By Ronnie Ellis
CNHI News Service
FRANKFORT — The Environmental Protection Agency is expected to announce new carbon emissions standards Friday for U.S. coal-fired plants.
While EPA administrator Gina McCarthy told the House Committee on Energy and Commerce on Wednesday that “coal will continue to represent a significant portion of the energy supply in the decades to come,” many in coal-dependent Kentucky are fretting.
That’s understandable, given the loss of coal mining jobs in eastern Kentucky say observers from both the coal industry and environmental groups. Just this week, James River Coal announced layoffs of 500 miners in southeastern Kentucky.
Both sides are closely watching the candidates for the U.S. Senate, especially Republican incumbent Mitch McConnell and Democratic favorite Alison Lundergan Grimes.
On Tuesday, Grimes tried to get ahead of Friday’s announcement by asking Obama “to do the right thing” for Kentucky’s coal industry.
“As the EPA releases their new emissions standard this week, I call on the President to do the right thing and develop a policy that does not threaten Kentuckians’ livelihoods,” she said, adding she will “not stand idle” as new regulations affect coal jobs in Kentucky.
McConnell’s campaign fired back, claiming Grimes was recruited to run for the seat by Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid “who says coal makes us sick.” Reid is expected to hold a fundraiser in his home state of Nevada later this fall for Grimes.
The back-and-forth continued through the week.
McConnell released an ad criticizing what he calls the Obama administrations “war on coal,” and then repeated the charge in a floor speech Thursday while calling for a vote on a bill to he introduced to block the proposed EPA regulations.
In his speech, McConnell said the regulations expected Friday represent the latest “administration salvo in its never ending war on coal.” He said his bill “would essentially repeal the administration’s declaration of war against coal.” Reid blocked a vote but acknowledged how important coal is to Kentucky and other coal-producing states.
The Grimes campaign responded with another press release, claiming McConnell is trying to “distract voters by releasing a desperate video and floating a hollow bill because he is so worried about losing his own job in Washington.”
The release included a graph showing the decline of coal jobs in Kentucky since 1980, and saying McConnell, who was elected to the Senate in 1984, hasn’t done anything to stop the loss of jobs.
“McConnell likes to play political finger-pointing and talk about the decline in jobs under this administration,” said Grimes campaign spokeswoman Charly Norton. “But the fact is, he’s been in Washington under both Democrats and Republicans since 1985 and has nothing to show for it.”
(Most industry observers say the decline in coal jobs is mostly the result of declining demand and price competition from natural gas, although most also agree uncertainty about emission standards has affected employment too.)
Norton scoffed at the idea that Reid’s help with fundraising will affect Grimes’ determination “to stand up for coal and the families of Kentucky. Allison has been very clear on coal and she’s not afraid to stand up to leaders of both parties.”
But Grimes can’t escape the tie with Reid, said Allison Moore, McConnell campaign spokeswoman.
“”Majority Leader Harry Reid recruited Alison Lundergan Grimes to run for Senate in the hopes that he could hold onto power and continue waging the war on coal in the Senate,” said. “If she were elected, it would guarantee that the biggest enemy of Kentucky coal families is able to continue implementing President Obama’s war on coal instead of Mitch McConnell who would stop it in its tracks.”
The association with Reid doesn’t escape notice in the coal fields, said Bill Bissett, president of the Kentucky Coal Association. While making clear the association does not endorse candidates, Bissett said Reid’s assistance to Grimes’ campaign “is concerning.”
Bissett said the coal industry is “very appreciative” of Grimes statements of support for coal and miners, but “Harry Reid has been very clear on coal. If someone gives you money, they usually expect you to act the way they want.”
Late Thursday, Grimes’ campaign released statements of support from coal-field state lawmakers, Rocky Adkins, Leslie Combs and John Short and Harlan County magistrate David Kennedy — all Democrats and all outspoken coal supporters.
While McConnell and Grimes play to an audience of coal supporters, there are some in Kentucky who favor more regulation of the industry and might have been expected to support Grimes as a Democrat.
But Steve Boyce, a retired mathematics professor at Berea College and a member of the executive committee of the Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, said at least so far he hasn’t seen much difference in the positions of McConnell and Grimes.
Boyce said he’s been “a little disappointed” in Grimes’ outspoken support of coal and hasn’t acknowledged the loss of coal jobs is driven more by cheaper coal in western Kentucky and Wyoming and competition from cheap natural gas.
“It’s not a war on coal by Obama, or EPA thoughtlessly putting unreasonable regulations on the coal industry,” Boyce said.
Still, Boyce said he isn’t likely to sit out the race, pointing to Grimes’ position on expanding voter access and other issues.
Ronnie Ellis writes for CNHI News Service and is based in Frankfort. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow CNHI News Service stories on Twitter at www.twitter.com/cnhifrankfort.