President Barack Obama’s call Monday to cut carbon dioxide emissions at power plants across the country by 30 percent — 19 percent in Kentucky — by the year 2030 raised concerns among officials and politicians who fear the proposed regulations could further hamper the state’s beleaguered coal industry.
The 645-page proposal to curb global warming, unveiled by U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy, gives some leeway to coal-producing states such as Kentucky, where coal-fired plants generated 92 percent of the state’s electricity in 2012.
Still, officials here stopped well short of embracing the regulations, which are set to take effect by 2018 at the latest.
Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear said his administration will be “very active and vocal during the 120-day comment period to ensure Kentucky’s families and businesses are protected” even as it continues to review the proposed greenhouse gas emission restrictions.
“I appreciate that the proposed rule regarding existing power plants announced today does recognize that differences do exist among manufacturing states and in states that produce the nation’s energy,” Beshear said in a statement. “However, I am still extremely concerned that it does not provide adequate flexibility or attainable goals.
“The President’s desire to protect our climate is one that I share, but that desire must be attained while also providing economic security to our families and businesses.”
Kentucky Coal Association President Bill Bissett warned that Obama’s environmental proposals could affect the state’s manufacturing sector though higher energy costs, and he called claims by the EPA that reducing greenhouse gas emissions would lower residential utility bills “wishful thinking.”
Cutting U.S. carbon dioxide emissions will not negate the growth of coal usage elsewhere globally, such as Russia, China and Germany, he said.
“Even if the president today announced he was shuttering all coal-fired power plants, that would only reduce our manmade carbon by 3 percent, and with the developments in the other countries it’s going to be quickly replaced anyway,” Bissett told The State Journal.
Kentucky Utilities, which supplies energy for the Frankfort Plant Board, is evaluating the president’s proposals, said KU and Louisville Gas & Electric spokeswoman Natasha Collins, noting the companies have taken steps to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by building a natural gas unit at Cane Run Station, retiring 13 percent of the companies’ coal-fired plants and rehabbing eight hydroelectric units at Ohio Falls.
“Those are the kinds of thoughtful decisions that we’ve already been making, so we think we’re heading in the right direction,” Collins said.
Politics of coal
Those campaigning in the midterm elections also weighed in on Obama’s EPA regulations, universally criticizing their potential impact on Kentucky’s coal industry.
U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell pledged to file legislation this week to “stop this assault on Kentucky and the broader U.S. economy,” calling the president’s proposed emissions restrictions “a dagger in the heart of the American middle class.”
“The fact that the President plans to do all this through an end-run around Congress only highlights his contempt for the wishes of the public and a system of government that was devised precisely to restrain an action like today’s,” McConnell said in a statement.
His Democratic challenger this fall, Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, said the rules are further proof “that Washington isn’t working for Kentucky.”
“Coal keeps the lights on in the commonwealth, providing a way for thousands of Kentuckians to put food on their tables,” she said in a statement. “When I’m in the U.S. Senate, I will fiercely oppose the President’s attack on Kentucky’s coal industry because protecting our jobs will be my number one priority.”
Both campaigns offering a nod to the state’s coal industry shouldn’t be surprising, said University of Kentucky political science professor Stephen Voss. Although the two candidates have made coal a central issue in their bids for U.S. Senate, he said the president’s mandate now gives them “something tangible to sink their teeth into.”
“I don’t see how this doesn’t help McConnell at least a little,” Voss said. “My guess is the Grimes camp knew this was coming and they worked very hard to try to inoculate her against the emergence of these regulations, but whether it works depends on the extent to which she can get voters to evaluate their choice on an individual candidate versus candidate level rather than a sort of broader, partisan choice.
“If they’re thinking collectively about Democrats versus Republicans, then this issue gives McConnell new leverage.”