway seemed to absorb that lesson well ahead of 2012. Conway once opposed President Bush’s proposed repeal of mountaintop mining regulations and gave initial tepid support for cap and trade, but he swiftly reversed course in the midst of his 2010 Senate race in the face of charges that he was anti-coal.

Though Conway became vigorously opposed to cap and trade or any legislation that would hurt the coal industry, this did not stop the industry from spending millions to defeat him. The following year, Conway ran for re-election as attorney general on a platform of fighting EPA regulations on coal mining, deflecting those same attacks and winning comfortably.

Miller expects to see more of the same from Conway, as well as Democratic state Auditor Adam Edelen, if either run for governor in 2015.

“My friends Jack Conway and Adam Edelen both have really indicated lately that they’re going to align themselves with ‘Friends of Coal,’” Miller says, “so I don’t see either of them making that an issue.”

Last summer, Edelen spoke at a Kentucky Coal Association rally where many state legislators railed against the EPA’s “War on Coal” and called for the defeat of President Obama in order to save Kentucky’s coal mining jobs.

Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes — rumored to be strongly weighing either a run against McConnell or for governor the following year — has made few public comments about coal. But given supporters close to her fiercely criticized Judd’s stances on coal, in addition to the fact that the industry heaped plentiful contributions on Grimes in 2011, leads many observers to assume she won’t be much different.

Some Democrats hope former state Auditor Crit Luallen — who is openly considering a 2015 run for governor as well — could be brave enough to address the environmental challenges surrounding the coal industry. However, even Luallen seems to grasp the importance of tempering criticism with support.

According to an AP story, Luallen spoke in Lexington two weeks ago at a meeting of the United Mine Workers of America, strongly emphasizing the need to protect coal mining jobs.

“Coal matters in Kentucky, and coal will matter in Kentucky as long as there is coal to be mined,” Luallen said. “And anybody who doesn’t believe that doesn’t understand the history and culture and the economy of the Appalachian counties or the western coalfields.”

Shortly after last year’s election, Luallen spoke to LEO about the challenges of running for office in Kentucky when it comes to coal, as one needs to balance the need to protect jobs in the coal industry with protecting the environment, adding, “The coal industry doesn’t even want you to say the second half.”

Noting the “masterful job” of the coal industry’s “War on Coal” public relations campaign, and their ability to tie both that and Obama to Rep. Chandler in order to defeat him, Luallen told LEO, “I think you certainly can’t be critical of coal in Kentucky and win an election.”

While the coal industry goes too far in never wanting to be questioned, Luallen said environmentalists in the state also go too far, making common ground difficult to find.

“Louisville people don’t understand that in Eastern Kentucky, coal has been the only hope for climbing out of poverty for so many families for so many generations, and they can’t believe that it’s being attacked,” Luallen said. “And of course the coal industry has turned the Obama administration into the bad guy in this, even though there are a lot of other market forces going on.”

While the coal industry tends to blame the rapid loss of coal mining jobs in Eastern Kentucky solely on Obama and the EPA, many industry observers point to the nose-diving price of natural gas, as more utility companies switch to the cleaner and increasingly cheaper competitor. Even coal industry supporters admit the EPA-mandated retrofits to coal plants to decrease pollution emissions have actually helped in Western Kentucky, as their high-sulfur coal is now a natural fit for plants with new scrubber technology.

Though many prominent Democrats remain reluctant to question the industry, one of coal’s most vocal supporters recently took direct aim at mountaintop removal’s value. Though House Speaker Greg Stumbo previously touted the mining practice’s benefit of creating flat land on which to develop, telling opponents to “go buy a mountain” if they want to stop it, the Democrat told reporters in February that he encouraged Judd to run for Senate and called mountaintop removal a “dinosaur” that “will slowly come to an end.”

Asked about Stumbo’s “dinosaur” comment, Kentucky Coal Association president Bill Bissett concedes that mountaintop removal is no longer a widespread practice in Kentucky, making up less than 3 percent of coal production.

“It remains a legal mining practice, but companies mining coal in Kentucky have not sought a permit in approximately 10 years,” Bissett says. “As far as it being a dinosaur, I can’t comment to that. I can just tell you they are clearly using other mining practices at this time.”

According to Bissett, most environmentalists lump together mountaintop removal and all surface mining, which is roughly half of coal production in Kentucky. Most environmentalists will admit to this to some degree, but say that surface mining regulation is so lax in Kentucky that it presents just as much of a problem when it comes to toxic runoff finding its way into neighboring streams.

As for what constitutes an “anti-coal” candidate, Bissett says it goes beyond any single policy position; what’s more important is the language one uses about coal and who one associates with (Chandler supporting Obama, for example).

“If you don’t recognize the importance of the production of coal to the economy of Kentucky, the voters of Kentucky see you as out of touch with what they believe in,” Bissett says. “If you are against bourbon or horses, I don’t think you’d be very popular either.”

But those such as retired miner Carl Shoupe in Harlan County — fed up with polluted water, spineless politicians and intimidation against those who speak out — say the truth about the future of the industry needs to be aired.

“There’s a better way. There’s still life in these old mountains,” Shoupe says. “And Bill Bissett can say all he wants to say, there’s still a lot of people up here that love the environment and want clean water.”