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In coal-mining Kentucky, shock and dismay over Clean Power Plan's new targets

Kentucky was on track to meet an earlier proposed target in the Clean Power Plan. Now the state, which has lost thousands of coal-mining jobs in recent years, plans to fight the final, more stringent rule in the courts.

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    Senate Majority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky (C) speaks during a news conference following party policy lunch meeting at the U.S. Capitol in Washington August 4, 2015. Sen. McConnell has urged all 50 states to boycott President Barack Obama's final version of the Clean Power Plan.
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It is a tense time in Kentucky. The Environmental Protection Agency has just come out with its final rule on reducing carbon emissions – the strongest step ever taken to counter climate change in the United States – and this coal state is reeling.

Kentucky’s energy secretary was in talks with EPA officials all afternoon on Tuesday, trying to figure out what the rule means – and trying to understand how it was that the agency boosted the target that it had proposed for Kentucky last year. A target that the state was on track to meet.

“We are shocked at the difference in the proposal we were given to work on last year, versus the final rule announced Monday,” said Dick Brown, spokesman for the state’s Energy and Environment Cabinet, in an e-mail. The new target is a 27 percent increase in the amount of CO2 emissions that Kentucky’s power plants have to reduce by 2030, he says.

In many states, residents may be wondering how the EPA’s Clean Power Plan will affect their energy bills, for example. But in states like Kentucky, the new carbon rule arguably hits even closer to home. The Bluegrass State is America’s third-largest coal producer, and it gets more than 90 percent of its electricity from coal. Even before the carbon rule was finalized, the state had lost thousands of coal-mining jobs in the past two years alone.

But it’s not as if Kentucky has been sitting idly by, twiddling its thumbs as those jobs disappear like light down a mine shaft. Organizations have been trying to help find jobs for out-of-work miners, the state has been working to reduce emissions, and at least one initiative has been aimed at diversifying the state’s economy in coal country.

That context helps explain why the EPA’s stepped-up target was so hard for Kentucky officials to take.

In all, 16 states have tougher targets under the final EPA rule, which aims to reduce emissions 32 percent below 2005 levels in 15 years. But Kentucky’s new target is the steepest, Mr. Brown says. State officials are responding with a collective “no!” – from the state’s senior senator in Washington, Republican Mitch McConnell, to its Democratic governor, Steven Beshear.

Senator McConnell is urging all 50 states to boycott the plan, and at least six governors have announced they’ll do just that.

Governor Beshear and his attorney general will fight the rule in the courts, where Kentucky – and other states – think they have a good chance of winning, given a recent US Supreme Court ruling on another pollutant. But in the meantime, Beshear will submit a plan to meet the new target because he doesn’t want a federal plan imposed on him.

Part of the Kentucky uproar is politics. You can’t win a statewide office and be anti-coal, even if you see the writing on the wall, as many in this state do, says Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the University of Kentucky in Lexington.

“Because of the political clout and the historical importance of the coal industry, Kentucky sticks with coal. It’s just that simple,” Mr. Cross says.

The steep drop in Kentucky coal jobs over the past two years has several causes: the nationwide move to natural gas, costlier coal extraction, weather, and, yes, EPA regulations.

“There’s a firm belief in the coalfields that the problems of the industry are largely the responsibility of the Obama administration, and once people have made a conclusion about that, that drives the politics that you have to be against anything the administration is trying to do with coal,” Cross says.

But another part of the collective negative reaction in this state is genuine shock at the final rule – shock piled on top of a lot of pain already borne by a declining industry.

“My initial reaction was, Oh my gosh — OMG. The initial EPA plan was OK. It was tough, but ... we were prepared over the time period to do what we needed to in order to comply,” says state Rep. Leslie Combs, a Democrat from Pikeville in eastern Kentucky’s decimated coal region.

Representative Combs as well as Len Peters, the state energy secretary, met with EPA officials over the past two years to suggest they implement rules that encourage coal-dependent states to gradually seek more power from other sources but that don’t shut down the industry.

Five of Kentucky’s coal-fired power plants are scheduled to close or switch to natural gas in the next two years. That move put the state in range to meet the 18 percent reduction target proposed by the EPA last summer – but not a suddenly higher target.

“Yes, I’m a coal legislator,” says Combs. “But at the same time, I’m a reasonable individual. I want to find other opportunities for our people to pursue. I made the plea along with Len Peters to the EPA office in Atlanta that we should diversify – but don’t just put us out of business. Let’s ratchet it down reasonably,” says Combs.

The EPA decided it could apply more stringent targets on states for two reasons, according to a report by the Associated Press. First, renewable energy such as wind and solar is less costly. And second, the EPA expects that some states can tap clean energy from their neighbors if they can’t produce it themselves.

Kentucky has some options, Combs says. The Legislature could lift a 31-year-old moratorium on building a nuclear power plant in the state. It could put more emphasis on conservation. And utility companies could switch over to natural gas-fired plants, but that would probably increase the cost of Kentuckians’ electricity, especially as demand for gas from other states increases, she says.

The state is already proceeding on some other fronts. In December 2013, the governor and Republican Rep. Harold Rogers, who represents eastern Kentucky in Congress, launched a bipartisan public-private initiative called SOAR – Shaping Our Appalachian Region. It’s bringing broadband to eastern Kentucky, widening a crucial highway in the area, and helping promote investment in agribusiness, tourism, high-tech, and health-care industries.

But that’s the work of a decade or more, not a couple of years.

Jeff Whitehead, executive director of a regional employment and training center in Hazard, Ky., says the area has lost 8,000 coal-mining jobs in two years. Last month, another 200 to 300 mining jobs slipped away. In that time, his organization – Eastern Kentucky Concentrated Employment Program – has placed about 1,200 people in jobs, many of them out of state.

“You can’t get everybody. You know there are going to be casualties,” he says, as if talking about a war zone. “There’s all kinds of people out there and all you can do is save the ones you can. Grab the ones you can.”

 
 
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